Lincoln and Liberty

A Merry Presidents’ Day. And God bless us every one!

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Fashion Week

The Blizzard of the Apocalypse threatened to freeze Fashion Week in its boots! Fortunately, the forecast was overblown, but the nastiness of the weather did force participants to arrive at The Week’s sundry venues heavily bundled. One of the networks offered a charming behind-the-scenes shot of an improvised dressing room filled on one side with doffed leggings, boots and slush-spattered parkas, and the other with a line of sylph’s – not flaw in sight — taxiing toward the runway. How does that biannual metamorphosis occur? I have no insider insights of my own to offer, but I was intrigued by those of a blogger who writes under the pen name ‘Staying Pinoy in New York.” He observed one of these young Venuses as she was still a work-in-progress. (Back then, Bryant Park was the epicenter of this event.)

February 11, 2005

Nothing announced Fashion Week in New York more meretriciously than a surfeit of model sightings around town, especially in the subway.

I had one yesterday, most likely a second or third tier girl in a non primetime showcase of an up and coming Parson Design grad or she would have been chauffeured already to the big tent at Bryant Park. This as I jostled for a seat…on my way to my tax preparer.

Of course, her build was improbably tenuous and her legs just sprouted from under her boobs and jetted all the way down to this mortal earth.

Although she wasn’t made up yet, her tresses still wrapped up shabbily in a silk logo scarf, the rest of the jaded morning commuters in my car couldn’t keep their eyes off of her, to say the least. Models are New Yorkers’ Hollywood stars.

Maybe this is what they teach ravishing girls in the pulchritude academy. Whenever you expect to be stuck in people places, be sure to lug along a weighty book. A Shakespeare is best.

As the rest of us mortals were ogling her, our divinity was deep into a Folger paperback edition of Hamlet. Something indeed smells rotten in the state of New York when the most beautiful creatures in the world assembled for this week-long Saturnalia are also the most literary.

My model, as expected, got off at 42nd [Street] Bryant Park, as she gathered all her other stuff, an unopened one liter Pellegrino bottle, a crisp Burberry plaid trench, her head scarf unlaced and her luminous face revealed to us, the Puerto Rican guy in front of her wearing a tatty Sean John hoodie could not help himself but exclaimed “dang!”

It was only when the train pushed on that [we] realized our model [had] left her Hamlet behind. No one dared to scoop the book out of the still glowing chair.

Staying Pinoy in New York

(New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. p. 58-59)

Waiting for Nemo

Haul out the LED headlamps, New England. All best, New York!

The Good Gray Nurse

I was speaking at the Fraunces Tavern Lecture Series several months ago when a member of the audience asked if I had come across any diaries kept by nurses. I was ready to say “no,” when I realized that one of the most unlikely, yet infinitely compassionate, nurses of the Civil War was NYC diarist, The Good Gray Poet, Walt Whitman.

Medically untrained, Whitman volunteered to assist in changing the dressings and tending to the wounded and dying of New York’s 154th Infantry Regiment. (Technically in Washington, D.C., but when Whitman tends the 154th anywhere, it is New York.)

I directed the questioner to Whitman’s writings, but, as time was short, didn’t read from them. I’m sorry for that, and, seeking to make amends, now post the following:

This afternoon, July 22d, I have spent a long time with Oscar F. Wilber, company G, 154th New York, low with chronic diarrhoea, and a bad wound also. He asked me to read him a chapter in the New Testament. . . . He said, “Make your own choice.” I open’d at the close of one of the first books of the evangelists, and read the chapters describing the latter hours of Christ, and the scenes at the crucifixion. The poor, wasted young man ask’d me to read the following chapter also, how Christ rose again. I read very slowly, for Oscar was feeble. It pleased him very much, yet the tears were in his eyes. He ask’d me if I enjoy’d religion. I said, “Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean, and yet, may-be, it is the same thing.” He said “It is my chief reliance.” He talk’d of death, and said he did not fear it. I said, “Why, Oscar, don’t you think you will get well?” He said, “I may, but it is not probable.” He spoke calmly of his condition. The wound was very bad, it discharg’d much. Then the diarrhoea had prostrated him, and I felt that he was even then the same as dying. He behaved very manly and affectionate. The kiss I gave him as I was about leaving he return’d fourfold. He gave me his mother’s address. . . . He died a few days after the one just described.

July 22, 1863
Walt Whitman

(New York Diaries: 1609-2009. p. 233)

Photo credit: The Alderman Library, University of Virginia


It is cold. I mean really cold. 23.2 degrees Fahrenheit without wind chill; 15 degrees with it. I know that there have been even colder temps during winters here in recent memory. If it seems particularly bitter at the moment, it’s only because thermometer readings of the preceding week were those you would find on a moderately brisk day in Boca Raton.

At its best, New York’s temperature is variable. The Wikipedia entry for “Geography of New York City” says that NYC, although located on the coast of a Mid-Atlantic state, is characterized as having a “humid subtropical climate.” While winters are cold, temperatures don’t get low enough for “persistent snow cover at Central Park.” Data from The National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration (NOAA) indicate that temperatures below zero turn up only sporadically each decade.

The City can be brought to a halt by storms dropping a foot of snow. These, however, are few and freakish.

One of the most famous was the Great White Hurricane of 1888. It was described with an awful beauty by the Cuban patriot José Martí who was living in New York City at that time. His entry of March 15:

The first oriole had already been spied hanging its nest from a cedar in Central Park… The first straw hats had made their appearance, and the streets of New York were gay with Easter attire, when, on opening its eyes [on March 13] the city found itself silent, deserted, shrouded, buried under the snow. . . .

At no time in this century has New York experienced a storm like that…. It had rained the preceding Sunday, and the writer working into the dawn, the newspaper vendor at the railroad station, the milkman on his round of the sleeping houses, could hear the whiplash of the wind that had descended on the city against the chimneys, against walls and roofs, as it vented its fury on slate and mortar, shattered windows, demolished porches, clutched and uprooted trees, and howled, as though ambushed, as it fled down the narrow streets. Electric wires, snapping under its impact, sputtered and died. Telegraph lines, which had withstood so many storms, were wrenched from their posts. . . .

A messenger boy, as blue as his uniform, was dug out of a white, cool tomb, a fit resting place for his innocent soul, and lifted up in the compassionate arms of his comrades.

Without milk, without coal, without mail, without newspapers, without streetcars, without telephone, without telegraph, the city arose today. What eagerness on the part of those living uptown to read the newspapers, which thanks to the intrepidity of the poor newsboys, finally came up from the downtown presses! There were four theatres open last night, but all the stores and offices are closed, and the elevated struggles in vain to carry the unwitting crowds that gather at its station to their places of work.

(New York Diaries: 1609-2009. p. 94-95.)

The storm left drifts as high as fifty feet. Four hundred people died on the Eastern Seaboard. Two hundred in New York City alone.

The photo above shows the maze of telegraph, telephone and electrical wires dangling from their poles. Before the blizzard, all such wires were strung over the streets, but fallen, they created such a deadly hazard that the city mandated their reinstallation underground.

(A very good source for further reading on this is Blizzard! by Jim Murphy. Published by Scholastic Inc. in 2000. As trade paperback in 2006.)

Brrrrrrrrrrr The Sequel

This begs the question; has the weather gotten warmer here over recent decades? One of my diarists, Brother Ewald Gustav Schaukirk, reports in his entry of February 4, 1780:

This week sleighs have crossed over the ice from Staten Island to this city, which has hardly been known before.

(New York Diaries: 1609-2009. p. 49)

The Upper Bay froze solid enough to support a sleigh drawn by horses? As in clop, clop, clop? How cold would it have to be to freeze the surface of a body of water 50 feet deep, especially one that for half of each day runs salt water from in-coming and out-going oceanic tides? The Lower Hudson, at a depth of a little over thirty feet, would also have frozen. There seems to be a theory afloat that the more impurities water contains, the faster it freezes. Impure water will generally freeze at 32 degrees F or, if it very pure, stay in liquid form until minus 55 degrees F. Impurities in the Hudson? We might be on to something. Was the Hudson filled with more impurities in 1780 than now; hence likely to freeze at a higher temp? This bears further investigation.

According to the New York Times Archive, February 2, 2003, it is more likely for the East River to freeze because it is shallower than the Hudson. That happened in January of 1866-67, bringing ferry service to a standstill. Also briefly during the great blizzard of 1888. On those occasions, some crossed the river on foot, but no mention of sleighs.

First in All that Mattered

The first American president, George Washington, was inaugurated on April 30, 1789 at Federal Hall in New York City. William Maclay, senator from Pennsylvania, penned an account of the event in his diary of that date. (New York Diaries: 1609-2009. p. 142.)

This is a great, important day. Goddess of etiquette, assist me while I describe it.

The President [George Washington] advanced between the Senate and Representatives bowing to each. . . . The Vice-President [ John Adams] rose and addressed a short sentence to him. The im-port of it was that he should now take the oath of office as President. He seemed to have forgot half what he was to say, for he made a dead pause and stood for some time, to appearance, in a vacant mood. He finished with a formal bow, and the President was con-ducted out of the middle window into the gallery, and the oath was administered by the Chancellor.

As the company returned into the Senate chamber, the President took the chair and the Senators and Representatives their seats. He rose, and all arose also, and addressed them. . . . This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before. He put part of the fingers of his left hand into the side of what I think the tailors call the fall of the breeches, chang-ing the paper into his [right] hand. After some time he then did the same with some of the fingers of his right hand. When he came to the words all the world, he made a flourish with his right hand, which left rather an ungainly impression. I sincerely, for my part, wished all set ceremony in the hands of the dancing-masters, and that this first of men had read off his address in the plainest manner, without ever taking his eyes from the paper, for I felt hurt that he was not first in everything.

Circumstances Make the Man

Maria Lydig was a tough cookie. In 1856 she defied her patrician family to marry Charles Patrick Daly, a son of poor Irish immigrants. He was also one of New York’s most respected judges and social reformers. As she matured, Maria Lydig Daly spoke her mind freely and forcefully, often leaving a verbal adversary in ruins. I deduce this, not from any existing audio recording, but from reading her no-nonsense entries published as Diary of a Union Lady: 1861-1865.

She exemplified the ambivalence that New Yorkers felt toward the Civil War. A Union Democrat, she and The Judge, as she invariably called him, remained loyal to the North even as the “copperheads”, northern Democrats such as Mayor Fernando Wood, (catch his consummately evil star-turn as a congressman in Spielberg’s Lincoln), were lobbying to drag the city into the Confederacy. Their motive; preserving ties to Big Cotton.

Maria’s reservations were more specifically articulated: She detested abolitionists almost as much as she despised secessionists, especially the women, dismissing them as rabble-rousing opportunists. To wit, her entry of June 11, 1862.

Dined yesterday at Dr. Ward’s and took a drive in the afternoon in the Central Park. If one lived there, no country would be more desirable – one would have all the luxury of a country seat without the trouble or expense. A niece of Dr. Ward, a Virginia lady, is staying there and is a violent secessionist. It is a pity that the abolition female saints and the Charleston female patriots could not meet in [sic] fair fight and mutually annihilate each other….

Nor did she have kind words for Abraham Lincoln. On September 11, 1862, after Lee’s army had crossed the Potomac threatening the capital, she wrote.

Baron Gerolt tells us that fifteen hundred men were laying for five days, still alive, on the battlefield, and that thousands died from mere starvation. The wretched heads of departments know nothing of their duties, and the honest fool at their head is content playing President.… I am sure I would not willingly sit at the table of Lincoln or his wife, much less receive them at mine.

Time altered Maria’s opinion of “the honest fool.” He did, after all, win the war. But that jubilation was short-lived. On April 25, 1865, she wrote:

Today President Lincoln’s funeral procession passed through the city. The body lies in state in City Hall and some three hundred thousand people, they say, have visited it…. Both yesterday and today all business has been suspended and I read that the 25th of May is to be another fast day. Poor Mrs. Lincoln! Circumstances verily make the man. A house opposite to us, having not been put in mourning, was tarred. Tomorrow the theaters reopen and then, I suppose, all will be over.

The sketch above depicts New Yorkers filing past Lincoln’s casket at City Hall. The photo below shows his funeral procession heading north on Broadway toward Union Square. One of the two children in window at top left is commonly believed to be Theodore Roosevelt.

Driving With Daisy

It’s ironic that Daisy Suckley (Margaret L. Suckley) should have found her way into today’s rumor mill. She was a scrupulously private person. You may know her as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s love interest played by Laura Linney in Hyde Park on Hudson. The movie rests upon the premise that they were “intimate.” If you read Daisy’s published diaries, Closest Companion, however, you’ll realize that this question remains open for debate. Geoffrey C. Ward, who edited that elegant collection, believes that the pair’s relationship was a sustained flirtation that settled into a deep platonic friendship.

Daisy was no ravishing beauty, but “comely.” As a spinster of thirty-one she was summoned to Hyde Park in the spring of l922 from her own family’s estate of Wilderstein, to be a companion for her distant cousin, Franklin. He had been stricken by polio and was recovering there. Over the next twenty-three years, she would come when beckoned, whether to Hyde Park or D.C., and was utterly devoted to him. The secret to their long association seems to be that she adored him without reservation and he could relax completely in her company, even confiding in her details of impending D-Day.

It’s hard to imagine the pair carnally entwined as Daisy had a rather antiseptic attitude toward sex. (Her mother had successfully instilled in her the conviction that it was the most ghastly part of marriage.) But there may have been some significant touching. He would take her on drives in the hills along the Hudson in his hand-operated roadster. They were go to a spot they called “our hill.” Of one of these drives she wrote “The President is a MAN – mentally, physically and spiritually – What more can I say?”

I’d say, friends with benefits.

On one other point, however, the movie makers wrongly underestimated Daisy’s influence stating frankly that FDR’s inner circle wrote her off as a harmless dowd. They were deeply concerned by FDR’s precipitous physical decline before the Yalta Conference in February 1945. And they were dubious of Daisy’s influence, specifically her frantic quest to find a cure. She schemed madly with an ex-boxer named Harry Setaro (AKA “Lenny”) who had retired from the ring and become a healer. Daisy, who was a mystic at heart, believed in him completely and thought he could be the president’s salvation.

In one of Daisy’s entries published December 20, 1944 (New York Diaries: 1609-2009. p. 413.) she describes having told Lenny how the president had high blood pressure and felt that his muscles were weakening. Based upon a photograph Lenny concluded that the spleen was culprit. Daisy concocted an elaborated scheme outlined in this entry .

…When the Pres. can fix an afternoon, I will telephone Lenny & he will take the 2 P.M. from Grand Central. He will be smuggled into the library & the President will come up “for tea” with the family [at Wilderstein.]. Just as soon as the S.S. have gone out the front door, the family will leave the library and Lenny will start working on F.’s feet – I am almost afraid of this meeting, for so much depends on it

There are indications that this reflexology session did actually take place, but without any improvement in the president’s condition. He attended that Yalta Conference in February 1945 and died two months later of a cerebral hemorrhage. Daisy was by his side.

Happy Anniversary

These photos were taken exactly a year ago when my editorial team was celebrating the pending publication of New York Diaries. I ran across them recently in Stacy Horn’s blog of December 10th. She announced that Maria Popova, whom the New York Times describes as “mastermind of one of the faster growing literary empires on the Internet,” had just placed our anthology at the top of her influential list of “best history books of 2012.” (I don’t know Popova personally, but she’s my new best friend.)

Top photo, counterclockwise: Stacy Horn and Stephen Pascal, both razor-sharp fact-checkers, and Victoria Wright, cutlass-sharp copy editor. I am the one wearing bangles.

Below: Stephen and Stacy.