For the better part of six decades, Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason were one of the highest profile couples of the Woodstock art colony—in more ways than one. At six foot three and six foot respectively, the “Big Girls,” as their friends called them, tended to stand out in a crowd. From their arrival in Bearsville in 1924 to Wilna’s death in 1979, Wilna and Nan enjoyed a fond notoriety in the community for their prolific art work, their haphazard attempts at farming, their impromptu vocal entertainments, their tireless fund raising for local charities, and in particular, their huge annual August full moon parties which attracted hundreds of enthusiastic revelers. But while the tale of Wilna and Nan’s fifty-five-year evolution into living legends has been told, the crucial role that Nan’s father, Dan Mason, played in supporting and nurturing their early years together is not well known.
That Nan Mason was an enthusiastic entertainer, always willing to act out a skit or bring forth her ukulele and harmonize with Wilna Hervey after dinner parties, was not surprising considering her origins. In his early days in show biz, her father was a song and dance man and her mother, known professionally as Millie la Fonte, was a popular serio-comic singer in the infamous burlesque extravaganzas known as the Female Mastodons. Nan, whose birth name was Anna, was the last born of Dan and Millie’s four children, and the only girl. As testament to the gruelingly hard life of nineteenth century traveling show people, two of Nan’s brothers had died as children while Dan and Millie Mason were on tour. These tragedies, coupled with the fact that the surviving Mason son, Harry, had a difficult personality and became estranged from his father, meant that Dan Mason focused most of his parental affection on Nan. When Millie la Fonte died in 1919, Nan Mason became for all practical purposes her father’s entire family and the recipient of his singular devotion.
Early on, Dan Mason made it his goal to provide for his daughter’s future and leave her set for life when he died. He was making very good money in the movies by the time Nan was a teenager and he carefully salted away as much as he could, earmarking it for posterity. But financial security was not to be Dan’s most enduring legacy. Her father determined Nan’s future in a way he neither planned nor could have anticipated. For it was Dan Mason who introduced his daughter to the woman who would be her life partner and collaborator in all her Woodstock adventures, the love of her life—Wilna Hervey.
Wilna Hervey and Dan Mason met at the studios of the Betzwood Film Company in the Philadelphia suburbs in 1919 when they were hired to portray “The Skipper” and “The Powerful Katrinka” in a series of live action comedies based on the popular Toonerville Trolley comic strip. Diminutive Dan Mason, old enough to be Wilna’s father, quickly bonded with the childlike Amazonian actress who towered above him, becoming her mentor, protector, confidante, and surrogate father. When Dan purchased a cottage near the Betzwood movie studio and brought Nan down from New York to stay with him, he invited Wilna to come and live with them as well. Thrown together somewhat arbitrarily, Nan and Wilna regarded each other warily at first, but quickly warmed to each other’s charms and talents. Within a year, they had fallen in love. They would be inseparable for the rest of their lives.
Dan Mason was unfazed by his daughter’s lesbian relationship with his co-star; he loved both of the girls, considered Wilna an extra daughter, and gave the young couple his blessing, assuring them of his conviction that “without love, life is a void.” When he moved to Hollywood to advance his movie career in 1923, Dan invited his girls to live with him and went so far as to buy a large bungalow for the three of them. The girls had other ideas, however. Wilna, who had studied painting in the years preceding her brief movie career, longed to live in Woodstock, New York, in the art colony where she had studied painting and where she already owned a small rustic cabin on several acres. In 1924, Wilna and Nan moved to Bearsville where they would live until their deaths in 1979 and 1982.
Though disappointed to see them go, Dan Mason immediately assumed the role of long distance parent and support system. He agreed to send Nan a generous monthly allowance, and as Nan discovered her own artistic talents and took up painting alongside Wilna, agreed as well to pay for her art lessons from Woodstock artists, George Bellows and Charles Rosen. He also provided a steady stream of common sense advice in the form of three or four long letters a week.
In 1925, Wilna and Nan decided on a whim to take up farming, and began investing considerable time and energy in their new adventure. Though horrified that they were doing “man’s work”—actually plowing fields with a horse!—Dan was impressed when he learned that they were able to make some extra cash by selling produce and eggs to their neighbors. He encouraged them to become self-sufficient. Flushed with their initial success and Dan’s expressions of support, the girls decided to expand their farming venture by purchasing an old abandoned farmstead known locally as Treasure Farm. Realizing that for this significant purchase, they would need Dan’s financial backing, they approached their indulgent parent and mentor with the idea of his retiring to Bearsville. Knowing well his penchant for “healthy living,” they painted for him a bucolic vision of the future in which they would all farm together and live healthy lives in the fresh air and sunshine. Unable to resist their blandishments and his own desire for a retirement fantasy, Dan Mason agreed and bankrolled their purchase, justifying the considerable expense by reminding himself that Nan was eventually going to get his money anyway.
Treasure Farm required some serious renovations to bring it up to 1920s standards and Dan Mason paid for these as well, raiding his several savings accounts in New York, Pennsylvania, and California for cash to buy a new furnace, kitchen, and indoor plumbing. He also managed from three thousand miles away to make sure his naïve and mercurial girls didn’t ignore certain boring but essential details like buying insurance on the property. When the girls moved to Treasure Farm in 1927, Dan sold his former cottage near the now-defunct Betzwood movie studio, and had the furniture shipped to Bearsville, anticipating that he would follow it in a few years.
But Dan Mason would never retire to Treasure Farm, despite his fervent promises to do so. A practical and thrifty man by nature and one who had been chastened by several frightening brushes with poverty over the years, Dan worried that he had depleted his savings too much to quit the lucrative movie business, and continued to stay on in Hollywood, hoping to make just a little more money “to keep Nannie safe.” There, in 1928, he was overtaken by serious illness and became unable to work. Though finally persuaded by Nan and Wilna to come east to recover his health, he continued to decline. Arriving at Treasure Farm as a near invalid, Dan discovered that it was impossible for him to live there—or even die there. The only bathroom in the old farmhouse was up a steep flight of stairs, stairs he could no longer climb. He died in a small cottage just down the hill from the farm in July 1929.
By the time the Big Girls held their first full moon party at Treasure Farm in the fall of 1938—the beginnings of a tradition that would last over three decades—Dan Mason was gone, and thanks to the Great Depression, his money was gone too. All that was left of his many investments was Treasure Farm. But Dan’s legacy lived on in more ways than one. The full moon parties were costume affairs, with prizes awarded for creativity and imagination, qualities never in short supply in Woodstock. Inevitably, there were guests spontaneously invited by friends of friends of the hostesses at the last minute. Those intrepid souls, arriving at the bacchanal without costumes, were not at a disadvantage for long. Dan Mason had left behind trunks full of eccentric clothing he had worn on stage and in front of cameras during his fifty-seven years of playing character roles in Vaudeville, Broadway, and the movies. Rummaging through these seemingly bottomless wardrobes, the random unadorned guests were welcome to improvise personas appropriate to the spirit of the evening. And having done so, they could join in the fun, parading out across the moonlit meadows that Dan had paid for, pausing at individual campfires to show off the ensembles of funny hats, beards, wigs, striped stockings, short jackets with wide lapels, baggy pants, and giant sunflower boutonnieres, that the old comedian had once worn.
Nan and Wilna could not have found a better way to honor his memory.
~Joseph P. Eckhardt
Joseph P. Eckhardt is the author of Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason, published by WoodstockArts in 2015; and Dan Mason: From Vaudeville to Broadway to the Silent Screen, published by McFarland & Company in 2021.