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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Making Book

Frank Stella’s splashy, enormous constructions line the walls of the lobby where my book publisher has its offices. Three collages, to be precise, of mixed media on a base of etched magnesium. Standing in front of one, you have to crane your neck to see the top of the piece. Standing there, I try to imagine creating something so large as the exploding Stella’s, so imposing. My mind wanders – outside is a dumpling truck with the snazzy legend: “Who’s Your Edamame?” It’s a New York morning, and art and food and commerce jostle for attention.

stella

Books, books, time to think about books. Or one book: my book. Stella’s work depicts the inside of my head as I take the elevator to the fourth floor. We’re going to talk about how to introduce Savage Girl to the world. How can I describe the feeling? Heart-pounding excitement. Trepidation. All shades in between.

Savage Girl comes out March 6th. And all the people at our meeting, editor, publicist, social media pro, literary agent – all of them are invested in making sure that my novel reaches a wide reading public.

So we talk about strategies. Bound gallleys, called ARCs in the business (for Advance Reading Copies) – who has received them so far, who gets them next? Print is no long king when it comes to reviewers – we want people to blab online about the book, on Goodreads, “where bookworms congregate,” as someone at the meeting says, on blogs, everywhere. We want the twitter-sphere to sing its praises. We want the people who read this blog – yes, you! – to get ahold of a copy and make their friend read it too. We want it to be consumed and consumed some more. Come up for air! Someone will say. It’s time to do the dishes. To go to the dentist!  But I can’t possibly, you say, I am too immersed in the adventures of Hugo and Bronwyn.

Savage Girl cover-final

Booksellers who received their early copy are liking Savage Girl, it seems. (Some Hollywood producers are too – shush, don’t jinx it by talking about it.) Authors have weighed in with comments that will appear on the back of the dust jacket. I like this one from Da Chen, the lyrical novelist:

The best historical fiction brings the reader back to a bygone era and  the depth of humanity then.  Jean Zimmerman does all that and more in her elegantly written new novel.  I simply could not put down this this tale of sweet and painful love, of a savage girl and her encounter with modernity.

All I have to do between now and March is a hundred things. Suffice it to say I’ll be writing more here and elsewhere about the Gilded Age, sharing what I learned in the process of researching Savage Girl. Debutante rituals, fashion, feasting, feral children, nineteenth century medical practices, mansions that are architectural marvels… I hope that people who don’t know much about the period will find out something new, and that I’ll satisfy Gilded Age aficionados’  yearning for more on the subject.

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Say you enter your favorite independent bookstore, where the management has carefully curated its collection. You inspect the table when you come in the door and find scads of titles that tantalize you, that beg to be picked up and perused. It may seem that they found their way there by some kind of magic. Not so. Behind every glossy jacket is a team of geniuses who have pondered and sleuthed and brainstormed a way to bring that wonderful volume to you. Like an explosion, like the mixed-media Stella on the wall, the planning all comes together to unveil a bound book.

Riding the subway uptown, I notice a man standing next to me with headphones. Dancing, and not so demurely, either. He is rocking and rolling. He is happy. So am I. I remember a couplet by one of my favorite poets, another Frank, Frank O’Hara, who made New York City the star of many of his poems in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

How funny you are today New York

like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime

Sometimes, when you’re in Manhattan, everything can seem so right. I get off the train at my stop and look from one side to the other, not sure which direction to head on the platform. A woman in black-framed glasses and long black hair touches me on the arm. I don’t even have to ask. She points with her finger and softly, kindly says, This way. This way.

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Thank You for Reading

I am thankful.

This is a post about this blog.

At Thanksgiving, in a lot of families, a blessing is performed before the turkey comes on in its golden, crispy glory. The blessing consists of going around the table with every guest sharing some thing they are especially grateful for. On the occasions I’ve taken part in this ritual, I’ve sometimes had to squelch the urge to say something slightly comical or snarky. I don’t know why, perhaps because the whole thing seemed so self serious. Real thanks seem quieter, more internal, perhaps.

Now, with a few days before us until we’ll be stuffed with stuffing, with a clear head, I want to be serious.

I am grateful, deeply grateful, to those of you who read this blog.

When people ask what my site is all about, I say different things. It’s called Blog Cabin, and it’s about living in a circa 1800 home in a thoroughly modern world, and the time travel that allows for. Sometimes I call it a personal magazine. A diary. A cultural commentary. It’s about the past as a living, breathing entity. All about history and art and nature and literature… An author blog, as I have one novel about to come out and one just in the rearview.

What it really is, is playtime. Writing books, of course, is hard work. (If you’re doing it right.) Writing this blog has given me a chance to dabble in the things that absorb me in my book writing life, but on a more finite scale, with pleasure at the foremost – yes, history and art and nature and literature and… a pogo stick championship?

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It was hot July and the contestants soared. You could taste the adrenaline.

Writing for you has given me a reason to go on adventures that you might not take, even if you had the chance. Or perhaps you would, like my search for an infant saguaro cactus at a botanical garden in Scottsdale, Arizona, with a beaming guide, but you couldn’t get there that day.

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I’ve taken myself to a Victorian waltz class and tea.

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To a Broadway disco-play, and to a euphoria-inducing Brahms recital. And to a dramatic dance performance en plein air, at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.

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I’ve plumbed the depths of the 20-something psyche, because I have a young adult close to my heart. Instagramming is their life.

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They’re fascinating animals, as are husbands, and mine hitchhikes along with me from time to time.

As are dogs. Mine is inscrutable, but adds flavor to the mix.

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And writers.  I’ve loved writing about Gertrude Stein.

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I’ve shared many favorite recipes, like the one for Marcella Hazan’s braised pork in milk.

Observed motorcycle pirates on the loose in NYC. With some history about pirates intertwined, of course.

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A rowdy pig festival in upstate New York.

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Explored a local farm on an enchanted evening, just as dusk fell.

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Learned about the power of graffiti at the late, great 5Pointz. Got my leg cast tagged there, too.

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And witnessed the unlikely beauties of slime mold in a pristine nature preserve.

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It’s been my pleasure to gather these treasures and offer them to you, and your great generosity has been receiving them from me. So thank you. I’m looking forward to many more adventures.

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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.

ball

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.

quatzarts2

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.

Vikings

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

incroyab.e

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.

currier

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.

Mrs.-Bradley-Martin

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.

0070

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

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Natasha and Pierre on Broadway

Well, yes, only in New York, sure. An electro-pop opera in a night club. In a tent. On a parking lot. In Times Square.

On line outside Kazino supper club, on a Wednesday night, we wait in the cold.

cold

There are many sweet and stylish young couples.

couple

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812  takes place two centuries before us. A young theatrical wizard named Dave Malloy concocted the musical production. Will there be relevance in the enterprise?

A handsome man in a Tolstoy tee shirt waits for admission.

Gil:Leo

The company’s names appear on sheet metal inside the entryway. You know you’re not in Kansas anymore.

company

Inside, cocktail tables. Grey Goose available at $240 the bottle. Hot pierogies materialize, and short glasses of pink borscht that look like votive candles.

A big babe of a man called Royce strides around acting the hostess. Cossack hat, fur slouched over the shoulders, in a leopard skirt. Welcoming everyone.

Royce

There are voluptuous wine-colored curtains all around, hung with “vintage” paintings, including one of Napolean.

Nap

The actors prance onto the floor, belting it out. Suddenly, the show has begun.

There’s a leading lady straight out of Julliard, who really knows how to warble.

natasha17f-2-web

Tolstoy would say the actresses are “nude” because they have bare shoulders. They range the room along with the dashing young actors; the scene changes from the opera to a drawing room to a gypsy lair. Lovers Natasha and Andre are parted when he goes off to war, Natasha is seduced by Anatole, then finally forgiven by Pierre. A simple plot delivered with much gnashing of teeth, tears and sexy dancing. The audience is given egg-shaped shakers to accompany the musicians.

183792455The finale has Pierre singing a haunting tune to the Great Comet of 1812, represented by one of the night club’s old-fashioned chandeliers. It’s  goose-bump-making, breathtaking.

chandeliers

Did I mention the play’s based on War and Peace?

Only in New York. And Moscow.

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Victorian Waltz and Tea

Writing a novel in which Gilded Age debutantes dance with their swains in the gaslit ballrooms of fashionable New York made me want to get some nineteenth century dance moves under my belt. Or, rather, under my crinolines. So I brought my best Tigger kicks in to Manhattan for an afternoon of 1-2-3, 1-2-3.

Tigger kicks

Susan de Guardiola, our elegant yet earthy instructor, came down from Connecticut. She generally teaches what she calls Jane Austen classes – picture Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, sashaying down the line, all aglow.

keira

I always preferred Matthew Macfadyen in that movie. Does he show up at any of Susan’s classes? She teaches not only English country dancing but about 12 other kinds and is a true authority in her field, with a website called Capering& Kickery  that gives all kinds of background on Victorian and Regency-era dance.

“If everyone’s good enough,” she told us at the start, “we’ll progress to jumping.” Such, I will tell you now, was not to be. It was baby steps for many of us, even as we behaved very well and tried very hard.

class

The last time I waltzed was in seventh grade cotillion, wearing a micro-mini dress and short white gloves. I loved it. But that was a long time ago. And a far cry from a tiny dance floor in the back room of a tile shop, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.

ballroom

Today, some women wore black dance shoes and a man came in wearing a steampunk-style leather top hat. You don’t see that every day on the streets of New York. “Shall I put my hair up because I’ll get all hot and sweaty?” asked a curly-haired woman. “I usually do,” said Susan.

This class was offered under the auspices of the New York Nineteenth Century Society, an outfit that takes seriously its mission: it  “unites historians, scholars, artists, philosophers, dreamers, and impresarios inspired by the 19th century.” Recently they had a Nineteenth Century Extravaganza, for which everyone put on their full Victorian regalia. Next up is an archery event. Yes! Perhaps I’ll attend. Savage Girl is an expert archer, as were many young ladies of the late 1800s.

archers

“The 1880s, 1890s were the root of modern ballroom dance,” said Susan. It turns out that the waltz changed seven or eight times in the course of its development, becoming faster, closer, more stylized. The dip back we expect from the female partner now didn’t used to exist.

susan

“I’ll tell you the secret of this kind of dancing,” said Susan. “It works if you do it on the balls of your feet.”

1801wals

“When this waltz gets going,” she said, “it flies around the room.” She might have been a tad optimistic.

This was a lesson in shoulder blades. The man should place his hand on the woman’s left shoulder blade (“that’s the sharp thing sticking out of her back,” said Susan) though in Victorian times when everyone wore corsets and your posture was therefore better, your partner could put his hand farther down your back. The woman holds her left hand against the man’s right shoulder, above his chest, to help push him around during the turns.

We learned the gavotte glide, a slide to the right followed by a turn, and we learned the importance of leading with your toe, Victorian style. Susan suggested we lean in and not worry about the various “bits” of us that might touch. We passed partners around the circle, dancing with utter and complete strangers, experiencing waves of cologne, perspiration, different kinds of breath, good and not-so-good manners. Everyone tried hard. I got one partner, Jake, a couple of times, and we shared laughs over each other’s clumsiness. He suggested we hold a hand behind us, as I might do holding a bunch of petticoats.

hands cocked

Jake high fived me when we came to a halt semi-successfully. Very Victorian.

jake

Lesson over, Gil and I proceeded outside, where a young dancer waiting for a tango class advised me that rubber soles such as the ones I had on might cost me an ankle. “I hope you keep it up,” she told me and Gil kindly. “Maybe I’ll see you on Dancing with the Stars.”

On the street, I asked Susan how to improve. “Practice five minutes every day,” she said. “Go to a supermarket and practice down all those wide aisles.” You don’t need to do it all at once. “Sleep on your lesson,” she said, “and you will do better the next day.”

We hadn’t had enough Victorian flavor so we went afterward for high tea at a place called Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon. It was on the first floor of a Gramercy Park hotel, The Inn at Irving Place, carved out of two adjoining brownstones that date back to 1834. Washington Irving was said to have spent some time in a house down the street, enhancing the old-fashioned aura of the neighborhood. The online reviews I read said a man would not be welcome at the establishment, so of course Gil wanted to go.

jz tea

Lights were turned down low and the whole effect was gracious and mellow and ladylike, even if there were a few male interlopers.

tea room

We chose our freshly steeped tea from a menu of 27 varieties. The “Lady Mendl,” which I selected, was hot and heavenly, especially after waltzing for two hours.

teacup

Darjeeling scented with bergamot, it was named after Lady Mendl herself – none other than the society woman Elsie de Wolfe, one of the first people to make her fame as an interior decorator. It’s said she had the expression “never complain, never explain” stitched on her throw pillows.

Elsiedewolfe

There was an amuse bouche consisting of a butternut squash tart with crème fraiche. Tea sandwiches. We were rolling. Everyone in the room appeared happy, or rather, high. High on hot, fragrant tea.

We reminisced about the banyan I made Gil one Christmas. Banyans are the “exotic” silk robes colonial men wore when they were at home at leisure, with their temporarily unperiwigged pates covered in caps.

banyan

There were, of course, scones and clotted cream. I ate some of the cream on a spoon to make sure it was property clotted.

scones

As if that wasn’t sweet enough we had millefeuille cake with more cream, and chocolate-covered strawberries. In my opinion the strawberries are a specious addition, since a century ago you couldn’t get the kind of giant fruit they dip now. Not that I’m complaining.

choc strawberry

“It’s good to do something you don’t ordinarily do,” I opined with Victorian superciliousness. “It makes you grow.”

“It makes you groan,” said Gil, ready to go back to the Cabin, put his feet up and his banyan on.

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The Virtue of Patience

I arrive nice and early,  just like I like it, to see Patience Chaitezvi. Grey light is wafting in the Sunday afternoon windows of the old converted brewery, framing the mysterious-looking stone Palisades in the distance. Curious-on-Hudson, which describes its mission as “crowd sourced education in the Rivertowns,” is hosting the musical performance that is about to start.

palisades windows

Folding chairs are lined up just so, and in the hush it feels as though I am waiting with a crowd of ghosts. There is only the faint sound of a piano sonata being played in a studio on the floor below.

chairs

Patience, a master mbira player, dancer, and Zimbabwe cultural expert, is visiting New York for the fourth time. She is teaching her instrument and teaching about her culture. Most of all she is proving that to be a genius on the mbira you don’t have to be a man.

patience

In Zimbabwe, where Patience grew up, Shona culture doesn’t readily admit women to the ranks of the important ceremonial musicians. “Mbira music is a cell phone to call the ancestral spirits,” she explains affably in a break from the music. She learned the iron-pronged thumb piano from a brother when she was 11 and was soon recruited to play with the big boys. She was good enough to overturn the conventional proprieties — to have a woman seated among men is seen as unequivocably wrong, she said. But she was exceptional – she also has a BA in divinity and teaches high school history. (Playing during ceremonies is still not allowed during menses.) She knows all about Shona traditions, and tells us about ceremonies where wise people beckon mermaid spirits with buckets of salt water.

mbira

On this day in America, she harmonizes with the members of mbiraNYC, my friend Nora’s ensemble. Mbira is a sacred instrument but it is also healing. And it is played for entertainment. As the foursome play, they sing, and Patience begins to softly ululate, smiling as she does it. I pretty much love it when anybody ululates.

As Renee Zellwegger would say, She had me at ululate.

hosho shot

“Sometimes you listen to mbira and find your worries gone,” says Patience. “How? The spirits…” She wants us to get up out of our chairs. We’re New Yorkers, weary from our lives, our obligations, weary of feeling weary. We hang back in those black folding chairs as thought we’re the ghosts I thought I saw before.

“If you can talk, you can sing,” says Patience. “If you can walk, you can dance.”

Patience rises from her chair and moves into the center of the room. The song is called Meat From the Forest. I beckon to my old friend Amy, sitting under the windows, and we hit the floor. Stomping alongside Patience, swaying, clapping. The room rises, 40 or so of us, and moves, led by Patience. By the time I sit down I am perspiring and my toe is sore, but that mbira music must indeed be healing, because being on my feet feels better than it’s felt in months.

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On Tiptoe

It’s a pleasant thing to be young, and have ten toes, quoth Robert Louis Stevenson.

Well, it’s good to have ten working toes at any age, I would say, as someone who is coming down the home stretch from foot surgery with a big toe that is being extremely uncooperative. It’s stiff, sore, and doesn’t want to help my foot walk smoothly. You will recognize me if you see me limping awkwardly toward you, my pins distinctly out of whack.

f0698_bigtoe

A physical therapist has been assigned to fiddle with, manipulate and macerate my hallux to get it where it has to go. Heat is being applied. Cold has been furnished. Exercises, ones that would bore to death a soul with healthy feet – a repeated ballet releve, rocking, wiggling—now earn my intensest interest. I have learned to pick up a marble with my toes and deposit it in a plastic bowl. A great achievement, don’t you know.

I looked to the Poetry Foundation for inspiration. A great poem called An Exchange between the Fingers and the Toes by the English wordsmith John Fuller describes a comical oneupsmanship between the sets of digits. In an interview, Fuller once explained that “a good poem takes some irresolvable complication, worries it to death like a dog with a bone, and leaves it still unresolved. The pleasure of the poem lies entirely in the worrying, the verbal growling and play. Life itself stubbornly remains entirely like a bone.”

john-fuller

In this verse, which speaks eloquently to my current state, the crafty fingers accuse the klutzy hallux at one point of being a “futile pig,” but the toes come back with eventual triumph:

Despite your fabrications and your cunning,   

The deepest instinct is expressed in running.

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Lincoln Center Whirl and Twirl

It is about the dance. It is about the crowd. It is about the dance.

The dance, choreographed by Mark Dendy, is called “Ritual Cyclical,” and it takes place at Lincoln Center, at the north end of its outdoor plaza, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Not at the fountain. That would be too conventional.

fountain

It takes place at the pool, the rectangular, shallow reflecting pool crowned with a sculpture by Henry Moore.

We know the dance is supposed to mysteriously start out of nowhere so as soon as Josefa and I get there we start looking for signs.

It’s hard, because New York is all signs. We have heard there will be some eighty dancers in this flash-mob-ish piece, so anyone could be a performer. Everyone is facing the pool, then someone dressed in business clothes will bolt behind you, a hand on your shoulder. A dancer.

A disembodied voice welcomes us: How to see this piece? Fluidly, moving along, circulating, there is no front, it’s all around, constantly shifting, and changing, and the audience needs to change with it.

We talk about cameras. Josefa has a great camera and a better eye, and most of these are her images.

josefa camera

How to get the best shot here, where good shots are difficult? I complain that I can’t get a long-distance picture and Josefa tells me a little about the debate over the telephoto lens. In the world of photography, she says, there is thinking going on about what is the responsible way to document something. Is it intimate in a way that is not so good to shoot from far away, rather than close to the subject? The telephoto might be dishonest.

Around peoples’ heads, around  peoples’ cameras, we see people holding their hands up to the sky, waggling their fingers.

hands

It’s as if they are hailing a space ship. The music of the Kronos Quartet soars from speakers all around. It’s six o’clock, just past the afternoon and still not dusk. An hour of expectation, and this piece seems to be a lot about expectation. We’re all crushed up against one another, against hair and shoulders, bellies, hips. It isn’t so bad, strangely.

summer new yorker

New Yorkers in their summer finery.

red glasses

The woman with red glasses has a green tatto of a number on the back of her neck. Josefa always wonders what the numbers mean.

Kids in fatigues already barked at spectators to stand back, clear the area. But the crowds surge.

camouflage

There’s a bum sitting on a concrete bench. Should he be here? Really. Harrumph.

bum sitting

Now girls in white are caressing the water, dripping it across their bodies. A beautiful white-shirted man removes a golden crown from his head.

white girls in water

The dance has begun.

It proceeds on all surfaces, all around, people writhing and twirling, in all manner of costume.

pool dancer

A young man and woman splash and play and court in the middle of the water. She goes piggyback. Up on the green grass plane above the pool, an audience of three dancers stretch their bodies, do what dancers do.

white boy and girl

Then the crowd shifts to the grove of small trees just to the south. Human forms in blue, grey trunks. Josefa: It must be nice to dance against trees like that.

blue dancers

They collapse, and other dancers erupt, doing Latin steps next door.

We have a realization. The bum is a dancer. He has appeared everywhere, and is not an interoper, except in our consciousness.

bum blur

His clothes are dirty, he picks up trash from the ground. A dirty dancer. Josefa takes pictures as he twirls, relishing his intransigence.

bum:can

Is he homeless? a man asks me.

No, he’s a dancer.

The homeless dance? he says.

For a finale there is a stage in front of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and American tunes: The Battle Cry of Freedom, Dixieland, Elvis, Hendrix.

USA! USA! The performers yell. The crowd presses up close yet everyone gives each other room, room to breathe.

boy:shoulders

We can smell sweat – the dancers’? Our own?

iwo

They hoist a flag a la Iwo Jima. American uniforms, then, wow, the vogue-ing, marching dancers strip to their briefs and pitch their shirts and pants out to the audience like rock stars.

clothes

We don’t care, we’re New Yorkers, but still it’s pretty cool.

Mark Dendy told The New Yorker, “Every day, every New Yorker comes into contact with about two hundred thousand other people, and they all depend on each other. So in this piece we do this thing called New York City together.”

Do they ever.

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