That’s the first thing that caught my eye on the bulletin board of teeny magnets in front of the expresso machine where I was purchasing about two gulps of five dollar latte. For a long time I thought I made no mistakes, then I thought I made nothing but mistakes. Now I’m going with the neutral position, as long as there’s plenty of caffeine.
Coffee to cut the pizza at Artichoke Pizza, which weighs down Manhattan’s 14th Street’s east end with its cheesy, creamy, gooey goodness.
Something that caught my eye – something is always catching my eye – on the wall of Artichoke.
Signed in 1876. That’s about the time we’re about to delve into at the Morgan Library Museum on Madison and 36thStreet. The Morgan has fascinating period rooms that feature the financier J. Pierpont Morgan’s original library, among other things. And there are great manuscript-focused exhibits on a regular basis. But what always holds my interest is the brownstone that anchors the library complex.
I wrote about I.N. Phelps Stokes, the white-shoe philanthropist/architect/collector who published the greatest ever (and heaviest ever) compendium of images and texts about Manhattan Island. As I tell it in Love, Fiercely, Stokes spent his boyhood in this house, and when he was born here at the end of the nineteenth century, Murray Hill was still hilly and wild. Young Newton used to wander down to the East River with his Newfoundland dog, six or seven blocks from his home, and go for a swim. Stokes would have been 10 when that beam in the pizza place got inscribed. Aside from its use as a bookstore, the brownstone is now locked to all but staff, but you can catch a glimpse of the old, grand entry through a glass partition.
Morgan bought the Stokes property and gave it to his son Jack, who would surely have appreciated its 45 splendid rooms.
How would Pierpont have liked the current exhibit in the museum bearing his name?
That’s Woody Guthrie and his ever-loving wife Marjorie in 1941, on the wall of Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song.
There might be few Americans more antithetical in worldview as Woody Guthrie and J.P. Morgan. When most people think of J.P. Morgan, they might think, rapacious banker. Down in Wall Street you can still find the impression of explosive materials from when a horse-drawn wagon bombed J.P. Morgan & Co. bank in 1920 (killing 30 people though not the top guy). About Guthrie, on the other hand, people think, This Land is Your Land. And the song is here in spades, alongside dozens of notebooks, lyrics, photos and instruments. Even a business card.
Guthrie wrote over 3,000 songs. What you might not know is that after his Dust Bowl years he moved to New York City, spending half his life there. Actually, he wrote the song that Bruce Springsteen said is the best ever written about America while in New York. at the Hanover House, a hotel at 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue. It was 1940, and the lyrics were conceived as a response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.
Another little known fact about the genius songwriter is that he was a quite wonderful artist.
Something else not widely taught in grade school: the final verse Woody wrote.
Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said Private Property
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me.
I doubt J.P. Morgan would have approved of that sentiment.
Seems like he put more demands upon himself than anyone, as per his New Year’s Resolutions for 1943. Along with Work more and better and Work by a schedule we find Write a song a day and Beat fascism. Beat fascism? And here I always say, Lose weight.
He was human. He suffered the worries of any artist that his voice might not be heard, an agony he recounts in verse.
As Guthrie’s pal Pete Seeger said about him, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.”
It takes a lot of effort, too. A lot of mistakes. If you really want to be creative.