Category Archives: Art

Portrait of a Lady Descending a Staircase

Visiting the exhibit of Gilded Age Portraits at the New-York Historical Society, I simply had to let myself go into a cloud of chiffon, of gleaming satins, of deep-pile velvet. And, on the masculine side, really good wool. I fortified myself beforehand, consuming a dish of pappardelle with duck ragu and chocolate shavings, the kind of meal they serve in museum restaurants in New York City. I felt that eating something rich and rare would prepare me for a glimpse into the lives of people whose dinners were usually revealed by servants lifting silver tops off of Sevres dinnerware.


At the entrance, outside the gallery itself, there happened to hang a portrait from quite a different time — a star of the Society’s collection, depicting Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, appointed governor of the province of New York and New Jersey by Queen Anne in 1702. In some ways this painting was a perfect New York introduction, as so many of these Gilded Age models were New Yorkers. Though in this case there is definitely a hint of the weird, since Lord Cornbury was known for strolling up Broadway wearing women’s clothes.

Lord Cornbury

No, the people portrayed in the exhibit, people who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, were aristocrats whose likenesses were proper, proud and a little mysterious. The little boy with the big name, Cortlandt Field Bishop, was painted by Bouguereau in 1873. A sky blue sash and a trumpet – did he choose the trumpet prop, I wonder – and his baby-fine hair make him seem the perfect lace-swaddled little lord fauntleroy. But he was descended from mighty Van Cortlandts and DePeysters.


The exhibit is based on portrait shows sponsored by the elites of that era, and so we find Martha Washington on the wall, although she seems almost out of place here as Lord Cornbury, with her country mouse, Revolutionary-era bonnet.

mrs. washington

But Rembrandt Peale’s 1853 portrait was displayed at a famous 1895 portrait exhibition, presumably because “Lady Washington” had by then earned the status of domestic goddess.

When elite families wanted their Portrait of a Lady (the novel published first by James in 1880, and then extensively revised for a 1908 reprint) they demanded the tried and true. They wanted a painter to reliably render the jewels and flounces and creamed skin of a well-to-do woman.

Impressive Woman

The woman shown here in 1906 is Saint Louis socialite Nellie McCormick Flagg, painted by her husband James Montgomery Flagg. He described his conception of female beauty.

She should be tall, with wide shoulders; a face as symmetrical as a Greek vase; thick, wavy hair… long lashes; straight nose tipped up a bit at the end; her eyes so full of feminine allure that your heart skips a beat when you gaze into them.

Looks like he got her.

On display was an image of the infamous Ward McAllister. I’d always wondered what he looked like. He played God when he deemed himself the arbiter of social acceptability in Gilded Age Manhattan, creating the concept of the Four Hundred – the number of fashionables who could fit in Mrs. Caroline Astor’s ballroom. He was the master of exclusivity.

Ward mcallister

But despite his power, he was only a man with a drooping mustache who depended on his wife’s wealth for his social standing.

I think my favorite piece in the show was the picture of James Hazen Hyde, rendered in 1901 by Frenchman Theobald Chartran.

Brooding guy

Soon after Hyde’s likeness was painted he removed himself from New York to Paris. Why? He was accused of mismanagement of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, a company his papa left to him. He looks like a guy who’s getting ready to drink your milkshake (as turn-of-the-century oil tycoon Daniel Plainview puts it in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood).

And meanwhile… not decades away, the traditional art of beautifully modelled heirs and heiresses was about to explode. I walked up a flight from the portraiture show at the Historical Society to an exhibit of works from the 1913 Armory show, which scandalized New Yorkers.


There were chunky Matisse nudes, symbolic Redons, shockingly sauvage Gauguins – on another planet from the Gilded Age canvases. The world was changing. Thomas Edison was shooting movies of men building Manhattan skyscrapers.  The lobby for “woman suffrage” had racheted up and would soon make a revolution. There was no rigid dividing line between the Gilded Age sensibility and the modern; a collector might hang examples of both in his drawing room. John Singer Sargent, the sultan of sumptuousness, had caught Edith Minturn and I.N. Phelps Stokes in a thoroughly modern moment in 1893.


Still, it’s no wonder that the people who loved statuesque Nellie McCormick Flagg flung insults at Duchamp’s brazen Nude Descending a Staircase.


It was painted in 1912, a thousand years after Nellie’s 1906 portrait.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, History, Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely

Another Fine Dress You’ve Got Me Into

I always wondered by what means people got up their getups for fancy dress balls during the Gilded Age. A fancy dress ball didn’t mean, as it sounds, elegant gowns for the ladies and stiff black tails for the gents. They were actually masquerades, opportunities for the well-heeled to escape their own trials and tribulations – there were, in fact, economic downturns and “reversals” throughout the last decades of the 1800s – with a lot of very pricey role-playing. And to prove just how boss they were.


Balls were splendid on their own. Edith Wharton described a typical scene.

Couples were already gliding over the floor beyond: the light of the wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed with modest blossoms, on the dashing aigrettes and ornaments of the young married women’s coiffures, and on the glitter of highly glazed shirt-fronts and fresh glace gloves.

For Savage Girl I looked into debutante balls, when 18-year-olds got their first taste of all the splendour that money could buy.

I first got interested in fancy-dress shenanigans, though, when I wrote about I.N. Phelps Stokes as a young man studying architecture in Paris in 1894.

Edith & Isaac

Most of the people he knew attended the spectacular Bal des Quat’z’Arts, where artists and architects partied hearty in the name of everything aesthetic and bohemian. Revelers could expect gold and silver paint slapped on bare flesh along with displays like the last days of Babylon, complete with “blackamoors,” camels and nearly naked women. Excess reigned every year.


Stokes, I  learned from his generally no-nonsense memoir, wrote home to his mother demanding she ship over the black velvet dress he’d worn for a costume ball at his home the previous winter.

What, I wondered, trying to imagine Stokes be-gowned in velvet, was this slightly stiff, shy young gentleman doing cross-dressing at a balls-out ball?

It was the thing to do, though. Fancy dress celebrations were prevalent in Victorian England and Canada as welll as Paris and New York. One Canadian scholar who has studied archival material puts it this way:

The sheer number of archival photographs of people in fancy dress, as it was known, attests to the popularity of this phenomenon, as well as its importance to those who took part. These portraits reveal a great deal about Victorian morals, values, taboos and tastes regarding clothing, bodies and social behaviour. While the basic appeal of fancy dress lay in its semblance of permissiveness and escapism, this sort of amusement was controlled by a complex set of moral restrictions.

Few costumes survive, but these people were photo-obsessed and made sure to document the fancy ball madness.

On the website of Montreal’s McCord Museum you can find startling images of partygoers dressed to the nines, such as Herbert Molson and his sister Naomi  as “Vikings,” costumed in 1898 for the Chateau de Ramezay Ball in Montreal.


And Miss Bethune as “An Incroyable,” in Montreal, in 1881.


There was also the “Girl of the Period,” shot in 1870. The Victorians could really break loose on ice skates with a swinging braid and a cigarillo.

1870 photo like painting

The image was spookily familiar, and I realized it was the embodiment of a Currier and Ives print I have hanging on my wall.


You can see some of these photos as a video. 

 At the end of the century,New York City could always put on the biggest fancy show. One of the most famous costume extravaganzas was the Bradley-Martin Ball, which took place at the Waldorf in February 1897. Cornelia Bradley-Martin vowed that it would be “the greatest party in the history of the city”.

bradley martin ball

She and her husband spent nearly nine-million dollars in current money hosting eight hundred of the city’s leading lights, Astors, Schermerhorns, Morgans and Posts included. Cornelia doesn’t look like a party animal, but the fact that she is smiling slightly suggests something to me. Most people still did not smile when posing for a portrait.


The ballroom was a replica of Versailles, wigmakers stood at the ready, and guests arrived as Mary, Queen of Scots, a Spanish toreador, Henry the IV. The hostess appeared with a gold, pearl and precious stone embroidered gown.

She might have managed to best the Vanderbilts’ legendary ball of 1883, thrown by Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alva to christen their new Fifth Avenue chateau. Alva sure looked good in doves.

alva vanderbilt

The Museum of the City of New York has a extensive collection of photos of people posed with all seriousness at the ball. Including Mrs. Henry T. Sloane as, I think, a witch. Probably a good witch.

Mrs. Henry T. Sloane

If you’d like to get up a Gilded Age costume there are resources at your disposal.

But, what are we to wear? asks a manual from 1896, accessible on line in its entirety. This is the first exclamation on receipt of an invitation to a Fancy Ball, and it is to assist in answering such questions that this volume has been compiled.

Several hundred costumes are described with every incidental novelty introduced of late, including Autumn, Bee, Gipsies, Carmen, Dominos, Esmerelda, Fire, etc.


Henry James wrote:

The rooms were filling up and the spectacle had become brilliant. The ball borrowed its splendor chiefly from the shining shoulders and profuse jewels of the women, and from the voluminous elegance of their dresses.

You’ll have to invite 1,000 or so people to really get the fancy ball experience. And make sure to call your wigmaker. Everything will be rosy.

Rose Garden


Filed under Art, Culture, Dance, Fashion, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely, Music, Photography, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

The Things We Carry

What heirloom would you bring?

I’m reading about refugees and the things that they carry (remembering the Tim O’Brien tale The Things They Carried, about the impedimenta Vietnam soldiers take with them into battle.) BBC News Magazine profiles refugees during the Nazi menace of the 1940s, asking that question.

Isabelle Rozenbaumas’s mother escaped  Nazi-overrun Lithuania, barely, with her carriage-driver father, and snuck out three class photographs from that time.

refugee photo

Julian Glowinski’s grandmother was deported from Poland to Siberia in 1940. Amazingly, she packed a sewing machine onto a cattle truck, and converted gowns into wedding dresses in her concentration camp in exchange for food.

Elke Duffy and her family fled East Prussia in January 1945. With her she took an amber necklace her mother had strung from amber she and her sister found on a Baltic beach.


Ian Carr-de Avelon’s wife’s grandfather was forced onto a train in Lwow (then Poland, now Ukraine) with his wife. Rather than cherished photos he took a camp stove. A camp stove? But of course ultimately it made perfect sense.

So what to take in a hurry, with the monsters breathing down your throat?

Photos. But today they mostly stay trapped in the computer. You can’t just lift them out of an album, with yellowed tape stains on their backs. So print some, fast.

Maybe I’d take this one, if I had to take one.

Gil and Maud Hug

I’d have to take another. Mark it on the back with a Sharpie, April 1987. The engagement party.

April 1987

If I could, I’d grab more. My parents. My extended family. Gil would take this burst of joy.

el 1

Or, he says, an oilcloth Santa he remembers making when he was six.

What object would I choose? Not a sewing machine. Not an iPhone. I looked around my house, and I thought about storage. At least three dusty cardboard boxes are marked Heirlooms, mostly from a family bow-windowed breakfront now residing in a home with more space. How do you choose among the loved objects of the past?

I might take my paternal grandmother’s copy of Ulysses, by James Joyce, its cover broken off, which she bravely purchased at a time when the novel was still censored in the U.S.

Joyce Ulysses 750 wraps 1000

Or a scrap tatted by my ancestors, embroidered with carnations, the cloth handled by their fingers.


I could tuck that into my sock.

But if I was going to bring some bigger object – what?

How about a china plate. A cake plate, a foot across, strewn with pink roses and lilies of the family. Utilitarian as well as cherished.


Just a plate. But a plate belonging to my great-great-grandmother, a woman with the interesting name of Brown Coats. A deep souvenir of family, embodying the optimistic conviction that sometime in the future, there will be cake.

Will the plate make it through the mud, the rutted roads, the mountain passes? Despite its apparent fragility, I am certain it is strong.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Photography, Publishing

The Myths of Time

I love that building, said my friend John, a publisher with a reliably elegant sense of taste. It was designed by Louis Kahn. The Yale Center for British Art, in New Haven, Connecticut, is housed in a sleek shell of matte steel on Chapel Street, the bustling main drag of the town. It was the architect’s last major commission, completed after his death in 1974. It’s an interestingly modern container for the almost exclusively older works of art within, lovely canvases of fetching ladies, bewigged lords, and big-eyed colonial children with their colonial pets. Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love, completed by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1771, is a good example.


You’ll also find lots of animals, horses and dogs mainly. My old friend Betsy, who lives nearby, told me she has spent serious time sunk in an overstuffed leather chair in the high-ceilinged gallery admiring the zebra painting. A rather famous zebra painting, made by George Stubbs in 1763, when a zebra would have seemed about as exotic to Europeans as a unicorn.


We couldn’t help but be stopped just inside the glass doors as we were coming in by a much more modern work. What is that? I said to Wendy, puzzling it out. A minotaur? A centaur?


No, she corrected  me, a centaur is a man on top, horse on the bottom. This was a horse on top. I liked it a lot, it was so rough and raw, like something you’d see in a dream.

Turned out that Foal, sculpted of painted bronze, was one of seven works by the British artist Nicola Hicks which had been installed as a special exhibit in the Yale Center. The mythic is central to her work. As part of the show Hicks selected pieces from the museum’s collection to serve as counterpoints to her own. The British tradition of animal imagery intertwined with the contemporary creatures in a dynamic, charged way.

The painting chosen for the display that I found most affecting was William Barraud’s A Couple of Foxhounds with a Terrier, the Property of Lord Henry Bentinck. Hicks has said she recognizes Baraud’s profound understanding of how the “social structure” unites the animals depicted. It’s about the independent dogness of dogs, despite the humans that may believe they own them lock stock and kibble.

dog painting

One sculpture reflected on Aesop’s fable about a donkey found in the forest wearing a lion’s skin, which ultimately results in the donkey being exposed as a fool.


Nicks’ Who was I Kidding, created of plaster and straw, shows the poor donkey with the skin thrown across its back. It bears some resemblance to another Stubbs canvas in the museum, A Lion Attacking a Horse. The horse in that conception feels not shame but blind fury.


Later, over tea, I noticed that Wendy had bought a postcard at the gift shop. She had out her small, purse-size sketchbook and a pencil.

wendy drawing

Wendy’s a musician, an actress, an astute psychotherapist. She was drawing the donkey, tracing the gentle lines of its hanging, shamed head. She had taken the experience with her, as we do all myths that have power.


Filed under Art, Culture, Dogs, Fashion, History, Jean Zimmerman

Chocolate Poems

“Where are the reptiles?” the adolescent boy asked the guard at the door of the convention center.

“The what?”

Both heads swivelled to look inside at the crowded arena.

“The reptiles – are they here?”

No. The reptile show was last weekend. Here at Chocolate Expo there were only the chocolate fiends.

At two minutes to eleven, the lines stretched down the steps and around the sidewalk. “My friends are at the Marathon and here I am at chocolate world,” the girl behind me said wryly. “Stupid chocolate,” said a husband. “It’s gonna be fun, honey,” insisted his wife.

It was the annual gathering of people intent on buying and selling cacao-based products in all shapes, sizes and flavors – the more novel the better. I thought I’d see what the fuss was about.

I love chocolate, of course. Gil says my three major food groups are chocolate, coffee and milk. (That puts mocha at the top of the pyramid, I guess.)

In the convention center, people jostled to get free tastes. It seemed to actually be about half chocolate and half every other kind of artisenal food product, from honey to wine to dill pickles to maple syrup. I was surprised to find Cap’n Crunch gelato.

cap'n crunch

But there was also every kind of truffle under the sun.


Alicia at Two Chicks with Chocolate fed me a taste of rosemary lemon truffle, handpainted with colored cocoa butter, one of 60 different flavors, and I was on my way.

Pumpkin was big in everything. I saw chocolate-dipped waffles.


Chocolate-dipped fruits of all kinds.

choc dip

Kids and adults alike with sticky hands, sticky faces. There was an awful amount of plastic wrapping, it seemed to me.


Chocolate culture is very high–low. I saw the most exquisite Indian truffles, created for the New Year, Dawali, by Aarti at Le Rouge in the shape of a “diya,” or lamp.  Truffles with ganache came in exotic flavors with amazing “mouthfeel,” as the technical term goes. I tried the Kiser Pista Ganache, made with saffron.


Ethereal, I thought. So I couldn’t resist making off with a single specimen, the Paan Bahar truffle, made with betel leaves and rose petals.

More spirituality lay around the corner, where half-pound, solid chocolate Buddhas were cheerfully peddled at Oliver Kita Fine Confections, by a salesperson who told me, “Most people break them up to share when they chant with friends.” Okay.


Chocolate has only been the recognizable treat that we go crazy over for a relatively short chapter of human history. The Aztecs downed it as a cold, bitter, spicy brew – Montezuma alone was said to drink 50 cups a day. It became a sweetened beverage in the 17th century, flowing from the cacao plantations of South America to France by way of Louis XIV’s Spanish bride, Princess Maria Theresa.


She gave the Sun King a chest of chocolate in 1643 for an engagement present, and his avid consumption of the beverage was said to fuel his ability to pleasure his wife twice a day even into his seventies.

Chocolate then emigrated to London, where chocolate houses became the fashion. Sir Hans Sloane, an esteemed physician, declared that milk afforded the delicacy special creaminess. New York philanthropist and bibliophile James Wadsworth, in the nineteenth century:

Twill make Old women Young and Fresh

Create New Motions of the Flesh,

And cause them long for you know what…

If they but taste of chocolate.

Samuel Pepys noted in 1657 that it was available.


“In Bishopsgate Street in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West India drink called chocolate, to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time, and also unmade at reasonable rates.”

Michael Pollan writes in his book In Defense of Food about a group of Americans being shown the words “chocolate cake” to discover their word associations. “Guilt” was the top response. The response of French eaters to the same prompt: “celebration.”

Everyone, no matter how-guilt-ridden, knows that chocolate is the love food. Someone should write a love poem to it.


I did feel love in the air today, at least love of chocolate, so it’s sort of a closed loop.

A company calling itself Rescue Chocolate offered vegan, organic, fair-trade, kosher chocolates, with all profits to be donated to animal rescue groups.

rescue choc

I thought I’d purchase one but the line was too long.

Masks, with a chocolate base, from The Chocolate Box NYC. Everything about their decoration was edible.

mask 1

The proprietor, Sabrina, looked more like a ballet dancer than a candy maker.

mask lady

Less artistic but just as tempting, hand-dipped Twinkies from a booth that won an award from Hudson Valley Magazine for its pies last year.


The Twinkies are one of their best sellers — since the confection was off the market for a while it drove up the demand. “We ran out last year, Gina Solari told me. “Anything Nutella is also a best seller,” she added.

Sick of chocolate, finally, incredibly, I retired to the stage area with two non-cocoa nourishments, strong coffee and a lemon-and-sugar crepe.

In the distance, convention-goers slurped up Cap’n Crunch gelato and sugar-dipped waffles. I recalled one of the most striking film food scenes in recent memory, in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated Spirited Away, when the 10-year-old Chihiro’s careless parents sit down at a counter restaurant for a snack and get turned into munching, slobbering, devouring giant pigs.


A chef-lecturer delivered informational nuggets about the subject at hand. Chocolate falls to the ground in South America, she said, after the monkeys have eaten the fruit around it. It’s a seed. She confided in the people whose sweet tooth had driven them to the convention center even before lunch on a beautiful Sunday in fall. “I know I’m probably wrecking your world, but white chocolate is not chocolate. It’s fat and sugar. You could call it fat-sugar!”

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Film, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry

Author Page Debut

I wanted to let everyone know that I have set up an author’s page on Facebook, where you are welcome to go to discover news about my books both forthcoming and previously published, and also bits and pieces about the literary life, book goings on, tweets, interesting historical phenomena and other things that pertain to my life as a writer.

Please do stop by and “like” the page, and leave a comment – I’d love to see you there.

For the Facebook page, and just because I  hadn’t done so in a while, I came up with a new author photo. I wanted the picture to be less posed, more natural than my past ones, and to have some kind of a natural context.

IMG_8745 revised

Maud Reavill was prevailed upon to record her mother’s image for posterity. I stood in front of Columbia University’s St. Paul’s Chapel, designed in 1907 by I.N. Phelps Stokes, he who I profiled in my book  Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance. It’s an exquisite Italianate structure, one of Stokes’ finest accomplishments, and the first non-McKim, Mead and White building erected on campus. It’s just as beautiful inside as it is on the exterior, but the light inside didn’t favor a shot. I wrote about the chapel and getting my picture taken earlier this year.

The bricks are old. I am not.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Culture, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely, Photography, Publishing, Writers, Writing

Historical Pork

I brought the porker totem home to a curious canine, though Oliver didn’t seem to feel the swine deserved an aggressive posture.


And though I debated on the drive back, porker clunking in the trunk, what Gil’s reaction would be – would he object to the creature because of its cost or size or general mien – he too was delighted by it. One of his favorite song lyrics, he said, was Dylan’s “I’m no pig without a wig/I hope you treat me kind.” Hard to hold anything against a grotesquerie that cost 24 dollars.

whole pig

We decided the painted plaster pig with the voluptuous nose must have at one time enticed customers in a store or eatery. The woman in the antiques shop felt sure he had a former life as a piggy bank, but no piggy bank is thigh high. I snapped him up quickly, before anyone else could. If anyone else would.

pig eye

My eye for art is my own. I’m the one who finds things at estate sales after all the “good stuff” has been bought, after everyone else goes home. In our storage locker the other day I went through our collection of two-dimensional pieces, some by friends, that the Cabin walls can’t accommodate. Space is extremely limited and 250-year-old logs hard to pound nails into.

I did hang a Currier & Ives print, an antique spoof showing a nineteenth century woman with a braid dangling to her knees, a cigarette and a riding crop. “The Girl of the Period” reads the legend on the only slightly stained image. The friends who gave me this know me well.


I do like things that are a bit stained, worn, faded or torn. Things that have the spirit of the vernacular in them. That show the human hand. It’s not outsider art when it comes from your own relative. One vintage artwork in my house was the creation of my great-grandmother Lockie Hillis, three landscape postcards she collected on a trip to the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, which she mounted in a wood-burned frame (she herself burned the wood).


I greatly appreciate handmade signs, but I’ll only collect them for free. Our best sign, hanging outside on the porch wall, we collected off a telephone pole next to a cornfield on a midwestern two-lane.


The one above the fireplace makes an ironic comment on Oliver and the other beloved dogs that have lived with us.

no dogs

Another perhaps more frightening comment, the mask hanging above the wooden sign. Leather of some kind, it comes from Mexico, and has dropped a few eyelashes since I picked it up 30 years ago. Gil has been known to put it on for Halloween and terrify small children.


The Cabin makes a perfect backdrop for a painted work like the one my artist friend Sandra bequeathed, titled “Cairo in the Garden,” named for a beloved tabby we owned with seven toes on each paw.


We don’t frame it because it doesn’t need a frame to show off its fresco-like charms.

Back to the pig without a wig. Where to exhibit his bulbous corpus? I think he needs to stand by the door, sticking out his tongue in welcoming us. Or by the hearth, though I wouldn’t want his fat to singe. Perhaps the kitchen would be the most logical, given the amount of bacon this household consumes. In a corner, where we can observe him observing us.

While I consider it I’m going to give my attention to a National Audobon Society “miniature chart” showing Twigs of Common Trees.

Twigged Out

Here we have 62 ink-drawings of buds, bark, leaf scars and pith. The total effect is exquisite and I’d like to do the impossible: find it wall space. I fished Twigs out of storage and Gil said, You want that? Yes, as a matter of fact I do.

pig nose

What this jolly pig reminds me of most of all is old-fashioned signage, when shops had a giant shoe or pair of eyeglasses out front, bespeaking loud and clear what they had to offer. That’s a history dating back to the middle ages, but you still find pigs today decorating barbecue joints. That might be this one’s origin. Oink.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Dogs, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Photography, Writers

Eat, Fly, Nest

“Birds like movement and sound – so bubbling water attracts them,” says Cary Andrews, the ornithological expert speaking on bird-friendly gardens at the Croton Free Library in front of an audience of two or three dozen intent locals. If you don’t have an exotically lovely koi pond, she says, a bird bath will do, or even a strategically set up plastic gallon jug tipped just so.  Watch out for frogs, though, some of whom “can take out a hummingbird.”

In my bag, I carry a palm-sized nature guide dating to 1949, which I’d rediscovered in a box of old books earlier in the day.

Bird cover

The flyleaf is inscribed, “To Zan, from Mother, April 18, 1952.”

This is the last in the Green Living Series for this year offered by the Croton Conservation Advisory Council – earlier talks had focused on invasive plants and biophilia, or the love of nature – and Gil and I want to get some information on setting up a feeder. What we get is a lot more global. Water, food, nesting. The best plants so the birds can thrive. But also much larger questions of habitat, creating it and preserving it, and the survival of all the species, not just everyday sparrows.

I am tempted as the lecture begins to hand my book over to the cutest little four year old girls, who keep giddily crawling back and forth in front of the podium until they are stilled by their chaperone. I am eager to hear about migration of another kind, from our speaker, birds flying all the way up from South America, drawn by the Hudson. Birds love water – robins, report Cary, like nothing so much as a sprinkler going back and forth, plus it loosens up the turf “so they can get their worms.”

The talk includes great photos, still there’s something softly magical about these illustrations from sixty years ago.

Bird tit

The tufted titmouse, one of my favorites since moving to the Cabin, is a bird I’d like to attract. Now I’m hearing about raspberries that ferment when overripe so that they’re called drunkberries. Birds enjoy them. And among other pleasant digressions, Cary mentions that she’d like to organize a “garden tour of pink trees” in spring. And that she was once distracted when looking out a conference window by 10 cedar waxwings feeding on red berries. And that she and her bird-crazy neighbors put in their bird-friendly plants and tease each other: “You stole my birds!”

Bird ced

“Fifty percent of the wren’s diet is spiders,” I learn. Insects. They are more important than I knew. All those downed, rotting trees around the Cabin, they are gold. Bark crevices are what bugs love. And birds love bugs. And cats love birds.

No! Don’t go there. It turns out that cats are responsible for decimating billions of birds in the U.S. each year. Cary quotes a controversial University of Wisconsin study. And the bells assigned them by well-meaning owners help not a whit. They’re much worse than the hawks circling far above.

Bird hawk

The bugs birds eat, especially the larvae babies require, grow on native plants. “Go native!” says our speaker, who admits that though she is a bird person, she was only recently educated about setting up her own bird-friendly garden. Smart and mildly self-effacing, she grants the audience “permission to be messy”: leave brush piles alone, stalks standing, the lawn grown out a bit more than most Americans think is decent. Even some weeds are good. The thistle. Even crab grass. Throw your Christmas tree to the side of your yard and a bird might take up occupancy. (We have one of those.) I also know for a fact that the fir trees close to our outside wall makes the bluejays happy.

Bird jay

This “tightly woven relationship between plants, insects and birds” sometimes leaves humans out in the cold. Poison ivy, for instance, is a delight for birds, it seems. Cary advocates preserving it where possible. This is the true bird’s eye view.

A few more nuggets before we dive into the cupcakes on the library table. Deer have been seen swimming from New Jersey to Staten Island. No joke. Hummingbirds will on occasion use spider webs to build their nests.

Bird hum

The robin’s nest found in Cary’s friend’s yard incorporated a length of her young daughter’s hair ribbon.

I start for home. In the back of my vintage bird guide I discover the following note, handwritten in neat pencil:

July 25, 1959.

Today for the second time,

a small red bird perched

on the picket fence outside

my window. He warbled

a few notes and then left.

I found out that it was a

cardinal through this book.


Filed under Art, Culture, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Writing

Children’s Books That Make Us Us

Most of the elegant exhibition vitrines at the New York Public Library’s show The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter stand at a height conducive to adult viewing. And wonderful as the show is, it’s really not a place for children – with the exception of a few nooks along the way offering copies of Goodnight Moon for young ones to handle – but a place for us well above knee height to get sucked back into our literary pasts.

The winding display was chock full of books and objects from the Library’s massive collection, and it ranged over the history of juvenile literature. There were picture books from China. There were vintage, quirky numbers, like The Cries of New-York, detailing children selling “various kinds of cherries” on Manhattan in 1816.


Another book, from 1727, represented the oldest known copy of the most important English-language primer, with an array of four-syllable words, fornication surprisingly found alongside exhortation.


I was interested in Instructions on Needlework and Knitting, from 1847, published in London, whose valuable pages had an actual doll’s dress sewn into the book.

doll clothes

But I found myself gravitating to my tried and true, the darling books of my own important and valuable childhood, when caring people made sure my library was stocked with the perfect pages to make my imagination fly.

All my old favorites were here in some form or another. I saw sketches by Hilary Knight as he worked up to a published Eloise, with the scamp lying on her stomach facing  her turtle Skipperdee or making an island in the “bawth”. The collaboration between Knight and Kay Thompson was “intense, exhilarating,” I learned.


Harriet the Spy, 11-year-old brilliant tomboy, was represented along one wall with a pleasantly tattered copy of the book that could have been my own. That book taught me a lot about what it would take to grow up smart and sly in the world of adults.


The Phantom Tollbooth depicted a land I felt transported to when I was about ten, and going back farther, the Dick and Jane readers drew me in and gave me the creeps simulaneously.

I had forgotten about Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s A Hole Is to Dig, and the pages on display at the Library touched my heart.


Harold and the Purple Crayon. Timeless. Ferdinand. Charlotte’s Web: “Some pig.” “Terrific.” E.B. White wrote it while reporting on the founding of the U.N. for Harper’s Magazine, and it was no doubt shaped by a concern about who would save the world. The world he created was of course much more real than a big room full of serious old men.


I walked about adrift in nostalgia for my books, my bookcases, my bed where I read my books, my family’s club chair where I slouched with my summer pile from the library. “Libraries raised me,” said Ray Bradbury. I remember poring over tales of the creepy Loch Ness monster and the equally terrifying but also funny abominable snowman. I can  relate to Eudora Welty’s memory:

I read library books as fast as I could go, rushing them home in the basket of my bicycle. From the minute I reached our house, I started to read. Every book I seized on, from “Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue at Camp Rest-a-While” to “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” stood for the devouring wish to read being instantly granted. I knew this was bliss, knew it at the time. Taste isn’t nearly so important; it comes in its own time.

I think that when reading I imagined myself to be Mary Poppins in another life (not the children who were her charges) and so I was fascinated to see P.L. Travers’s very Mary-like green-cloth umbrella with a parrot-head handle, and the Dutch wooden doll that served as the model for the magical nanny, which her American editor gave the library in 1972. “My favorite of all!” exclaimed the mom of two girls, who commenced to sing A Spoonful of Sugar.

Mary doll

I turned the corner and bumped into another historical nugget, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee parasol handle that Lewis Carroll bequeathed upon the former Alice Liddell, now “Mrs. Hargreaves,” in 1891. The original Alice. She held that ivory in her hand.


More heirlooms, including all the original Pooh dolls from the Milne family, which have resided at NYPL since 1987.

I was invited to craft an original story in a Mad Libs vein, with a digital setup on the wall. After I plugged in words, the narration involved a witchy persimmon and an oak turned into a sorrowful seed, reinvented from Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. Anderson said, “Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale.” All fun, but where are the fairy tales? Where are MY fairy tales? The ones I read and reread until the paper book jackets tore.

Oh, there, finally. The Blue Fairy Book. A first edition of the Andrew Lang collection, which had something like a dozen volumes.

blue fairy

Mom, Dad, Grandma—and I think it might have been Grandma—thank you for giving me The Blue Fairy Book, the Red, the Green, and the others, volumes I would crack open to release their dreams, their mystery and passion. Beauty and the Beast, which I read in The Blue Fairy Book, still gives me a shiver.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry, Publishing, Writers, Writing

Tweet or Not to Tweet

The gloaming is coming earlier these days. The Cabin, cozy as it is, can be small.

Halloween Cabin

Our winter is heated by wood more than sun.


Fewer outdoor adventures, unless you want to really bundle up. A dive instead back into a small pink knitting project.

pink knitting

Oliver wants to lay down on the already-cold grass. I don’t.

oliver cold grass

What to do? Something new.

First I asked an intern to escort me through the twisted corridors of Twitterdom. Why do this at all? was my first thought, my eye wandering over the overwhelming Twitter feed. Well, said Carlos, my intern, you might find something interesting.


Ahhh, that.

I went to the Metropolitan Museum’s profile to see who the greatest art institution in America was wont to follow, and discovered a thousand crazy, creative persons and places I didn’t know existed, that I want to know more about.


Only connect, as Forster said. Easy for him to say. He didn’t have FB, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., etc.

Catch me at @jeanczimmerman and we’ll tweet.


Filed under Art, Culture, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Publishing, Writers, Writing

I Like Your Steamed Buns

There might be better places to get soup dumplings in New York City, but Joe’s Shanghai is irresistably close to LaGuardia if you’re carting people in from the airport around lunchtime.


We had Gil’s sister and her husband coming in from the Midwest for Gil’s birthday. Time for some steamed buns.

We went to the Queens Chinatown, to a quiet street off Northern Boulevard.

street scene

Joe’s Shanghai hasn’t changed in years. The only difference is they have a flat-screen on the wall now.

green neon

No big crab for us today, egg or no egg.


The xiaolongbao is a type of steamed bun from Shanghai and neighboring regions of China. It is traditionally steamed in a bamboo basket, hence the name (xiaolong is literally small steaming basket), and served atop shreds of napa cabbage. Xiaolongbao are often referred to as soup dumplings in English, but they are actually not considered dumplings in China. They are buns, pinched at the top before steaming, creating a dough cascade of ripples around the crown.

one dumpling

There is a science to eating them. You place one on a spoon with a pair of tongs, then bite a tiny hole in the dough to let out some of the heat. Slurp carefully and when you can stand it no longer pop the whole thing in your greedy mouth.


“They remind me of testicles,” said Rick. “There is a sexual quality about them that is definitely appealing.” He’d recommend the pork rather than the crab, if you have to make a decision between the two.

Or choose the crispy salt and pepper shrimp, amazing in the shell but not so much with the heads on. That’s okay, Gil pulled them off.

shrimp heads

But how does the boiling hot soup get into the little parcels? You can probably guess. The cook puts gelled aspic inside the bun along with a little pork or pork/crab mixture, and it melts deliciously as it steams. A dish of vinegar with ginger slivers is served alongside, but we ripped into the buns too fast to pay any attention to them.





Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman

The Golden Notebook in Golden Fall

Tomorrow will be a perfect day to take in the leaves upstate as they color up. If so much natural beauty wears thin and if you happen to be near Woodstock, New York, consider coming to The Golden Notebook for my 2:00 talk on The Orphanmaster. Signing copies, too. I know there are excellent lattes down the street and I’m pretty sure the nice people in the store will allow you to nurse one in in a  paper cup while you sit back and enjoy my slide show — lots of nuggets about the way people, places and things looked in 1660s Manhattan. The raging beaver trade. The fashion of men in red-heeled pumps. What was it actually like, anyway? New York before it became New York. Imagine.


Please do come. I’ll be up on the second floor.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

Truck Garden

125th and Broadway, 9pm on a Tuesday night. The hush of dusk is just behind us as we pull up to a red light at the intersection.

To our right, a dilapidated box truck covered with hieroglyphics of graffiti. Dirty and timeworn. The back is open, but nothing is being loaded or unloaded. Inside, we suddenly register, is a magical forest, a glistening waterfall. We can’t believe our eyes. The crack photographer Suzanne Levine, tucked in the back sea, takes out her camera.


Gil says, Get out, you’ll get a better picture. It’s okay, she says. It’s fine this way.

And it is. (Check out my mug in the rear view.) A drive-by photo shoot in the New York City night is the perfect way to capture an artwork by, it turns out, one of the greatest creative minds and pranksters of the age.

Banksy was here.

Banksy has been turning up all over New York recently, though he’s headquartered elsewhere, with his mysterious stencilled message graffiti and now… this. A grungy delivery truck complete with a motorized waterfall and plastic butterflies. He was quoted today as saying, I should probably be somewhere more happening like Moscow or Beijing, but the pizza is better here.

The truck will make a stop at dusk each evening, but no one knows exactly where, or for how long, just as no one knows just about anything for real about Banksy. But if you want to listen to a story about the Garden of Eden in a box truck, you can call 1-800-656-4271 and press 3# at the prompt.

Manhattan comes through, just something we rolled up on in the gloaming.


Filed under Art, Culture, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Photography

Going to the Chapel

I needed to get a new author photo and I wanted to pose against the neat red bricks of St. Paul’s Chapel on the campus of Columbia University. It was not difficult to set up, since Maud was the photographer and this is where she went to school.

St. Paul's

When I.N. Phelps Stokes designed St. Pauls, it was the first non-McKim, Mead and White structure erected on campus. This was 1907. A photo from the time shows it looking new and bare. It would prove to be Stokes’ greatest architectural achievement.


Over a century later, the diminutive chapel’s Renaissance design still wins acclaim for its beacon-like green dome, its Italianate authenticity, its salmon-brick Guastavino vaults and its splendid acoustics. A schedule of magnificent music was posted outside the doors. People love to get hitched here.


Waiting for our photo session, I took a seat–as I had many times, many years ago, when I was studying writing and this was my school–on the curving stone bench across from the Chapel.


It actually spells out Love Your Alma Mater, but I like the more elemental, bare-bones message.

All around, the autumn hedges were producing moist red berries.


They looked like pieces of candy stuck there for the taking.

I ducked inside to check out Stokes’ inspired efforts. (Not pictured here, because no pictures allowed.) He created the glossy floors of marble fragments in intricate patterns resembling those you find in Italian churches, but these patterns are purely decorative, with no symbolic meaning. Sturdy wood chairs were preferable to pews, he decided. He and Edith had toured Italy in the winter and spring of 1905 as preparation for working on St. Pauls. During the trip he decided to bring back some wine – not just a few jugs of Chianti but 50 liters of red in casks that he then had decanted into half-pint bottles.

Stokes was a meticulous man, and a driven one. He wanted the job of designing St. Paul’s. His passion for the project was shared by his altruistic aunts, immensely wealthy sisters who refused to provided the funding unless their nephew was hired on.

I hovered in the back of the Chapel while mass was conducted in the nave. Short and sweet, body, wine, done.

My pictures also came about pronto. In the background the bricks, yes, to the side of the columned portico – at the top of each of those columns is a cherub carved by Gutzon Borglum, who was responsible for Mount Rushmore.


In the background of the photos stands a Quattrocento-style bronze lamp, pickled green by time, designed by sculptor Arturo Bianchini to show the four apostles of the Old Testament but also a pod of swimming dolphins.


Of course what you’ll see most of all in Maud’s pictures is not the bricks, not the dolphins, but my smile, beaming, because it is my daughter behind the camera and we are connecting through the medium of photography.



Filed under Art, Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely, Music, Nature, Photography, Writers, Writing

A Victorian Evening

There were not enough chairs. Victorian Society guests who came in late had to huddle by the door rather than join the hundred or so in the room. I was only a little distracted by all those wide eyes in the audience, drinking in the images on the screen behind me, so entranced were they by the Gilded Age. It was a marvelous evening.

The Victorian Society New York members are a lovely bunch, very serious about their history and dedicated to preserving the built past of the nineteenth century. Talking about I.N. Phelps Stokes and his passion for Old New York, I could see that that strong interest of his resonated personally with so many of this group. That Edith “Fiercely” Minturn’s old-fashioned beauty touched them.

Minturn Girls Portrait jpeg

There were some great minds and delicate sensibilities in the crowd. The master horologist John Metcalfe – clock expert, to you — with public school English diction and an L.L. Bean bag, informed me that when Newton and Edith Stokes packed up a sixteenth-century British house in 688 boxes to export and reassemble on the coast of Connecticut, they were not the only ones.

John Metcalfe - DAY TWO

It was, apparently, a vogue at the time for those who could afford it. I knew that those of tremendous wealth paid people like Stanford White to cull the monasteries of Europe for great rooms that would be installed intact in their country houses. But I didn’t realize the wholesale shipping over of houses was a fashion for the fashionables until Mr. Metcalfe told me so.

There was the great preservationaist and historian Joyce Mendelsohn, who introduced me with the gracious admonition that listeners buy “two or three books “ and to give the extras to friends. Music to a writer’s ears.


An author herself, most recently of The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited: A History and Guide to a Legendary New York Neighborhood, Joyce has been a pivotal presence in Victorian Society New York.

Then there was the architect-scholar David Parker, who first introduced me to the dripping-with-history Loeb house at 41 East 72 Street. David knows pretty much everything about buildings and interiors of the late nineteenth century, all of which he applied to the renovation of that brownstone, with its Herter furniture, Tiffany glass, Minton ceramics, swags of velvet and fantastically patterned wallpapers.


There was a woman from Fraunces Tavern that had me sign copies of all my books at the request of her boss there. Fraunces Tavern is one of the oldest structures in Manhattan – it was first opened by Samuel Fraunces in 1767 — and I was proud to give a talk there once before.


I hope I do so again soon.

One scholar present had completed a doctoral thesis called “Psychosexual Dynamics in the Ghost Stories of Henry James.”

henry james

If she had had a copy with her I would have bought it and asked her to sign it.

book signing pic


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely, Photography, Publishing, Writers, Writing