Ezra Pound, the eminent poet charged with treason for his pro-Fascist radio broadcasts during World War II, was saved from public trial and probable imprisonment by the chief superintendent of St. Elizabeth's Hospital, who installed him as a celebrity patient where he lived in high style, a staff psychiatrist claims in an article released yesterday.
Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, 44, writing in the current issue of Psychology Today, claims that Pound was never legally insane.
He was committed to the Washington mental hospital in 1945 by its then superintendent, Dr. Winfred Overholser Sr., who "dominated" other members of the hospital board, and "had the power to stop an otherwise normal legal course of events" that would have led to trial for treason.
During nearly 13 years at St. Elizabeth's, Torrey claims, Pound wrote three books and oversaw the reprinting of five of his previous works. He surrounded himself with literary friends including T.S. Eliot, Katherine Anne Porter, Thornton Wilder and Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
In his private room with a view of the Capitol, the internationally famous poet read as many as 25 books a week obtained from the Library of Congress and wrote articles or comments that appeared in a hundred journals and newspapers. He also maintained sexual affairs with several female devotees, though he was visited daily by his wife during normal visitors' hours.
One woman later wrote, according to Torrey, "The only time in my life I had enough caviar was Xmas day at St. Elizabeth's."
Torrey, 44, who is clinical director of the Noyes division of the hospital, claims that more than 40 other psychiatrists deemed Pound sane and fit for trial -- if eccentric and extremely narcissistic -- and that Overholser's ability to commit Pound in spite of their testimony "is one of the earliest and most flagrant examples of the the ongoing abuse of psychiatry in the American criminal justice system."
Ezra Pound was released in 1958 after 12 1/2 years in the hospital and died in Italy in 1972 at the age of 87. He was the author of "The Cantos," written over a period of 45 years, as well as many other much-anthologized poems. He helped T.S. Eliot simplify "The Wasteland," and is said to have encouraged Ernest Hemingway to the spare style that became his trademark. He also advised James Joyce, William Carlos Williams and other major authors and poets.
Pound's literary reputation was superseded during World War II by his political behavior. Even before then, he had gone on record as a fervent anti-Semite, and during the 1930s was an open admirer of Hitler and the Nazis. As an expatriate in Rome in the early 1940s, he volunteered to make radio broadcasts for Mussolini in which he attacked Churchill and Roosevelt and told British and American audiences, "You have never had a chance in this war."
Taken prisoner by Allied troops at the end of the war, Pound was charged with 19 counts of treason. He wrote a rational defense of his actions while in prison, and the first Army psychiatrists to examine him found him sane and fit for trial.
According to Torrey, Overholser then was appointed by the court to the group of psychiatrists examining Pound. Overholser pointed out the many eccentricities in Pound's behavior, including a tendency to lapse into incoherency. Torrey believes that Pound, who "had been practicing eccentric communications for almost 40 years," was faking symptoms of insanity.
Overholser's bid succeeded: The group's opinion became that Pound was "insane and mentally unfit for trial and in need of care in a mental hospital."
On Feb. 13, 1946, a public hearing on Pound's sanity and fitness to stand trial was held. According to Torrey, "The proceedings were a farce; the transcript reads like the trial of the Knave of Hearts accused of stealing some tarts, in which the jury was asked to reach a verdict even before the first witness was called." It took the jury three minutes to return the verdict of "unsound mind" sought by Overholser.
"Pound's reaction . . . was immediate," Torrey reports, quoting another source, "He jumped up with alacrity and engaged in affable conversation with his young lawyer."
During Pound's time at St. Elizabeth's, Torrey charges, Overholser repeatedly lied to forestall his release and trial for treason.
When in 1947 a newspaper reported on Pound's numerous literary visitors, the superintendent replied that the poet had not had more than four or five visitors since he was admitted.
"The truth was that he had not had more than four or five visitors per week," Torrey claims. He also charges that Overholser reported that Pound was not writing poetry at the hospital, when in fact he was writing a great deal of poetry. He was in no treatment program and, in fact, his private room was off-limits to the nursing staff.
In the mid-1950s, Pound's literary friends were unsuccessful in getting the treason charges against him dropped; he was released as "still insane, but not dangerous," given a passport and permitted to return to Italy.
He continued to live at St. Elizabeth's three weeks after his release, Torrey reports.
Why would Overholser go to such lengths to keep the controversial poet in the institution he oversaw?
"Well, I think he saw him as a great talent," Torrey said yesterday from his home in the Washington area. "And also, Pound was quite happy to stay -- he didn't want to get out. Then the McCarthy era came, and it wasn't time to be releasing such people. They were executing people for treason at that point."
Torrey believes that without the intercession of Overholser, Pound would have been tried and found guilty of treason, "and spent a few years in prison. Certainly it would have been less than the 12 1/2 years he spent at St. Elizabeth's. I believe Tokyo Rose served about seven years.
"The point of all this, and why I brought it up, is that one psychiatrist had the power to stop an otherwise normal course of legal events." Torrey believes that psychiatry is poorly used by the American court system, and that both sides in a criminal proceeding can obtain psychiatric testimony that effectively "cancels itself out."
Torrey's article, which will appear Sunday in the Outlook section, was read by administrators of St. Elizabeth's Hospital before publication. Torrey said he plans to remain on staff there for the foreseeable future.