Category Archives: Love, Fiercely

Stop by My Author Page and Say Hi

My Facebook author page has a brand new cover – it quotes Library Journal saying that Savage Girl is “A fanciful and occasionally surreal take on Gilded Age New York.”

And hey, I just reached 100 likes, a figure I’m a little proud of. But I’d like more likes, more! And more visitors. Come see reviews and interviews as they come in, as well as offers for galley giveaways. Savage Girl doesn’t hit stores until March 6 but there’s a lot going on before then.

I’m always trying to put up something fresh, not only about my books (Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Love Fiercely and others) but about writing, reading, and living in such a way as to make those things possible. How do you water an idea to make a book come up? Always trying to figure that out.


Something else: please post on my page! I would love to hear what you’re thinking about.


Filed under Culture, Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely, Poetry, Publishing, Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

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

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.

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

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

Sargent and the Newlywed Stokeses

John Singer Sargent painted Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes in 1897, during the couple’s honeymoon – a classic portrait and an icon of the time. The three of them spent weeks in his studio, with Sargent occasionally taking breaks to pound out tunes on his grand piano. The great painter was at the height of his career and almost too busy to make time for them, but an influential family friend had commissioned the work as a wedding gift.

Sargent in Studio

Not everyone liked  it. One critic called the painting “too clever for its own good.”


Bringing the portrait into existence had been a challenge for Sargent. According to I.N. Phelps Stokes, newlywed Edith “sat to” Sargent 25 times, posing over and over agin in a blue silk gown. Sargent finally got fed up with the formality and said “I want to paint you as you are.” Edith had come in from the hot London streets that day wearing informal attire, clothes drastically different than the diaphanous gowns the painter’s models typically posed in, and she had a fresh, dewy look about her cheeks.

In other words, she was sweating.


Come tonight to see more pictures and hear more nuggets about the Newton and Edith Stokes, their portrait, and their remarkable lives – Dominican Academy, 44 East 68th Street, bet. Park and Madison, at 6pm, sponsored by the Victorian Society of New York. Free.

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

Victorian Society Oct. 8 Talk

Please join me tomorrow evening, Tuesday October 8th, at 6 pm, to hear a free talk I’m giving for the Victorian Society of New York on Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance. The evening will take place at a school called the Dominican Academy that is housed in a historic mansion at 44 East 68th Street, bet. Park and Madison, in NYC. Get there early for a seat!

Edith & Isaac

For a little more info — according to the organization’s lecture schedule, my presentation:

“will discuss the life, times and passion of two remarkable individuals living in a remarkable age. Her book Love Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance is both a cultural history of America on the cusp of modernity and a biography of two of the era’s most interesting characters, Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes and his wife, Edith Minturn Stokes, whose double portrait by John Singer Sargent hangs in the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing. Love, Fiercely immerses readers in the world of the Astors and Vanderbilts, the “uppertens” and the “fashionables” in New York City and its satellite resorts. Zimmerman will also tell the parallel story of the couple’s reform work and of Mr. Stokes’s monumental tome, The Iconography of Manhattan Island.


I’ll show lots of great pictures and probably digress quite a bit from these topics, I hope enjoyably. And I’ll sign books after my talk, of course. So come if you can.


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

Wizard Sticks and Tree Guards

Some magic has come into my life. I am not a person who favors yard ornaments in the vein of gnomes, glass spheres or plywood ladies with polkadotted underpants. And I’ve never even read The Hobbit.

But I have fallen in love with a Wizard Stick.

garden wiz cu cu

It owes part of its charm to the fact that it was a gift from old friends. Part, also, to the chunky blue-green “crystal” grasped in its iron claw. The Wizard Stick will bring the rains to my vegetable garden, I am sure, when planted facing in the proper direction and with the ceremony that behooves its installation. Gil’s going to jump around minus his undershorts while I chant for precipitation.

But there is something else. The company that created the Wizard Stick, Tringalli Iron Works, fabricates the totems only as a sidelight to its regular business. A business to which street tree guards are central, and have been since Liborio Tringalli started the enterprise in Tribeca in the 1920s.


Yes, tree guards do matter. Here is one you probably have overlooked every time you ambled down a New York City sidewalk. Eighteen-inch iron hoops all around. Shielding a little root-friendly plot that is blessedly feces-free.

street guard 1

Edith Wharton showed Lily Bart roaming around near Grand Central Station in the humid heat of a Manhattan summer afternoon, desperate to find some cool relief.

“‘Oh dear, I’m so hot and thirsty—and what a hideous place New York is!’ She looked despairingly up and down the dreary thoroughfare. ‘Other cities put on their best clothes in summer, but New York seems to sit in its shirtsleeves.’ Her eyes wandered down one of the side-streets. ‘Some one has had the humanity to plant a few trees over there. Let us go into the shade.’

“’I am glad my street meets with your approval,’ said Selden as they turned the corner.”

In 1905, when House of Mirth was published, a battle was underway over New York’s street trees.  The island was still nostalgically remembered as a haven, a bower of oak, chestnut, pine and cedar, but now the trees had been almost all torn down for new construction. They were inconvenient to development.

Madison and 55th Street in 1870.


I wrote about the transformation in my book Love, Fiercely, that took place during that period.  I.N. Phelps Stokes despaired over the change:

Old, bucolic Manhattan was vanishing, buried in the smooth cement of the new. By the turn of the century, the leafy streets of lower New York had lost their shade.

In an incisive history called The Creative Destruction of Manhattan 1900-1940 author Max Page charts the demise of the New York street tree. At a certain point the trees could be counted on one hand. I love this 1913 photo of a woman he included in his book, walking by the sole remaining tree at Fifth Avenue and 37th Strteet.


And the pear tree planted by Peter Stuyvesant at 1oth Street and Third Avenue. The city mourned when it was killed after being mowed into by a dray in 1867; it had stood for 200 years.


Yes, there was a love of trees, and 317,166 were planted in New York State on Arbor Day between 1889 and 1909. But in 1909 only one in five of those trees still stood. A Tree Planting Association sprang up to organize around replenishing the city’s streets, with a classic Progressive fervor, augmenting the efforts of New York’s Parks Department. The fact that we have any street trees at all today is probably due to their efforts.

And to those tree guards. Tringalli has made 125,000 of them since 1923.

Tringal 2

Today, the city’s plan is to plant more than 200,000 new street trees over a decade (street trees area  subset of city trees in general, which include parks, yards, etc). There are upwards of half a million street trees now. MillionTreesNYC is playing an important part. Saplings come from three different nurseries in Maryland, Buffalo and long Island. These are Maples.


People who care about trees can even become Citizen Pruners, taking a five-session course and getting a license that lasts for five years. A friend of mine has become an arborist, a new profession, who advises construction companies on the health of trees.

The New York Parks Department keeps count of species, and has identified 168, with the top specimens the London Plane Tree, the Littleleaf Linden, the Norway maple, the Green Ash and the Callery Pear. And there is always the ubiquitous, sometimes stinky ginkgo biloba, with its pretty fan-shaped leaves. Long thought to be extinct, the ginkgo was rediscovered during Victorian times in hidden groves in China.

All of them need a tree guard.


A Wizard Stick might be nice, too. Some magic, to keep a tree alive when the chips are down.


I’m not parting with mine.


Filed under History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely, Nature, Photography

Writing From the Nitty Gritty

Reading The New York Times today, I came across a story about archivists in the city, what a rare breed they are and what their jobs are like, and I envied them. “Specialists who snatch objects from oblivion,” as  Alison Leigh Cowan, the author of the piece, describes them, these men and women get to immerse themselves in the nitty gritty of life in a different time and place, continually. It’s an activity that as a history-obsessed writer I only get to spend part of my time doing. The archivists profiled preserve everything from teacups, to Meyer Lansky’s marriage license, to the see-through panties of Gypsy Rose Lee.


I have favorites among archival collections.

The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum has on view those myriad fine art and decorative art objects that are not currently displayed in the more conventional Museum galleries. It’s a funny sort of place, an open secret, accessible to the public yet off the beaten track. Objects have been arranged in huge glass vitrines according to material (e.g. furniture and woodwork, glass, ceramics, and metalwork).


It’s a fine place to find a dozen nearly identical andirons, if you’re in the mood to see andirons, or a hundred sterling silver tumblers, or any number of porringers of yesteryear. Oh, and paintings. Any item the museum can’t find a place for at the moment gets tucked away here, in plain sight, and that includes some wonderful canvases. Even such crowd pleasers as John Singer Sargent’s Madame X sometimes cool their heels here. One day I turned a corner and came across one of my favorite paintings that I’d never seen in person, the portait of nine-year-old Daniel Verplanck by John Singleton Copley, painted in 1771.


It’s not the only boy/squirrel portrait Copley painted – there’s one in Boston, too, at the Museum of Fine Arts, a fine one, of  Henry Pelham, painted in 1765.


But here I had what amounted to a private viewing, just me and the boy and his pet. It seems funny now, but keeping squirrels as pets was commonplace through to the twentieth century. Before the family dog, the family squirrel. Here we have the Ridgely brothers in 1862, Howard and his younger brother Otho, the children of a wealthy landowning family in Maryland.

squirrel boys

I like to visit another kind of archive when I’m at the Met, as well. Next door to the imposing Temple of Dendur is a tiny warren of display cases that contain long rolls of linen 2000 years old, mummy linen. Here is a scrap.

mummy linen

I don’t know whether the fabric has been unrolled from the embalmed corpses or is waiting to enfold them, but it is incredible to be inches away from these archivally preserved Middle Kingdom textiles. Only slightly frayed and browned by time. Magic.

Another archival highlight. I once ventured up to the attic of the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, with the well-known rose window designed by Henri Matisse – his last work of art, dedicated on Mother’s Day 1956.

henri matisse rose window at union church

There under the eaves lay the physical archives of Historic Hudson Valley, the nonprofit organization that runs the church and other properties in Westchester County. I was there to view a painting of an elite young Mary Philipse by John Wollaston, for my book The Women of the House.


I was, luckily, sanctioned to browse around the other objects displayed on the shelves while the archivist inspected various historical maps. Some intricately decorated colonial pottery, some other paintings, including one, provenance unknown, of waves crashing against the shore at the southern tip of Manhattan around 300 years ago. And what really got me, a collection of pastel silk slippers in pristine condition, perfect for the fancy parties of the eighteenth century. All these things just breathing there, largely ignored by the world, protected in their secret little alcove atop a church.

The Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library, when I went there to do research on I.N. Phelps Stokes for Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance, always seemed like it existed underwater, dim and calm, holding tight to its treasures. It contains over 29,000 linear feet of archival material in over 3,000 collections, of which I was accessing 36 boxes of yellowed paper.

There is something gratifying about examining letters that have not been paid attention to in a hundred years. Being the first to take them out and handle them. The papers that interested me concerned the architect/philanthropist/collector’s epic Iconography of Manhattan Island. I had already done research at the library of the New-York Historical society, where I discovered a note from Stokes imploring an influential friend for contacts to help publicize his book.

stokes p.r. letter

Also something of a gas was his 1913 campaign, revealed in a fundraising letter, to get an educational farm installed in Central Park. His sister Ethel had the idea of equipping “a diminutive group of buildings, consisting of a tiny cottage of four rooms, a cow-shed and dairy for two cows, and a chicken house for twenty-five chickens.” Everything could be “inspected through glazed openings without entering the buildings,” wrote Stokes. A negative editorial in The New York Times helped shoot down the plan.

Petting squirrels was still popular in Central Park at that time, I have found.

Central Park squirrel

I recall the day at the NYPL Manuscripts room when I found a small envelope containing two thumb-sized black-and-white photographs depicting the very first street plan of New York, drawn in 1660.


They were snapped by Stokes’ researcher behind a guard’s back at the Florence villa where the map was housed, and sent back over the sea to his boss in New York City. Stokes must have leapt out of his chair (also in the New York Public Library, where he had a private second-floor office) when he saw those first pics in 1916.

A friend of mine, the curator Thomas Mellins,  produced Celebrating 100 Years, an exhibit for the New York Public Library that brought some of its best archival artifacts out of mothballs. Did you know that this book-and-paper institution in in the possession of the walking stick Virginia Woolf had with her when she waded into the water on her last day? It floated to the surface. The Library also has such objets as Jack Kerouac’s typewriter, yes, the one on which he wrote On the Road. And my personal favorite, perhaps because I had just been reading David Copperfield when I saw it — Dickens’ personal copy of David Copperfield, the one he used when touring for the book, pocket-sized, complete with his penciled-in notations for emphasis. There is also the genius’ letter opener, topped with the taxidermied paw belonging to Dickens’ cat, Bob.

letter opener

The pleasure of handling archival materials is an emotion that you can’t experience second-hand, unfortunately. You have to be there, deep amid the tarnished porringers and the satin slippers. But there is a website I like a lot that gives you snippets of historical artifacts. Slate features a department called The Vault: Historical Treasures, Oddities, and Delights.  You can see, if not touch, pieces of history like a hand-written dance instructional from 1817, an 1893 letter promising compensation to former slaveowners, or Bram Stoker’s literary plans for Dracula. You don’t get to sit underwater at the Manuscripts Collection, true, but you can turn the virtual pages in the comfort of your living room, in your stocking feet.


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

Gone Birding

The last time I was in a room with so many birds — a pet shop with African Greys and budgies and the like — I had something of an anxiety attack. Many of them were free to roam at will, and some decided my shoulders would make a good roost.

This time the closest thing to drawing blood came in a museum gift shop, where the sharp elbows of two Manhattan matrons kept jabbing me away from the bird postcards.

The day was clear as glass, but cold, and we decided that we’d have better luck birdwatching at the New-York Historical Society than in Central Park.

audubon owls

The museum is having the first show of three, together titled “The Complete Flock,” that will display all the museum’s unparalleled collection of John James Audubon. At the same time as it shows the watercolor models for the sumptuous double-elephant-folio print edition of The Birds of America (published between 1827 and 1838), it has something else special – early works that have rarely been seen, that show the development of the artist from a young age, when the naturalist was new to America and stoked about what he was seeing.

He was new, and so was the turkey vulture he depicted in 1820, when Audubon was 35.

turkey vulture nestling

You can see the nestling’s downy feathers, rendered in pastel, and its leathery feet, drawn in black ink. Interesting creatures, they open their eyes immediately after hatching and in less than a week begin to move about in their dark cave. Lacking a syrinx, their vocalizations are limited to hisses and grunts. Within two weeks they become larger and more aggressive, and their black flight feathers begin to emerge, as Audubon shows with dreadful clarity. The adult turkey vulture has a six-foot wing span.

Also on display, a mechanism through which the young Audubon got the poses he wanted. He used something called a “position board” with horizontal and vertical lines, to which the bird was fixed with skewers and pins. None survive today but we have a verbal description of the specimens being impaled. This was an improvement over his earlier techniques, when he simply suspended a jay or a meadowlark by its beak and drew it that way, or a  barn owl by its honey-colored wing. You can see the folds of the paper the artist used for this pastel.


The great naturalist would kill 400 ducks to get the proper specimen. And when in the wild, he consumed his specimens for his supper.

Bird calls are a thing you can’t describe in words. So I was glad there was a small device available that allowed visitors to hear the call of the wood thrush, so extolled in poetry.

wood thrush

I loved the slightly nutty picture of house wrens nesting in an old faded hat, but appreciated it all the more because displayed alongside was the copperplate that had been used to make the print.


After the plates came to America in 1839 they were stored at Minnie’s Land, Audubon’s estate on the Upper West Side of New York. Until in 1871 Lucy Bakewell, his widow, in desperate financial straits, sold most of them for scrap metal to the Ansonia Brass and Copper Company (the company, incidentally, owned by the Phelps family I wrote about in Love, Fiercely). Supposedly a teenaged son saved nearly a quarter of the plates from destruction. (Could it be Newton Stokes’ ancestor who made this smart move?) The New-York Historical Society owns four of the extant plates.

Audubon, we know, was suave, lean, a rock star of his time, his hair smoothed back with bear grease.

audubon outside

Lucy, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty, liked to swim naked in rivers, and often went birding alongside her adventurous husband. They saw many crystal days together, and I bet they found some birds in Manhattan, too — before Central Park, back when New-York had a hyphen. The Central Park, as it was then called, did not open until 1857.


Filed under Art, History, Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely, Nature

Sock and Story

To some, knitting a sock might seem boring. All the world is talking today about Armstrong’s drug confession, about Teo, about the Americans abducted in Algeria. The exciting narratives of the world.

To me, it is high drama.

continued sock

The piling on of tiny knotted nuggets of sock yarn. The beginning a story of whether I can do this thing at all, this task I’ve set my mind to. I feel mildly victorious, not for finishing a chapter or a book or even a haiku, this time, but for finishing a row without dropping a stitch. And then, more amazing, dropping a stitch and managing to fix it with a needle and a tiny crochet hook. I’ve also added extra stitches and successfully taken them away, and mistakenly dropped loops off the needle and fetched them up before they were lost forever. Now that’s progress, and all in seven rows. Making mistakes, fixing them.

Story hung heavy in the air  last night when I returned to the Union League clubhouse after visiting for their December Book Fair, this time to give a talk for members about I.N. Phelps Stokes and Edith Minturn.

This is why you go to the Union League if you’re lucky enough to be invited: besides the fine wines, passed hot hors d’oeuvres and rare roast beef, besides the vitrines of toy soldiers (a long-term loan from one collector, who personally dusts all 15,000 of the figures when he visits once a year), besides the animated, literate audience, they give you a thank you gift.

A bust of Abraham Lincoln engraved with your name.

Lincoln bust

Throughout the evening, everyone liked to tell the tale of the Union League’s involvement in the Civil War, how it was formed to support Lincoln, how it sponsored two Negro battalions, how it opened its commodious pockets to fund the good guys. Hence the name.

The story I told over dessert intertwined with theirs. I wrote about Edith Minturn, whose grandfather, Robert Bowne Minturn, was the first president of the club.

Robert Bowne Minturn

Minturn came from an illustrious shipping family, grew up in Manhattan, received some education in England, and was as well known for his charitable works as he was for his business acumen. He was one of the people behind the establishment of Central Park – then called The Central Park — along with his firebrand wife, Anna Mary Wendell. He created an association for bettering the lot of the poor of New York. He was passionately opposed to slavery. A story has him buying a number of slaves in order to set them free.

The Union League would appear to be a rather reactionary place now, but it took a progressive stance back in the 19th century, when the Draft Riots tore apart New York City and you literally took your life in your hands to back President Lincoln. The club did important things, has a good story to tell even now.

On my way back home, Pershing Place, the street near Grand Central Station, was blocked, oddly, by a series of horse trailers, with three sleek mares chomping out of gunny sacks hung from the side of one vehicle. For a moment I felt transported to the time of the Union League’s founding, when these horses would have made for an ordinary sight on a snowy January night. Now a crowd was clicking away with camera-phones, wanting a story, an illustrated tale to send a friend, to tell about our night in New York.

More story, in the train station, with Klieg lights and corridors blocked off under the western staircase. Blocked off, you say? New Yorkers will not be denied.

film shoot

The hordes needed a good sighting of the hats, and it was all the production guys could do to wrap them them back around to the waiting room. It was late, 10pm, after a long day that started with slush on the ground, but we all wanted to know: What’s the story here? Is it a video, a movie, a commercial? What?

Back, back, called the exasperated production guy. We’re gonna do this shot a million more times.

That’s alright, I’m done with that business. I’m going back to my own small but crucial narrative, the story of a sock.

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Filed under History, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Love, Fiercely, Writing

Lip Flap

There wasn’t any book flapping at the Union League Club’s Annual Book Fair — even the big-name authors performed their autographing tasks all on their own — but there was plenty of lip flapping. There was something so mystically gratifying about seeing those mega-selling doyennes Mary Higgins Clark and Linda Fairstein gabbing with each other beside their tables, and something so mystifying about the 10-deep crowd that constantly enveloped wraith-like Ann Coulter at hers. Dava Sobel was there, and Jennifer Egan, and a couple dozen other literary luminaries, in this incredibly luxurious setting, a very far cry from the corner Barnes & Noble.

Glass cases line some of the walls, containing all manner of ancient tin soldiers.

toy soldiers

About those soldiers. The club dates back to 1863, when it was formed to support the Union, hence the name, and its first president was the grandfather of Edith Minturn, my subject in Love, Fiercely. A person who probably shouldn’t have done so told me I could find Robert Minturn’s portrait up on the 4th floor, in the President’s Room. So up I went, after dinner, brownie-to-go wrapped sloppily in a paper napkin, and followed the winding old narrow hallways to a room with a brass plaque on the door and smoke wisking out the door jamb. Hello? I asked, entering gingerly. I could barely see the people there, the cigar smoke was so thick. They seemed shocked to see me, but not unpleasantly so, and directed me to the portrait in its gilt frame on the near wall. Liberal, altruistic, sensitive eyes — the man that fathered the man that fathered the woman I wrote about. He was known for caring about the disenfranchised.

The man I shared my book-selling table with had a following among the club’s more neanderthal members, who kept on bellyaching about how now with the election past they were ready to move to New Zealand. Neither Robert Minturn nor myself had much patience for this sort of talk. Turns out the author, Herb London, has a daughter who was profiled in The New York Times today — Stacey London of What Not to Wear. Did you ever imagine she’d end up being a style guru? I asked him. He shook his head. She was a philosophy major, he said, baffled.

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The Library

Libraries form the centerpiece of the world for most writers and for everyone who loves to read and dream.

I was talking with the director of the White Plains Library when I spoke there the other day about how jampacked the place was during Sandy as everyone came in to charge their electronics, but also how being there then represented much more than that. Community. The library scheduled movies so people would have a warm, comforting place to hang out during the storm. There was actually a fancy benefit planned at the library and it was not cancelled, even though people had to get swelled up at home in the candlelight and dark beforehand — it was a grand success.

The White Plains Library is a handsome, modern structure on a downtown street, where anyone would want to come to a movie. How about a place like this, the Vilnius University Library in Lithuania? Does it make you want to snuggle into your sleeping bag with a box of popcorn for a showing of Ghostbusters?


Or the crisp, pristine Biblioteca do Palacio e Convento de Mafra I in Portugal.


These libraries and more beauties can be found at this terrific site for bibliofanatics.

I personally hold with the marble-sculpted halls of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street, but that’s probably because I’ve spent inestimable hours there over the years. If you put me in the Rose Reading Room with a scarf tied around my eyes I would recognize it by the aroma.

I. N. Phelps Stokes managed to get his own private study on the second floor — this was just after the place opened in 1911. You can still find the room, which is now littered with someone else’s stuff but is otherwise unchanged. Stokes wanted to be in the NYPL because he’d be that much closer to the invaluable sources he was drawing upon for The Iconography of Manhattan Island. Maps, antiquarian narratives, they were all there. For the touching.

Which is what we all love about the library. We can lay our fingers on the texts, especially the ones slightly yellowed with age, and touch the history of literature.

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Filed under Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely, Writers, Writing

The Orphanmaster Tour

I was a little embarrassed when an author who was about to embark on a book tour asked me what stop I’d liked best, and I didn’t have a ready answer. It’s partly because I visited so many places – it will be 32 by Christmas, with more to come in the New Year – and also probably because of my intense self-scrutiny when going “on stage” – e.g., Do I have salad dressing on my top?, Will I mangle the names of the central characters in The Orphanmaster? But some of the stores and other places I spoke at are honestly a little blurry.

So many books...

So many books…

Not so, these:

R.J.Julia Booksellers, Madison, CT, where the sparkplug owner of the shop had me upstairs behind the scenes to chat until just time to start

Book Passage, Corte Madeira, CA, which presented me with initial-engraved stationery as a keepsake as I went out the door

Bryant Park Reading Room, NYC, in the immense shadow of the New York Public Library I love so much

The Hudson Library, Hudson OH, a new, immaculate cathedral of a place that drew hordes of readers to my talk

The University Settlement Society,, where I spoke about Love, Fiercely, and met an outspoken descendant of my subject, I.N. Phelps Stokes

A stint at the continuing care facility where my folks live, with beaming, encouraging faces all through the audience

And finally the Miami Book Fair, a swirling, euphoric chaos of books and authors, where volunteers held the doors open for me when I entered the author hospitality suite and made me feel like a queen.

These are just a few highlights of the tour for which I am so thankful, which made me appreciate anew the affection people have for reading and for books, and even sometimes for authors.

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