This week: lunch at Keen’s Chop House in Manhattan. Keen’s is the last remnant of the old New York theater district, which was located around Herald Square in the nineteenth century, before moving to Times Square in the twentieth. With the recent closure of Delmonico’s and 21, Keen’s is among the last remnants of Old New York altogether.
The ceilings are covered with clay pipes. Each belonged to a regular customer, and was kept on site, to be brought out after a meal.
The walls are covered with theatrical memorabilia: posters and programs dating back to the restaurant’s founding in 1885. The collection includes many delightful pieces, and one most terrible and awe-inspiring.
Upstairs in the Lincoln Room is the play bill that the President held in his hand at Ford’s Theater on the night he was assassinated. Stained with the great man’s blood, it is framed on the wall amidst portraits and a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address.
It is five months since the death of James Fenimore Cooper, an evening in late winter. The island of Manhattan glows softly against the darkness. Some four-and-a-half thousand street lamps are blazing between the East River and the Hudson. Crowds in their multitude assemble outside Metropolitan Hall on Broadway opposite fashionable Bond Street. The great avenue is always busy with people. From the Battery to Union Square, Broadway is a carnival of shops, hotels, theaters, grand homes, and restaurants. A British tourist around this time likened the congestion of people here to all the traffic of the Strand and Cheapside in London squeezed onto Oxford Street.
Metropolitan Hall is a jewel of the avenue. The imposing theater is the largest in America. Only the opera houses of Milan, London, and Havana are larger. It anchors an entertainment district that spans south to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and north to the Astor Place Opera House. Tonight the traffic of Broadway, still a two-way street, seems to converge upon the theater.
People arrive by horse-drawn carriages. They arrive on foot. The night is cold, coming off of a balmy day. Temperatures hang just above freezing. By morning the city will be blanketed in fog. The Hall is illuminated, inside and out, by modern gas lamps. The people now filtering in are bathed by warm light. They enter a vast space of brightness and ornament; they greet one another as they take seats. This is, an early biographer of Cooper would later write, “the most cultivated audience the city could boast.”
A number of famous men take seats upon the stage: Daniel Webster, the former senator from Massachusetts and sitting secretary of state; Washington Irving, the great essayist and author; Ambrose Kingsland, mayor of New York; and William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Post. At eight o’clock, Irving steps forward to address the crowd. He says only a few words, praising “the genius of one” who is entitled “to the love, respect, and admiration of every American.” He is speaking of Cooper.
The event is a public memorial for the late author of The Last of the Mohicans. It is, on the surface, unremarkable that such an event should be held. James Fenimore Cooper was America’s first novelist and one of its first celebrities. Over the course of a prolific career he created an enduring national mythology. Yet there is a deeper significance to this gathering.
Irving introduces Daniel Webster, who steps forward. The great orator praises Cooper for his “literary productions, taste, talent, and genius.” The audience applauds when he says that Cooper’s writings “were patriotic—American throughout.” Letters are read from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Herman Melville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, honoring Cooper.
The man is to be remade in marble—figuratively, through these accolades—and, perhaps, literally, as the proceeds of the evening will go toward the commission of a statue. All of this is natural, of course. But the man of flesh and blood and passion does not yield so easily to the transformation. There is a hint of controversy. In Melville’s letter, the author of Moby Dick writes of Cooper, “It always much pained me, that for any reason, in his latter years, his fame…should have apparently received a slight, temporary clouding, from some very paltry accidents, incident more or less to the general career of letters.”
William Cullen Bryant takes the podium. He was a personal friend and speaks at length about Cooper’s life. During the course of his address he names the controversy to which Melville had alluded. “Scarce any thing in Cooper’s life was so remarkable,” Bryant says, “as his contest with the newspaper press.”
Cooper had become embroiled in the politics of the Jacksonian period. Through a series of mutual provocations and misunderstandings, Cooper, a Jackson Democrat, embarked on a long, bitter, public war of words against the newspaper editors aligned with the rival Whig party. The field of battle advanced from the printed page to the courtroom. Bryant paints a flattering portrait of Cooper’s conduct and outcome in the affair: he “behaved liberally toward his antagonists,” while “vindicating himself to his readers,” and chastening the press into “docility” and “good manners.” In fact, Cooper lost much to the controversy. At the time of his death he had only just begun to repair a career that had been brought almost to ruins.
It is significant that Washington Irving and Daniel Webster are involved in the proceedings. Indeed, Irving is chairman of the memorial committee. Notwithstanding their national prominence the involvement of these two men is counter-intuitive. Cooper had treated Irving poorly in life, rebuffing his friendship and insulting him to mutual friends. It was a private matter, tangential to Cooper’s larger public battles, but well known within their literary circle. Although Cooper and Webster had no history, Webster was, is, and always shall be the most celebrated figure associated with the Whig party.
Some critics take issue with these speakers. Some find the selection of Webster unsuitable, dismissing his eulogy as commonplace or without substance. But the audience seems, by their applause, to understand the extraordinary gesture being made: Cooper is now reconciled with his country. The controversies of his life are put to rest, the wounds healed. Let there be no question of his genius or his patriotism.
The man begins to fade from memory. His books alone are left to posterity. Cooper’s vision of America was romantic and ambiguous, focused on the meeting point of wild places (forest, sea) and hard, persevering men. His greatest creation, Natty Bumppo, the frontiersman featured in his most enduring work, became a symbol of the American spirit. Natty, like his author, chafes against the limits of American life. Over the course of five novels Natty serves the cause of civIlization while retreating from its encroachment. His final bitter victory is to die with the frontier rather than submit himself to human law or join the company of his fellow men.
Cooper was at once a champion and critic of American society. While abroad in Europe he defended his country against foreign opinion with crusading zeal. At home he was the devil’s own advocate toward American democracy and culture. He opposed the great men of his day. Yet here they were, at Metropolitan Hall, to honor him. These contradictions cannot be untangled without losing some truth about the man and his age.
What do we learn by studying Cooper? According to Daniel Webster, “we may read the nation’s history in his life.” Let us go back then to the beginning. The life of James Fenimore Cooper and the history of the United States begin, together, in a different, younger land.
Several Christmases ago I wrote about the bygone tradition of New Year’s Day “calling” in New York, when rounds of visits were paid to friends and acquaintances and every house was open to guests. It was the social highlight of the holiday season from the time of the Dutch settlers until the custom faded in the 1870s and 1880s.
This year I want to revisit the topic with some contemporary descriptions of the event. The first comes from Mrs T.J. Crowen, who offered instructions for hostesses in her 1847 book, The American System of Cookery. She wrote:
In New York City, where it is the custom for ladies to remain at home to receive the calls of their gentlemen friends, there is not time nor occasion for dinner; should it be desirable, it would be similar to that for Christmas, or instead—a cold roasted turkey (bone it if you can), cold boiled ham or tongue, a large glass salad-bowl of pickled oysters, or an oyster pie with dressed celery or a chicken salad, with jelly puffs and tarts and small mince pies, blancmange, de russe and jellies and ice cream and fancy cakes, with syrup water and orgeat or lemonade for temperance, or wines and punch. The manner of celebrating New Year’s day by calls, is a peculiarity of our own, and having so few which are ‘native here,’ many of our wisest and best, have wished that this might in no wise be slighted. Many a feud-divided family have been united, and misunderstanding friends have been brought together, under the all-pervading hospitality and genial influence which distinguishes the day.
Mrs Crowen’s book was obviously a primary source for the Lotus article I quoted in the aforementioned post, which lists many of the same dishes.
A number of first-hand accounts give us a sense of the experience of the day. In her diary for January 2, 1850, later published as Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York, ten-year old Catherine Havens wrote:
Yesterday was New Year’s Day, and I had lovely presents. We had 139 callers, and I have an ivory tablet and write all their names down on it. We have to be dressed and ready by 10 o’clock to receive. Some of the gentleman come together and don’t stay more than a minute; but some go into the back room and take some oysters and coffee and cake, and stay and talk…The gentlemen dropping in all day and until long after I have gone to bed; and the horses look tired, and the livery men make a lot of money.
Mr. Woolsey Porter and his brother, Mr. Dwight Porter always come in the evening and sit and talk a long time. They are very fond of one of my sisters.
As the latter comment suggests, match-making and romance were part of the appeal for the younger generations.
The artist James Edward Kelly was a young teenager in the late 1860s. He reminisced on the tradition of calls at that time in an unpublished memoir, later released in the collection, Tell Me of Lincoln. He wrote:
There was great preparation on all sides for calling and receiving on New Year’s Day. Parties were made up and lists prepared. Those who had money hired a coach or sleigh, while others less fortunate footed it…New Year’s morning, with shutters closed, and blinds drawn down, gas lighted, the young ladies prepared to receive their guests. All seemed to reflect the glow and color of the pendant prisms on the chandeliers and candelabra…The girls in full dress with flowers in their hair, clustered around a long table. Its glistening silver coffee urn, liquors, etc., with the usual turkey and other substantial things, which they served to the groups of merry friends who had driven up in their cutters…Most of the guests seemed anxious to make a record for the number of calls they made—as the girls were anxious as to the number of calls they received by counting their visiting cards—but others evidently came to stay judging from the way they clustered around the beautiful young girls.
The end of New Year’s Day calling in Gotham can be dated definitively to the 1880s, with The New York Times recording the last vestiges of observance in 1888. An article entitled “A Very Quiet New Year’s; Very Few of the Usual ‘Calls’ Made Yesterday,” appeared on January 3rd. The Times reported:
But by far the most noteworthy circumstance in yesterday’s history was the almost complete death of the ancient custom of call-making.
Some of the ‘old boys,’ however, could be seen yesterday in their spotless kid gloves and shiny ties making the rounds as solemnly as they did 30, 40, or 50 years ago…In none of the brownstone districts yesterday were the familiar sights of other New Year’s Days to be encountered…Not even the acknowledgment of a basket for cards was shown either on Fifth or Madison avenue of the cross streets.
Few carriages were observed bearing the gentlemen about on a pilgrimage of good wishes, and as a matter of fact the ladies themselves did not even deem it necessary to inform their friends that they should not receive. It was taken for granted that they would not.
Pictured above: “New Year’s Calls—The Knickerbockers of 1650 and 1873” by Sol Eytinge. Published in Harper’s Weekly (January 4, 1873).
Balanced Rock in North Salem, New York was the subject of a post I made in July, one of two experiments with video so far. I filmed the footage during a visit to the site in April. You can watch it here at the blog or on YouTube.Below is a transcription of my field notes which formed the basis for the narration of that video.
Balanced Rock is a stone structure consisting of an enormous boulder supported above ground by five smaller stones.
The boulder is an erratic, weighing between sixty and ninety tons: pink granite from the Hudson Highlands. It was deposited at the site by a receding glacier at the end of the last ice age.
But did the glacier balance it, or did men?
Barry Fell believed that Balanced Rock is a megalith of the distinctive dolmen type found in Europe. This would be evidence that European mariners crossed the Atlantic and made inroads in the New World thousands of years before the first Viking expeditions. The megalithic tradition dates to the Neolithic period with dolmen-building activity heavily concentrated between 4000 and 2500 B.C.
From the plaque erected by North Salem Historical Society: “It has been suggested in recent years that this may be a dolmen—a Celtic ceremonial stone used to memorialize the dead.”
A dolmen is the inner framework of a portal tomb, consisting of a base standing stones arranged vertically, with capstone laid horizontally across the top, forming a chamber. Within this chamber human remains would be placed and the whole thing covered over with cairn stones and earth, forming a mound or tumulus or barrow.
It is possible that burial was a secondary feature of these structures, much as it is at a parish church, and they were built for other mysterious purposes. We see them in the British Isles, in Germany, Scandinavia, and France. Where the earthworks have eroded over time only the standing stones are visible.
In his book, America B.C., Dr Fell wrote “… the largest Celtiberian dolmen yet discovered in North America, located at North Salem, New York. The 90-ton capstone is supported on the apexes of five erect peg-stones. Probably the memorial of a Celtiberian king, the North Salem dolmen most closely parallels a similar monument near Dublin.” This is presumably a reference to the Glendruid Dolmen in Ireland.
Of course Dr Fell received a chilly reception for his theory in academia but it is not at all implausible. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Exeter established similarities between the earliest man-made tools in North America and the tools of the Solutrean culture that inhabited what is now France and the Iberian Peninsula during the Upper Paleolithic suggesting that the Solutreans brought their technology with them across the Atlantic. (See: Across Atlantic Ice by Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley.)
The megalith builders would have come much later but we can imagine successive waves of European exploration in the Atlantic preceding the historical record.
For many years I lived on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. During that time I wrote a biography of James Fenimore Cooper. My office at the back of the apartment overlooked a charmless space behind the neighboring bars, restaurants, and apartment buildings. But as I was researching and writing the book I discovered that the room afforded me a view of Cooper’s own house. 149 Bleecker Street is one of two surviving city residences. Cooper, his wife Susan, and their children, moved into the house in 1833, after a seven year sojourn in Europe.
I describe their arrival in the following excerpt:
The Coopers disembarked on Manhattan Island along with four Swiss servants and a French tiger cat named Coquelicot, after the French word for poppy, the flower that had made such an impression on the family when first seen at Netley Abbey. From the docks they went directly to the City Hotel on Broadway between Thames and Cedar streets. A letter was waiting for them at reception from Susan’s sister Caroline. She informed them that lodgings had been rented for the Coopers in Greenwich Village. It was Samuel Morse who had made the arrangements. He selected for them a townhouse at number 4 Carroll Place, what is now 149 Bleecker Street. In 1833 the section of Bleecker between Thompson Street and LaGuardia Place (then Laurens Street) was named Carroll Place, after Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Susan’s sisters had taken it upon themselves to furnish and prepare the house. In a letter to Ann Pomeroy, her sister-in-law, Susan wrote that the DeLancey women “had every thing as comfortable for us, as it was possible, a good and bright fire, and tea ready—and were themselves on the steps waiting to welcome us—It was a happy moment, when I heard their dear voices, and pressed them to my bosom, after so long a separation”. Within an hour of their arrival the Coopers were joined at Carroll Place by James’s niece (Ann’s daughter) Georgeann, her husband Theodore Keese, and their son George Pomeroy Keese, as well another niece, Isaac’s daughter, Mary.
The Coopers also received a warm welcome from their oldest and dearest friends. Upon learning that they had returned, William Dunlap made haste to the house at Carroll Place. In his enthusiasm he arrived before the Coopers. As James Beard writes, Samuel Morse, who had preceded them across the Atlantic, “immediately resumed his intimacy with the Coopers”—as did James’s lifelong friend, William Jay, and Jay’s brother Peter, along with their families.
Viewed from the old office (below), the house in question is third from the foreground, with a black garret window. The taller building in the middle is part of the original terraced row with its neighbors, but was later extended by two storeys.
149 Bleecker Street has been occupied by Terra Blues for the past thirty years.
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.
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.
Diana of the Tower still has a presence in New York, in the form of a 1928 cast. 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.
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.
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.
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.