Tag Archives: edith wharton

Been doing some thinking about squirrels

and especially squirrels as pets.

John Singleton Copley painted his delightful subject, nine-year-old Daniel Crommelin Verplanck, in 1771. You can visit with the imp at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and I often have. Perhaps because I’ll dealing with some especially dark subject matter these days in my professional life, my mind likes to veer when possible toward what’s lighter, wacky, odd. The not-so-lost art of procrastination.

So, squirrels. In your house. Intentionally. It’s not the only image of a pet squirrel in Copley’s art. He also produced this intricate portrait of Mrs. Theodore Atkinson in 1775. 

Note the attention to the luscious details of the sitter’s world, the fabrics, the way the light falls on them, the glint of the metal leash, the glow of the animal’s eye.

These creatures were surely treasured by Copley, who kept a few of his own.

Birds, cat, squirrel. Sweet.

Now, many people around the world take dogs as pets. (Perhaps not so much in Puerto Rico, where strays run abandoned in the streets before being gathered up for eager U.S. families, or in China, where they are too often raised for food.)

Maud’s Ottie, while no longer a puppy, is still the baby of the family.

For some people, just one dog won’t too. Gotta have a couple.

Or a bunch.

Famously, the royal corgis.

I’ve always loved the shot of a young Edith Wharton, who so loved her little companions.

Dogs have such soft brows and muzzles. Oliver.

So snuggle-able. A puppy so young it doesn’t yet have a name.

I’ve adored them since as a girl I hugged Shnuffles, she with her bad legs and worse temper.

But I’m distracted. Is this all just an excuse to think about my wonderful dogs of yore? Sugar.

Is distraction the better part of valor? Think that was discretion. In any case, I’ll leave it to another time to write more about dogs.

Cats, I find, hold less interest for me than they once did. I know that’s sacrilege on social media. Even exceptional specimens like the one my friend Josefa cares for.

Again I digress. Squirrels, now. When did someone think of domesticating a squirrel? And why? Benjamin Franklin wrote an tribute to a pet squirrel killed by a dog: “Thou art fallen by the fangs of wanton, cruel Ranger!”

By his time, squirrel ownership was faddish. Squirrels could be wild caught or sold in markets and, by the 1800s, you could buy one in a pet shop. How much is that squirrel in the window? The one with the waggely tail? Rich families bragged about them. Again, Copley. John Bee Holmes.

Copley’s masterpiece was surely Boy with a Squirrel,  in 1765, a portrait of the artist’s half-brother, Henry Pelham. See the lavish vanilla vest, the pink satin collar, the brilliant cuffs, their ruffles, the perfect glass of water, the light and shadow? What an ear.

This was a flying squirrel, one of a tribe of 50 specie in the family Sciuridae, which are not in fact capable of flight in the same way as birds or bats, but are able to glide from one tree to the next with the aid of a patagium, the furred parachute-like skin membrane that stretches from wrist to ankle. A long tail provides additional stability.

It seems funny now, but keeping squirrels as pets was commonplace through to the twentieth century. Before the family canine, the family squirrel. Here we have the Ridgely brothers in 1862, Howard and his younger brother Otho, the children of a wealthy landowning family in Maryland.

Back in around 1526, squirrel owning was significantly less democratic. Hans Holbein the Younger set a precedent with his Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling.

Oil on oak, it shows in addition to the lovely nibbling squirrel a bird perched on a grape vine, its beak pointing at the right ear of Anne Lovell, wife of Sir Francis Lovell, an Esquire of the Body to Henry VIII.  The grape, natch, represented abundance and wealth. As did the squirrel?

William Butler Yeats wrote in To A Squirrel At Kyle-Na-No:

Come play with me;
Why should you run
Through the shaking tree
As though I’d a gun
To strike you dead?
When all I would do
Is to scratch your head
And let you go.

People have often taken monkeys, too, as pets and occasional business partners.

In the heyday of organ grinders, it is said, around the turn of the 20th century, nearly one in 20 Italian men in the gritty Five Points neighborhood of New York City were out there with their capuchin monkeys. They only disappeared when long-time New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia banned the practice in 1936. He refused to renew the grinders’ licenses, saying that radio and outdoor concerts had rendered them unnecessary and with the intention of discouraging street begging. Historians suspect that La Guardia might also have wanted to discourage stereotypes about Italian immigrants (his sensitivity on the subject probably shaped by his experience putting himself through night law school by working days as an Ellis Island translator – the man supposedly spoke five languages).

Wild animals such as squirrels probably have no place in the urban jungle in any case. Court is a different matter.

Scholars have just discovered what is thought to be the first depiction of a pet guinea pig. In it, three Elizabethan children pose with their a cream, brown and white pet. “We know that guinea pigs were introduced into Europe by traders and were kept as exotic pets,” says a National Gallery spokesperson. “While archaeological finds for domestic guinea pigs in Europe are rare, a partial skeleton of one that dates from c.1575 was discovered at Hill Hall in Essex, an Elizabethan manor house.”

Charles Dickens kept a raven as a pet – he talked about how the bird camped in his stable, “generally on horseback.” In more recent news, my friend Cheryl likes nothing better than to cuddle her bearded dragon against her chest.

I myself might prefer a hedgehog. Or a tapir.

Or a peacock.

A group of peacocks, by the way, is called an “ostentation” or a “muster.” In ancient Rome, rich folks served peafowl as a delicacy. Today, peacock pets are said to be affectionate, though noisy, eating out of their owners’ hands and even coming to sit on their laps. They are good at fighting snakes, too.

None of the above, I’m pretty sure, are legal to adopt in New York State. The law here clearly states that you may not own any wild animal, defined as a non-domestic feline or canine or hybrid, bear, crocodile, venomous reptile, or primate. You can be fined 500 dollars if you break the law. It’s different in Oklahoma, whose residents need only a permit to own a ferret, any primate or a coatimundi. Oregon lets you have alpacas, ferrets, bison, camels, chinchillas, emus, ostriches, llamas, lemurs, sugar gliders, and giraffes. (Not wise probably to have all at one, at least not in the same pen.) In Arkansas, you can own up to six captive-bred bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, red foxes, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, or squirrels without a permit.

But then you’d have to live in Arkansas.

Did you know that hedgehogs are the new squirrel?

I hear they’re legal in Connecticut.


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Sometimes you et the bur

and sometimes the bur ets you.

Sitting beneath the drought-drooping branches of a bur oak in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery, we tapped our feet a bit impatiently, waiting for the trolley we were told would take us to the jazz concert in the catacombs. William Parker, freeform bass player, had been scheduled to perform. Nice view, stretching out over the New York City rooftops.

Constructed in the early 1850s, the Catacombs were an option if you couldn’t afford your own mausoleum. One famous person so entombed is Ward McAllister, the Gilded Age arbiter who coined the phrase “the 400” to refer to the guests of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.

What could be more wonderful than jazz in the catacombs at the tail end of summer?

Well, there was some competition. We entered through the Gothic brownstone gate to a cacophony of bird song. It was almost dusk. Looking up, we saw a network of tuft-y nests above us.

The spire was home sweet home to dozens of birds. Not just any birds. Monk parrots, shining iridescent green at this magic hour, flitted and floated in a cloud above our heads.

Something curious about monk parrots. Driving the New Jersey Turnpike the day before, I looked up to see a small flock of them overhead. You cannot miss them, they are chartreuse. Were they following me?

Monk parrots materialized in New Jersey around a decade ago and theories have been floated as to their presence in the American northeast. These birds hail from Argentina. Was there a shipment intended for a pet store that broke open at JFK and released them? Maybe. Or perhaps individual pet-bird-owners got sick of them and they went on to propagate here. In any case, there are now multitudes of monk parrots in fifteen states, including Florida and Texas as well as New Jersey and New York.  

Monk parrots are the only parrots to build a nest of sticks rather than roosting in a hole in a tree. They have some other distinctions. They can live to be twenty or so years old. Also, a pair shares a nest with another pair, with a separate entrance for each couple, intricate globe-shaped condos that feature different rooms, or apartments. There’s a community room, a front porch, and spaces for mothers to sit on their eggs. Siblings help with baby care. A pet monk parrot’s vocabulary of human words can rival that of the African Gray.

At Green-Wood, the grounds crew initially tried to destroy the nests at the entrance gate, but no longer does so because the presence of the parrots has reduced the number of pigeons nesting within it. Scientists actually conducted a comparative chemical analysis of pigeon feces, which destroy brownstone structures, and monk parakeet feces, which do no such damage. The monk parakeets are in effect preserving this historic structure. Edith Wharton would probably prefer the pigeons.

She hated brownstone, a new building material in Gilded Age Manhattan. “It’s like New York City is covered in cold chocolate,” she said. In her 1933 memoir, A Backward Glance, she opined that brownstone rendered New York “hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness.”

Green-Wood Cemetery is an astonishing 478-acre amalgam of history, nature and art. And death. Founded in 1838, it was a place to go for picnicking New Yorkers in the Victorian era, before the availability of large “rural” spots like Central Park.

At one time it was more famous as a tourist destination than Niagara Falls. Fashionable folks chose it as a burial site, and you’ll find the graves of Leonard Bernstein, Boss Tweed, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Louis Comfort Tiffany there, along with the uppertens of the Gilded Age and countless Civil War generals. The New York Times observed in 1866 that “it is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon the Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in the Central Park, and to sleep with his fathers in Green-wood.” I am quite sure that Edith Wharton would have spent some time ambling at Green-Wood.

The place does a great job with its plantings.

Nice place to while away some time while waiting for the music to start.

You can always find mysteries among the headstones, such as these offerings I inspected while awaiting the jazz.

Which, bye the bye, was postponed, and later cancelled. Fire trucks sped past along the winding cemetery lanes. Fire alarm? Bomb scare? No one seemed to know, and we didn’t wait around to find out.

The chatter of the monk parrots was as sublime as any catacombs jazz one could hope for.


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Happy birthday, Edith Wharton!

New York’s finest author (to my mind) was born into the uppertens 160 years ago, and wound up giving us some of the most indelible writing about the city, including The Age of InnocenceThe House of Mirth, and countless Manhattan-centric short stories. Her engrossing memoir, A Backward Glance, has become a classic.

In her autobiography, we learn of her pampered childhood, at which time she could comb through her father’s library but was forbidden by her mother to  read novels because that wasn’t something young ladies did. Edith Newbold Jones grew up in a brownstone at 14 West 23 Street, a relation of the Rensselaers and Astors, at a time when this constituted the best part of town. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is said to refer to her father’s family.

She was only four when she started what she called “making up,” inventing stories for her family. She attempted to write a novel at age eleven, but when her mother expressed her disapproval “Pussy Jones” turned to poetry, earning publication in numerous literary mags under an assumed name. Her interest in writing fiction couldn’t be impeded, though, and at 15 she secretly wrote a novella called Fast and Loose. She indulged her passion for dogs throughout her life.

Her mother looked more favorably on debuting Wharton in society, and she came out in 1879 at a December dance given by a New York society matron, with her shoulders bare and her hair arranged in a fashionable up-do. Clothes and visits and calling cards were everything.

Edith Wharton expressed the painful self consciousness 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.”

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.”

Then she met a well-bred Boston man, Edward Robbins (Teddy) Wharton, who was 12 years her senior, married him in 1885 at the age of 23, and together they set up house in Newport. They travelled in Europe (she eventually crossed the Atlantic 60 times) and bought a Park Avenue, New York home in 1897. Teddy suffered depression and other seemingly undiagnosed mental problems, and they eventually divorced.

The Mount, Wharton’s estate in Lenox, was purchased in 1902. She wrote the first of her new York chronicles, The House of Mirth, there in 1905. That is my favorite of her books, and ends (spoiler alert) with a knock-em-dead death scene.

She entertained in Lenox too, including hosting her good friend Henry James, who described the place as “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.” There are some funny stories about their trips out motoring together when the automobile was new. She also visited James in England, recalling how the two of them sat by a ditch at Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. “For a long time no one spoke,” she wrote, “then James turned to me and said solemnly: ‘Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.’” Kudos to James for the wonderful thought and to Wharton for capturing it for posterity.

Despite not publishing her first novel until she was forty, Wharton’s canon was extensive: 15 novels, 7 novels and 85 short stories, poetry, books on design, travel, literary and cultural criticism and a memoir. Her Pulitzer came for The Age of Innocence, published in 1920. (In case you were wondering, as I was, Scott Fitzgerald never got a Pulitzer and Hemingway didn’t get his until The Old Man and The Sea in the 1950s.) She was the first American woman to garner a Pulitzer.

For The Age of Innocence, she drew upon the experiences of her childhood. Her great-aunt Mary Mason Jones – personified as Mrs. Manson Mingott in the novel — 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. The buildings were constructed of gleaming white marble, with a two-story mansard roof that had green copper trim.

The feat of bringing about these architectural gems and then living there is remarkable when you realize that in that era, north of the reservoir stretched a still 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.

Wharton describes Mingott in the novel: “It was her habit to sit in a window of her sitting–room on the ground floor, as if watching calmly for life and fashion to flow northward to her solitary doors. She seemed in no hurry to have them come, for her patience was equalled by her confidence. She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries, the one–story saloons, the wooden green–houses in ragged gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene, would vanish before the advance of residences as stately as her own—perhaps (for she was an impartial woman) even statelier; and that the cobble–stones over which the old clattering omnibuses bumped would be replaced by smooth asphalt, such as people reported having seen in Paris. Meanwhile, as every one she cared to see came to HER (and she could fill her rooms as easily as the Beauforts, and without adding a single item to the menu of her suppers), she did not suffer from her geographic isolation.”

Those hoardings, quarries, saloons and goats were quite realistic descriptions of the acreage that would one day become Central  Park.

About her literary experience, Wharton said: “What is writing a novel like? The beginning: a ride through a spring wood. The middle: the Gobi desert. The end: a night with a lover.”

When I visited The Mount I was impressed that the people there had gone to the trouble of traveling the world to track down the books Wharton originally owned, so that the library there presents an accurate picture of her life. I didn’t know it then and it even seems a little odd but Whitman was one of her favorite writers. She recalled that when she was young, “Leaves of Grass was kept under lock and key, and brought out…only in the absence of ‘the ladies’ to whom the name of Walt Whitman was unmentionable, if not utterly unknown.” Later she realized the truth:  “He sees through the layers of the conventional point of view and of the conventional adjective, straight to the thing itself…and to the endless thread connecting it with the universe.”

Despite Wharton’s restrained upbringing and allegiance to the cultural mores of her day, her brilliance allowed her to grasp the truth at the heart of a vastly different writer.

Interested in the Gilded Age? Please go to the Books tab on this site, click on Savage Girl and then on the essays I offer there. Or read Savage Girl, a mystery about a wild girl who comes of age at the end of the 19th century, or Love, Fiercely, my biography of two of the more notable figures of that age, Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes.


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