As a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s, Cather sometimes used the masculine nickname "William" and wore masculine clothing. A photograph in the University of Nebraska archives depicts Cather dressed like a young man and with "her hair shingled, at a time when females wore their hair fashionably long."
Throughout Cather's adult life, her most significant friendships were with women. These included her college friend Louise Pound; the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, with whom Cather traveled to Europe; opera singer Olive Fremstad; pianist Yaltah Menuhin; and most notably, the editor Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived the last 39 years of her life. Cather's sexual identity remains a point of contention among scholars. While many argue for Cather as a lesbian and interpret her work through a lens of queer theory, a highly vocal contingent of Cather scholars adamantly oppose such considerations.
The scholar Janet Sharistanian has written, "Cather did not label herself a lesbian nor would she wish us to do so, and we do not know whether her relationships with women were sexual. In any case, it is anachronistic to assume that if Cather's historical context had been different, she would have chosen to write overtly about homoerotic love."
Cather's relationship with Edith Lewis began in the early 1900s. The two women lived together in a series of apartments in New York City from 1908 until the writer's death in 1947. From 1913 to 1927, Cather and Lewis lived at No. 5 Bank Street in Greenwich Village. They moved when the apartment was scheduled for demolition during construction of the Seventh Avenue subway line. Cather selected Lewis as the literary trustee for her estate.
Born into a Baptist family, in 1922 Cather joined the Episcopal Church. She had been attending local Episcopal services since her first year in New York in 1906.
Beginning in 1922, Cather spent summers on Grand Manan Island, in New Brunswick, Canada. She bought a cottage in Whale Cove, on the Bay of Fundy. It was the only house she ever owned. She stopped coming to Grand Manan Island when Canada entered WWII, since travel was more difficult and the island doctor had died, making her cancer more uncomfortable. She valued the seclusion of the island, and may have even preferred that she and her companions be the only inhabitants.
Cather died on April 24, 1947 in New York City of a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried in the Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
A resolutely private person, Cather had destroyed many old drafts, personal papers, and letters. Her will restricted the ability of scholars to quote from those personal papers that remain.
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