Bo! Bo! Bo!

Okay, I’m a sap for dogs. I love the video of Bo Obama checking out the White House holiday decorations. Either he’s grown to the size of a Shetland or this clip was shot on a miniaturized sound stage.

Bo’s star turn carries on a venerable tradition of first dog publicity flicks, notably that of FDR’s Fala, Details of the filming of the aptly-named “Fala, The President’s Dog” are laid bare in deadpan detail in a diary entry of the president’s cousin and confidante, Daisy Suckley. (New York Diaries: 1609-2009. p.100) Daisy was invited to view a rough cut of the film by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in New York in 1943.

She dishes that a “piece of bacon was put under the bottom of a scrapbook which Diana [daughter of presidential advisor, Harry Hopkins] & Fala are looking at with such interest.” A substitute Fala had to be used in a couple of scenes. Unfortunately, the stand-in’s coat was shorter than the star’s, so extra fur was glued onto him.

For Bo trekking the halls:

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Thanksgiving 2012

St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in the East Village. Turkey dinner is free here for Sandy families. (I man the drumsticks and arroz con pollo stations). The air in the courtyard adjoined is sweet and fresh and the day sunny enough for dining al fresco. The diners are my neighbors. If the next surge should push in much harder, St. Mark’s will be serving turkey to me. The Church stands on the site of the old Stuyvesant family chapel. Petrus the Autocrat is buried in the east wall. (Bouwerie, or Bowery, Is Dutch for farm.) The place, now progressive Episcopalian, is a big supporter of the arts. Isadora Duncan danced here. A pianist on the grand piano in the community room bangs out show-tunes and God Bless America. It’s a perfect day in the Village.

In Memoriam

The New York Times names the dead.

Words Fail. Photo Doesn’t.

Credit: David Shankbone
Wikipedia/Creative Commons

The Skyline was Really Somethin’ in those Days

Simone de Beauvoir, the French novelist and feminist philosopher, visited New York City post-WWII. At night she discussed politics at parties with tipsy and testy American intellectuals. During the day, she gave her hosts the slip and made day trips around the city. This diary snapshot? So stark it hurts.

The sun is so beautiful, the waters of the Hudson so green that I take the boat that brings midwestern tourists to the Statue of Liberty. But I don’t get out at the little island that looks like a small fort. I just want to see a view of [sic] Battery as I’ve so often seen it in the movies. I do see it. In the distance, its towers seem fragile. They rest so precisely on their vertical lines that the slightest shudder would knock them down like a house of cards. When the boat draws closer, their foundations seem firmer, but the fall line remains indelibly traced. What a field day a bomber would have!

Simone de Beauvoir
January 26, 1947

(New York Diaries: 1609-2009. p. 37)

We Must Go Down to the Sea Again

The old South Street Seaport Museum had been taking on water for two decades before it got a powerful new patron.  Last fall, The Museum of the City of New York signed a yearlong contract (up this October) donating expertise and exhibits  with the hopes of turning around the Seaport’s fortunes.

Its future is uncertain: A shame because it now boasts two new floors of remodeled galleries showcasing such gems as vintage nautical tools, bottled ships, a stunning sense-around recreation of pre-European New York and demonstrations of atlier art from textiles to tattooing. It’s also child friendly. (Where were these places when I had a toddler?) Will it live, will it die, dwell in limbo? It depends, in large part,  upon public support. So, to-arms, New Yorkers, and march to the main! 12 Fulton Street. Directly across from the Bodies exhibit.

Incidentally, I had the pleasure of speaking there (Seaport Museum) as a part of its nascent lecture series. My favorite  question of the evening was a variant of the  standard “Which of your diarists would you most like to have as a dinner companion?” (Or words to that effect.)  In this case, “With whom would you like to knock about New York for a day? ” No contest: John Sloan,   artist and illustrator of the rabble-rousing Ashcan School. During the early 1900’s, Sloan painted washerwomen instead of heiresses.  The result; incomparable beauty. He was also a wit.

The following is a  snippet of his entry chronicling the Vanderbilt Cup Race of 1906:

…. An hour’s ride.…to Westbury, L.I. Here the roads were crowded in the foggy night with an army all bound one way… autos so thick we had to pick our way through them….dawn commenced…and unveiled the crowds. We found a place to stand, the start came at 6:15 a.m. Each car came up sputtering flame and firing broadsides – leaping away. After we had seen the start we walked along the course toward Jericho turn. Amusing incidents all along the road. Now and again the shout “Car Coming!!” The foolish people thronged the road ahead of the cars leaping back just in time to save their craning necks. Such speed I never saw to this day. No doubt the future has greater speed in store for those who then will be alive. The French drivers are wonderful though the fastest “lap” was made by Tracy, an American. Wagner won the cup for France. One spectator was killed by Shepard’s car, one out of 250,000 is not a great percentage when the foolhardiness of thousands is taken into consideration. 

John Sloan
October  5-6, 1906

(New York Diarists: 1609 to 2009. p. 324-325.)

There is rare film footage of the race on YouTube

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Quaker Meeting

Took the #7 train to Flushing last week. You can’t miss it. It’s the final stop. Main Street looks and feels like Singapore. This should come as no surprise when you realize that Flushing is Greater New York’s bustling Little Asia. Cool. But on that particular evening I was in more of a 17th century Quaker frame of mind.

The Queens Historical Society in Flushing had invited me to speak about New York Diaries at their May meeting. So after a few anxious moments checking street numbers on acupuncture clinics and karaoke bars, I finally located (with assistance of husband’s smart-phone GPS) a verdant park and two old buildings; one of these, the Kingsland Homestead, the Society’s headquarters.

I had been looking forward to this particular engagement because I’d felt, during previous readings, that I’d given short shrift to one of my earliest diarists, a very brave man named John Bowne. In the 1600s, he and his wife had converted to Quakerism and come to live at the settlement that was then called “Vlishing.”

The Dutch West India Company’s charter laid out what served as Colonial law and seemed to grant religious freedom to all comers, but Governor Peter Stuyvesant, a notorious bigot, declined to allow The Friends freedom of assembly. A number of them signed a petition called the Flushing Remonstrance protesting that these rights had been promised them and Stuyvesant dismissed their grievances.

Defying the Governor, John Bowne allowed the Quakers to assemble in his home. And, for this, he was arrested, taken from his sick family, and deported to Holland. There, he presented his case to Stuyvesant’s employers at Company headquarters. Remarkably, his argument prevailed. When word of this reached New Netherland, the Governor was forced to stand down.

As I read aloud Bowne’s diary account of his arrest, my husband, who was in the audience, appeared utterly absorbed – not by me – but by something beyond the podium and beyond my right shoulder, out of a window.

Afterwards, I asked him what he’d been looking at. Turns out, it was the old Bowne manse, site of the first test of religious freedom in the New World. And Bowne’s words, read in the shadow of his own house, had seemed, in my husband’s words, “magical.”

Note: The Dutch West India Company knew that religious tolerance was very good for commerce. It also left them on the right side of history.

Person Place Thing

Randy Cohen is a very funny man. A former gag writer for Letterman and  Rosie O’Donnell, he wore a para-judicial robe for many years as the New York Times Magazine’s venerable Ethicist. New York Diaries was lucky to include not just one but two of his personae, the Randy Cohen we know from his online journal entries for Slate,  as well as those penned under a secret  identity granted him by a TV ratings giant. He graciously agreed to forego anonymity and he appears in this volume as the “Nielsen Family.”

Randy now has a new gig hosting Person Place Thing, an original NPR production where personalities expound upon their favorites in each category. Recent guest, author and raconteur, David Rakoff, produced a hands-free can opener  with which he proceeded to open a  tin of cigarello-thin cream-filled cannoli. (See above.)

The can was then passed around the crowd. When it reached my husband and me we discovered that preceding congregants had been reluctant to open the vacuum-packed seal for fear of making a sound. We had not had dinner, and if you were listening to the broadcast and heard a sharp, aluminum “pop’, that was us. We are Huns.

Check out

Hats: An Anthology I

Hats, dozens of them — some demure, some risqué, all gorgeous and frequently constructed in apparent defiance of the laws of physics – are on display at the Bard Graduate Center [for] Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material at 18 West 86th Street.

This unusual exhibit came about as a collaboration between The Victoria and Albert Museum and the British milliner Stephen Jones That’s “Sir Stephen,” I believe, as there is a video of him being knighted by Prince Charles and he (Sir Stephen) seems to maintain a giddy sense of humor about the thing. Fortunately, that spirit of whimsy informs this collection.

There are hats decked with swans, ballet slippers, boxes of household products, one with a couple of straw figures copulating. Oddities such as Andy Warhol’s wig (natural and synthetic hair) and FDR’s top hat crop up. There is one intriguing cultural number, the Veil Hat, composed of a hoop, not a brim, from which a semi-opaque black veil falls well below the bosom. It comes with a slit from which a delicate hand can presumably extend. And do what? Does this comply with Sharia Law?

My favorite was a number made for actress Sarah Jessica Parker to wear at the London opening of “Sex and the City” in 2009. It is a confabulation of peacock feathers, silk flowers and hand-painted chicken and turkey feathers got up as butterflies — all giving the impression of sporting a plot of rain forest. (She wore it to the premier. and it photographed beautifully.)

Of Jones’s own creations, I favored the hat in the shape of a painter’s palette. And his work pictured in the photo below, the Silk Twist Hat (Hats: An Anthology II) reminded me of a description given by the diarist Maria Lydig Daly of the elaborate hairdressing of New York Society of the 1800s: Her entry of January 9, 1863.

One lady, a Mrs. Ronaldi, who is now the toast of the town, wears a bird’s nest with eggs, making her head a hatchery. I doubt if there is enough brain there to hatch anything.

(New York Diaries: 1609-2009. p. 12.)