Wow! LC Tiffany Makes It!!

It’s easy to overlook the New-York Historical Society as a place to visit, with the massive Museum of Natural History looming over it, right across the street. Sometimes, though, the smaller museums produce just as much interest, without the exhaustion. I like the MNH, but it’s a lot to take in.

Founded in 1804, it was the first museum in New York City, but it’s not at all stuffy. Evidence for that is the current exhibition, “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” the story of Jewish Delis in New York. (The museum is missing a big fundraising opportunity by not selling pastrami sandwiches on the spot!) It tells how the delicatessens started with the Central and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Delis served foods that reminded them of home that was not only tasty, but affordable. As one of the longtime deli owners explained in a video, in the early days the customers were almost exclusively Jewish, but in succeeding generations, tastes widened. They didn’t visit delis as often, and at the same time the food became more widely popular. Now, he guesses, about 40 percent of his customers are non-Jews. There’s also a reel of clips from movies and sit-coms that have filmed in delis, including that unforgettable scene from When Harry Met Sally, filmed at Katz’s delicatessen.

The variety of exhibits, some small, some large appeals to a wide variety of interests. Like politics? You can see the working documents of Lyndon Johnson chronicler Robert A. Caro. Like fine art? There’s an exhibit of paintings of New York scenes, from Keith Haring to Norman Rockwell—including the theater curtain Picasso painted for Le Tricorne that originally graced the Four Seasons restaurant. Black history? You can see the stoneware of free Black potter Thomas W. Commeraw and an exhibit on Frederick Douglass’s vision for America. Decorative arts? An unexpected treat is a gallery of 100 Tiffany lamps. I didn’t expect to be so thrilled by this last exhibit, but the museum has done such a fine job of displaying these works that it’s truly magical.

Where: on Central Park West between 76th and 77th Streets.
When: 11 am to 5 pm

Halloween Countdown: We Were All Crazy Then

Cemetery

San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute library’s Writer’s Lunch series recently hosted a discussion perfect for the season: Writing Suspense, Fear, and Spookiness. In the wide-ranging discussion

Participants mentioned some notable books related to the season, one of which was Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. It’s about the cultural hysteria of nearly 40 years ago, when many pop culture media were believed to be promulgating satanic notions. The twenty essays it contains illustrate how easily and how far off the beam we got. (Remember the flaps about Dungeons & Dragons?)

My only excuse for missing this cultural trend entirely is that my daughter was born in 1981, and I was otherwise occupied. For that reason, I was surprised when I encountered it in literature—in an excellent book by National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon, titled Ill Will. Crazy as satanic messaging may seem. it’s not so very different than thinking a cannibalistic pedophilia ring is operating in the lower regions of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. In that suggestible mindset were the seeds of QAnon.

In Ill Will, a man convicted of murdering four family members—parents of his adoptive brother and two cousins—is exonerated thirty years later by DNA evidence. His trial “came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults.” He proclaimed his innocence, yet, despite the lack of physical evidence, “the jury believed the outlandish accusations.” When he’s released, some serious familial reckoning is due.

As fantasy, science fiction, and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Satanism, hauntings, werewolves. As long as you believe living-and-breathing people are behind a phenomenon, even if you don’t know for sure who it is, the mystery at least seems knowable. The moment different forces could be at work, well . . .  No surprise, Lovecraft was greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, who launched so many literary forms in his short life.

Further Reading
There’s a nice long Wikipedia essay about the Satanic Panic that is sure to stoke the fires of authors’ imaginations.
What Horror Can Teach Us” by Kelsey Allagood

Judgment at Tokyo

Did you know?

Last week was the first lecture in a local series on “Crime and Punishment,” which includes both real-life crime (true crime, write large), and an examination of fictional crime, as in the works of Raymond Chandler and Victor Hugo. There’s a bit on crime science, with a procedural lecture (the work of crime labs) and the intersection of juvenile justice practices and advances in brain science. In other words, a very big and loosely woven net of topics.

The first lecture, given by Gary Bass, a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton was on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal after World War II and is based on a book he’s been researching for years, expected in 2023 (watch for it!). I don’t know about you, but I was a tabula rasa for this one. If you’d asked me if there was such a tribunal, I would have said, “Uh, probably.” Alas, I don’t know enough to go into the details.

It’s interesting (and sad, really), how popular culture has shaped much of our views of this aspect of post-WWII actions. We can probably thank Hollywood and Spencer Tracy for that—at least for periodic reminders of those dramatic events–and it’s a shame there hasn’t been an equivalently memorable treatment of the actions and personalities at the Tokyo Tribunal, which went on for twice as long (two and a half years). Though Americans may be marginally aware of it, most certainly the Asian nations that had suffered at the hands of the Japanese occupiers were acutely aware.

For example, China was consumed with memories of the bombings and privations as well as the Nanjing massacre of 1937, during which more than 200,000 civilians were slaughtered. Post-war Australia and New Zealand were fixated on the grim fates of their captured soldiers whom the Japanese worked to death. Again, popular culture fills in a few blanks, if you remember the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai or Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the 2014 Booker Prize winner.

One of the most interesting personalities involved was Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal, who became the only one of the judges who insisted all the defendants were not guilty, based in part on his questioning of the tribunal’s legitimacy. The interests of Empire and the U.S. use of the atomic bomb meant, to Pal at least, that no one’s hands were clean.He’s still held in high esteem in Japan today.

Europe-based World War II stories are a staple of crime and espionage thrillers. Thinking about some of the complexities the Tokyo Tribunal exposed, I thought I saw a deep well of new and compelling inspiration.

Out and About in my (Almost) Back Yard

A walking tour of the architecture and sculptures on the Princeton University campus is an enticing event. I’ve taken this kind of tour many times, but this one promised something new. Typically, it began at easy-to-find Nassau Hall, the largest building in the American colonies at the time of the Revolution and briefly, even, the nation’s capital. Some walls on the inside still bear pockmarks from British cannonballs fired during the pivotal Battle of Princeton.

Our guide, Jeanne Johnson, a docent at the Princeton Art Museum (closed temporarily for a construction project that will double its gallery space), is a dedicated gardener. So she was eager to point out the Beatrix Farrand quadrangle, recently renamed in honor the university’s long-time landscape gardener (her preferred term).

While we were there, Jeanne pointed out that two of the dormitory buildings framing the quadrangle are named for alumni who died during The Great War, Howard Houston Henry and Walter L. Foulke. Those buildings and the triple archway that connects them (shown) are considered the apogee of collegiate gothic architecture, a style popularized in the late 1800s and early 1900s when American universities went to great lengths to look as permanent and substantial as their English counterparts. The architect of these dormitories personally oversaw the cutting and placement of every piece of stone, alternating red, grey, buff, and other colors. A completely pleasing effect.

These popular sites dispensed with, Jeanne trotted us to an area of south campus where two new colleges (as Princeton terms sets of dormitories) have sprung up, seemingly overnight—Yeh College and New College West. The 15 or so members of our group all said exactly the same thing, “We’ve never seen this before!” This new area includes several whimsical outdoor sculptures, including the enormous coral-pink concrete sofa.

Finally, we looked at the construction site for the new museum, which will two new floors, doubling the space for exhibitions and study but retaining the same footprint as the original. It’s due to be occupied in March 2024 and open to the public that fall. Fingers crossed. The architect is David Adjaye, whose firm designed the Smithsonian’s museum of African American history and culture and many notable buildings around the world.

All this new construction is being done in the midst of a huge project to make the university environmentally sustainable, with respect to energy consumption, landscape practices, stormwater management, waste reduction, and reduced water use. It’s hard to walk anywhere on campus without encountering the construction of these new environmental systems.

The University may date to 1746 (and one of my ancestors was in its first graduating class), but there’s always something new!

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Travel Tips: The Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia

Contributing stories to Quoth the Raven (contemporary works inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s writings) and Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe rekindled my interest in the much-misunderstood poet, literary critic, and inventor of the detective fiction genre. A recent Virginia trip (history, Busch Gardens, genealogy) offered an occasion to visit the Poe Museum, a tiny jewel of a museum located in several small Richmond houses connected by gardens.

The house where you enter and buy tickets has a nice selection of Poe souvenirs and books. When you leave that, you cross a small lawn whose paths lead to a memorial (pictured). The granite benches along the paths came from a rooming house where Poe once lived, and the ivy lining the paths originated with cuttings from Poe’s mother’s grave—a fittingly macabre touch. Two black cats laze about, darkly.

Possibly you remember that Poe was the middle child of three born to actors David Poe and English-born Elizabeth Hopkins. Their father abandoned him when he was about a year old, and his mother died of consumption when he was three. He was taken in, but never adopted, by the family of John Allan, a successful Richmond merchant, who paid for his education in Scotland and London before the family returned to Virginia. At 15, Poe served in a youth honor guard during a visit to Richmond by the Marquis de Lafayette. Poe was admitted to the fledgling University of Virginia, but his gambling debts cost him place at the university, as well as his relationship with his foster-father. He lasted only a year there.

The main building of the Museum is the “Old Stone House,” built around 1740 and the oldest original residence in the city (several major fires destroyed much). It contains some furnishings—bed, desk, fireplace mantel—from Poe’s boyhood home, as well as his sister’s piano. The memorial building contains original copies of his writing and editing, including editions of the Southern Literary Messenger, which he edited for several years. A bound collection of that magazine was open to one of Poe’s own short stories—“Berenice”—which coincidentally was the inspiration for my two Poe-adjacent stories.

The museum displays some pages in Poe’s own hand (tiny writing) that are hard to read, as they can’t be subjected to bright light, pictures of some of the women he allied with, including his cousin and much-loved wife Virginia who, too, fell to the ravages of consumption. Thirteen years his junior, she died at age 24, after an eleven-year marriage. (Yes, married at 13.) Her death was a considerable blow to Poe, who believed nothing was more romantic than the death of a beautiful woman, and clearly was a partial inspiration for some of his melancholic poems and stories, including “Berenice.”

Upstairs in this house is a “reading room” with books by and about Poe and artists’ interpretations. Lots of ravens. In another building you can find items from closer to the time of Poe’s death (in Baltimore, age 40), including a portrait of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe’s literary executor, who took advantage of the death of his rival to sully Poe’s reputation. Not for many years were Griswold’s scurrilous accusations of madness and depravity seen for what they were—the product of an intense jealousy. The recent Julian Symons biography, The Tell-Tale Heart (reviewed here) is a well-researched, highly readable summary of a complicated and sad life.

More Information:

The Poe Museum 1914 East Main Street, Richmond. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10-5; Sundays, 11-5; free parking. Tours, educational programs, shop.

For Quoth the Raven (contemporary stories and poems inspired by EAP), click here.

For Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe (Holmes and Watson on the case), click here.

Memories of a Queen

Maybe it’s having been named Victoria, but the history and doings of the British royal family have always fascinated me—not the scandals so much as, in the present day, the Queen herself. Like her predecessor, Elizabeth I, she took on a tremendous responsibility at the age of 25 and bore it with grace during good times and bad (Victoria was 18).

I have never seen any of the royals up close—except once. In May 1985, we were visiting the town of Reims, with its famous cathedral, in the heart of France’s champagne region—reason enough to stop over there. Reims is also the town where Colonel General Alfred Jodl signed Germany’s unconditional surrender at the end of World War II. Coincidentally, we were there the day before the fortieth anniversary of the signing, a bit proud that General Eisenhower declined to attend the signing. Not only did he outrank Jodl, but he’d seen the camps. He knew what had been done.

As we wandered the cathedral aisles, practically the only visitors, one aisle to our right I saw a smiling elderly woman wearing a pale blue suit and matching hat. A few well-dressed men orbited in her vicinity. “Look! It’s the Queen Mum!” I whispered. My husband, knowing how poor I am at recognizing people, took a closer look. “Oh, my god, it IS!” I discreetly took a couple of pictures, now rather faded, and the headline from the newspaper the next day confirms the presence of the “reine-mère.”

In 2012, we again stumbled into royal doings, when we visited London to take in the special exhibits for the 200th birthday of favorite author Charles Dickens. They were quite fun. The photo is of the writing retreat he used, probably to escape the clamor of his many children. Coincidentally, again, we arrived right at the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee—her 60th year on the throne. We saw a great deal of Jubilee-related pageantry, a Royal Air Force flyover, and thousands of cheering Britons. I saw a dress I liked too.

Dickens
Dickens’s writing retreat in Rochester, England (photo: vweisfeld)

Unexpected Synchronicities

If you’re a frequent reader, sometimes the parallel threads from several books get all tangled up. Characters with the same/similar names in books by different authors. Intersecting plot lines. Or you read one book that gives you interesting background about something (Daughters of Yalta), and soon you read another dealing with the same events (Gods of Deception). You feel like you turned a corner and ran into a mirror.

Two books I’ve read recently were set in Venice—thankfully at totally different time periods (1612 on one hand and 1928, 1938, and 2002 on the other)—but identical geography and modes of transport, and—OK, this is a stretch—the third, a contemporary mystery about life on a canal in England.

The Gallery of Beauties by Nina Wachsman is a new historical mystery featuring an unlikely pair of protagonists—Belladonna, a famous and wealthy courtesan, and Diana, a rabbi’s daughter who lives in the Jewish ghetto. These beautiful women come to the attention of an artist creating portraits for a “Gallery of Beauties.” Intrigue is high in the city’s Council of Ten, whose mistrustful leaders vie with each other for power and prestige, and leading citizens’ fear of poisoning is so great they employ official tasters. Diana must slip out of the ghetto to pose for the artist, but the chance to wear beautiful clothing and mix with the city’s elite, including her new friend Belladonna, convinces her to ignore the curfew imposed on ghetto residents. Out in the city, she could be challenged at any time. When the subjects of the Gallery of Beauties begin to be murdered, the two women must unravel the mystery for their own survival. An indelible portrait of Venice in the 17th century.

The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen, narrated by Barrie Kreinik, is mostly set during the days leading up to World War II, when English schoolteacher and artist Juliet Browning begins a romance with the wealthy and devastatingly handsome son of a leading Venetian family. As the Nazis close in, Juliet delays her return home until it’s no longer possible to leave. Without papers and out in a city patrolled by fascists, she could be challenged at any time. (!) Sixty years later, when Juliet dies, her niece Caroline inherits her Venice sketchbook and keys to she doesn’t know what. It will be up to her to discover Aunt Lettie’s mysterious past. This book was too formulaic for me, in terms of the plot and the relationships. But again, Venice.

Idiot Wind by Michael Broihier is set on the Oxford Canal, which runs some 70 miles between Oxford and Hawkesbury in central England. The protagonist, Mac McGuire, with his 60-foot narrowboat, Idiot Wind, delivers food and fuel to boat owners up and down a central portion of this canal. The countryside is beautiful, the boat dwellers are quirky devotees to an idiosyncratic way of life, and it’s a peaceful one—that is, until dead bodies turn up in the canal waters. There’s a lot of mechanics involved in opening and closing the canal’s many locks, repetitive actions I actually found quite soothing. It gave a certain controlled rhythm to the story. No wild car chases, just going with the flow. For me, Broihier’s portrayal of life on the canal was a memorable one. But then, any story with boats is OK with me, and this was a dandy.

Gods of Deception

Upfront I’ll tell you that David Adams Cleveland’s book is 917 pages long. Before you stop reading, consider why an author would write such a book and how it even got published in this era of instant information? Of itself, length isn’t an insuperable barrier for me. I gladly stick with Neal Stephenson’s door-stops, though twenty pages can be too many if they’re boring. But this book was heavy, even for a paperback. So I ripped off the cover and used a butcher knife to slice it into four 250-page sections. (Are you cringing?)

I read it. I liked it. If you’re wondering what justifies taking so much of a reader’s time?, I’d say “layers.”

At the heart of the story is the controversial 1950 trial of diplomat Alger Hiss, which divided the country for years. Liberals thought Hiss was a victim of red-baiting in the simmering anti-Communist climate; conservatives were convinced he got off lightly with his conviction and sentence on two counts of perjury. Spying was his real game, they believed. Documents that came to light after the collapse of the Soviet empire confirmed he was a spy (though not everyone believes it even yet).

These were not trivial suspicions. Hiss managed to get himself attached to the US delegation to the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin Yalta conference about the post-World War II world. Thus, he was in a position to influence the meeting’s significant pro-Soviet outcomes, such as handing Poland over to the Soviets and returning millions of Soviet citizens to their home country and almost certain death.

One of Hiss’s defense attorneys was Judge Edward Dimock who, when Cleveland’s book takes place in 2002, is in his 90s and wants his grandson George Altmann to handle his memoirs. George, whose other grandfather was a Depression-era artist, begins to doubt the manuscript. Gradually evidence accumulates that Dimock knew Hiss was a spy, but did he, really? It’s a bit like a visit to the optician. You believe you are seeing the picture clearly, but then some shift, some slightly new way of looking is introduced, and the picture snaps out of focus again.

In the 1930s, the suspicious deaths and convenient disappearances of five men who could have testified against Hiss occurred (in real life), and George Altmann’s artist grandfather made a sixth (fictional one). Young George and his girlfriend, a character I never warmed up to, try to sort out the truth of the mysterious deaths, but again, facts are hard to pin down.

On top of the questions of intrigue and murder is a thick layer of art and music. Young George runs an art gallery, and his girlfriend is an artist. They look at the world around them in a particular way. Judge Dimock’s wife was a concert pianist, and insisted her son and three daughters also play. The family home in the Catskills is itself like a work of art with one priceless feature—an ancient ceiling painted with frolicking gods and goddesses, who become silent family friends and bemused observers.

All these layers—the significance of Hiss and the trial; the long tail of violence; the law and its opposite, the creative arts; the perennially perturbed family relations—any of these could be a book in itself. And I haven’t even mentioned Young George’s mother’s scandalous involvement with the Woodstock concert and music scene. Cleveland’s intricate layering of these innately intriguing elements makes the experience of each more resonant.

Ultimately, one message of the book is that the Hisses of the world, determined liars and true believers, can create a climate of disinformation, a parallel reality it’s hard to break free of. Their deceptions can lead even the most intelligent people astray and down paths of destruction. This is certainly a message that should resonate in today’s world. Though I thought the book started slow, before long it drew me into their fractured world.

Look It Up!

Colleagues who heard University College of London professor Dennis Duncan was writing a book about indexes regarded him skeptically, saying, “Isn’t that a bit . . . niche?” He described the experience in a recent American Ancestors Webinar.

His cleverly titled Index, a History of the, turns out to be livelier than those people may have anticipated. Its significance was underscored when it appeared on the front cover of the New York Times Review of Books last February. What’s more, the history of the index is still developing. When we do a Google search, for example, we are not searching the entire Web, we are searching Google’s index of the Web. The possibility that such an index could be manipulated to provide or obscure certain results has thrust indexing into the political arena.

Having an index was such a good idea, Duncan says, that monks invented it simultaneously in two different places, around the start of the 13th century. One of them (Hugh of St. Cher, pictured; the glasses are an anachronism) was based in Paris, and the other (Robert Grosseteste—“big head”) was in Oxford.

St. Cher wanted to index the Bible by recording the occurrences of every word in it. Starting with “a  a  a  a,” which appears four times, the list was alphabetical and was created to facilitate preaching. As long as monks used their Bibles to read and meditate, an index wasn’t necessary, but once they started preaching they needed to navigate the Bible more efficiently. This type of index was like using Control-F, Duncan says.

Grosseteste, by contrast, created an index much more like the ones we’re familiar with. It was a subject index. But he went far afield with the concept, including in his index all the books he’d read. It was a parchment Google.

For the next approximately 150 years, every copy of every book was still hand-lettered (manu-script, manus being Latin for hand). And the copy was not necessarily the same size as the original. As a result, the page numbers and index were copy-specific; what’s on page 50 in the original may be on page 70 in the copy, if the pages are smaller. Once printing was invented, copies were duplicates, page numbers were consistent, and scholars referring to specific content could be sure they were “all on the same page.”

From the beginning, naysayers criticized people for being “index-readers,” rather than working their way through an entire text. This questioning of colleagues’ scholarly rigor reminds me of today’s critics of Wikipedia users and headline-scanners (guilty).

Several well-known battles between intellectuals broke out in indexes. “Brown, Jeremiah, his dullness, 24, 40-45, 213” and the like. A more recent tweak in an index resulted after Norman Mailer refused to let William F. Buckley quote from his letters in Buckley’s book, The Unmaking of the Mayor. When the book came out, Buckley sent Mailer a copy and in the index, next to Mailer’s name, he wrote “Hi!,” knowing that would be the first thing Mailer would look for and calling him out on it.

Where Story Ideas Come From: Picking a Time Period

Sherlock Holmes, detective

Knowing how much research I have to do to write a story in the near-present, the thought of writing historical fiction overwhelms me. Ditto, science fiction set in the future. I can’t imagine how much cross-disciplinary science a provocative author like Neal Stephenson knows, in order to construct a plausible future to frame his compelling plots. My head spins.

Writing in the current time also has challenges, of course. When cell phones first became ubiquitous, some authors tried to ignore this massive social change and offered plots that could easily have been resolved and tragedies averted with a quick phone call. We seem to be beyond that problem. A few authors get around it by setting their stories in the past—even the way past—which accomplishes many things, one of which is making it harder and slower for characters to travel from one place to another and to communicate.  

My novel Architect of Courage, coming out June 4 (pre-order link here), is set in the summer of 2011. The ten-year anniversary of 9/11 was approaching, and my plot is tied to it. In real life, the authorities are on high alert when any significant anniversary is looming that might incite anti-government or anti-American actions: Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, are examples. The biggest of all: 9/11. This made it plausible for the Joint Terrorism Task Force members in the novel to be hypersensitive about the possibility of a terrorist infiltrating the architectural firm at the center of the story.

Even though I cannot imagine tackling a whole historical novel, I have written three short stories that are Sherlock Holmes pastiches. These weren’t the result of any special knowledge I have about the period (except as a reader of Conan Doyle), but in response to the publishers’ solicitations. We know a lot about the late 1800s and the Victorian era, thanks to television and the movies. As a result, establishing a common understanding with readers is quite doable.

For one of these stories, the research was actually rather simple (fun too). It’s set in 1884, around the time Queen Victoria’s adult son Leopold, who had hemophilia, died from the effects of that condition. I have several biographies of the Queen on my bookshelf, and was able to find out how much people of the era knew about the heritability of the disease. Potentially damaging rumors abounded as cases appeared among her descendants. These were useful in the plot.

It was also easy to find old newspaper accounts of Leopold’s funeral, which provided vivid detail. I had Dr. John Watson attend the ceremony, and some of these details appear as his observations. Even the 1880s were not free of the fear of terrorism, due to mounting pressure for Irish Home Rule—another plot point. Again, the precise time chosen presented specific story opportunities

But going back further in time? I’ll leave that to the excellent authors of historical fiction.