It’s hard to pick a favorite among the sparkling profiles that appear in Julie Scelfo’s recently published anthology, The Women Who Made New York. There are over one hundred of these subjects – I won’t refer to them as “town mothers” as that suggests they were simply an auxiliary to the “town fathers.” And they were so much more than that.
Scelfo’s volume includes the well-known – Shirley Chisolm, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amanda Burden, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mae West, Bella Abzug, Diana Vreeland among others who pored over blueprints, hoisted placards and trailed spangles. Then there are the quieter forces such as Mother Cabrini, Eliza Hamilton, and Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell who fought tirelessly to relieve the plight of orphans, the elderly and the poor. One particular stand-out is Dr. Sara Josephine Baker who first made the connection between personal hygiene and the epidemics that ravaged New York each summer. Her sleuthing is credited with helping to isolate the Irish cook known as “Typhoid Mary.” According to Scelfo, a former correspondent for Newsweek, Baker chased the suspect through the streets, apprehended her and confined her to an ambulance where she sat on her until they reached the hospital.
One of the most enjoyable reads is Scelfo’s profile of A’Lelia Walker, an icon of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker’s mother, Madam C.J. Walker, was the country’s first black, female millionaire, having developed and marketed nationally a line of African-American hair products. Scelfo writes;
With phenomenal sums of money at her disposal, [a] love of the arts, and experience traveling around the globe in the world’s most elite circles, the younger Walker hosted a series of parties at her posh townhouse on 136th Street…where champagne flowed, nightclub quartets crooned, and urbanites of all backgrounds rubbed elbows in close quarters.
The country’s first black heiress, who cut a striking nearly six-foot figure…brought together downtown poets, financiers, enabling blacks and whites for the first time to socialize on near-equal terms.
And they socialized up close… Langston Hughes recounted in his autobiography an occasion when a royal personage (‘A Scandinavian prince, I believe’) arrived and found no way to get through the crowds into the actual party so he sent a message to the hostess; demonstrating both her wit and stature, Walker sent a message that she couldn’t find a way out either, but she would gladly send refreshments to his car…
Scelfo’s profiles are interspersed with whimsical portraits by the illustrator and stylist Hallie Heald. Seal Press took a great deal of care with the art direction and it makes for a beautiful package. The Women Who Made New York is a perfect gift for the NewYorkophile on your holiday list.