Category Archives: Dance

High-Energy Serendipities

At the National Arts Club the other night, before I gave my presentation, a very nice photographer named Bruce Allan took me by the hand and led me around from one atmospheric spot to the other to get just the right portrait of me.

JZ Light

Then, as I went on and on (as I often do) talking about Savage Girl and historical fiction and New York City, showing remarkable pictures of Manhattan during the Gilded Age, Bruce captured me again.

JZ talking

He also caught the musicians Henry Chapin (fiddle) and Mark Ettinger (accordion) playing music of the era. So infectious was their performance, they got people who were there only to listen up on their feet to dance. “I danced a reel!” one friend enthused afterward.

Musicians

All in all, a high-energy event, filled with serendipities.

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National Arts Club Talk Wednesday 8pm

I’m so looking forward to giving a presentation at the venerable National Arts Club on New York City’s Gramercy Park tomorrow night, April 16th at 8:00. The Club is housed in a beautiful old mansion, the perfect spot for time traveling back to the late nineteenth century. I will show pictures during my talk, sign books afterwards, and exhort guests to dance to our live musicians playing tunes from Savage Girl’s era. The celebration is free and open to the public. Please come if you’re in the neighborhood!

SG Flier Gramercy

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The Victorian Debut

The process of achieving a societal debut in the late nineteenth century was one in which eighteen-year-olds got their first taste of all the splendour that money could buy.

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Yet at the same time, the coming out process was one that was as constricting as it was exhilarating. The art of coming out was demanding, an experience that was rigorous to a degree the privileged debutante had not previously experienced. The world of the “fashionables” might be exceedingly comfortable, but it was also fraught with potential dangers of social missteps, especially when it comes to expectations for adolescent girls as they approached maturity.

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The culture of the a debutante first originated in Britain during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, in the second half of the 16th century, when she began the custom of formally presenting eligible young women at court. Three centuries later, Queen Victoria created the ritual we think of today, with girls dressed in white and the official bow called a “curtsey.” It soon spread to America.

In Victorian days, young girls were kept closely guarded at home throughout their adolescence.

minturn girls

Their debut indicated that they were now officially allowed to come out from under their parents’ close guardianship and begin the rituals of courtship. Not only that, though, they were being ushered into a new status as ladies, on a par with some of the notable creatures of the age.

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The grand dames of society banded together when a girl reached what was considered a marriagable age to help usher her into a new social status. The rituals of this transition were female-centric, self-absorbed.

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There was certainly some power in the process for women, as they created and enforced the rules. But the learning curve for the debutante was steep and it was easy to make mistakes.

There was shopping for a proper wardrobe, to begin with. Godey’s magazine was the Vogue of the day; girls and women perused it to order items to suit their more grown-up status.

Godey's 1867New dresses were a requisite.

1873 NY Fashions

Not only fancy gowns, but “everyday” items.

1870 everyday dresses

New hats were a vital fashion component.

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Dance lessons ensured that the debutante would be able to hold her own with the worthies of the day when she was “out” and socializing. Complex steps posed difficulties and required hours of practice, usually at special schools.

Late afternoon teas  and luncheons in private dwellings brought the debutante together with society ladies she was meant to impress. Throughout, lessons were imparted from mothers to daughters, warnings about indecorous behavior, inappropriate dress. It was all about learning the proper way to act.

A crucial part of the process was the ritualized social visit known as calling. Everyone knew that formal calls were to take place for precisely 15 minutes between 3 and 5:00. One woman would drop her card at another’s house to let her know when she would be at home to receive visitors. The card had her name inscribed upon it, and the debutante’s name would be added to it. It wasn’t unknown to keep a visiting list of over 500 names.

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Then came the ball. A grand reception that brought together a group of debutantes with young men their age and other, more mature members of high society, it took place at some point over the winter months. The coming out ball was commonly held in a public venue like Delmonico’s restaurant, the most swellegant spot of the age, located on 26th Street opposite Madison Park, which had the facilities to accomodate a large number of guests.

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The fashions were extraordinary. The finest gowns came from Worth in Paris.

1861 Worth and Bobergh gown

A French manual from the 1880s described societal expectations for women’s formal dress:

For the ladies, a light-coloured gown with a décolleté revealing the shoulders and arms, very long gloves and light pumps. They must carry in one hand a fan made from ivory or mother-of-pearl and also have their dance card. Many ladies prefer, as do I, a bodice in a shallow square-cut or heart-shape to a very décolleté gown . Sometimes the exposed neckline and tops of the arms are covered with gauze or tulle.

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The hair must be put up, preferably with jewels.

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The fan was indispensable element of ladies’ finery– closed, open or fluttering, it could reveal a refusal, interest or excitement.

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While married women could dress themselves in brightly colored gowns, lavish hairdos and gaudy accessories, young ladies being presented to society had to dress modestly. White symbolized their purity.

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One former debutante recalled the gown she wore, made of

white chiffon over white satin and with the huge puffed sleeves of the period. From the left shoulder to the right side of the waist there was a white velvet ribbon about three inches wide, ending in a knot at the shoulder. There was a bunch of white heather by the knot and some more around the skirt, about half way up. The skirt was down on the floor, was very full and had a small train, enough to have to be held up when dancing, and enough to make a modern dancer wild.

In terms of their attire, men were the backdrop to the ladies’ finery. They were to wear a black tailcoat with white tie, black trousers and polished shoes. It was both exciting and terrifying for girls to experience the male gaze in the pressure cooker of the ballroom.

Brooding guy

It could be uncomfortable.  Edith Wharton expressed the painful self consciusness she felt at her debut, remembering that for her

the evening was a long cold agony of shyness. All my brother’s friends asked me to dance, but I was too much frightened to accept, and cowered beside my mother in speechless misery, unable even to exchange a word with the friendly young men.

At the ball, ladies awaited the invitation of a gentleman to dance, but he was supposed to note her recognition before approaching her. The chaperone, usually the mother, hovered nearby. Dance cards were employed, and a man was never supposed to dance more than once with each partner.

ball 1860s

Wharton described a typical scene at a ball.

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.

ballroom

The cotillion, or german, was a regular feature, and involved a kind of parade of set figures, gestures and steps, all well rehearsed in advanced. Dancing would take place until midnight, when a supper would be served, then the cotillion would resume.

The debutante’s symbolic responsibilities crescendoed at the ball. She stood to the side of her mother as guests entered so that she could be presented to her elders. Here she was, finally, the product of her culture’s teachings. She stood at the precipice of a new role, one that was the inherent goal of the coming out process: to marry brilliantly and embark upon a lovely family.

gilded age family

She was moving from the societal constrictions of her father’s house to her husband’s house, with a brief, glorious moment in between as a model debutante.

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Wild Music for a Savage Girl

What wild child anthem gets your juices flowing? Curtis Mayfield’s Little Child Running Wild? Wild Thing by the Troggs? Or perhaps an oldie like Bessie Smith’s I’m Wild About that Thing? My personal favorite:  Born to Be Wild as rendered by the immortal Etta James.

etta

Whatever your taste, you can get a bunch of hits in one place when you check out the Spotify playlist I’ve put together with the help of Viking for  Savage Girl’s release in… 11 days (really? is that possible?).

Of course, these selections all appeal to our contemporary taste and would probably appall the characters in Savage Girl, who would have been more entertained by music that was quite different in a pre-Victrola, pre-modern age. To enjoy popular music in the late nineteenth century people might sing around the piano in their homes, enjoying such numbers as My Grandfather’s Clock (1876), Clementine (1863), or Home on the Range (1873). They would also enjoy some of the great composer Stephen Foster’s work, tunes such as Beautiful Dreamer (1864) or Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair (1854), which were popular throughout the second half of the 1800s.

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If they attended a ball, they would in all likelihood waltz – the most popular dance step of the nineteenth century — to compositions by Johann Strauss, Jr, who wrote the famous Blue Danube among over 400 waltzes.

I don’t think you’ll ever waltz to the Troggs. But you can try. Just click on my Spotify playlist.

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Woody Guthrie’s Resolutions

The finest list of New Year’s Resolutions to be had – or  New Years Rulins’ as he called them – penned by Woody Guthrie in 1942 at the age of 30. A few of these are far beyond me, writing a song a day for example, but I think I could benefit by staying glad and dancing better.

woodyguthrie

1. Work more and better

2. Work by a schedule

3. Wash teeth if any

4. Shave

5. Take bath

6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk

7. Drink very scant if any

8. Write a song a day

9. Wear clean clothes — look good

10. Shine shoes

11. Change socks

12. Change bed cloths often

13. Read lots good books

14. Listen to radio a lot

15. Learn people better

16. Keep rancho clean

17. Dont get lonesome

18. Stay glad

19. Keep hoping machine running

20. Dream good

21. Bank all extra money

22. Save dough

23. Have company but dont waste time

24. Send Mary and kids money

25. Play and sing good

26. Dance better

27. Help win war — beat fascism

28. Love mama

29. Love papa

30. Love Pete

31. Love everybody

32. Make up your mind

33. Wake up and fight

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Brilliant Books for Your Consideration

I hate year-end rankings. You find them in every newspaper and magazine and web site, and I generally ignore them. In fact, rankings in general rub me the wrong way. Especially when it’s books that are touted as the best, second best, etc.

These are some of my unranked favorites from the past year. In no particular order. Some of them aren’t even 2013 titles, but things I decided to take up only recently. They are all books that captured my imagination, that made me want to crack them open day after day and keep reading. Alright, I didn’t crack my Kindle open, that wouldn’t be smart.

I’m not a fast reader except when I’m on deadline, but I’m quick to throw a book across the room if the writing exasperates me. So these are selections you can be sure I really wanted to spent some time with.

The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore, 2013.

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This luminous telling of the life of Benjamin Franklin’s little sister Jane is animated by the letters the two exchanged from youth through old age, but it goes beyond biography to become a study of the arts of reading, writing, and living for eighteenth century American women.

Tenth of December, George Saunders, 2013. Eery, dark, compelling and unexpectedly humorous, these stories are to be savored even as they haunt you.

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The Master, Colm Toibin, 2010. I avoided this biography for a few years even though I heard it was fantastic, as I didn’t feel Henry James had granted me access to his head. But this intimate life is so terrifically well done that I was glad I picked it up.

Portrait of Lady, Henry James, 1881. The third time I’ve read the Master’s masterpiece, and I get something new from it with every immersion – I think this time Isabel Archer’s rise and fall meant more to me because my own daughter is about the same age as the lovely, lively, rebellious young American lady.

Stoner, John Williams, 1965.

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A new French translation of this odd, underappreciated novel has caused something of a stir in literary circles. Set in 1920s-era academia, it’s about an English professor’s slog through academia and marriage, but the writing is so refined and austere that reading his story is a transfixing experience.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick, 2010. I decided to take up this journalistic work out of book club loyalty, and I was so glad I did. The author starts with a satellite photo of the two halves of Korea by night, the north in total blackout, and goes on to tell the intimate stories of citizens who are trying to escape the horrific conditions there. Compelling and totally readable.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis, 2012. A stirring novel lays out the lives of the Shepherd family, parents and nine children, with pitch-perfect authority and grace.The Great Northern Migration of African-Americans becomes real. Does a much-talked-about book (an Oprah pick) deserve the ballyhoo? In this case, yes.

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner, 2013.

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In which a 20-something art maven and biker babe hits the downtown scene of 1970s New York City. I resisted a bit before getting sucked in to the story of a girl getting sucked in to a scene that’s perhaps not as cool as she thinks it is.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Bee Wilson, 2012. I make it a practice of dipping in to these confectionary morsels of information when I need a respite from heavier thoughts. It’s easy to give in to mini-surveys of how such day-to-day implements as cooking pots and kettles came about.

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The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, esp. “The Other Two.” Wharton’s short fiction rarely reaches the heights of her novels, but some of her attempts stick with me, like this narrative about a twice-married woman and her beleaguered third husband. So fascinating to observe his anguished humiliation at the idea that his wife has had sexual relations prior to their life together.

The Portable Edgar Allen Poe, esp. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” After visiting the Poe exhibit at the Morgan Library I went back to his writings to find that some of them were just as hypnotic and chilling as they’d been on first reading. I actually found myself terrified by a story that had first been published in 1843.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1945. Was all the brouhaha over Salinger this year (massive biography, in depth documentary, articles galore) deserved? I thought I’d better go back to Catcher. A nice little novel, I think you’ll like it.

The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan, 2013. Edgar Degas’s life intersects with those of two adolescent ballerina sisters in Belle Epoque Paris. I loved the funky details and the narrators’ voices.

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Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, 1973. Long, long ago, in the 1970s, feminism was a lens through which to view subjects like the history of medicine. This tasty fruit of that approach is something I’m drawing upon for work on a new novel, and it’s made me think about the power of women midwives in a whole new way.

Fever, Mary Beth Keane, 2013. I’d always wondered about Typhoid Mary, and this novel gave me a glimpse into her inner life – very stoic, very sad. It’s about New York, too, at the turn of the century. I found myself totally there.

I Curse the River of Time, Per Petterson, 2010.

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I’m bringing this one to my book group for discussion and I’m pretty sure they’ll like it. In 1989 Norway, a man in his late 30s has lost his way – his mother is dying and he revisits his youthful experiences to try to achieve some foothold on his present. Sound dark? It is, but I assure you Arvid’s story is heart rending.

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, 2012. If I’d known how dazzled I would be by these interconnected stories I’d have jumped on the book when it first came out. The prose offers ribald, irrepressible poetry about the power of love.

The Last Banquet, Jonathan Grimwood, 2013.

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The sexy Frenchman in this foodie novel braises a wolf whose neck he has broken in the woods, corresponds with Voltaire and becomes Lord Master of the Menagerie at Versailles. Historical fiction at its sensual best.

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The Spirit of Electricity

I finally saw “The Spirit of Electricity,” the costume worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II at an outrageous fancy dress party she gave with her railroad tycoon husband that was one of the highlights of the Gilded Age in New York City. Textiles perish, and you don’t often get to see the famous gowns of the past. Mrs. Vanderbilt was always going to be a static image on a photo card, fetching but more than a little cracked.

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II

Born Alva Erskine Smith, Mrs. Vanderbilt orchestrated the ball in 1883 to christen the new lodgings erected for the couple at 1 West 57th Street. Theirs was the largest house ever built in Manhattan. In staging one of the most elaborate balls of the time, Alva assured the Vanderbilt family a perpetual place on Mrs. Astor’s 400, the list of New York’s social elite.

The New York Times covered the party perhaps less objectively than it would today. “The Vanderbilt ball has agitated New-York society more than any social event that has occurred here in many years,” read the article that ran the day after, on March 27th. “Since the announcement that it would take place…scarcely anything else has been talked about. It has been on every tongue and a fixed idea in every head. It has disturbed the sleep and occupied the waking hours of social butterflies, both male and female, for over six weeks, and has even, perhaps, interfered to some extent with that rigid observance of Lenten devotions which the Church exacts.”

In advance of the evening, quadrilles were relentlessly practiced, costumes were tailored, quantities of hair powder were  laid in. The party was a showstopper. The Times reporter exclaimed about the “garden in the forest” where guests took their supper, and the phalanx of cops that kept gawkers at bay outside the mansion as carriages began to arrive after 10:30 or so. We have no pictures of the hordes with their noses pressed up against the windows, but the fashionables inside had their images captured for posterity by society photographers.

Mrs. Elliot F. Shepard

Each guest’s getup was wilder than the next.

Mr. Isaac Bell

Jesters, Romams, Mary Antoinette, the Four Seasons – it was a motley group.

Mrs. Arthur Paget

I thought that the souvenir photos were all that remained of the event.

Then I visited Gilded New York, an exhibit that is currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York. The show includes the decorative arts, some paintings and some fashion. Yes, the end of the nineteenth century is big in Manhattan at the moment, with this enterprise and Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America at the New-York Historical Society. If you are a fan of ostentation, now is the time to put aside workaday worries and immerse yourself in a level of excess that is hard to fathom today.

The items on display were those that would have figured big in ball culture. Images of the grand Fifth Avenue houses set the stage, most long torn down, commissioned for the new industrial elites. By 1892, 27% of the nation’s millionaires lived in New York City, more than 1,100 of them.

Many of their mansions, like the Vanderbilt house, had a castle-like, European flavor. The structure where the 1883 ball took place was a model for the immense confection inhabited by the Delegate family in Savage Girl.

Vanderbilt home

With their newfound wealth, the millionaires bought jewelry at Tiffany, gold, enamel, diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. But they also went to Tiffany for other accessories, like this card case made of frog leather in 1900.

frog case

They had a taste for the over the top, like a decanter and cup fabricated of Murano Glass.

Murano glass

Long kid gloves were a necessity for a ball-going lady.

kid gloves

When they were feeling rustic they might show off a different style of ware, say the one decorated with an alligator, snake and lizard – this one belonged to Montana copper baron William Clark, one of the Fifth Avenue denizens.

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All, it seemed, was glossy, elegant, costly. You can read the plush lifestyle in the portraiture, like the depiction of Helen Virginia Sands at age 19, shortly before her marriage to a successful Wall Street trader.

de la mar pic

What I found most affecting, though, was the golden silk gown, “The Spirit of Electricity,” here in front of me, for real. It had emerged from the black-and-white photo card. Heavily embroidered in beaten gilt, it had silver tinsel filaments that lifted like small wings above the shoulders. Imported, of course, from Worth in Paris.

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That’s a Herter Company jewelry cabinet in the background, for you Herter furniture fans. The dress survived because it was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s daughter Countess Laszlo Szechenyi (neé Gladys Vanderbilt).

More affecting, even, the yellow silk stockings and pumps that Alva wore with the fancy gown.

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This opulence of the distant past was real, something I could almost touch.

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