Category Archives: Savage Girl

Publishers Weekly Interview w/Jean Zimmerman

PW 1

PW 2


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

Savage Girl Review in Library Journal

Woo hoo! This just in, from Library Journal, its Feb. 1 issue:

Wealthy socialite Hugo Delegate and his family rescue the “Savage Girl” from a carnival sideshow and bring her back to their mansion in 1870s New York. Reportedly captured as a child and raised by a Comanche tribe, she instantly captivates Hugo with her boldness and energy. The Delegates undergo a campaign to socialize Savage Girl with limited success. Meanwhile, violence follows this young woman across the country, as men she flirts with end up mutilated and dead. In this follow-up to her acclaimed debut, The Orphanmaster, Zimmerman offers a fanciful and occasionally surreal take on a Gilded Age New York that is reminiscent of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist or even Edgar Allan Poe. Most of the novel is narrated by Hugo recounting events in an extended flashback, which feels jarring and out of place. More successful are the action-packed final chapters. VERDICT This is best for fans of Zimmerman’s first novel and readers who like their historical novels tinged with darkness.

Savage Girl cover

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

Starred Review for Savage Girl

Publishers Weekly has come out with a starred review for Savage Girl. The reviewer says:

The prologue of Zimmerman’s superior historical thriller will suck most readers in instantly. On the night of May 19, 1876, 22-year-old Hugo Delegate awaits the arrival of the police at a house overlooking Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, the site of a savage murder committed by either him or a “girl murderess.” Hugo soon reveals that the victim, a “longtime acquaintance and sometime friend,” is but the latest in a series, and after his arrest, he presents the complex backstory to his defense attorney. Flashback to June 1875. Hugo, a Harvard student recently released from a sanatorium, accompanies his family on a cross-country trip. In Virginia City, Nev., he becomes fascinated with a sideshow freak, the so-called Savage Girl, allegedly raised by wolves. Hugo’s parents decide to civilize the girl, and introduce her into society on their return to New York. Zimmerman (The Orphanmaster) keeps the truth hidden until the end, combining suspense with an unsettling look into a tormented mind. Agent: Betsy Lerner, Dunow, Carlson, and Lerner. (Mar.)

Savage Girl cover


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

When Fifth Avenue Was Quiet

I like to think sometimes about what Manhattan was like in middle of the nineteenth century. Especially the upper East side, upper Fifth Avenue, the venue for my book Savage Girl. It fascinates me because it is so different than our image of New York. The environs were almost completely undeveloped.

In 1842, James Renwick designed the gargantuan Croton Reservoir (also referred to as the Murray Hilll Distributing Reservoir) at 42nd Street. It was far from the center of town. He 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 unfortunately named 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 folks 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, but slowly.


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 uppertens (upper ten percent) of New York built their urban villas and stolid brownstones 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, 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

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. 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 the first bathtub in NY 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, the family at the center of Savage Girl, settle into their house in the early 1870s at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 63rd Street, all was still quiet, devoid of built structures, undiscovered by Knickerbocker Society. The Delegates are 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, one that would outshine all the others in the city.

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’ place would embody. 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 by one Runyon Martin, hardly a mogul. It didn’t last long.

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


Filed under Culture, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

Savage Girl’s Central Park

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.


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 small carts, chiefly drawn by dogs.”

NY shantytown

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, additional 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 double allée 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, 1,800 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  Civil War.

workers building central park

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 just as they do today. 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,donated to the City in 1938. the offspring of a female African lioness and a male Siberian tiger.

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 journal

A flock of pedigreed Southdown and Dorset sheep grazed on the Sheep Meadow from the 1860s until 1934. I wonder what they’d make of a tigon in the Central Park Zoo.


Filed under Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Savage Girl

Ever Abustle

What exactly was the Victorian bustle, and why did it become a fashion staple?


In Savage Girl, the main character follows a trajectory of fashion changes, from a threadbare shift to simple girlish day dresses to glamorous evening wear, including what is generally thought to be the ball gown of the century. She is not limited by a budget, so she can indulge in the most spectacular attire available, with outfits like the fashion plates that follow. When I wrote about Savage Girl, these inspired me.


The bustle, the structured, extended back of the dress, derived from the hoop skirt, or cage crinoline, which derived from the padded petticoat of the mid-19th century.


All of these materialized out of  earlier attempts to widen the bell of the skirt. Panniers, for example. Made of linen and baleen, they sat at the waist and held suspended tapes of cane, metal or whalebone that gave the dress an exaggerated shape.


A set of panniers was also handy if you needed to rest your tea cup for a second to blow your nose.

panniers dress

Panniers grew trendy in the middle of the 18th century. It was said that people had to have the doorframes in their houses enlarged so that women could make their way from room to room.

There were many flouncy permutations of the skirt between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, most having to do with how many layers of petticoats you could afford – or manage to carry as you made your ladylike way along.


With a bustle, a contraption of horsehair and metal did the heavy lifting. The bodice would be delicate and would end at the close-fitted waist. The voluminous fabric of the skirt might be pulled up in back with a large decorative bow. Eventually the bodice extended down in the form-fitting style known as the cuirasse.


Another variant, the polonaise, cascaded down the back in ruffles,


Trimmings were crucial, the gaudier the better. Nineteenth century men made fortunes off of selling ribbons.

1875-3A lot of these decorations were arranged on a horizontal axis. Petticoats helped lift the train off the muck of New York streets. Imagine threading your way across a busy avenue filled ankle deep in horse manure.

But why, why the bustle? Where did it come from, this emphasis on a ladylike woman’s posterior?

One phenomenon not long before the bustle’s popularity that I find interesting is that of the Hottentot Venus, a South African slave named Saartjie Baartman who was taken from her home and displayed at London and Paris freak shows from 1810 to 1815.


People were wild for her, paying two shillings apiece to gaze upon her steatopygian form in wonder. Wild, she was called, savage. Hers was a tragic story; five years after her arrival in Europe, she died.


But it wasn’t long after her whirlwind tour that the bustle came in a la mode for decidedly un-Hottentot ladies.

The accentuation of the inherently rounded female form goes back many centuries. Consider these upper paleolithic carvings.

venusfigs upper paleolithic

In the Cyclades, a group of thirty small islands that encircle the sacred island of Delos in the southwestern Aegean figurines survive that show a similar profile.

cycladic venus figure 4,000 bc

I am sure the female models upon whom these marble figurines were based never saw a dress of any kind, let alone a crinoline or a ball gown.


But look at the simplest Cycladic sculpture and tell me you can’t imagine it a Victorian dressmaker’s dummy. It wouldn’t even need a horsehair bustle.

Cycladic 1


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

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

The Spirit of Electricity

I finally saw “The Spirit of Electricity,” the costume worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II at an outrageous fancy dress party she gave with her railroad tycoon husband that was one of the highlights of the Gilded Age in New York City. Textiles perish, and you don’t often get to see the famous gowns of the past. Mrs. Vanderbilt was always going to be a static image on a photo card, fetching but more than a little cracked.

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II

Born Alva Erskine Smith, Mrs. Vanderbilt orchestrated the ball in 1883 to christen the new lodgings erected for the couple at 1 West 57th Street. Theirs was the largest house ever built in Manhattan. In staging one of the most elaborate balls of the time, Alva assured the Vanderbilt family a perpetual place on Mrs. Astor’s 400, the list of New York’s social elite.

The New York Times covered the party perhaps less objectively than it would today. “The Vanderbilt ball has agitated New-York society more than any social event that has occurred here in many years,” read the article that ran the day after, on March 27th. “Since the announcement that it would take place…scarcely anything else has been talked about. It has been on every tongue and a fixed idea in every head. It has disturbed the sleep and occupied the waking hours of social butterflies, both male and female, for over six weeks, and has even, perhaps, interfered to some extent with that rigid observance of Lenten devotions which the Church exacts.”

In advance of the evening, quadrilles were relentlessly practiced, costumes were tailored, quantities of hair powder were  laid in. The party was a showstopper. The Times reporter exclaimed about the “garden in the forest” where guests took their supper, and the phalanx of cops that kept gawkers at bay outside the mansion as carriages began to arrive after 10:30 or so. We have no pictures of the hordes with their noses pressed up against the windows, but the fashionables inside had their images captured for posterity by society photographers.

Mrs. Elliot F. Shepard

Each guest’s getup was wilder than the next.

Mr. Isaac Bell

Jesters, Romams, Mary Antoinette, the Four Seasons – it was a motley group.

Mrs. Arthur Paget

I thought that the souvenir photos were all that remained of the event.

Then I visited Gilded New York, an exhibit that is currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York. The show includes the decorative arts, some paintings and some fashion. Yes, the end of the nineteenth century is big in Manhattan at the moment, with this enterprise and Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America at the New-York Historical Society. If you are a fan of ostentation, now is the time to put aside workaday worries and immerse yourself in a level of excess that is hard to fathom today.

The items on display were those that would have figured big in ball culture. Images of the grand Fifth Avenue houses set the stage, most long torn down, commissioned for the new industrial elites. By 1892, 27% of the nation’s millionaires lived in New York City, more than 1,100 of them.

Many of their mansions, like the Vanderbilt house, had a castle-like, European flavor. The structure where the 1883 ball took place was a model for the immense confection inhabited by the Delegate family in Savage Girl.

Vanderbilt home

With their newfound wealth, the millionaires bought jewelry at Tiffany, gold, enamel, diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. But they also went to Tiffany for other accessories, like this card case made of frog leather in 1900.

frog case

They had a taste for the over the top, like a decanter and cup fabricated of Murano Glass.

Murano glass

Long kid gloves were a necessity for a ball-going lady.

kid gloves

When they were feeling rustic they might show off a different style of ware, say the one decorated with an alligator, snake and lizard – this one belonged to Montana copper baron William Clark, one of the Fifth Avenue denizens.


All, it seemed, was glossy, elegant, costly. You can read the plush lifestyle in the portraiture, like the depiction of Helen Virginia Sands at age 19, shortly before her marriage to a successful Wall Street trader.

de la mar pic

What I found most affecting, though, was the golden silk gown, “The Spirit of Electricity,” here in front of me, for real. It had emerged from the black-and-white photo card. Heavily embroidered in beaten gilt, it had silver tinsel filaments that lifted like small wings above the shoulders. Imported, of course, from Worth in Paris.

light gown

That’s a Herter Company jewelry cabinet in the background, for you Herter furniture fans. The dress survived because it was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s daughter Countess Laszlo Szechenyi (neé Gladys Vanderbilt).

More affecting, even, the yellow silk stockings and pumps that Alva wore with the fancy gown.


This opulence of the distant past was real, something I could almost touch.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Dance, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Photography, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

Making Book

Frank Stella’s splashy, enormous constructions line the walls of the lobby where my book publisher has its offices. Three collages, to be precise, of mixed media on a base of etched magnesium. Standing in front of one, you have to crane your neck to see the top of the piece. Standing there, I try to imagine creating something so large as the exploding Stella’s, so imposing. My mind wanders – outside is a dumpling truck with the snazzy legend: “Who’s Your Edamame?” It’s a New York morning, and art and food and commerce jostle for attention.


Books, books, time to think about books. Or one book: my book. Stella’s work depicts the inside of my head as I take the elevator to the fourth floor. We’re going to talk about how to introduce Savage Girl to the world. How can I describe the feeling? Heart-pounding excitement. Trepidation. All shades in between.

Savage Girl comes out March 6th. And all the people at our meeting, editor, publicist, social media pro, literary agent – all of them are invested in making sure that my novel reaches a wide reading public.

So we talk about strategies. Bound gallleys, called ARCs in the business (for Advance Reading Copies) – who has received them so far, who gets them next? Print is no long king when it comes to reviewers – we want people to blab online about the book, on Goodreads, “where bookworms congregate,” as someone at the meeting says, on blogs, everywhere. We want the twitter-sphere to sing its praises. We want the people who read this blog – yes, you! – to get ahold of a copy and make their friend read it too. We want it to be consumed and consumed some more. Come up for air! Someone will say. It’s time to do the dishes. To go to the dentist!  But I can’t possibly, you say, I am too immersed in the adventures of Hugo and Bronwyn.

Savage Girl cover-final

Booksellers who received their early copy are liking Savage Girl, it seems. (Some Hollywood producers are too – shush, don’t jinx it by talking about it.) Authors have weighed in with comments that will appear on the back of the dust jacket. I like this one from Da Chen, the lyrical novelist:

The best historical fiction brings the reader back to a bygone era and  the depth of humanity then.  Jean Zimmerman does all that and more in her elegantly written new novel.  I simply could not put down this this tale of sweet and painful love, of a savage girl and her encounter with modernity.

All I have to do between now and March is a hundred things. Suffice it to say I’ll be writing more here and elsewhere about the Gilded Age, sharing what I learned in the process of researching Savage Girl. Debutante rituals, fashion, feasting, feral children, nineteenth century medical practices, mansions that are architectural marvels… I hope that people who don’t know much about the period will find out something new, and that I’ll satisfy Gilded Age aficionados’  yearning for more on the subject.


Say you enter your favorite independent bookstore, where the management has carefully curated its collection. You inspect the table when you come in the door and find scads of titles that tantalize you, that beg to be picked up and perused. It may seem that they found their way there by some kind of magic. Not so. Behind every glossy jacket is a team of geniuses who have pondered and sleuthed and brainstormed a way to bring that wonderful volume to you. Like an explosion, like the mixed-media Stella on the wall, the planning all comes together to unveil a bound book.

Riding the subway uptown, I notice a man standing next to me with headphones. Dancing, and not so demurely, either. He is rocking and rolling. He is happy. So am I. I remember a couplet by one of my favorite poets, another Frank, Frank O’Hara, who made New York City the star of many of his poems in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

How funny you are today New York

like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime

Sometimes, when you’re in Manhattan, everything can seem so right. I get off the train at my stop and look from one side to the other, not sure which direction to head on the platform. A woman in black-framed glasses and long black hair touches me on the arm. I don’t even have to ask. She points with her finger and softly, kindly says, This way. This way.


Filed under Culture, Dance, Fashion, Fiction, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry, Publishing, Savage Girl, 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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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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A Goodreads Vote

Sometimes I don’t know what I’ll do with myself waiting for Savage Girl to hit the stands March 6th. We’re finalizing flap copy, rounding up quotes from other fiction writers for the cover, talking about where I’ll go to spread the word about the book. Still, it seems like a long time away.

If you’d like to know what you can do until Savage Girl comes out…

Goodreads has posted a list of the most anticipated historical fiction reads for 2014. What upcoming historical fiction are you most excited for, asks the site. Pay a visit and click on Savage Girl to place your vote! And then, please, ask your book club cronies to do the same.

Savage Girl cover-final

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Victorian Waltz and Tea

Writing a novel in which Gilded Age debutantes dance with their swains in the gaslit ballrooms of fashionable New York made me want to get some nineteenth century dance moves under my belt. Or, rather, under my crinolines. So I brought my best Tigger kicks in to Manhattan for an afternoon of 1-2-3, 1-2-3.

Tigger kicks

Susan de Guardiola, our elegant yet earthy instructor, came down from Connecticut. She generally teaches what she calls Jane Austen classes – picture Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, sashaying down the line, all aglow.


I always preferred Matthew Macfadyen in that movie. Does he show up at any of Susan’s classes? She teaches not only English country dancing but about 12 other kinds and is a true authority in her field, with a website called Capering& Kickery  that gives all kinds of background on Victorian and Regency-era dance.

“If everyone’s good enough,” she told us at the start, “we’ll progress to jumping.” Such, I will tell you now, was not to be. It was baby steps for many of us, even as we behaved very well and tried very hard.


The last time I waltzed was in seventh grade cotillion, wearing a micro-mini dress and short white gloves. I loved it. But that was a long time ago. And a far cry from a tiny dance floor in the back room of a tile shop, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.


Today, some women wore black dance shoes and a man came in wearing a steampunk-style leather top hat. You don’t see that every day on the streets of New York. “Shall I put my hair up because I’ll get all hot and sweaty?” asked a curly-haired woman. “I usually do,” said Susan.

This class was offered under the auspices of the New York Nineteenth Century Society, an outfit that takes seriously its mission: it  “unites historians, scholars, artists, philosophers, dreamers, and impresarios inspired by the 19th century.” Recently they had a Nineteenth Century Extravaganza, for which everyone put on their full Victorian regalia. Next up is an archery event. Yes! Perhaps I’ll attend. Savage Girl is an expert archer, as were many young ladies of the late 1800s.


“The 1880s, 1890s were the root of modern ballroom dance,” said Susan. It turns out that the waltz changed seven or eight times in the course of its development, becoming faster, closer, more stylized. The dip back we expect from the female partner now didn’t used to exist.


“I’ll tell you the secret of this kind of dancing,” said Susan. “It works if you do it on the balls of your feet.”


“When this waltz gets going,” she said, “it flies around the room.” She might have been a tad optimistic.

This was a lesson in shoulder blades. The man should place his hand on the woman’s left shoulder blade (“that’s the sharp thing sticking out of her back,” said Susan) though in Victorian times when everyone wore corsets and your posture was therefore better, your partner could put his hand farther down your back. The woman holds her left hand against the man’s right shoulder, above his chest, to help push him around during the turns.

We learned the gavotte glide, a slide to the right followed by a turn, and we learned the importance of leading with your toe, Victorian style. Susan suggested we lean in and not worry about the various “bits” of us that might touch. We passed partners around the circle, dancing with utter and complete strangers, experiencing waves of cologne, perspiration, different kinds of breath, good and not-so-good manners. Everyone tried hard. I got one partner, Jake, a couple of times, and we shared laughs over each other’s clumsiness. He suggested we hold a hand behind us, as I might do holding a bunch of petticoats.

hands cocked

Jake high fived me when we came to a halt semi-successfully. Very Victorian.


Lesson over, Gil and I proceeded outside, where a young dancer waiting for a tango class advised me that rubber soles such as the ones I had on might cost me an ankle. “I hope you keep it up,” she told me and Gil kindly. “Maybe I’ll see you on Dancing with the Stars.”

On the street, I asked Susan how to improve. “Practice five minutes every day,” she said. “Go to a supermarket and practice down all those wide aisles.” You don’t need to do it all at once. “Sleep on your lesson,” she said, “and you will do better the next day.”

We hadn’t had enough Victorian flavor so we went afterward for high tea at a place called Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon. It was on the first floor of a Gramercy Park hotel, The Inn at Irving Place, carved out of two adjoining brownstones that date back to 1834. Washington Irving was said to have spent some time in a house down the street, enhancing the old-fashioned aura of the neighborhood. The online reviews I read said a man would not be welcome at the establishment, so of course Gil wanted to go.

jz tea

Lights were turned down low and the whole effect was gracious and mellow and ladylike, even if there were a few male interlopers.

tea room

We chose our freshly steeped tea from a menu of 27 varieties. The “Lady Mendl,” which I selected, was hot and heavenly, especially after waltzing for two hours.


Darjeeling scented with bergamot, it was named after Lady Mendl herself – none other than the society woman Elsie de Wolfe, one of the first people to make her fame as an interior decorator. It’s said she had the expression “never complain, never explain” stitched on her throw pillows.


There was an amuse bouche consisting of a butternut squash tart with crème fraiche. Tea sandwiches. We were rolling. Everyone in the room appeared happy, or rather, high. High on hot, fragrant tea.

We reminisced about the banyan I made Gil one Christmas. Banyans are the “exotic” silk robes colonial men wore when they were at home at leisure, with their temporarily unperiwigged pates covered in caps.


There were, of course, scones and clotted cream. I ate some of the cream on a spoon to make sure it was property clotted.


As if that wasn’t sweet enough we had millefeuille cake with more cream, and chocolate-covered strawberries. In my opinion the strawberries are a specious addition, since a century ago you couldn’t get the kind of giant fruit they dip now. Not that I’m complaining.

choc strawberry

“It’s good to do something you don’t ordinarily do,” I opined with Victorian superciliousness. “It makes you grow.”

“It makes you groan,” said Gil, ready to go back to the Cabin, put his feet up and his banyan on.


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Making Change

It’s a good day for working. I just finished proofing the third pass Savage Girl galleys. Found some periods and commas that persisted perversely in the manuscript despite everyone’s best efforts. A few tiny, tiny changes make all the difference. If. You. Ask. Me.

Yes, it’s a good day for scrunching your forehead and working. Especially if your work is being on the lookout for deer.


But isn’t it a better day for rolling in the grass? Those fallen leaves add a toasty texture to a run-of-the-mill back scratch.

O rolling

Closer to waist level, the sun warms the fall berries. Where do they come from? The landscape has changed. All of the sudden they’re there.

red berries

Then there are the last of the morning glories, though they don’t know it. The deer have already had at most of their leaves. Soon the blooms will fold up their tent.


They mirror the arching sky. Contrails: someone’s going someplace.

blue sky

The morning glories unfurl for just a single day. Their only work is being beautiful.

This morning I revamped the front page of this site, and I invite you to visit. To improve is to change, said Churchill. To be perfect is to change often. I don’t know that I change often enough or dramatically enough, but I’d like to try something new.

For one thing, I’m settling on an up-to-date author photo. Not quite sure, but this one’s a strong possibility.  I like it because I seem bemused. Which I often am.

IMG_8745 revised


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