Maintaining Her Own Vision
A remembrance of Susan Needham Girard, Alexander’s most important partner
Written by: Aleishall Girard Maxon
A raw silk dress in emerald green with a thin leather belt defining her trim waistline. Gold bangles adorning wrists and enameled rings on fingers polished with a whisper of pink. Back straight, ankles crossed, cigarette in hand, hair coiffed, lipstick an orangey red, and a powdery fresh scent faintly hanging in the air around her. Elegant, poised, scrupulous, and stylish, she was at ease with herself while maintaining a formality both in her manner and appearance. She was kind and generous while having high expectations of both the environment and the people around her. She had a strong, formal but loving presence. Propriety was required, but she also managed to leave room for exploration, curiosity, and puerility. This is how I remember my grandmother Susan.
In understanding the vast and varied career of my grandfather, the designer Alexander Girard, it is clear that he would not have achieved the stunning breadth of what he did without her. Throughout their fifty-seven years together, there was deep and mutual respect, inspiration, and support that flowed between them. My grandfather was highly driven by a desire to make his work, but less interested in attaining accolades for it. It was Susan who concerned herself with the logistics of running an office to support his many endeavors—managing press for the various projects, overseeing accounting, hosting clients, traveling with him—and governing the household and the children on top of it all. To laud her many accomplishments is not to take away from him but instead to highlight the person he trusted and revered. At a time when a woman’s role was typically limited to matters of domesticity, my grandmother stood as an equal next to her husband. Having a keen visual eye, sharp style, and strong opinions of her own, she participated in many ventures beyond the household.
Susan Needham came from a close-knit family that was well established both in the New York City social scene and the affluent Westchester suburb where they lived. She was a good student, loyal friend, and devoted daughter and sister. She met my grandfather through a friendship she had with his sister. It was not love at first sight but instead a connection and interest that grew over several years until they were finally married in March of 1936. Shortly thereafter, they relocated to Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and eventually to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they would spend the remainder of their lives together. These geographical moves, each one farther from their families and friends, required a deepening of their own relationship and a shared belief in the work my grandfather was interested in doing.
My grandmother consistently championed the burgeoning career of her husband. As his unflinching advocate, she urged him to continue taking on the increasing opportunities coming his way. Perhaps the biggest adjustment for her was when he suggested they relocate to Santa Fe. While neither of them had ever completely felt at home in Grosse Pointe, there they had established themselves socially, had two children, and together made a beautiful home and a busy design office and studio. For my grandmother to imagine herself and the business in a remote location of the Southwest must have been a challenge, but her trust in his instincts and her own were steadfast and they made the jump into the new territory. This move took my grandparents farther from the world’s design centers than they had ever been, but it also served to satiate our grandfather’s desire to be out of both the “urban” (New York City) and the “suburban” (Grosse Pointe).
Santa Fe was still very much a new frontier at this time, and our grandfather deeply appreciated what he perceived as its palpable raw potential and lack of pretension. While there was certainly a period of adjustment for everyone, my grandmother soon came to love their new locale. Charmed by the colorful landscape, their proximity to traveling in Mexico, the local Native American and Hispanic cultures, and the creative freedom clearly felt by her husband, she embraced New Mexico. Through the more than forty years that my grandmother lived in Santa Fe, she tallied a number of her own accomplishments. She was instrumental in the birth of the Santa Fe Opera, opened her own curio store aptly named The Shop, served on a number of boards, and all the while continued to bolster her husband’s varied undertakings. He had many local projects such as the wooden collage at Albuquerque’s First Unitarian Church (1965), and Santa Fe’s mural at St. John’s College (1964), the Compound Restaurant (1966), and the culmination of his career, the Girard Wing at the International Museum of Folk Art (1982). As the years went on, our grandparents were increasingly convinced of the propriety of their chosen homeland. There are several accounts of them doing their very best to convince friends from Michigan and New York to join them in what they felt was suitably named “The Land of Enchantment.”
While many of the moments and experiences I can recall include my grandfather as well, my grandmother absolutely stands on her own. I can hear the click of her heels on the white marble floor as she is busy in her kitchen, immaculately dressed and pulling a duck from the oven. I can remember the sweet, caramelized smell of her lacy oat Christmas cookies wrapped in parchment and tucked in a vintage Caswell-Massey tin. I can see the back of her auburn hair as we ride the short distance from her house to ours in her white Mercedes, and I can hear her rich, distinctive voice answering the telephone when I call to thank her for my beautiful porcelain tea set. She was a woman who commanded respect and inspired self-decorum. While her support of my grandfather was unmistakable, I never saw that she lost herself within his identity; they were as much individuals as they were a team. She owned her crucial and distinct part in the career that was hers as well in so many ways. It takes a certain person to accompany a man like Alexander Girard along his life’s journey: A person who can hold her own in sentiment and speculation. A person who knows her power and how to wield it. A person humble enough to recognize and respect genius while maintaining her own vision. This was my grandmother. This was Susan Needham Girard.
This article first ran as part of Maharam Stories.