Girl, Interrupted

UTEP unearths the journals of Tom Lea’s mysterious first wife in The Notebooks of Nancy Lea

The month of November is a month dedicated to the widely known artist, Tom Lea, however, this year a new aspect from his life was unveiled. The University of Texas at El Paso commemorated the late artist this year with a special exhibition that will be on display through December 22 at the UTEP Centennial Museum. The exhibition surprised many and brought to light a subject that lingered in the dark for years: Nancy Lea.

The name of the exhibition is The Notebooks of Nancy Lea, whom was the first wife of Tom Lea. Nancy and Tom eloped two years after they had met at the Art Institute of Chicago. They then moved to El Paso, but three years later Nancy died in 1936 due to complications from an appendectomy at the age of 29. “When people think about an ex-wife there are many negative connotations, but this was not the case,” said Kaye Mullins, education curator at the University of Texas at El Paso Centennial Museum. The museum chose to commemorate Lea’s late wife with her journal in which she wrote about various subjects ranging from her thoughts on womanhood in the early 1900s to her appreciation of nature.

“She was a woman with very progressive thoughts about the world around her,” Mullins said, “She wrote about things that were not being said at the time.”

Men do not begin to know that the Feminine World is like…they believe – at least some of them do – that they know all about women. If ever they could discover what any perceptive woman observes daily amongst them, they would speedily kill all of them without quarter. –Nancy Lea, Having Tea: Feb. 11, 1933

After her passing, Tom had discovered various written works of Nancy’s, including a finished novel, various short stories, and a journal that was not meant to be published. Nonetheless, Tome made 25 copies of the journal and gave them to close friends and family.

The exhibition tells the untold story of Nancy, but also includes quotes from Tom on how her death affected him, “She died here in El Paso. And I’ve chosen to blank that part out of my life,” said Tom in Tom Lea: An Oral History.

Nancy’s journal contains various subjects that were a part of her every day life – one that would be a major component in her husband’s life: art.

I believe the important factor in creating any work of art – a painting, a piece of sculpture, a book, a symphony – is selection. Life is a many-ringed circus, so distracting in its diversified component parts that one can scarcely see everything. –Nancy Lea, My Writing: Sept. 21, 1932

Nancy was a bright young woman with compelling thoughts that the Centennial Museum curators believe should have been brought to light with this novel that carries out much information on her life and that of her husband’s.

There is a great deal of insincerity and unfaithfulness in this world; but once or twice I discovered loyalty and integrity, and I caught a glimmer of how fine mankind can be, and knowing that the finest things are usually the rarest. –Nancy Lea, Questions and Answers: Dec. 3, 1932.