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