William Zinsser, 1922-2015

In a piece about Ellis Island, William Zinsser famously took up the 300 word challenge to prove that a write need not be verbose to convey his message.

In a piece about Ellis Island William Zinsser famously took up the 300 word challenge to prove that a writer need not be verbose to convey his message.

The world became a smaller place this month with the passing of William Zinsser. A memorial service was held in his honor yesterday here in the city. I wrote about Zinsser way back in 2011 when he was still writing his weekly column for The American Scholar. Then in his late eighties, he was crafting 700 word pieces of grace and elegance on any topic he chose every Friday. A year after I wrote the vignette, Zinsser–then in his 90th year–won a National Magazine Award for digital commentary; he had mastered the internet just as he had mastered writing for newspapers and magazines in the heyday of periodical publishing in the middle of the twentieth century. The reason he stayed relevant is that he never strayed from his core belief: simplify your writing and thereby find your humanity.

I could go on, but won’t. Here is the homage I wrote in March 2011:

For several years in the mid-2000s I collaborated with two teachers and a librarian on a writing and research module at a local high school. The four of us taught the basics of scholarship to a group of Advanced Placement English and History juniors. The final assignment was a five-six page paper. I continually stressed the importance of writing clearly and concisely. We kicked things off each term with a reading and discussion of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” One school year, when the budget permitted, we distributed copies of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style to each student that were theirs to keep. Most students eventually “got it,” but I was always struck by how tenaciously some clung to the belief that pretentious, ornate prose was the way to the teacher’s heart and a good grade. In his most recent “Zinsser on Friday” posting, the incomparable William Zinsser recounts a challenge once posed to him by an editor: submit a travel piece not to exceed 300 words. Not wanting to stray too far from home, he selected a certain island “a mere subway and ferry ride away.”  Read the results.

(Note that the link immediately above is now dead. Because The American Scholar may link to it again, I am going to leave it there. Here is the Ellis Island piece.)

(image/Library of Congress; permalink: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97501086/)

The Roosevelts’ Bowling Green

Bowling Green, looking North. The Cunard Building I wrote about the other day is on the left in the background.

Bowling Green, looking north. The Cunard Building I wrote about the other day is on the left between the truck and the bus.

One thing I always conveyed during my tours at the Roosevelt Birthplace was how far back the family goes here in the city. The Roosevelts trace their New York City roots back well over three centuries. Here is an example of that. I took these two images, one looking north and one south, of Bowling Green the other day. Most early New York City life took place in this vicinity. The Roosevelt & Son hardware concern, founded in the 1790s, was near here. Johannes Roosevelt, the patriarch to whom the Oyster Bay Roosevelts trace their lineage (as opposed to his brother Jacobus, who began the Hudson Valley Roosevelt line), was in business around these parts even earlier. Johannes was born around 1689 and worked as a merchant providing goods and services for the shipping industry.

Bowling Green, looking South. That is the Custom House in the distance.

Bowling Green, looking south. That is the Custom House in the background.

Bowling Green is called bowling green for a logical reason: people bowled here. Decades prior to the American Revolution Johannes and two associates received a public concession to operate and maintain this space. The nominal fee was on peppercorn a year.

The Cunard Building

IMG_2185I was down on Lower Broadway the other day and took a few minutes to take these photographs of the Cunard Building. As the plaque indicates this edifice was IMG_2180constructed after the First World War and thus obviously after the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s strange how such events, tragic as they are, don’t prevent the world from continuing; officials announced this construction project in February 1918 while the war was still going on and very much hanging in the balance.

It is important to remember how long the transatlantic passenger shipping industry existed. It lasted well into the 1950s and even early 60s until the arrival of wide-scale and economical airline passenger travel. John Lennon’s father, Alfred Lennon, was a so-called Cunard Yank, a man who saw the world working shipboard. For years he was a waiter on different ships, entertaining passengers with his humor and singing voice. When the Beatles came to America in 1964 they flew in to JFK. The rotting piers were a fixture of the NYC waterline until just 10-15 years ago when city officials and urban planners figured out how to re-purpose them.

IMG_2181Investors purchased this site at 25 Broadway across the street from Bowling Green for $5 million in July 1919 currency and spent the same amount on the 48,000 square foot building. The construction went quickly; Cunard and other tenants took occupancy in July 1921. Investors purchased the building in 1962. Cunard remained as a tenant for a few more years and left around 1970, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things.

index.php(bottom image/The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Cunard Building, New York” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-aecd-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

In Flanders Fields

It has been a busy week, thus the lack of posts. Yesterday I did manage to get to DeWitt Clinton Park on 52nd Street and 11th Avenue for the annual In Flanders Fields commemoration. I ran into Mark Levitch from the World War 1 Memorial Inventory Project at the ceremony. He told me he now has about 2,000 of the nearly 10,000 Great War monuments across the country inventoried. Remember, he is looking for volunteers if one is interested in playing amateur historian. He is doing some interesting and important work. There were many folks there from last week’s Lusitania event as well.

The In Flanders Fields doughboy, sometimes called the Clinton doughboy, is just one of the dozens of Great War monuments here in New York. The sculptor Burt W. Johnson, was the brother-in-law of Louis St. Gaudens. The former U.S. ambassador to Germany, James W. Gerard, dedicated the monument in 1930. (Sixteen years earlier Gerard defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in the 1914 U.S. Senate race in New York; Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration at the time.) Yesterday’s program was not a centennial program per se; they do this program every year. Some regular attendees did tell me though that yesterday’s attendance was twice the average because of the 100th anniversary of the war.

Here are a few pictures.





Sunday morning coffee

index.php (1)Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of James Reese Europe, the bandleader of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters. His death is an unpleasant story: after surviving the horrors of the Great War he was stabbed backstage in the dressing room at a show in Boston by the drummer in his band. I have always suspected that post traumatic stress disorder played a role in the incident. I am involved in a project regarding Europe and the 369th which, if it comes to fruition, I will discuss here on the blog. Until then, I won’t say too much. Europe’s premature death in May 1919 meant that he was not to be a fixture in the Twenties jazz scene. He very much would have been the equal of Sidney Bechet, King Oliver and even Louis Armstrong.

Reese grandson, great-grandson and other descendants were on hand at the Lusitania commemoration last Thursday here in New York. I spoke to them during the reception and can attest that they inherited the charisma and magnetism for which James Europe himself was known. Great grandson Rob is today a bluesman and provided the entertainment at the reception.

Rob Europe playing at Pier A

Rob Europe playing at Pier A

Enjoy your Sunday.

(top image/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “On patrol in no man’s land” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1919. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/7f1c4fdc-9934-b830-e040-e00a180619d8)

Remembering VE Day

Danes in Copenhagen read of the end of the Second World War, 8 May 1945

Danes in Copenhagen read of the end of the Second World War, 8 May 1945

At the reception after the Lusitania ceremony yesterday a few of us got to talking about the anniversary that would take place the following day. Today, 8 May 2015, is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe: VE Day. After more than thirty years of war and bitter peace, the fighting was finally over.

There were many excellent speakers at yesterday’s program. One of the most poignant was Bernd Reindl, the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany. Mr. Reindl’s eloquent words, even his very presence, were a reminder of how far things have come over the past seven decades. He reminded the audience of the current strength of the Atlantic alliances and how much Europe and the United States share in common. These are lessons and words of comfort that can get lost when one looks at all the strife and crises facing our world today.

Consul Mr. Bernd Reindl speaks at the ceremony in New York remembering the Lusitania, 7 May 2015

Consul Mr. Bernd Reindl speaks at the ceremony in New York remembering the Lusitania, 7 May 2015

(top image/National Museum of Denmark, uploaded by palnatoke; via Wikimedia Commons)

Remembering the Lusitania

This morning I had the good fortune of attending the World War 1 Centennial Commission’s commemoration for the Lusitania. Here are a few pics.


The event was at Pier A on the Battery. This space was refurbished about six months ago and is beautiful. I learned today the the clock tower dates to 1919 is reputedly the first permanent Great War monument constructed in the United States.


Wreaths from different nations. It is important to remember the international aspects of the Lusitania tragedy. Commemorations were taking place all around the world today, often at the same time as this event here in Manhattan at 10:00 am.

IMG_2195 (1)

Consul General Ms. Barbara Jones of Ireland was one of the speakers. One must remember that the Lusitania was about twelve miles off the coast–easily within sight distance–of Ireland when she was struck. Many local fisherman and others were first responders.


Deputy Consul General Mr. Nick Astbury of Great Britain was another speaker.


Here are the various diplomats, descendants of Lusitania survivors, Cunard representatives, and others at the time to throw the wreaths.


Attendees were welcomed to throw individual flowers.


When it was over forty-five minutes later, there was a reception inside Pier A. The Fire Department marked the event by sailing past.

RMS Lusitania sails

a 1913 menu from the luxury liner, one year prior to the outbreak of the war

a 1913 menu from the luxury liner, one year prior to the outbreak of the war

The RMS Lusitania was crossing the Atlantic one hundred years ago right now. It had left Manhattan’s West Side docks on May 1. The Lusitania, and her sister ship the RMS Mauretania, had been built several years earlier with the financial support of the British government. The idea was that Downing Street would help Cunard regain the lead in the competitive transatlantic shipping industry. The British had been falling behind for several years, to the Germans in particular. The government helped build the ships with the proviso that they could be used for military purposes in the case of war. When war indeed came, the Mauretania was converted for military human transport. The Lusitania remained a passenger liner.

The ship made several voyages after the outbreak of war. Woodrow Willson’s top aid, Colonel Edward M. House, sailed for Europe on the Lusitania on 31 January 1915. Halfway through that voyage, on February 4, the German government declared unrestricted submarine warfare on all shipping. The Lusitania made several crossings over the winter and spring of 1915. Public concern was growing and in March Cunard began offering discounts to second class passengers, many of whom had begun taking American liners believing they would be safer. In late April much of that concern seemed to have dissipated. There were over 1300 passengers on the Lusitania, plus a crew of several hundred more, when she left Pier 54 on the first day of May.

(image/The New York Public Library. “R.M.S. “Lusitania”” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1913. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c4f608d0-517d-0132-781b-58d385a7bbd0)


The launch of the Tennessee

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (left, top hat) at the launching of the Tennessee, 30 April 1919

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (left, top hat) at the launching of the Tennessee, 30 April 1919

Acting Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on this date in 1919. He was there for the launch on the super-dreadnought Tennessee. This was a major event; at least 30,000 New Yorkers turned out for the launch of the 624 foot ship on that April morning. Franklin Roosevelt must have felt proud. Like his cousin Theodore, he loved the sea and any type of floating vessel. Theodore Roosevelt understood the increasing importance of big ships and had sent the Great White Fleet around the world a few years prior to the Great War. When war came the Wilson Administration was reluctant to invest in the Army or the Navy. Still Congress did authorize the construction several dreadnoughts, including the Arizona, New Mexico, and Tennessee among others. (I wrote about FDR and the Arizona last August.)

The U.S. was at a huge disadvantage when it came to ships during the First World War. As David Kennedy points out in Over Here, ships were “trumps” and the British controlled most of the cards. The Americans were largely dependent on the British, especially for the transport of men and materiel. The Navy Yard was working overtime to complete its many projects but even with all the extra work they did not finish the Tennessee before the end of the war in November 1918.

Note the doughboys in the lower right hand corner.

(image/Library of Congress)

A thank you to the rangers of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace


Yesterday was my final day at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. It closes for renovation later this week. I was there a full eighteen months and can say that I have a deeper and more appreciative knowledge of American and international history than I did a year and a half ago. Much of this was due to the openness and generosity of the TRB rangers, especially Michael Amato and Daniel Prebutt.

Mike and Danny were always so welcoming to me. They allowed me be involved in many aspects of the site’s operations, not just giving tours but writing articles for the Facebook and website pages and helping in my own small way on other projects. An example was writing signage for the update of the Lower Museum Gallery. One of my favorite memories was commiserating behind the information desk after a tour and discussing the ins-and outs of the interpreter’s craft. Tailoring a talk to meet the expectations and interest level of the audience is so crucial. It was always exhilarating to see the swinging doors open and say hello to whoever was walking in. And they came across the country and around the world. Theodore Roosevelt is just that strong.

Just because I am no longer at the TRB doesn’t mean I am not continuing with the Roosevelts. The extended family is too much of a historian’s dream to do that. The Roosevelt Sr. book is moving along; I am also working on some things about Ted. The latter fits in well with the Great War Centennial. There is a lot of Roosevelt history at Governors Island that I will be focusing on this summer. These are just a few things.

I will miss the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. Still, I leave with the good feeling of having learned and accomplished a great deal. I also have the memories of working with such talented and dedicated professionals as Mike and Dan. And for this I will always be grateful.




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