Category Archives: Music

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.


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


Filed under Culture, Dance, Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Photography, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

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


Filed under Culture, Dance, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

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.


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.


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.


Filed under Culture, Dance, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

Rapture in Blue

Guest post from Gil Reavill:

In the space of a week (writes Gil) New York City offered Jean and me two superb opportunities for time travel, sucking us back four centuries in one case and then nine decades in another.

On February 12, 1924, at the Aeolian Hall on 43rd Street, Paul Whiteman and his jazz orchestra premiered a new work, Rhapsody in Blue, with composer George Gershwin himself at the piano.

paul whithead orchestra

Ninety years later to the day, Maurice Peress and Vince Giordano mounted a tribute concert at Town Hall, a block away from where Gershwin’s masterwork first saw the light of day.

Peress is a musician, teacher and orchestra conductor who served for years at the Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. Eighty-four years old now, he has the kind of beaming, expansive, jolly personality of someone who has spent a life in music. On the podium at Town Hall, he performed antic dances while conducting, winking and giving wry body-language commentary on the proceedings, as well as delivering effusive stage patter between numbers.

Vince Giordano is the leader of the venerable Nighthawks, and both his band and his whole life have been devoted to playing, preserving and promoting the music of the early jazz era.


The two men produced the concert themselves, laying out their own money to rent the hall, taking a flier in the hopes enough ticket buyers would come out to fill the seats on a chill February night.

They did. Town Hall was totally sold out. You could feel the bon homie among the audience audience members. The musicians were primed.


I couldn’t help but feel we were in for a treat. Giordano and Peress are both avid musicologists. They tracked down original scores, unearthed sheet music with holograph notations, replicated the arrangements and instrumentation from the original concert from the slide whistle down to the heckelphone.

That original concert was held on a winter afternoon in the stuffy concert hall of the Aeolian piano company.


It was jazz genius Paul Whiteman’s baby all the way. He conducted his Palais Royal Orchestra in a program called An Experiment in Modern Music, designed to close the gap between jazz and classical audiences. In attendance that afternoon were heavyweights such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jascha Heifetz and John Phillip Sousa.

whiteman program

Gershwin himself almost didn’t make it. Whiteman and he had discussions about commissioning a piece, which the composer forgot about until brother Ira read a piece in theTribune five weeks before the concert. “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto” read a blurb in the article’s final paragraph.

The composer had only a month to create what is one of the greatest pieces of American music ever written. On a trip to Boston, the click-clack rhythm of the train inspired him. He scribbled the main themes then and there. At first the piece was called American Rhapsody, but Ira suggested the title under which it is now known after attending a show of James McNeill Whistler paintings that had names such as Nocturne in Black and Gold.


The famous clarinet glissando with which Rhapsody kicks off is a last-minute development also, with the Whiteman orchestra’s virtuoso jazz clarinetist, Ross Gorman, ginning it up almost as a joke.

Whiteman didn’t think the name of the largely unknown 26-year-old Gershwin could carry a concert, so he brought in a popular pianist of the day, Zez Confrey, had top billing over the composer. The concert featured such popular numbers as Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys” and Irving Berlin’s “Alexander Ragtime Band.”


When it came to Rhapsody, though, Gershwin played it himself, with a piano score that was not yet written down.

Sitting in Town Hall in 2014, Jean and I heard a program performed note for note as close as possible to what audience members heard ninety years ago and a block away, with the superb Ted Rosenthal sitting in for George Gershwin. The Aeolian Hall is long gone, now the quarters of the CUNY Optometry School. Peress told us he performed a pilgrimage, though, and through a gap in the dropped ceiling saw a section of the gilded proscenium from the original theater. These fragments we shore against our ruin.

Earlier in the week Jean and I journeyed to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater for another kind of time travel, this one a performance of the Chichester Festival Theatre Company’s King Lear, with Frank Langella in the title role. The production was played very straight. It was not set in Weimar Germany, say, or contemporary Uganda, as other directors are wont to dish up their Shakespeare, but in the Celtic landscape of the original text. The blocking was stylized and almost static. Langella delivered a phenomenal performance.


No one knows what the play might have sounded like during its only verified performance in Shakespeare’s time, on December 26, 1606 in the court of King James I at London’s Whitehall. Scholars suggest that Elizabethan English sounded similar to the accents of the American South. Lear’s trio of daughters would have been played by males. (In 1660, decades later, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary, “Saw ‘The Scornfull Lady,’ now done by a woman, which makes the play appear much better than ever it did to me.”) But again, as with the Giordano-Peress concert, I was able to pretend that I was somehow witnessing a shard of the past, broken off and magically turning up in the present.

The BAM audience laughed often at Shakespeare’s acerbic wit, four-hundred year old jokes still getting a enthusiastic response today. The tragic flavor of doom came across, too. “Never, never, never, never, never,” Lear repeats, his last words. Yes, we can never truly beat the tyranny of time. But sometimes it’s pretty to try.

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Filed under Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music

Pot Lucky

Just a neighborly event. The lightest of snows twinkled outside the windows. Someone said, You may not see each other for six months but you’re still glad they’re there. There was a list, a neighborhood email listserve, and these 60-odd people were on it.

The pot-luck took place in the carriage house of the local nature preserve, Teatown.


Such communal feedbags have a history, dating back to the sixteenth century, when pot-luck meant “food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.”

In this bowling-alone world, community often strikes me as a missing element. Or perhaps that’s just because mine is a solitary profession, handcuffed to my computer keyboard, staring out the window at the winter. I was happy now to talk to people I barely knew about books we’d read, about composing music, about keeping chickens.


Above all, we spoke about the deep drifts and ice outside that affect everybody.

As Bilbo Baggins once said, “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”

Someone brought a soup enriched almost to a stew with wild rice. Someone else baked a crusty bread. When the desserts came out there was a deep-burnished chocolate bundt cake studded with cherries that had folks lining up. We all shared food, shared companionship. A hat was passed to send kids to the local summer camp.

No one spoke about plumber referrals, or the other information that flies across the internet on the listserve. No one talked about rowdy teens on the roads, or co-mingled recyclables.


Above all, no one became embroiled in the deer situation, the bane of the neighborhood, the divisive question of whether to leave the overpopulation alone or somehow control it, and if so, how to do so. It would be a fraught conversation. We let it go. (Though some wry soul offered venison sausage on the buffet table.)

We were gracious, putting faces to names. We shook hands, kissed cheeks. We were neighborly.

Outside, it continued to snow.


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature

Feet Ball

Me and my two feet, my new feet, in sneakers, no boot, no cast and no crutches.


On the train to Grand Central Station, New York City. We don’t care about the grey slubs and slabs of ice rimming the river.

hudson ice

We don’t care about the Super Bowl madness engorging midtown, a crowd where the words stadium and lap dance are enunciated loudly along with impressive beer burps.

We’re going to make a night of it, in a club where the hair of the patrons is greyer than the ice on the Hudson, all convened to hear the oldie but extremely goodie Vanilla Fudge, aka “the Fudge.”


They don’t look like they used to, but neither do we. Psychedelia crossed with blue-eyed soul, and on foot! Happy day.


Filed under Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music

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.


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


Filed under Culture, Dance, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Writers, Writing

Tra La La La La (La La La La)

I breezed through the local shopping mall yesterday on my knee scooter, only mildly terrifying the people directly in my path. I felt good. I had completed all my shopping days before. There would be nothing to buy in the future. And the Christmas tunes swelled loud and corny and hypnotic all around.

Peter Zimmerman keeps forking over bales of posts my way, generously, during this rather sedentary time for me. So here is another:

My sister and I have debated (Peter writes) which one of us fixated the most on The Little Drummer Boy when we were children. The most famous version of the Rumpadumdum was recorded by the Harry Simeon Chorale in 1958.


The story depicted in the song is somewhat similar to a 12th-century legend retold by Anatole France as Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (Our Lady’s Juggler), which was adapted into an opera in 1902 by Jules Massenet. In the French legend, however, a juggler juggles before the statue of the Virgin Mary, and the statue, according to the version of the legend one reads, either smiles at him or throws him a rose (or both). The song was originally titled Carol of the Drum and based upon a traditional Czech carol.

As for the most depressing – and, Jean says, most wonderful – Christmas song, she votes for Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, introduced by Frances Gumm (Judy Garland) in the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis.


Next year all our troubles will be miles away, until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow. Magic lyric, says Jean. While I would choose Perry Como’s Home for the Holidays (you can’t beat home, sweet home) with its manic bridge.

I met a man who lives in Tennessee

He was headin’ for, Pennsylvania, and some home made pumpkin pie

From Pennsylvania folks are travelin’ down to Dixie’s sunny shore

From Atlantic to Pacific, gee, the traffic is terrific…

Oy, the traffic!

Andre Kostelanetz’s famous Sleigh Ride pulls on my heart strings. You can hear Santa repeatedly whipping the poor reindeer.


Leopold Mozart’s Sleighride is more to my liking. Lots of jingle bells, no whips. THE Mozart was Leopold’s father.

Some of my other favorites include Doris Day’s Toyland, Fats Waller’s Swinging Them Jingle Bells, Liberace’s Jesu Bambino, and Tammy Wynett’s Away in a Manger.


The most beautiful song is Harry Belafonte’s We Wish You a Merry Christmas medley.

My brother Andy’s favorite Christmas song is We Three Kings. Not to be depressing but here’s one of the verses.

Myrrh is mine

Its bitter perfume breathes

A life of gathering gloom

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,

Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

If anyone can update the tune, it’s the psychobilly musician Reverend Horton Heat.


A very merry Christmas to all!


Filed under Culture, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music

Bit by Bit

Stitch after stitch. The easiest in knitting is the knit stitch, worked over and over, row after row, dignified by its pattern name the garter stitch. Time honored and simple, it’s the foundation of sweaters and scarves all around the world. I man the couch (woman the couch?), man up (woman up?) to knit stitch after stitch, a surprise length of comfort for someone who deserves every form of it.


Song after song. Pandora seems to have decided that Ella, Aretha and Etta, with a sprinkling of Emmy Lou Harris, are the mainstays of my acoustic pantheon. Which is fine, as long as Etta James sings Just a Little Bit.

I don’t want much,

I just want a little bit

I don’t want it all babe

I just want a little bit

Just a teeny weeny bit, just a itty bitty bit of your love

Flake by flake. The snowstorm hits. The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches, wrote E.E. Cummings. That’s the twisted magic of a white winter, after all, the stuff is so impersonal, impervious, and yet we extrapolate all soft and fuzzy feelings from it. Since I was a child I’ve made snow cream: put out a pot and collect the clean flakes, then mix the white stuff with milk, sugar and vanilla for a wintry treat that’s better than ice cream, especially if you’re a red-cheeked little kid.

Tweet by tweet. You stretch your brain a little and it keeps you young. That’s how it is with me and Twitter, which I’ve been dipping a toe into and coming up sometimes with a sparkly pedicure and sometimes a crab bite. Stephen King just opened a Twitter account, got twenty thousand followers instantly. “On Twitter at last,” he offered, not fully utilizing his 140 characters, “and can’t think of a thing to say. Some writer I turned out to be.” But it all comes down less to what you have to say than to the links, one by one, you make with other people. So follow me. Or at least tweet at me, @jeanczimmerman. And while you’re at it, tweet at Stephen.

Note by note. So much of publishing books is about the relationships with people you have along the way – writers and editors, writers and bookstore people. As an author you’re a cog in a bigger, complicated machine, one whose purpose is to put great books in the hands of eager readers. So I’m writing little remember-me’s to all the friendly, supportive booksellers I met while touring with The Orphanmaster. Letting people know about Savage Girl, that it’s coming out in March, and to look for it. Feral children have always fascinated me, I’m telling booksellers.

feral child

– but in NYC, in a world of Gilded Age opulence? An irresistable mashup.


I hope you fall for my Savage Girl, I’m telling my bookseller friends.

And little by little. The bones in my left foot are healing but won’t withstand an ounce of pressure or weight. It’s a good place to be, my couch, with my foot on a pillow, Etta on the box, a rollerball pen in my hand, knitting bag by my side, a fire in the hearth and a curtain of snow out the window. Bit by bit we move along, and today that’s just about right.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Music, Nature, Poetry, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

Hudson River Haunts and Hustlings

For my whole life I’ve lived up and down the Hudson River, in Hastings, in Ulster Park, in Ossining. New York City crouches on its shoreline, and I lived there for twenty years. The Hudson happens to be my favorite river in the world – although to be precise it is an estuary.

I’ve written about its history, in both nonfiction and fiction — about the rubble-stone house of Margaret Hardenbroeck, in Yonkers, about Blandine berry-picking on a Manhattan bluff, and other people whose lives I placed against this magical backdrop. But I haven’t just told stories about a place. I’ve lived it.

I was thinking about some of the things I’ve actually done along the Hudson’s reaches. What helped me in my imaginings. How the Hudson Valley has informed my life.

I’ve taken a canoe out through ancient marshes at the river’s edge. Had picnics along its shores. Dined in fine restaurants. Rode a bike. Collected beach glass.


Kissed. Thrown sticks for a swimming dog. Gone swimming myself. Taken the train, that glorious route down the river’s eastern flank. Snoozed on that train and missed my stop.

Watched fisherman pull out catfish. Careened along the Henry Hudson Parkway above the river in a series of second-hand cars. Visited a yacht house in winter, warmed by a wood stove. Hitched a ride on a tugboat.


Walked the George Washington Bridge–it sways terrifically. Learned to hula hoop.

Peter hula

Heard blasting rock and roll concerts on ancient piers. Wandered a factory ruin from the nineteenth century. Did I mention throwing a stick for the best cattle dog in America?


Saw fireworks explode up from every little Catskills town down the river’s length one Fourth of July. We sat on an escarpment far, far above the river coursing below.

As an adolescent, I read classic books in a library overlooking the water.


Later, bought paperbacks at library sales. Talked about my own books in library all-purpose rooms.

Watched my three-year-old get gleefully wet under a sprinkler at a city park in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Devoured garlicky Dominican mofungo at a lunch counter a block from the water in Sleepy Hollow.

Hiked the Breakneck Ridge Trail, which rises 1,250 feet in a three-quarter mile stretch and hovers over the river as it winds. Experienced vertigo and rapture at one and the same time.


Admired thousands of sunsets.

Praised the mighty Palisades. Daydreamed. Considered the water’s surface, olive green, deep black, cobalt, covered in crashed-together ice floes. Seen eagles ride the ice floes (an untruth – I’ve always wanted to, it’s in my bucket, but I never have managed it).


Admired art on walls with river views. Experienced the unicorn tapestries, in awe. Taught children to make art. Touched cattails. Bought hanging plants from Garden Club ladies. Watched my teenager kill it in soccer games on a field watched over by the Palisades. Stood on the porch of Washington Irving’s stucco cottage, Sunnyside, imagining the 1840s river the way he must have seen it, appalled when the railroad went through.

sunnyside_and_hudson-300x225Skipped stones, clumsily. Never could master that. Threw a stick for a dog. Considered the white-tailed deer swimming across to New Jersey – diaries describe the phenomenon in the seventeenth century. A long time back, but a drop in the bucket for the old, bountiful Hudson.

What have you done along the Hudson–or your own personal favorite river? Leave a comment, will you?


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Dogs, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

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?


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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


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.


A rowdy pig festival in upstate New York.


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


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


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


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.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Dance, Dogs, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature, Photography, Poetry, Publishing, Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

Savage Girl Music Mix

What, I thought, would be a modern-day playlist to match a Victorian savage girl’s temperament? If that makes sense. Here are some ideas, and I welcome more if you’d care to leave a comment. I plan to pass out CD’s when Savage Girl comes out in March, for anyone who likes to blast tunes in the car with the windows down. There’s a complete list of songs posted on my facebook author page; give it a like while you’re there and add to the list.

Got to lead off with Hendrix, his version of Wild Thing by the Troggs.


I also like this one that came out earlier this fall, Wild Child, sung by folk/pop boy-child Brett Dennen.


But why not jump back a little, to Bessie Smith, who sang I’m Wild About that Thing in 1929.


I think Savage Girl might quite like Etta James’ version of Born to be Wild. Anyway, it’s one of my favorite renditions of the song.


Lou Reed had a contemporary version of savagery in mind with Walk on the Wild Side. But when you read Savage Girl you’ll see that there’s plenty of cross-dressing in the novel, nineteenth-century style.


One more. Because the heroine of my book climbs the social ladder and actually reaches its pinnacle for a moment or two, let’s listen to Queen of the Savages, by the Magnetic Fields.


It’s the least we can do for a mysterious girl who escapes the wild West only to wind up in wilder Manhattan.

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Filed under Culture, Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

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


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The Natural Loveliness of Brahms

“It’s relaxing but it’s also uplifting,” I heard a woman say to her companion after the music ended.

I’d just emerged from a chamber performance at the Brooklyn Public Library, that Art Deco masterpiece on Grand Army Plaza which dates back to 1941.


The sense I think I shared with the mass of humanity swirling around me in the lobby was that we felt a whole lot better coming out of the concert than we had going in. Music as magical curative.

Vista Lirica is a New York-based chamber ensemble with an environmental focus, which means they play fantastic compositions by nineteenth-century Romantic composers in which nature’s power and emotionality take center stage. Mankind is a small though crucial part of the spectacle of the whole natural universe.

I knew Beth Levin, the pianist, but this was the first time I’d seen her perform with her cohort in Vista Lirica – Frank Foerster (viola), Eric Grossman (violin/viola), Neil Rynston (clarinet) and Lawrence Zoernig (cello).

Odd things happened on the way to hear this beautiful music. The Brooklyn Bridge, under repair for at last another year to the tune of five hundred million dollars, wore a diaper to protect motorists from tools and other falling debris. You’d think it was a baby, but it was born in 1883.

bridge diaper

Then, as the concert started at the library, there was a commotion in the back of the house. “Tell them to stop playing!” someone shouted. No one knew what to do. It was midway through Mozart’s Trio in E flat major. Turned out later there was a group of developmentally disabled adults in the audience. The musicians continued playing. All was well.

And then there was the piano tuner. A man was seated just down the way from me in the front row, with a pink bush of a beard and gnarly bare feet.


One side of his baggy tee read “Quiet Please.” The reverse: “Piano Tuning in Process.” He looked as if he wasn’t unfamiliar with a cardboard box for a domicile. He caused some alarm at intermission by jumping up on stage, removing the top of the instrument to get at the action and attacking the job with a furious intensity, all the while muttering under his breath.

The concert spanned four centuries. There was the Mozart trio. A Bernstein sonata.  “La Danza Implacable” by Jorge Lopez Marin. And lastly, what I found irresistable, Johannes Brahms’ Quartet in g-minor for piano, violin, viola and cello. Clara Schumann was the pianist for the very first performance of the piece, back in 1861.

Musicians play music with their faces. Beth played vigorously, rapturously, looking somewhat stricken for most of the Brahms. The violinist appeared to be grappling with the secrets of the universe. The cello player was soulful, the viola player looked as if he had finally accepted his fate.

I might have been overinterpreting, remembering my cello fail in middle school, when I mounted the stage to find I had absolutely no idea what notes to play.

Or maybe I myself felt stricken by the romanticism of the Brahms. Owing to the natural bent of Vista Lirica, I felt myself muse on environmental themes as they played. Storms. Falling snow. Green hillsides.

What was that movie about the chamber ensemble? My mind drifted. A Late Quartet. The one with Catherine Keenan, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman. I am fascinated by the way musicians signal each other with a slight tip of the chin or significant glance when they are ready to go into the next bit. Movement? Perhaps that’s the word for it. Anyway, I wish I could communicate so deftly.

The Brahms Andante con moto in particular held me in its sway.

Shadows, spider webs, a rainbow.

Later, I asked Beth about the Andante, what makes it so special. “Well, the Andante is usually moving,” she said, “often minor key. The composer goes so deep. But in this one the middle section gets jubilant, like a dance.”


Still attired in the fuschia top she wore on stage, the perfect garment for a Romantic pianist, Beth was surprisingly shy-seeming after her thunderous stage presence. She’s somewhat reserved, she told me, both before and after she performs. Was it hard to go on playing after that noisy interruption today? “Once I played and hailstorms came down on the roof – it was Schumann! Keep playing, I always heard, so I did.” And what about that colorful piano tuner? “Oh, that’s Ben,” she said, adding that she’d been startled when she first met him and he tossed his sandals aside before getting down to business. “When Ben shows up at a concert,” she told me, “I know he’s going to want to tune my piano.”

A concert soloist when she is not with the chamber group, Beth spent two weeks recently in Germany – two recitals and sightseeing. She payed homage to Bach at his grave in Leipzig.

And the music that was mesmerizing me with its spider webs and rainbows, how did that happen, I wondered. Approaching the Brahms, she said, she and the other performers “talked about nature, not in rehearsals but afterward, when we were sitting around.” She smiled. “Brahms was probably walking through the forest half the time when he was writing.”


Filed under Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature

Squeezing the Juice From the Season

There is nothing like a Saturday morning in November to make you stand up straight and take clear-eyed notice of the world. Of the crisp air and fresh colors, the sweetly rotten smell of leaves being pulverized underfoot.

leaves underfoot

Both Gil and I could easily stay home and work all day, bent over our books, leaning into our computer screens. But we were drawn out into the Saturday sunshine. drive, he sd, as poet Robert Creeley wrote.

Autumn Leaves 2

We remarked as we spun along the little roads on every jolt of red.

red tree

Some unexpected graffiti on the side of a concrete shed oddly did the opposite of marring the rural scene. It underscored fall’s beauty with its blast of a message.


Down the road from the Cabin we passed an arch of shrubbery above a stone gate that opens into a mysterious vacant pasture. I never get tired of looking at it.

Shrub in Stone Door

And I never get tired of visiting Thompson’s Cider Mill, where Geoff Thompson combines up to twenty varieties of fresh apples into a juice that is pure nectar. He makes his cider every weekend, and every weekend it is a different brew.


When you buy apples at Thompson’s, you get to see each one’s heritage marked above the bin. The history of apples is vast and rich, and here you can taste history–when you bite into an heirloom Newtown Pippin, say, first grown from a chance seedling in the mid-18th century.

Apples 1

Out of the wealth of choices we’ve taken most of all to the Jonathans, which are grown right in this orchard and are sweet and tart, firm and compact.


If you come on a Saturday morning you can watch the thoroughly up-to-date press do its business, mashing the fruit into not only a liquid but also a paste that will later be tossed to the pigs at a local organic farm. Keats talked in Ode to Autumn about how by a cider-press, with patient look,/Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours. This is where those oozings happen. Geoff handed around small plastic cups to catch some of the new cider as it ran out of the press.

cider press

We sipped. “Perfect blend,” said Geoff. I agreed. “Wish I could figure out how to do that every time,” he said with pleasant self deprecation. This mill does make the best cider in the land, and that’s not opinion but fact. They also have on hand my namesake fruit.

lady jean

Next stop, the Hastings Farmer’s Market, overlooking the Hudson River. A produce stand at the end of the season has its own distinctive merits. No sweet, fuzzy peaches, perhaps, but turban squashes and sugar pumpkins and the dark leafy kale your doctor wants you to eat more of. The singer Milton was performing his song In the City when we arrived.


I like the song. It does capture the effervescence of New York. Though it seemed less relevant today with the trees aflame in the cool, cool, quiet air.

The woman who worked the booth for Cowberry Crossing was off on a coffee run, so Reese and I together worked out the numbers for a pair of pork chops and a bag of chicken feet. Inaccurately, it turned out when mom returned.


He was a great little salesman anyway. I am devoted to using chicken feet to make stock – you need a soup foul first, then throw in the feet in addition – and I used to have a chicken farm down the road where I could buy them in five-pound freezer bags. I’ve gotten a little squeamish about how the toes resemble an old lady monster’s, with manicure-worthy nails. But they make such a velvety broth, it’s worth the psychic discomfort.

chix ft

Over at Do Re Me Farms, they still had some green beans, zucchini and cranberry beans.

cranberry beans

It was wicked cold behind the cash register, and everyone was shivering.

mushrooms guy

Mushrooms, a variety, were my choice. To add to a risotto or simply.saute and devour.


There was less produce than usual, more maple syrup, cider, pickles. Here they make a big thing out of offering pickles on sticks to children, like sour lollipops.


Painted Goat Farm is an artisan cheese producer located upstate in Garrattsville (now that is a true New York name). They offer goat cheese both fresh and aged, along with goat meat and what they call goat confections. They were out of the aged and I didn’t care for any goat confections, so I took home the fresh with garlic and chives.

goat cheese

The farm’s herd now stands at 85 – the females are “drying up” at the moment, I was told, and will give birth in February, when the babies will drive the count up to over 100. I’d like to pay them a visit then. If I had any kind of farm it’d be a goat farm. I love goats, both how satanic their eyes look, and their pure and total determination.

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