Marjorie Eaton was born February 5, 1901 in Oakland, California. Her father, George Eaton was a doctor and her mother, Helen Morley, a beautiful pianist who died when Marjorie was only 2 ½ years old. The woman that was to become her surrogate mother was couturier Edith Cox, a woman of independent means. It was Edith Cox who took Marjorie on her first trip to Europe to visit Florence and Rome before she was 13 and impressed upon her “the early importance of the world". (1) Eaton led a privileged and “quiet existence” during her childhood and graduated from the exclusive Miss Burke’s School in San Francisco in 1920. She continued her studies at the Howard Walker School of Architecture in Boston, and although her architectural plans were not exceptional her sepia figure drawings were and the school retained them. Her program also included museum work.
After the Walker School, Eaton went to Europe for the summer, touring museums and working in the Grand Charmiere in Paris. Edith Cox retrieved her at the end of the summer, and Eaton enrolled in the School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute.) In 1923 she exhibited at the Monterey Peninsula Industries and Arts Exhibition. In 1924 she returned to Florence, Italy and worked for a year at the state art school created by Mussolini, where she learned fresco painting. She then continued to work independently for a year in the Florence’s hills until an urge for a change of weather, set her on a course for southern France. There she met and studied with the celebrated teacher, Andre L’Hote. L’Hote was very supportive and wanted to arrange an exhibition for her in Paris. But with her parents separating and her funds cut off, Eaton returned to the States to live at the family ranch (now a historic landmark in Palo Alto, the Juana Briones House). It was 1926 when she met Galka Scheyer, a modern art dealer from Germany who represented the die Blaue Reiter (the Blue Riders: Klee, Kandinsky, Jawlensky and Feininger). Scheyer lectured and wrote extensively and set up exhibitions for these avante garde artists from Germany. Eaton was “overwhelmed” by this “world of magic"(2) and Scheyer encouraged her in her painting but also assisted Eaton with her first art purchase. Eaton bought 3 Abstract Fruit by Paul Klee and eventually had a small trunk built so she could take her painting with her on her extended travels. Lloyd Rollins, Director of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, also mentored Eaton and encouraged her to give up her day job as a stylist in a local department store. He promised to give her a show if she painted for three years, and this was all Eaton needed to make the jump. She packed her things and traveled to the Southwest. In 1929 she arrived in Taos and exclaimed, “It was a marvelous experience… I realized I had found my soul when I was out there…” She began a relationship with Juan Mirabel, son of the Taos Pueblo Chief Geronimo (Jerry) Mirabal, and painted him during her three years in Taos. Eaton had her promised show and exhibited in 1931 and 1932 with the San Francisco Art Association at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. (3) Her one-woman exhibition in February-March 1932 included two rooms with 35 paintings and drawings. She returned to Taos but did not stay long. It was in New York where Eaton met some of the most important artists of the century. She took Hans Hofmann’s class at the Art Student’s League where she met the sculptor Louise Nevelson, with whom she shared a studio from 1933-1934. She also became very close friends with Diego Rivera, who was acquainted with her in California and had kept in touch. Rivera and Frieda Kahlo had the studio directly above Eaton and Nevelson. When Nevelson’s non-stop talking and painting became too much, she would go to Arshile Gorky’s studio and work with him. At one point she sent Gorky $20 to give her a critique on her work. During her time in New York, she continued her studies in Fresco painting and worked as an assistant, glazing and mixing plaster with marble-dust, at the Communist Worker School.
Through Rivera she met Lou Bloch, who was Rivera’s assistant in New York. Eaton became engaged to Bloch while he was seeking a divorce from his wife. Eaton however, returned to California which caused a break in the relationship. At this point Rivera and his wife, Frieda Kahlo, invited Eaton to Mexico where she set up her own studio. Eaton lived in Mexico for three years. During this time, she lived in the remote village of Panuatlan for a while, painting the village children and mothers and helping the young painters. The first year in Mexico, Eaton’s father died and the impact was to affect the artist profoundly. It became more and more difficult for her to paint and finally Eaton decided to return to California and turn her creative efforts towards the theater and acting. “Instead of an analyst- there weren’t any at that time- I made my big change… to train in the theater to continue to live a creative life. The theater was the most successful, because it gave me a Father again. It gave me sisters and brothers to play with that I never had…. I trained for five years”. (4)
Marjorie Eaton went on to have a very successful acting career in theater, film and television. Her credits include: the film Anna and the King of Siam with Rex Harrison, the Broadway play In the Summer House with Judith Anderson, the film Mary Poppins, and Bullit with Steve McQueen. She had the lead role in Street Music at the age of 80. Marjorie Eaton passed away in Palo Alto, California in 1986.
(1)Rueben Clark, unpublished manuscript from Marjorie Easton’s archive, the Princess Imperials with Five Changes of Costume, 6/27/74
(2) All quotes unless otherwise noted are from audiotape interviews by Bette Estersohn. Also the videotape interview of Marjorie Eaton, “Creative Women Over Seventy Series”, documentation for California’s History Center, De Anza College, 1977
(3) San Francisco Art Association brochures, Library of the palace of the legion of Honor
(4) Ibid 2