Lovecraft at the Met

John Coulthart has reprinted a suitably weird anecdote about Lovecraft told by Frank Belknap Long. It was originally published in a 1982 issue of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine. An interviewer asked Long about a visit he and H. P. Lovecraft made to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York some six decades earlier.

Frank Belknap Long: You mean the time we visited the Egyptian tomb? Well, the Metropolitan apparently still has it. This was way back in the 1920s. The tomb was on the main floor in the Hall of Egyptian Antiquities, and we both went inside to the inner burial chamber. Howard was fascinated by the somberness of the whole thing. He put his hand against the corrugated stone wall, just casually, and the next day he developed a pronounced but not too serious inflammation. There was no great pain involved, and the swelling went down in two or three days. But it seems as if some malign, supernatural influence still lingered in the burial chamber—The Curse of the Pharaohs—as if they resented the fact that Howard had entered this tomb and touched the wall. Perhaps they had singled him out because of his stories and feared he was getting too close to the Ancient Mysteries.

The chamber in question is the Tomb of Perneb, which is of course still on display at the Met. It had opened to the public in 1916, roughly a decade before Lovecraft and Long visited. Met archaeologist Caroline Ransom Williams wrote of the unveiling:

People were formed in line two abreast all the way back to the Fifth avenue entrance to get into the chambers. Glass positions electrically lighted illustrate the former position and the taking down of the tomb. There are two cases of the objects found in the course of the excavations including the greater part of Perneb’s skull. A model of the entire tomb makes clear the position of the burial chamber.

Lovecraft had just finished writing “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” around this time. It was the last story he wrote in Providence before moving to New York in 1924, where he lived for two years. The story was ghost-written for Harry Houdini and published under Houdini’s byline in the May 1924 edition of Weird Tales.

The Saint-Gaudens Diana

When Stanford White designed the second Madison Square Garden at 26th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan, he commissioned the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a statue of the Roman goddess Diana, which would surmount the tower.

The venue opened in 1890 and Diana was installed the following year. Saint-Gaudens made several versions and casts of the sculpture. At eighteen feet and eighteen hundred pounds the original was deemed too large and was replaced. It went on to adorn the Women’s Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago where it was ultimately destroyed by the fire that ravaged the fairgrounds eight month after the exhibition concluded.

A second version was installed at Madison Square Garden in November of 1893. A much lighter thirteen feet of hollow gilt copper, it functioned as a weathervane, turning on an orb plinth in the wind. This version became an iconic feature of the New York City skyline, lit at night by electric lights.

When Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden was demolished in 1925 the statue was moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it remains today.

But at the same time that Saint-Gaudens made the second version he designed a half-sized copy for White, who displayed it at his summer home on Long Island.

Diana of the Tower still has a presence in New York, in the form of a 1928 cast of White’s version. It stands in pride of place in the courtyard of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in front of a fine Neoclassical facade, both pictured below.

An Ancient Megalith in New York

A dolmen is a type of Neolithic tomb architecture found in Western Europe. So what would one be doing in a small town in the Hudson Valley? Balanced Rock in North Salem, New York is a unique example of (what appears to be) a European megalith in North America, long predating recorded transatlantic contact.

I filmed a short video about the structure and the question of its origin which you can watch below, or at YouTube.

A New Essay in ‘Plum Lines’

In 1914 the English novelist P.G. Wodehouse was married at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Manhattan. This parish is New York’s historic actors church, known fondly in theatrical circles as “The Little Church Around the Corner.” For the rest of his long career Wodehouse commemorated the event by sending his characters there to be married. He even set the finale of a Broadway musical at the church, necessitating its recreation on stage.

My essay about the parish appears in the Spring issue of Plum Lines: The Quarterly Journal of the Wodehouse Society. If you are a member of the Society, you have your copy. If not, join here.

The Met Armory

Bashford Dean, who founded the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote:

Helmets and body armor are usually considered as objects beautiful, rather than useful. They are exhibited in museums, in halls hung with tapestries, beside faience, ivories and enamels of olden times… [but] one may point to the evidence of ancient and formidable injuries which numerous specimens of armor exhibit today; and one may even affirm that there was scarcely a famous soldier in those days who did not owe his life, directly or indirectly to his armor.

The quote comes from Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare, published in 1920. Dean was foremost a marine biologist but a lifelong weapons collector and researcher.

Van Rensselaer Manor

From the year 1630 until well into the nineteenth century the Van Rensselaer family were lords of the manor of Rensselaerwyck, a vast fiefdom in upstate New York, around Albany. Killian Van Rensselaer had acquired the land from the Dutch West India Company ten years after the Mayflower landed and it remained in the family through successive Dutch, English, and American governments. I described the later years of the manor at length in my biography of James Fenimore Cooper, a friend of the family.

The manor house was dismantled in the 1890s and rebuilt as the Sigma Phi fraternity house, called Van Rensselaer Hall, at Williams College in Massachusetts. Unfortunately it was torn down by the college in the 1970s. The only surviving fragments of the house were interiors donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The wallpaper of the great hall has been used to reconstruct the room in the American Wing. On a recent visit to the museum I took the opportunity to photograph the furnishings in detail.

Golden Fleece Forever

It was bad news last July when the iconic American mens fashion house Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Founded in 1818, Brooks Brothers is the oldest clothing company in the country, having passed its two hundredth anniversary. The brand was quickly bought by joint investors Authentic Brands Group and Simon Property Group for $325 million in August. This was inevitable. The label is too valuable to abandon. But that label could be stuck on anything, and previous corporate owners have produced clothing lines with little reference to the classic Brooks Brothers style.

So when the new creative director Michael Bastian announced his plans for the company’s future it came as a welcome overture. He writes at Instagram, “Where to begin? Easy—go back to the fundamental icons of the brand and of course that starts with the original #ocbd the #og the icon worn by icons.”

He describes trying on an Oxford shirt “from the archives from the 80s,” writing,

it was like seeing an old friend. The weight and density of the fabric, the famous collar roll, the precise button placement and the roomy fit (that feels so right again after years of overly skinny shirts), and of course the exact perfect pink that no one got 100% right but Brooks Brothers. It’s all coming back—we’ve set up the fashion equivalent of a forensics lab to study and measure and get this shirt back to its true original glory.

Greenwich Village Gothic

Grace Episcopal Church on the corner of Broadway and Tenth Street in Manhattan is the most important early example of Gothic Revival architecture in New York. I posted a picture of the beautiful courtyard in an earlier post. The architect was James Renwick, Jr., who went on to design the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. He was only twenty-four years old when he undertook the design of Grace Church.

It was constructed between 1846 and 1847 when wealthy New Yorkers were moving north into Greenwich Village from the crowded Downtown. Nevertheless the parish had a limited budget. While the edifice itself is marble, the spire was initially wooden, and much of the interior is lathe and plaster. A marble spire was added in 1881.

The church is a landmark of the Village. During its heyday its congregation comprised fashionable society. As Matthew Hale Smith wrote in 1869, “To be married or buried within its walls has been ever considered the height of felicity.”

Henry James at the Morgan

Pictured below: the guestbook of the Morgan Library from 1911. The novelist Henry James visited on January 18 of that year. His signature appears fourth from the bottom. I photographed this page a few years ago during the exhibition of Henry James and American Painting which I reviewed at the time.

Greenwich Village in Winter

Henry James described New York City as, “in certain lights almost charming.” Below: his and my old stamping ground in Greenwich Village after the snow. One of these terraced houses along Washington Square was the setting for James’s 1880 novel of the same name. 

A few blocks northeast, the Narnia-esque churchyard of Grace Episcopal Church opens onto Broadway. The black urn is an ancient Greco-Roman artifact.