Tag Archives: edith wharton

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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