Reclusive Openness in the Life of Eugene Haynes (1927–2007)

Opening the Suitcase and the Writings of an African-American Classical Pianist in Europe

—Anders Høg Hansen, senior lecturer, PhD cultural studies, School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University, Sweden


A Decade Reopened

Reclusion and openness—an oxymoron, one might think. However, in the course of this essay, I attempt to test these notions on the life trajectory of the African-American classical pianist, Eugene Haynes, who befriended an even more well-known artist, the Danish writer Karen Blixen (also known under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen). Haynes crossed continents for work and adventure in the midst of the Cold War, and now with a base in Denmark, he continued to nurture his friendship with Blixen and her secretary, Clara Selborn, from 1952 and over the next ten years until Blixen’s death in 1962. Over many holidays and work trips in Denmark, he used Selborn’s house in the small fishing village of Dragør, located south of Copenhagen (while Selborn stayed with Blixen in Rungstedlund), to practice the piano, study music, and in between, travel around Europe giving concerts.

Haynes’ suitcase

Haynes’ life, and the ten years in question for this essay in particular (1952–1962), has recently been reopened for the public upon the publication of his diaries and letters in 2000. In addition to these, a suitcase belonging to Haynes containing clothes and other objects was found at Selborn’s house after her death in 2008. The contents of the suitcase was then turned into a temporary exhibition at a local museum, the Dragør Museum, in 2012, along with other objects placed in a model of Selborn’s house (Phillipsen 2015).


A Black Classical Pianist in Europe in the 1950s

In the 1950s, Haynes was sponsored by the USA Information Service program, which aimed at improving America’s image abroad and countering Eastern European political and cultural influence. Given that the Cold War was “cold,” it also became a battle of culture (Phillipsen 2012). Racial segregation and discrimination was a sensitive topic in the US, where the civil rights movement, formed half a century before, was about to gain new momentum. The Information Service tried to promote the US as a non-discriminating nation, and with Haynes, they could show that Blacks do have opportunities, even as classical pianists. At the time, the terms black and classical pianist may have seemed mutually exclusive and just as much an oxymoron as the pairing of reclusion and openness because classical music was a trade of artistic work almost solely reserved for whites; black musicians were more commonly known to play soul, jazz, and blues. The Information Service was also trying to sell a culture-rich nation—a USA which was more than just Hollywood, cartoons, and Coca-Cola—which has classical musicians just as talented as in Europe.

A breakthrough was difficult. For his high school classmate, the black jazz musician, Miles Davis, the situation was different. As Haynes said to him once in France:

“He (Miles) was entering a world where no one would question his right to function. This is still far from true where black African instrumentalists are concerned (in the States) which is why I spend as much time away from home as possible” (letter to brother 76).

Haynes spent the last two to three decades of his career, from the 1960s onwards, mostly in academia as a music teacher and as artist in residence at Lincoln University in Missouri. He also worked as radio presenter. Later years saw him return to his birthplace of East Saint Louis where he worked with young people.


Hidden Histories and Music Surfacing

In 2000, a book of letters and diary writings was published called To Soar with Angels. The European Travels—Remembrances of Isak Dinesen. At that time, Haynes was over seventy, but the writings in the book are from 1952 to 1962. In 2001, the year after publication, his first CD came out, and his last public concert was in 2005. He died in 2007 at eighty years old. In 2008, his old friend Clara Selborn died. In her house in Dragør where Haynes had stayed, a suitcase belonging to him was found and given to a local museum, the Dragør Museum. The museum displayed a temporary exhibition in 2012 and produced five short films, “The Pianist Eugene Haynes in Dragør, Denmark, and the World” (my translation). I was intrigued by Haynes when I first heard about the exhibition, but it was not until 2015 that I managed to visit the museum’s collections and open the suitcase. It is a special moment—inspecting the objects, one by one. With gloves, I remove the thin, protective paper and look through some books (though with a gentle hand), open leather cases, inspect a pipe instrument, and so forth. I read attached newspaper and magazine articles used in the exhibition, and a few days later, talk to the curator, Ingeborg Phillipsen. She explained that they had not found any remaining family members alive, such as any brothers and sisters. Haynes was not married and did not have any kids, although Phillipsen and the museum had acquired some material from the American archives in addition to the diary and letter collection of this ten-year period abroad.

No other major texts exist on the Internet apart from a few brief obituaries. The longest texts are Phillipsen’s narration over the short films and also edited in presentational texts on YouTube.


Suitcases as Personal Archives

Suitcases have, in museum contexts, often been loaded with symbolism; they are the private remains of people who became separated from their most important or needed belongings, often because of war or prosecution. “A deep historical metaphor for both willing and unwilling travellers,” as Temi Odumosu (2015) reminds me. Famous Holocaust exhibitions have suitcases.

The suitcase, the exhibition, and the accompanying short films, as well as the book from 2000, have focused on the one decade of Haynes’ life abroad which coincided with the last ten years of Karen Blixen’s life. The objects tell a story which the letters and diaries expand upon. It did not surprise me that the suitcase contained ordinary everyday-use belongings, like shoes and trousers and a few books—as well as keepsake objects like dried flowers in a frame. However, I am puzzled about why the suitcase remained at Selborn’s place for so many years—a reclusive collection and travellers’ bag in a reclusive village far away from the buzz of Paris or Saint Louis. Perhaps he may have pondered a return to Denmark, and therefore, let it stay.

Now, after both Selborn and Haynes are deceased, I participate with this essay in a new “opening” of the suitcase and his life, which the museum had initiated some years ago. Haynes had voiced himself eloquently, and interestingly, the museum and its associated films chose to represent him. I could relate Haynes to some of my own earlier engagements with unknown biographies of war and migration. Among these was the case of a soldier’s diaries from Bergen-Belsen, a distant Englishman turned Israeli, an American in his eighties running a folk centre in Stockholm who, back in the 1960s, gave Bob Dylan his first gig, and an additional story (though outside the migration/war themes) about the former owner of a Black-American bookshop in Harlem (Høg Hansen, 2006–2012).

In Haynes, I found another person I wanted to embrace. It was another interesting life journey touching upon the migration theme, this time leading me to Dragør. Initially, I was disappointed in not finding some of his own words in the suitcase, like in diaries and notes; I had been reading and watching how he was represented by others and wanted to read him represent himself. However, the objects also spoke. Immediately after the museum visit, I received the letters and diary which provided his own narration, nuanced the picture, and confirmed the warmness of his friendship with Blixen. In a diary entry titled “First meeting,” Haynes writes about a walk with Blixen:

“Along the way she talked about the many discussions she and Finch-Hatton had had on music. I asked if she had the gramophone he gave her in Africa. She was happy to show it to me when we returned to the house . . . As we said good bye, I made a quip about being a ‘bit of Africa sent out’ to her” (28–29).

Blue Overalls, Poetry, German Grammar, Leather Cases and a Pipe Instrument

In the suitcase, one finds his dark blue jeans overalls, shoes, and a hat that, according to a 1957 article written in a popular gossip magazine, Billed Bladet, (“The Picture Magazine”) made him look like the local fishermen—and maybe the bohemians he hung out with as well, I would add. There are books, two refined leather cases, a pipe instrument, various paper clips, and reviews as well as photos and PR material from his tours. The Billed Bladet magazine and article is there too. A black American female tourist is on the front, and there are more rarities inside. The vocabulary is not surprising for the time: ‘Der bor en neger i Dragør,’ the headline states (“There is a negro living in Dragør”).

It was a time where the word black was seen as more offensive than negro—whereas today, it is the other way around, although negro is still in official use. It is the first time I find a copy of Billed Bladet so interesting. I also find it somewhat surprising that the museum used the article title in their exhibition in 2012. The curator, Ingeborg Phillipsen, explained that the choice had been considered carefully; it was a deliberate quoting of Billed Bladet and aimed at throwing the visitor back in time to the thinking and vocabulary of the 1950s (phone interview 2015). In the magazine, the picture of a private, yet popular, man is painted.


From Now On, Your Name is Hans. You Are One of Us

From now on, your name is Hans. You are one of us,” the local fishermen renamed and assured him (84). He frequents not only Karen Blixen’s home north of Copenhagen in Rungstedlund, but also hangs out with locals like the Dragør-based poet, Jørgen Gustava Brandt, who Haynes describes as “a real Casanova” in a letter to his brother (77). Gustava teaches Haynes Danish, a language which he came to speak alongside French. In the suitcase, there is a book on German grammar and an anthology of literature (with one text by Blixen). When it came to music, critic Isador Phillip called Haynes “one of the greatest musical talents America has produced.” Seen in that light, it is a pity that the only CD that came out late in his life is not really seen as proving and showing his talent, the curator, Ingeborg Phillipsen, explains (2015), referring to conversations with reviewers and musicians in the same field. Thus, we do not have recordings that truly document his musical importance.

His summer home in Dragør between 1957 and 1961 was lent to him by Blixen’s secretary, Clara Selborn. Haynes had met other Danes in Paris when he had begun studying with a world-famous musical pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger, in 1951. One of them, the journalist Bent Mohn, a friend of Blixen’s, introduced him to her writings. In 1952, Blixen herself invited Haynes to Rungstedlund in Denmark where she lived most of her life until her death in 1962.

“The pianist Eugene Haynes lived with Karen Blixen when these pictures were taken. He is one of her good friends, and he was in the country to perform at a concert.” (translated from Danish)

Haynes writes in his diary about his first meeting with Blixen: “I have seldom been so curious about anyone.” He further writes of Blixen,

“She was a lady of La Belle Époque, one of the last of the great femmes du monde . . . Had she said she had dined at the Café Procope with Diderot and the Philosophes (public intellectuals of The Enlightenment, my note), I would have believed her” (28),

perhaps also showing that Haynes had just returned from Paris. He appeared to connect well with cosmopolitan and “high art” Europe as well as easily lend himself out to the Danish locals—a world citizen who could thrive among the geese and fishermen of Dragør just as well as in the concert halls of Paris.


Before returning to Haynes in more detail, let me light the lampposts I intend to use to guide my further reading of reclusion and openness. These two terms are not meant as a dichotomy or a source of conflict, but rather, to reflect harmony or at least the merging of two concepts which can be thought to symbolise the life trajectory of a public, yet reserved, artist who, interestingly, crossed paths with a woman (Blixen) who could be defined through the same embrace of reclusion and openness.


Reclusion and Openness

Dictionaries trace the word ‘reclusive’ back to the French reclus, meaning a person who hides away from society often with the purpose of religious meditation. The reclusive person seeks a withdrawn life shut off from interaction. Openness is, in philosophy, a state of transparency, with free and unrestricted access to knowledge and information. It may also imply unrestricted means for the use and adaptation of information or data. The era of the Internet and social media has given rise to several related “openness” movements and debates (for example, with open source and open data), but have also reshaped the ways in which we live and understand the public and the private.

On one hand, reclusion describes a state of reservation and closeness, a communicative existence that is solitary or at least reserved for a small circle. Reclusion may, taken further, describe information passed on or circulated only among a select few. Archives may also, despite laws on public access, be viewed as reclusive or only cumbersomely accessible for the layperson. Archives, despite the twenty-first century’s slow settling and normalisation of the online and clicktivistic world, are still in some people’s imaginations guarded by experts behind institutional walls who meet you with a “can you fill out the form and provide ID” request before you are actually given permission to try and pull out a heavy metal drawer with dusty files, or step up a ladder to take down a box with yellowish documents from shelf 3B.

On the other hand, there is openness as the mantra of the good intentions of an idealised, interconnected Internet world overcoming digital divides in our global public sphere.

Archives on the Internet are praised for size and quantity, and despite the emphasis on magnitude, they do not feel as heavy to engage with as the rows of drawers in the metal cabinets of libraries, hospitals, DDR and the FBI.

The Internet has introduced a proliferation of archival practices and authorities, and many of these take a more horizontal approach which rely on other people’s histories and collections. On Facebook, we share superficial privacy with our hundreds of so-called friends; we write and comment on blogs, Twitter, and in the commentary sections of columns and articles of every kind. Walls are taken down and the comment or Facebook wall is erected instead. Images or content can be shared freely and appropriated by fellow friends or all, depending on our settings of the Facebook archive.

There are clearly positive aspects to this: previously disempowered people, such as the women in many places of the world who “do not have to sit at home waiting for the husband to return with the news and newspaper,” as Vicensia Shule, a Tanzanian scholar, expressed it (2015). They are texting and phoning (also abroad), using WhatsApp, and checking blogs and news sites. Haynes was in the midst of a cultivated WhatsApp-type art circle, but one that “talked” slower and in longer sentences during dinner gatherings or with ink on paper.

The notion of openness has joined a family of popular and almost categorically positively flavoured notions such as ‘participation,’ ‘empowerment,’ ‘transparency,’ and ‘innovation,’ though we may forget to ask how, with whom, and when (or in which contexts), the practice of openness, as well as reclusion, is desirable. Let me “open” this through some situations of a private nature covered in Haynes’ book: “And now, dear friend, here on Ewald’s hill, I proclaim you my own Prince Rasselas,” Blixen says while taking Haynes’ hand on top of Ewald’s hill during a stroll. Ewald was a famous poet who had lived in the same property, known today as Rungstedlund and located north of Copenhagen. Used by emancipated slaves, the name ‘Rasselas’ refers to the prince (son of the King) of Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) in Samuel Johnson’s tale, The Prince of Abissinia. A Tale. After quoting Blixen, Haynes adds that he felt it was their own secret moment, not to be shared with others (89). I had mixed feelings about this while reading it. It seems well-intended, but could the elderly Blixen have seen or imposed herself as a type of matron? Either in the sense of a mother figure or else as a person in a senior position or perhaps even as a backer or supporter, as in patron.

In his diaries, Haynes further quotes Blixen, who told him, “You’ll have to be patient while you grow into your grace” (104). Haynes was a young man of around thirty and working for a breakthrough. By her embracing him (as a matron?), despite obvious differences, she also grounded them in a shared experience: “In some ways we are both outsiders. I in Denmark, you in the land of your birth.” Again, I am not fully comfortable with Blixen placing both of them in the same boat; however, it is clear they were fond of each other. Haynes reflects on his relationship with her:

“When Karen Blixen is interested in what you are saying, she can fix you with an almost hypnotic gaze and you are then convinced that you are at that time the most important person she knows, and what you are saying is of great moment. It is her most endearing trait” (63).

Haynes found Denmark open and hospitable (somehow, the image is different these days), but he also encountered stereotypes and racism. A university professor from America visiting Blixen referred to “the accent of our nigras” while at the table, and Haynes describes the situation and his discomfort in detail. Blixen had not heard the remark, but detected something was wrong. When she later asked about what happened, she was “enraged” about the guest’s behaviour after Haynes had explained (201–2).

Nevertheless, there were many other much more enriching gatherings and conversations, and Haynes’ delight in these meetings with Blixen shines through. At a dinner in 1961, Blixen suggests a game where each guest is assigned a famous intellectual, writer, or actor/actress. Haynes had given Blixen the witty French philosopher, Voltaire, and a woman with the name Birthe got Casanova. Haynes reveals fragments of the discussion in the diaries: Casanova had insisted on superstition as necessary, whereas Voltaire (The Enlightenment man) had favoured to free men of the “monster of superstition,” arguing that liberty and superstition could not go hand in hand” (180).

In between dinners like these, Haynes is in blue overalls and blue trainers among the geese of Dragør and occasionally hanging out with fishermen at the harbour.

Haynes’ writings, published in 2000, contain only texts from the years 1952–1962; we have no afterword or later reflections. Therefore, it is not an autobiography in the sense that texts are produced in the aftermath of events. It is truly an epistolary and diary genre account which engages with a present, or very recent, past and also for a limited audience—a tongue of reclusiveness spoken only to the drawer or oneself at first (the diary) or one or a few receivers of the letters. In Haynes’ case, all his letters are to family members or friends. Reclusive, yes, but also very open in this case. In the letter and diary genre, the author has the reduced ability to engage with and construct long-term causes from the clearer light of hindsight. Haynes is, in diary-writing, a “prisoner of time” (as Margareta Jolly describes the condition of letter writing) and inevitably engages with history in its making caught in, as well as freed, in the moment, trying to make sense of the now or recent moments.

The letter-writing genre may be similar to some forms of today’s personal blogging on the Internet; however, it is in the situation, not public. Personal archives and connections are created, which may be expanded later by exhibiting or publishing the letters.

While experiencing an archival growth of public or semi-public ping-pong correspondence, visually and with words in the social media age, what happens to the deep openness of the material (paper, pen, envelopes) and wordy epistolary and diary genres?

Are we seeing a general decrease in the production and documentation of slow, elaborate, and personal writings and correspondences in reclusive circles? Our era appears to turn towards quick visibility and availability across platforms rather than deep presence: the age of the overload of digital selfies.


About the Author

Anders Høg Hansen has an MA and PhD in cultural studies and is a researcher for the Living Archives project and a senior lecturer in Media and Communication Studies at Malmö University. His research has in recent years engaged with music, cultural heritage and social change, though with a returning focus on oral history and memories of immigration and war. He is teaching on the MA in Communication for Development, Malmö University.


Works Cited

Dragør Museum. Eugene Haynes kuffert (“Eugene Haynes’ Suitcase”) (including Billed Bladet issue 31, 1957). Museum Amagers program for Golden Days 2012.

Dragør Museum writings and videos, Five short films, (‘En ufuldendt akkord’, ‘Blandt fiskere og bohemer’, Eugene som kulturel ambassadør’, ‘Fra Paris til Rundstedlund, ‘Eugene Haynes kuffert’,) http://museumamager.dk/index.php/en/film-der-bor-en-neger.html. Web. (Also available on YouTube with assisting presentational texts for each film)

Haynes, Eugene Jr. et al. To Soar With Angels. The European Travels—Remembrances of Isak Dinesen. Xlibris Corporation, 2000. Print.

Høg Hansen, Anders. “A Reading Room of the Civil Rights Movement,” ComDev portal mah.se/comdev.

—Bob Dylan 1961–1967: Kærlighed, krig og historie Copenhagen: Frydenlund (2012)

—“Breve fra Palæstina.” Tidskrift för Litteraturvetenskap no. 3–4 2006: 121–138 (Using Margaretta Jolly and others).

—“På sporet af den tabte tid.” Praktiske Grunde 3–4 2008.

Johnson, Samuel. The Prince of Abissinia. A Tale. Boston: T. Bedlington. 1826. Print.

Odumosu, Temi. Written peer review of essay. September 2015.

Phillipsen, Ingeborg. Telephone interview. September 2015

Shule, Vicensia. Conversation in Malmö. September 2015.