Category Archives: Photography

Finding Rosebud

I told myself I would have it done by the time the roses bloomed.

soft rose

My new novel, that is.

I do that sometimes, set an arbitrary time of year – not a date, never a date – when I will finish a book. It gives me something to shoot for. When the trees turn red. When the first snow falls. A seasonal moment which my project will match with its completion.

When the roses bloom.

I have been working for some time on a manuscript that shows some signs that it wants to be finished. But I still have chapters to revise before I can call it done. Yet it’s Spring, high rose season.

Just to see where things stood, how far behind I was, I thought I would pay a visit to the lovely grounds of Lyndhurst, the historic site near my house. This was the estate of the robber baron Jay Gould, and the old mansion is grey and gothic and not to my taste, though the huge specimen trees and plantings always astound. There is a fantastic heirloom rose garden there, one that I usually seem to get to too late to enjoy the blooms at their height.

This year the place was nearly deserted, and the circle of plants looked suspiciously green as I approached across the perfect lawn. There were two visiting matrons; one said, You must not miss the yellow blossoms on that bush, they smell like lemon.

yellow roseos

And they did. But the lemon roses were one of only a few shrubs out of dozens there that were actually in bloom. Others offered wicked thorns.

thorns

Or buds so tightly sewn up it was hard to imagine them ever opening.

buds

I’ve come across some thorns and some sewn-tight problems in the narrative I’m working on, so I could appreciate them. I wished I could have seen Lyndhurst’s roses, lush, exploded, lemon, yes, but also vanilla, musk and all the other scents that don’t have proper names imagined yet.

More than anything, though, I felt happy. Because the roses had not yet bloomed, and my novel will bloom when they do.

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High-Energy Serendipities

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

JZ Light

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

JZ talking

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

Musicians

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

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Hummingbirds, Bats and Butterflies

The Desert Discovery Guide invited us to enjoy three zones along a trail that led out from the Scottsdale Senior Center: a hummingbird nest, a saguaro and bat sanctuary, and a butterfly garden.

desert garden

I foresaw bliss ahead, an afternoon of hummingbirds, bats and butterflies, all in one swooping, fluttering place.

We just had to follow the gleaming glass-embedded arrows.

green path

They look like jelly beans, said my mother.

jellly beans

The mesquite dangled over our heads.

mesquite

Desert blooms along the way tantalized us. They would be perfect for butterflies, wouldn’t they?

purple

There was a monstrous twin-headed cactii. A bat home! Where were the bats?

twin saguaro

Saguaro are unlike any other plant, said my mother. All the others follow a regular pattern. Not so the saguaro.

Walk, walk, follow the arrows. All around, mallow, the peachy-orange blooms that hummingbirds love.

blue path

Not a hummingbird to be seen, though, in a nest or out. No sanctuary for bats, no garden for butterflies.

A trail to nowhere, with plants in bud, an empty picnic table, a tall metal sculpture standing alone.

sculpture

But a kindly elf had constructed an ingenious dog fountain on the dirt, activated by paw pressure.

dog bowl

We went in hope of something and came away emptyhanded, but for a handful of jellybeans and thorns. Sounds like Easter is on its way.

 

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Cactus Blossom Special

Three quarters of an inch of precipitation. That’s all they’ve had in Scottsdale this year. Luckily, baby saguaros like this juvenile don’t need much to thrive.

juvenile

They become monsters with just a little drink of water at a time.

grown saguaro

When you feed your mind, water it, fill it with the energy it needs to think, to write, how much is required? Could your creativity survive a drought?

prickers

The stuff you produce can be succulent as saguaro flesh, piercing as its spines.

Flowers. The few buds that materialized this year, three-quarters of an inch worth. The cholla cactus can only just manage to squeeze them out, it seems.

cholla

But when you find a blossom — when you discover one in yourself, especially after a dry spell — it’s ravishing.

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Savage Girl’s Central Park

[Here is another post that I am also putting up under the Savage Girl tab.]

The Central Park, as it was known in the nineteenth century, had only been officially open for two years when Savage Girl arrives at the Delegate Mansion in 1875. The scrupulously landscaped plot of 843 acres, designed by Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, was set in the middle of the island of Manhattan with the idea that the creeping city would eventually reach far enough uptown to surround it, even though the locus of mid-1800s New York was much farther downtown.

centralparkmap1863

The Park came about as the brainchild of a group of well-heeled Manhattanites who wanted the city to emulate the great parks of Europe, the Bois de Boulogne, Hyde Park and other green urban spaces. Robert Minturn, his wife Anna, William Cullen Bryant and others, classic progressives all, took the lead in advocating the need for a large, verdant playground  for both rich and poor, a place that would improve public health and provide jobs in its construction. According to Olmsted, the park was “of great importance as the first real Park made in this country—a democratic development of the highest significance.”

olmsted

In 1853, when the Park was born by legislative fiat, the land between 59th and 110th Streets was occupied largely by poor squatters who according to one observer “lived off the refuse of the city, which they daily conveyed in smalll carts, chiefly drawn by dogs.”

centralparksquatters1855

German gardeners and Irish pig farmers occupied shanty towns known as Dutch Hill, Dublin Corners, and the Piggery, and a well-established African-American community called Seneca Village stood at what is now Columbus Avenue and 82nd Street — all of whom were displaced when the Park came in.

NY shantytown

Among the more arcane activities of denizens was the nineteenth-century trade of “bone boiling,” which produced a byproduct used in sugar refining. The area encompassed swamps and bluffs, wooded areas, and massive rock outcroppings.

The Greensward Plan of Olmsted and Vaux was eight feet long and three feet wide, covered with stipple points designating vegetation, rock accents, footpaths and carriageways. A topographical tool and work of art all at once, the map specified structures that still exist today. The three and a half million square foot plot of land has remained remarkably the same, despite ideas that have been floated over time for such new things as stadiums, new athletic fields, model farms and airplane landing strips. The Park has 250 acres of lawns, seven bodies of water and 80 acres of woodlands. The Greensward plan called for some 36 bridges, all designed by Vaux, ranging from rugged spans of schist or granite to neo-gothic cast iron. The Mall’s doubled allées of elms comes to a stop at the Bethesda Terrace, whose centerpiece is the Bethesda Fountain. When Calvert Vaux designed the romantic Belvedere Castle in 1869, it was as one of the Park’s many whimsical structures, intended as a lookout to the reservoir to the north and the Ramble to the south.

belvederecastle

The charms of the Park’s landscaping are largely man-made; during construction, 1800 cubic yards of top soil were carted in from New Jersey to establish plantings. Laborers planted more than four million trees, shrubs and plants. More gunpowder was used to clear the area than was used at the battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War.

workers building central park

Some elements we associate today with Central Park didn’t exist. The Metropolitan Museum, now sited at the east side of the Park between 83rd and 87th Streets, wouldn’t relocate until 1880 from a townhouse on 14th Street to a red-brick Victorian Gothic building (still part of the museum complex) at the edge of the greensward on the site of a meadow that the city had formerly fenced in as a deer park.

Central Park is a place that is quintessentially public, open to all, and yet offers individuals many sites that become personal favorites. The Dene (a term meaning valley) is one of those. A long stretch of pastoral landscape that exemplifies both the features and the intended effect of Olmsted’s designs runs along the east side from the Conservatory Water and the verdant meadow known as the East Green to the north and the Zoo to the south, it features gently rolling lawns and shaded walks.

the dene

In 2007 the Dene’s rustic summerhouse atop a rock outcropping was restored, and a charming map to the feature was created. You can enter the park at 67th Street and Fifth, just adjacent to where the Delegates house would have stood, to get to the Dene and the historic structure.

A-TREEHOUSE-FOR-DREAMING

From the start, leisure activities reigned in the Park. There was ice-skating on the Pond at 59th street and Fifth Avenue, in front of a much earlier version of the Plaza Hotel.

carriages central park

Elite New Yorkers flew in their coaches down the winding drives. They strolled in the Ramble. They enjoyed such novelties as goat carts, here portrayed in a 1870 lithograph.

goatcart 1870 litho central park

Children sailed toy boats on the Reservoir Pond at 72nd Street. The Central Park Zoo was chartered in 1875, and depended largely on the exotic gifts of wealthy benefactors. General Custer gave the zoo a rattlesnake, and General Sherman offered an African Cape buffalo, one of the spoils of his march through Georgia. One of the zoo’s most exotic donations was Charles the tigon, the offspring of a female African lion and a male Siberian tiger, that was donated to the City in 1938.

Charles Tigon

The Carousel went up when the Park opened. Mules beneath the flooring provided the horsepower to pull the decorated wooded horses above, as pictured here in 1872 in Applebee’s Journal.

1872 carousel appleton's journalA flock of pedigree Southdown and Dorset sheep grazed on the Sheep Meadow from 1860s until 1934. I wonder what they’d make of a tigon escaped from Central Park Zoo.

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The Larky Life

[This post will be saved on the site under the Savage Girl tab.]

Cross dressing permeates the world of Savage Girl. Tahktoo, also known as the berdache, goes about in women’s dress a good portion of the time. He is brawny and manly but feels more comfortable as a rule in a gown. (That doesn’t mean he can’t clean up well in a suit of men’s tails, white tie if the occasion calls for it.) Bronwyn employs boys’ duds as an essential disguise. No one guesses she’s a girl until she removes her bowler hat and shakes out her long ebony thresses.

How true is all this costume-foolery to the late nineteenth century, when the story unfolds? Was sexual role reversal fact or fiction? How commonplace was it?

Tahktoo, first of all, walks straight out of the history books. There is a well-documented, honorable tradition of the Zuni Man-Woman, an artist-priest who dresses at least in part in women’s clothes. Perhaps the most famous berdache at the end of the nineteenth century, who combined the work and traits of both men and women, was We’wha.

berdache

But Native Americans weren’t the only Victorian males who got in touch with their feminine side from time to time.

Teeny tycoons started off their lives dressed just like their sisters. Boys only got their pants at the age we now associate with kindergarten.

bouguereau

They didn’t all ditch the lace and frills as they matured. During the Gilded Age, the rage for upperten society was the fancy dress ball — which didn’t strictly mean, as it sounds, elegant gowns for the ladies and stiff black tails for the gents. Fancy dress meant a masquerade, an opportunity for the well-heeled to inject their real life with fantasy. A lot of very pricey role-playing could be seen on display in the Manhattan ballrooms where the Delegate family would have spent their time. Frequently, men went gowned as women. (Not that Hugo ever would!) There were other famous parties, too, where men came in frocks — at the Bal des Quat’z’Arts, for instance, which took place in Paris every year, artists and architects partied hearty in the name of everything aesthetic and bohemian.

We have photographic evidence that the straitlaced Victorian males sometimes loosened those laces.

cross dressing man

Of course all sorts of costumes were welcome, not just human ones.

costume for ball

We think of Victorian women as feminine to a fault, swathed in silk and lace, with cinched waists, dripping petticoats and fanned-out skirt trains. But some ladies chose to reject the girly role when it suited them.

ednamay

Female burlesque performers during the Gilded Age embraced male roles onstage.

verona jarbeau

Their androgyny gave them the liberty to not necessarily imitate men but adopt some of the markers of masculinity – voice, posture – that must have been a thrill for tightly corseted audiences.

Off stage, female cross dressing was more private. America’s first notable woman photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston captured images of New England mill women, sailors getting shipboard tattoos, coal and iron workers and peace treaty signings. She herself posed in a more masculine “new woman” style, holding a cigarette and beer stein.

johnston 1896

Yet another crusading photographer, Alice Austen, captured some gender bending games with her friends, living what she called the “larky life.”

Alice Austen drag kings

For all these historical figures, and for the characters in Savage Girl, seemingly silly costume-foolery offers something dead-serious: freedom from social constraints.

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The Mansions of Fifth Avenue

[I will be adding essays in upcoming days under the Savage Girl tab on this site. Here is the first.]

It took two hundred years for the well to do of Manhattan to migrate uptown from the foot of the island to frontier of 59th Street, and even then they weren’t completely sure that living so far uptown was the proper thing to do.

In the beginning, in the mid-seventeenth century, when settlement began, wealthy residents of New Amsterdam kept neat homes of brick and wood.

nieuw amsterdam

The only residence approaching grandeur was White Hall, the English name for the house Peter Stuyvesant built at the southern tip of the island, with its stunning view of New York Harbor.

White Hall

In those early days, before Fifth Avenue had been laid out, a fashionable address for the wealthy meant Bowling Green, after which people who could afford it moved up Broadway through Murray and Chambers Streets, on to Washington Square.

Until the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 cut regular streets through the city (155 cross streets and 12 Avenues) the start of Fifth Avenue was farmland, as was almost almost all the property north of Canal Street. The name Fifth Avenue appeared for the first time on the Commissioners’ map. No one imagined that the thoroughfare would one day stretch six-and-a-half miles up the island. But the street was spacious and straight, and Manhattanites began to build townhouses along it; within two decades church steeples rose on either side of the street, Belgian blocks were laid for paving, and New Yorkers had begun to promenade along its length. In 1828, the city opened Washington Square at Eighth street at the base of Fifth Avenue, a tract that had been used since 1797 as a potter’s field. Gracious homes went up around the square.

washingtonsquare1880s

In 1825 the new gas lamps came in south of 14th street; by 1847 they extended up to 18th street. Now lower Fifth Avenue became the fashionable locus of New York. One of the first of the home builders was Henry Brevoort, who inherited all the farmland around from his father and built a luxurious five-bedroom house with iconic columns and lilacs and rose of sharon blooming in the front yard behind an iron fence. The house stood until 1925.

brevoort house april 1925 nypl

Other fine homes followed, surrounded with yards and gardens, backed by stables. The ambience was quietly fancy, unprepossessing.

fifthavenue22ndst1889

In 1851 a study found that below 23rd Street on Fifth there were still 32 vacant lots, and fifteen others were described as “now building” No matter. When Delmonico’s, New York’s premier restaurant, opened in a shipowner’s home at 14th and 5th it was clear the neighborhood had arrived.

Delmonico's

The custom of the leisurely promenade continued, and with it the practice of making calls. Fifth Avenue was a social place.

1872 fifth avenue promenade 1872

The move of peoples’ homes uptown was unstoppable if somewhat slow paced. For one thing, the street was still being built. Fifth Avenue did not cut through to 23rd St  until 1837, and it was still surrounded largely by countryside, crisscrossed with streams and studded by ponds. Fifth Avenue was surprisingly rural. Stagecoaches stopped at a tavern on 23 Street called Madison Cottage. Cows wandered in front of that day’s incarnation of Grand Central Station.

grandcentralcows 18702

The city’s livestock market took place nearby, and cowboys drove herds of cattle through what we think of now as midtown.

Then handsome houses, some sheathed in brownstone, began to rise. The New York Herald named 200 of the city’s most important men in 1851, and half of them lived north of 14 Street. Madison Square was now becoming the center of the city’s professional class. Fashionable clubs opened there, the Union in 1855, followed by the Athanaeum, the Manhattan, the Lotos and others, along with refined academies for young ladies.

The first tycoons to make the move were William B. Astor, Jr. and his brother John Jacob III. Thirty-fourth street was a good distance uptown from where the family had traditionally settled, down around Lafayette Street. The Astor houses, separated by a garden, were relatively modest, brickfaced, with rustic columns. Nearby stood the mansion of Samuel B. Townsend, “the Sarsparilla King,” and on the same site after his death the grandiose, 55-room marble palace of Alexander Turney Stewart and his wife Cornelia, built in the late 1860s.

Stewart

Stewart’s department store on Broadway between 9th and 10th Streets landed him among the wealthiest Americans, and ushered in a new age of lavish consumption.

The die was cast. In the next two decades Fifth Avenue up to 42nd Street became an almost unbroken parade of handsome brownstone mansions on 25×100 foot lots, not as large as the Stewart house but occupied by well-to-do, successful New Yorkers and incorporating all the trimmings, from gas lights to running water to fully equipped bathrooms. Chocolate in color, brownstone was quarried in New Jersey and cut into sheets that were applied as a façade to wood, for a uniform appearance that some found grand and others dull.

fifthavenusnday1898

Strolling along the avenue was extended upwards when James Renwick designed the gargantuan Croton Reservoir (also referred to as the Murray Hilll Distributing Reservoir) at 42nd Street in 1842, and ran a promenade along the top rim of its forty-one- and-a-half foot high slanted walls. The walkway became a hit society destination. You could get an ice cream afterward across the street at Croton Cottage.

currier & ives print of croton reservoir

North of the reservoir stretched the undeveloped city. If you look at a picture made in 1863,  facing south from the site of what would become Central Park, you can see the still-pastoral nature of uptown.

valentine's manuel 1858, 5 ave s from 63 st

Fifth Avenue, to the left, heads determinedly north, flanked by buildings in its lower reaches but by nothing but fields and cattle farther up. A few homes dot the landscape, but more dominant are the ungainly freestanding charitable institutions that would not be accommodated farther downtown. You can see the massive shapes of St. Luke’s Hospital, between 54th and 55th Streets, and the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. Behind St. Luke’s stands the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was attacked in the horrific week-long Draft Riots of 1863 (five years after this image was made). Saint Patrick’s, the landmark we associate with midtown Fifth Avenue, was not begun until 1858.

To give an idea what the surroundings were like, consider Madison Avenue, a block over from Fifth, as it made its way north from 55th Street around this time.

ne from mad and 55

A thirty-acre farm owned by the prosperous Lenox family dominated the neighborhood, with a stolid white tenant farmhouse located between 71 and 72 near Fifth Avenue. Cows grazed nearby and market crops grew in rows. Lying on the outskirts of town this far north were slaughterhouses, stockyards and tanneries, enterprises fashionable downtown did not want near their homes. The Lenox Library, a handsome block-long structure designed by star-architect Richard Morris Hunt, went up in 1875 at Fifth Avenue and 71st Street, an outpost of civilization.

As of 1865, the city was moving uptown.

NYC1865

New Yorkers took the air on Fifth Avenue, promenading as always with vigor. The Easter Parade was only one opportunity to admire and be admired.

1870 fifth-avenue-new-york-in-c-1870-from-american-pictures-published-by-the-religious-tract

But while the upper tens (the equivalent of today’s “one percent”) of New York built their urban villas and stolid townhouses to the south, wide open stretches of the boulevard north of 60th Street still seemed off limits for luxury development. At the time of Savage Girl, 1875, more than 340 private residences had been constructed up to 59th Street but none above.

The lack of elegant homes didn’t mean people didn’t live there. Those precincts had long been settled by African Americans and German and Irish squatters who occupied shanty towns where the principle businesses were bone boiling, glue, soap and candlemaking. Eventually they were  eliminated from the area both by the development of Central Park and rising real estate prices.

 by Ralph Albert Blakelock

Edith Wharton remembered the area as dominated at that time by “the hoardings, the quarries, the one-story saloons, the wooden greenhouses in ragged gardens, the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene.” North of the site I gave the Delegate house, it was still this old, bucolic, rough-hewn New York landscape, unrefined, undeveloped, not yet buried in the smooth cement of the new. Central Park, built in the 1860s and opened officially in 1873, made inroads in “civilizing” the neighborhood; but it still seemed too much like a savage wilderness for the upper crust to build there.

There were a few exceptions, wealthy home builders that for their own reasons decided to go above 42nd Street. Robber baron Jay Gould built a residence on the corner of 47th and Fifth in 1870. The infamous Madame Restell and her husband moved in at the northeast corner of 52nd and Fifth in 1864. But mansions towered over shacks.

Mary Mason Jones, a distant relation of Edith Wharton’s – personified in The Age of Innocence by Mrs. Manson Mingott — built a row of mansions on Fifth Avenue bet. 58th and 57th Streets, completing them in 1870. A remarkably independent, wealthy, well-travelled woman, she had had the first bathtub in New York installed in her home on Chambers Street, and her choice of venue for her new residence was equally offbeat. Five homes were constructed of gleaming white marble, with a two-story mansard roof that had green copper trim.

Marble Row, built 58th and 5th 1870

By the time the fictional Delegates settled into their house in the early 1870s, the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 63rd Street was still quiet, devoid of built structures, undiscovered by Knickerbocker Society. The Delegates were pioneers. I decided to situate them there because the choice makes them outliers, risk takers, iconoclasts in a society they see as conformist. I wanted to show them as the first to build a grand residence there, one that would outshine all the others in the city.

Eventually, Fifth Avenue upwards of 59th Street would be lined with mansions that were even more extravagant than the homes built in the avenue’s lower reaches. When people passed, they would gape at at the welter of materials and styles, the polished marble, dramatic gables and steep-hipped roofs, puncuated by balustrades and moats and massive chimney stacks. Whether architects hewed to the gleaming white symmetries of the Beaux-Arts or the swagger of the Moorish fortress or the period’s beloved French Renaissance design idiom, their creations lorded it over the somber-faced brownstones of the cross streets.

I couldn’t resist borrowing from some of the later residential masterworks to design the Delegate house, even though they would not be erected for a few more years. The various Vanderbilt homes offered the kind of opulence I felt the Delegates would emulate. After inheriting an estate of nearly 100 million dollars from their shipping-and-railroad-magnate father, the Vanderbilt descendents put on a grand architectural show. William Henry Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s eldest son, built triple houses for himself and his daughters between Fifty First and Fifty third Streets. William K. Vanderbuilt, William Henry’s son, had Richard Morris Hunt design him the mansion at the northwest corner of 52nd Street that was the setting for a famous fancy-dress ball of 1883.

Wm K. Vanderbilt House-the Petit Chateau

I was especially impressed by the mansion Cornelius Vanderbilt II put up at 58th Street and 5th Avenue in 1883,  the largest private residence ever built in New York City. A full block long, designed by George B. Post, it stood sentry until 1927, as one mansion after another followed it up the avenue.

corneliusvanderbiltiimansion

Actually, I’m being slightly inaccurate. For the record, in the early 1870s one house did stand on Fifth Avenue at 63rd Street, above the 59th Street divide, just across the street from the still forbidding Park. A narrow townhouse circa 1871, it was built speculatively built by one Runyon Martin, hardly a mogul. It didn’t last long.

The Delegates knocked it down to put up their turreted, mulberry-colored, block-long twin palaces.

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