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!
Category Archives: Publishing
Life finds me this April Fool’s Day in a boat on a lake in the middle of a desert in the state of Arizona. It’s gusty and the waters form a chop that throws droplets onto me and the rest of the sightseers, who seem to have formed a plan to come aboard dressed in butterfly wings, the preferred colors of the Southwest.
The captain’s name, he announces over the loudspeaker, is Tom. Captain Tom will narrate the tour on the Pioneer Belle, speaking steadily for an hour and a half about the natural graces of the landscape and their deeper meanings. But first he spins a tune, Splish Splash, and I see him singing along as he maneuvers the big steering wheel to push back the boat from the dock.
Rock faces and hills rise improbably out of the drink. I am impressed by the facts the captain spiels – that Stewart Mountain Dam was built in 1930 to create this body, Saguaro Lake, that the depth of the water here is exactly 118 feet, that those white streaks you see on the dark rocks are “one hundred percent eagle poo.” Bald eagles are known to propagate here, soaring high above the cliffs.
Saguaros grow in unlikely places, Captain Tom says. They have a tap root of just three inches. “The saguaro seemingly doesn’t need any soil, it pinches itself into the rock,” he says. Some specimens have been alive two hundred years. You can tell by the plethora of arms.
“It’s freezing!” says a woman seated in front of me. There is a stiff breeze. But, no, don’t say freezing in front of a New Yorker who has just emerged from this biting winter.
Captain Tom offers up a Kenny Chesney tune: Raw oysters, yeah, give me one and shuck it… He’ll go coastal on you.
Yes, Captain Tom is a little cheesy. You don’t know how hard it is to be exactly the right degree of cheesy until you stand up with a mike in front of a crowd that has absolutely no knowledge of what you’re talking about, that just wants to kick back with a beer in the sun and breathe…
After doing book talks, I appreciate the skill of Captain Tom.
We hear about the sharp-winged vultures circling above, who “never need to flap their wings – they come out here to play, I’m certain of it.”
About the amethysts discovered in the nineteenth century in the nearby Four Peaks range and how they found their way “into the crown jewels of five countries.”
Captain Tom tells us, “I don’t make this stuff up. You can’t make it up.” Now isn’t that a line he stole from my presentation about historical fiction?
Desert varnish, says Tom, is created when manganese and iron leach out onto the face of a canyon wall.
Not listening, the golden tanned woman seated in front of me stretches out her arms. “Can you smelll the water? I love that smell,” she says to her companion.
“The large mouth bass is the trophy fish here,” says Tom, along with the walleye and some others.
“Nature’s something else, isn’t it?” says a man with a beer can.
As if prompted by Tom’s remark, a fisherman in a nearby boat pulls a yellow-silver bass out of the water, and the crowd breaks into applause.
Tom puts on another Kenny Chesney tune: No shoes, no shirt, no problem. He tells us things I didn’t know, that blue heron colonies are called heronies, that desert bighorn sheep can climb at an angle of 85 percent. That said sheep have a life cycle of just two years.
“Oh, that’s sad!” says someone who is listening to Tom. Someone who is not listening tells her friends that she is an expert waterskier and has performed her magic on every lake in Arizona. “I can get up in an instant, but after you get off your legs are like jelly sometimes.”
Those who did not listen to Tom can buy a DVD of the captain’s talk, complete with 120 good photos.
I might make DVD’s available when next I present about a book.
“I’ll take a few minutes and bring you back in time to the earliest residents of the Salt River Valley, the Hohokum,” says Tom, and again I feel a kindred spirit with our sightseeing boat’s narrator, that here is something I might invite an audience to do, go back in time, visit a marvelous place…
“The Hohokum,” says Tom. “The name means Those Who Have Vanished.”
“Wow,” says the waterskier.
More music, from Darius Rucker:
So rock me momma like a wagon wheel
Rock me momma any way you feel
Hey momma rock me
Rock me momma like the wind and the rain
Rock me momma like a south bound train
Hey momma rock me
Tom calls out the beauty in the drabness of the rocks all around, the chemistry of lichen, and I see the way the granite can resemble faces, as clouds can.
There is grandeur here in the ironwood trees that can live up to 1,500 years. Is the water blue or green? I am getting sun-stunned, and Tom’s voice is so lilting. I see why people drift off during book talks.
Somehow the last anecdote the captain relates, as the boat approaches the dock, is the most powerful, though it lacks inches or years or other measures, and only has the teller’s personal voice. Tom was building a house at the edge of this desert that surrounds us, he says, and he laid down a smooth coat of dirt beside the foundation and wetted it well with water. He came back to the patch of earth later to find mouse tracks, pack rat indentations, the footprints of gambrel quail, of coyotes, javelina, and the slithery imprint of a snake. He saw this with his own eyes, he says.
I was wide awake in a boat on a lake in the middle of the desert, and I heard it.
Savage Girl might never be an Oprah Pick. But that doesn’t mean the book doesn’t rank some standing in O The Oprah Magazine.
A friend of mine mentioned that she read the glossy’s April 2014 issue and saw Savage Girl highlighted there as one of “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now.” She probably noticed this while sitting in the pedicure chair of her local nail salon. Anyway, that is where I usually thumb through O.
The issue includes such salient topics as “When Is It OK to Lie?” and “Want to Get Gorgeous?” Both questions that actually have much bearing on Bronwyn’s various quandaries in my novel. I think the savage girl would likely be fascinated by O. She would probably eventually find herself on Oprah’s show, also, buoyed up on waves of fandom.
I tear out scraps of paper from magazines I find in nail salons, hair salons, doctors’ offices, vet waiting rooms. Do you? Enough people do that, put the scrap in their pocket, go to a book store, touch the novel’s jacket – one reader described the feel of it as “butter” – and take it home, and Oprah may well make it a Pick someday.
Sshhh. I can’t hear you. I am writing a book. Or as Father John Misty said in a song last year, “I’m writing a novel, because it’s never been done before.”
I want to make amends for letting my daily posts slide a bit recently. It’s partly that I’m preoccupied by the release of Savage Girl, yes. But more relevant, perhaps, I have been deep in novel-writing, a process that in my experience tends to zone out most other activity. Like laundry, dishes, housekeeping.
My new book tells the story of a girl in 1776 New-York (back when the city had a hyphen), and I have been spending all my time in that British-occupied city.
Let me tell you what it is like in my household when Gil and I are writing books.
We wake. Let Oliver out the door. Let Oliver back in.
Coffee, lots of it. We sit down at the computer. Get up for lunch, the lightest lunch possible so that we won’t be sluggish in the afternoon. Sit down once more at the computer. Knock off in the late afternoon. Let Oliver take us for walk. Dinner. Game of Thrones reruns. A fitful, novel-haunted sleep.
Next morning, begin again.
It is boring. It is fascinating. To me, anyway, if to no one else.
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Thus quoth Somerset Maugham. And so it is really a matter of creating new rules, a new language, every single day until you get your 450 manuscript pages finished. You never know what you’re doing. It’s insecurity raised to the max, alternating with momentary blips of glee that you got something right. Got something write. Ha.
Anything outside that process is hard to fathom, hard to incorporate – the spring buds on the trees, the return of the birds, social beckonings, exercise, even cooking good food, something that for me almost never falls by the wayside.
I remember years ago attending a party with a book freshly done, wiped out, eyes bleary, toasted to a turn, and thinking that it was impossible to even have a social conversation with someone who had not just finished a book. I simply could not relate to a book-less human being.
“There is nothing to writing,” said Hemingway, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” A mite melodramatic, are we?
Once upon a time, the novelist Amy Tan’s house burned down with her manuscript in it. She didn’t have another copy. She said she had no interest in talking to anybody whose house had not burned down, she was so consumed by what had happened.
So Gil and I retreat into our little cave, better known as the Cabin. The only thing in the Cabin is, right now, a pair of computers. And a dog. (Oliver refuses incontrovertibly to fall by the wayside.) There is the odor of hyacinth in the air, a strangely chemical smell, if beautiful. And a new page to be written, with words I cannot yet imagine.
Feral children, wild children, human beings raised by wolves… or bears… or goats… or rats… How credible are the stories of their existence?
They’ve inflamed the popular imagination for centuries. Surely it is impossible to believe that a mama wolf will take in a human baby and suckle it with her own. Surely it is outlandish for a little boy or girl to come in from the wild, hale and fed if not very well groomed, with the claim of having been nurtured from infancy by animals. Yet their demeanor would seem to lend credence to the claim – no human language of any kind, an alien affect, absolutely zero table manners.
Stories of feral children surface up to the present day. The archetype might originate with Romulus and Remus.
Roman legend has it that the twin sons of Rhea Silvia, a priestess, and the god Mars were raised by wolves. When it was found that she had been pregnant and had children, King Amulius, who had usurped her father’s throne, ordered her to be buried alive and for the twins to be killed. Instead, they were set in a basket on the Tiber, where a she-wolf found them and raised them until the boys were discovered as toddlers.
Probably the best known wild child today is fictional. Mowgli, invented by the protagonist of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book stories in the 1890s, became a contemporary star with Disney’s 1967 massive hit animated film of the same name. According to Kipling’s hugely successful telling, Mowgli lost his parents in a tiger attack in Central India and is adopted by Mother and Father Wolf.
A tiger wants to adopt him, a panther befriends him, and Mowgli wins the respect of all through his unique ability to extricate thorns from the paws of his wolf brothers.
He is ultimately adoped by human parents and brought into civilized society.
In the Disney version, Mowgli, “man-cub,” wants nothing more than to remain in the carefree forest among his baboon, elephant, sloth and panther friends, even after he has been told by many that he must return to the Man-Village. He only goes when he becomes smitten by young girl and follows her back to civilization.
A similar feral child novel from slightly later than Kipling is Shasta of the Wolves. In Shasta, a boy raised by a pack in the Pacific Northwest goes back and forth between a human tribe and his wolf clan… ultimately deciding to stay with the pack.
Mowgli has always been seen as a major influence on Edgar Rice Burroughs in developing his own feral child story Tarzan.
Appearing first in 1914 and followed by fully 25 sequels, Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes captured the American imagination. The movies expanded the franchise — Between 1918 and 2008, 89 movies starred Tarzan, with the most famous portrayal being that of Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. Tarzan is the quintessential noble savage, a man who manages to navigate two worlds with ease.
Orphaned as a child, Tarzan finds himself adoped by the leader of the ape tribe that killed his father – while Tarzan is his ape name, his English name is John, Clayton, Viscount Greystoke. As a young adult, Tarzan falls in with Jane, an American whose father and the rest of their party have been marooned in the jungle. They fall in love and he follows her back to the United States, marries her and the couple return to Africa, where they have a son. Intelligent, handsome, athletic, Tarzan lives up to his noble background though in the guise of a forest creature. His loin cloth is all he needs for clothes, a tree branch his preferred bed, raw meat the nutrient he favors. His upbringing represents the opposite of deprivation – this child of nature gained agility, speed, endurance and strength from his ape family – and yet, when he returns to civilization, he is able to adapt, learn languages, speak grammatically and make his way in civilized society.
Before the mythic creations of Mowgli and Tarzan, other, real, historical feral children fueled the public imagination. One related phenomenon is that of people afflicted with the genetic condition known as hypertrichosis, which causes an individual to resemble an animal in the growth of fur all over the body. Many children with the condition were exhibited in American side shows in an earlier period.
But non-hairy wild children fueled public fascination the world over. The best known, Victor of Aveyron, lived at the turn of the nineteenth century in rural France.
He was prepubescent when he emerged from the woods near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance in 1798, having been spotted by a trio of hunters. How he had lived during his childhood was unknown, but that he only grunted, that he showed no modesty about his nakedness, that he periodically returned to the forest, that he had numerous scars on his body, that he seized potatoes hot from the hire, told his captors that his was a feral childhood. Shortly after he came in from the woods he was seen frolicking nude in the snow – a sign that he could tolerate exposure.That and the central feature of his existance, his lack of speech. It was clear that he could hear. A young physician named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard adopted the boy and worked with him for five years to teach the boy and the case became a cause celebre.
Whether the boy could learn language inflamed the debate over what distinguished man from animal. Did the Wild Boy of Aveyron exist in a pure state of nature? Could he be civilized? Ultimately, Victor learned only two phrases : lait (milk) and Oh, Dieu (Oh, God). Itard published his A Historical Account of the Discovery and Education of a Savage Man in 1802. Today we know of Victor and kindly Dr. Itard through L’Enfant sauvage, The Wild Child, Francois Truffaut’s masterful 1970 film.
Peter of Hanover wandered out of the woods near the town of Hamelin, near Hanover in Germany, in 1726 — or was hunted down; accounts differ — and soon became the talk of Europe. He was around fourteen, naked, mute, and resistant, when he arrived in London and came under the protection of King George I and his court. The child had a predilection for acorns, and was fascinated upon hearing a watch strike the hour for the first time. George I did not speak English himself, and hailed from the same part of Germany as this mysterious wild child, explaining some of his attraction.
Plus, anthropology had come in vogue, with people bringing back accounts from foreign lands about savages, Hottentots, children reared by animals. Was Peter truly human or was he more along the lines of an orangutang? The media went wild over Peter, commenting on his primitive demeanor, wondering at his forest upbringing, marveling that the King adopted him as a kind of court pet. Writers hailed him as a wonder of nature and his likeness thrilled visitors to a celebrated was museum. Daniel Defoe proclaimed him the only truly sensible person alive. Peter never learned to utter a word, and eventually spent a long life being cared for on a farm in the country.
Another feral child was even more mysterious. Kaspar Hauser simply appeared one day in 1828 at the city gate of German’s Nuremberg, strangely dressed and, once again, mute.
He was around 17, and he carried a letter asking that he be given a place in the calvary. He could write his name, but he would eat only bread and butter and preferred to spend his days seated on the floor playing with toy horses. Philosophers visited him to try to understand what could have caused his strange, dull behavior (no swinging on vines for this one). The fascination has continued up to our time, with a 1974 movie done on his life, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser by Werner Herzog.
The foundling did manage some speech, developed a love for music, and became a skilled horseman, and eventually the memory returned of his childhood, having been imprisoned in a dark room, fed by a man he never saw. Not a child raised by wolves, but by a predatory human. He was eventually murdered in a public park by a stranger at the age of 22.
Feral children are not all boys. One famous wild child of the eighteenth century was Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc, who was born in 1712 and became known as The Wild Child of Songy. Born into a Native American community and brought from Canada to Marseilla during the bubonic plague epidemic of 1720, the girl survived for ten years walking through the forests of France.
She survived not by living with wolves but by battling them with a club. Captured, she went for ten years without speaking but eventually did take up words. Accounts of her life were widespread – popular pamphlets, books by historians and naturalists all fed the maw of interest in her feral upbrininging.
Of the many more instances of children who managed to survive in the wild, some have been discounted outright. Still, it is fascinating to see the interest that embraces those nurtured by all different sorts of animals. Nineteenth-century men and women devoured tales about the Lobo Girl of the Devil’s River, captured after her wolf sojourn, who managed an escape in 1846 and was last spotted at age 17 in 1852. Earlier, people hungered for tales of an Irish boy brought up by sheep, recorded by Nicaolaes Tulp in 1672. There was the Bear-Girl of Krupina, Slovakia, dating to 1767. The Ostrich Boy, named Hadara, lost in the Sahara by his parents at the age of two and reclaimed ten years later. The Chilean boy raised by pumas. Robert, who lived with vervet monkeys for three years when orphaned during the Ugandan Civil War. A Peruvian boy nurtured by goats. I have even heard of a girl raised by rats.
So nothing in Savage Girl should inspire disbelief, no matter how farfetched it sounds. No, nothing at all.
“A sweeping narrative…that raises touchy questions about what it means to be civilized,” by a “canny author,” with “wondrous sights”– all great phrases when crime writing pro Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times Sunday Book Review includes them in her review of Savage Girl. Coming up this Sunday, March 21st, but you can check it out in advance.
Do you like sparkle? I do.
I’ve been happy lately to usher Savage Girl into the world, delighted to see people get ahold of the book and resonate to the story. There’s nothing like a fresh book out there reaching people to make you feel good — after all, isn’t reaching people a big part of why we do this crazy thing called writing?
And yet my head is partly somewhere else, where my next novel is coming into being. And that’s a little dicey territory sometimes, a dark place where I have to feel my way along rather blindly. It can be a challenge, figuring out voice and plot and characterization, all the basic ingredients in a novelistic stew.
And I’ll say it again, it’s sometimes the kind of dark where you need a heavy duty flashlight.
Savage Girl was featured on this morning’s Today Show — check out the segment, Bill’s Books, hosted by David Ushery with book reviewer Bill Goldstein!
[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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s funny. As an author you work and work on a new book, you write, revise, get copyedited, read galleys, proofread again and again. You see the finished product, it arrives at your doorstep in a box of 20 advance copies for you to do with what you will. On publication day you know the book is out in the world. And yet until you walk until a store and see it with your own eyes you don’t know it for real.
So I had a little time to kill in Pleasantville, New York before going to see The Wind Rises, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. My favorite local indie outfit, The Village Bookstore, lies just across the street.
You go first, I said to Gil. See if it’s there.
Then I thought that was lame. Screw your courage to the sticking place, I told myself, and ventured in. There my book lay, and it was displayed in good neighborly company, alongside Donna Tartt, Sue Monk Kidd, Anna Quindlen and Isabel Allende.
I mildly asked the store clerk if he’d like me to sign some copies while I was there. He seemed delighted, found me a pen, and when I said I hoped people would be interested in Savage Girl he had an answer that made me blush, glow, beam.
Well, he said, I think so. All those people who learned to love your writing in The Orphanmaster.
Now that’s what I call a night at the movies.
[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.
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.
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.
Of course all sorts of costumes were welcome, not just human ones.
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.
Female burlesque performers during the Gilded Age embraced male roles onstage.
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.
Yet another crusading photographer, Alice Austen, captured some gender bending games with her friends, living what she called the “larky life.”
For all these historical figures, and for the characters in Savage Girl, seemingly silly costume-foolery offers something dead-serious: freedom from social constraints.
The process of achieving a societal debut in the late nineteenth century was one in which eighteen-year-olds got their first taste of all the splendour that money could buy.
Yet at the same time, the coming out process was one that was as constricting as it was exhilarating. The art of coming out was demanding, an experience that was rigorous to a degree the privileged debutante had not previously experienced. The world of the “fashionables” might be exceedingly comfortable, but it was also fraught with potential dangers of social missteps, especially when it comes to expectations for adolescent girls as they approached maturity.
The culture of the a debutante first originated in Britain during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, in the second half of the 16th century, when she began the custom of formally presenting eligible young women at court. Three centuries later, Queen Victoria created the ritual we think of today, with girls dressed in white and the official bow called a “curtsey.” It soon spread to America.
In Victorian days, young girls were kept closely guarded at home throughout their adolescence.
Their debut indicated that they were now officially allowed to come out from under their parents’ close guardianship and begin the rituals of courtship. Not only that, though, they were being ushered into a new status as ladies, on a par with some of the notable creatures of the age.
The grand dames of society banded together when a girl reached what was considered a marriagable age to help usher her into a new social status. The rituals of this transition were female-centric, self-absorbed.
There was certainly some power in the process for women, as they created and enforced the rules. But the learning curve for the debutante was steep and it was easy to make mistakes.
There was shopping for a proper wardrobe, to begin with. Godey’s magazine was the Vogue of the day; girls and women perused it to order items to suit their more grown-up status.
Not only fancy gowns, but “everyday” items.
New hats were a vital fashion component.
Dance lessons ensured that the debutante would be able to hold her own with the worthies of the day when she was “out” and socializing. Complex steps posed difficulties and required hours of practice, usually at special schools.
Late afternoon teas and luncheons in private dwellings brought the debutante together with society ladies she was meant to impress. Throughout, lessons were imparted from mothers to daughters, warnings about indecorous behavior, inappropriate dress. It was all about learning the proper way to act.
A crucial part of the process was the ritualized social visit known as calling. Everyone knew that formal calls were to take place for precisely 15 minutes between 3 and 5:00. One woman would drop her card at another’s house to let her know when she would be at home to receive visitors. The card had her name inscribed upon it, and the debutante’s name would be added to it. It wasn’t unknown to keep a visiting list of over 500 names.
Then came the ball. A grand reception that brought together a group of debutantes with young men their age and other, more mature members of high society, it took place at some point over the winter months. The coming out ball was commonly held in a public venue like Delmonico’s restaurant, the most swellegant spot of the age, located on 26th Street opposite Madison Park, which had the facilities to accomodate a large number of guests.
The fashions were extraordinary. The finest gowns came from Worth in Paris.
A French manual from the 1880s described societal expectations for women’s formal dress:
For the ladies, a light-coloured gown with a décolleté revealing the shoulders and arms, very long gloves and light pumps. They must carry in one hand a fan made from ivory or mother-of-pearl and also have their dance card. Many ladies prefer, as do I, a bodice in a shallow square-cut or heart-shape to a very décolleté gown . Sometimes the exposed neckline and tops of the arms are covered with gauze or tulle.
The hair must be put up, preferably with jewels.
The fan was indispensable element of ladies’ finery– closed, open or fluttering, it could reveal a refusal, interest or excitement.
While married women could dress themselves in brightly colored gowns, lavish hairdos and gaudy accessories, young ladies being presented to society had to dress modestly. White symbolized their purity.
One former debutante recalled the gown she wore, made of
white chiffon over white satin and with the huge puffed sleeves of the period. From the left shoulder to the right side of the waist there was a white velvet ribbon about three inches wide, ending in a knot at the shoulder. There was a bunch of white heather by the knot and some more around the skirt, about half way up. The skirt was down on the floor, was very full and had a small train, enough to have to be held up when dancing, and enough to make a modern dancer wild.
In terms of their attire, men were the backdrop to the ladies’ finery. They were to wear a black tailcoat with white tie, black trousers and polished shoes. It was both exciting and terrifying for girls to experience the male gaze in the pressure cooker of the ballroom.
It could be uncomfortable. Edith Wharton expressed the painful self consciusness she felt at her debut, remembering that for her
the evening was a long cold agony of shyness. All my brother’s friends asked me to dance, but I was too much frightened to accept, and cowered beside my mother in speechless misery, unable even to exchange a word with the friendly young men.
At the ball, ladies awaited the invitation of a gentleman to dance, but he was supposed to note her recognition before approaching her. The chaperone, usually the mother, hovered nearby. Dance cards were employed, and a man was never supposed to dance more than once with each partner.
Wharton described a typical scene at a ball.
Couples were already gliding over the floor beyond: the light of the wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed with modest blossoms, on the dashing aigrettes and ornaments of the young married women’s coiffures, and on the glitter of highly glazed shirt-fronts and fresh glace gloves.
The cotillion, or german, was a regular feature, and involved a kind of parade of set figures, gestures and steps, all well rehearsed in advanced. Dancing would take place until midnight, when a supper would be served, then the cotillion would resume.
The debutante’s symbolic responsibilities crescendoed at the ball. She stood to the side of her mother as guests entered so that she could be presented to her elders. Here she was, finally, the product of her culture’s teachings. She stood at the precipice of a new role, one that was the inherent goal of the coming out process: to marry brilliantly and embark upon a lovely family.
She was moving from the societal constrictions of her father’s house to her husband’s house, with a brief, glorious moment in between as a model debutante.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
Other fine homes followed, surrounded with yards and gardens, backed by stables. The ambience was quietly fancy, unprepossessing.
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.
The custom of the leisurely promenade continued, and with it the practice of making calls. Fifth Avenue was a social place.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.