Presidents Day 2019

I would love to have been able to visit Mount Vernon today but alas that was not feasible. I imagine they are having events today, and again this coming Friday on President Washington’s actual birthday. Inspired by yesterday’s post about Al Smith and his annual viewing of the retired firemen of Brooklyn, I’m leaving in a bit to visit the New York City Fire Museum in SOHO. Fire houses played a role in Washington and 4th of July observances from the time of the Early Republic until just a few recent decades ago. I’m up and out early because when I return I have to prepare for the week ahead, not least the laundry.

Enjoy your Presidents Day, everyone.

(image/Early twentieth century Edward Penfield poster via Library of Congress)

Washington’s Birthday 1928

New York governor Al Smith reviewed the Kings County Volunteer Firemen’s Association on Washington’s Birthday in 1928 in the leadup to the presidential race.

I was reading a good-natured online debate the other between a couple of people arguing the merits and demerits of American holidays. One of the running threads–indeed, the instigation of the discussion–was the idea of President’s Day itself. Some were averring that the holiday we are observing this weekend is now a second-tier observance, which is tough to argue against. It was not always the case however. President’s Day began as George Washington’s Birthday, and is still legally considered as such in many of the fifty states. Up until around the Second World War however Washington’s Birthday was still considered one of our most prestigious holidays, ranking below Christmas and Easter and on par with the 4th of July. It makes sense that Americans would have two secular holidays–one in winter and the other in summer–of such consequence. From the early days of the Republic through the mass immigration of the early twentieth century these holidays gave Americans a shared narrative. The 4th of July is still part of that narrative, but Washington’s Birthday–or even the more general “President’s Day–not so much.

Some of the men assembled to speak at Brooklyn Borough Hall were in their 90s. Later that day Governor Smith and Congressman Fiorello La Guardia spoke at the Brace Memorial Newsboys’ Lodging House in Manhattan.

Here above we see a moment during which Washington’s Birthday was still very much part of our cultural fabric. In 1928 Governor Alfred E. Smith visited Brooklyn to review the organization of retired Kings County firemen. From the steps of Borough Hall he watched the procession of men, some in their 90s, as they hailed the man everyone knew would run for the presidency that coming November. The Eagle, whose offices were adjacent to Borough Hall, noted that “Only the Roman candles and fireworks of the old political campaigning [were] missing.” It was not just Brooklynites; firemen had come from throughout Long Island, Manhattan, and as far away as Philadelphia and Delaware to see and hear Smith.

The governor had been coming to this event throughout the 1920s. He had come down from Albany for a few days to appear at several events; after speaking to and lunching with the retired firemen in Brooklyn, Smith returned to Manhattan and dined at the Brace Memorial Newsboys’ House on William Street. Lodging houses like the one Smith spoke at on Washington’s Birthday 1928 dated back to the days when Charles Loring Brace and Theodore Roosevelt Sr. created them prior to the Civil War. There with Smith at the lodging house was U.S. Congressman Fiorello La Guardia. Smith’s message to the 1,200 assembled hardscrabble lads was to accept that life is difficult even under the best of circumstances. The governor and presidential aspirant understood difficulty, having been born a slum kid on the Lower East Side and toiling in the Fulton Fish Market before becoming a Tammany man and starting his rise.

(images/Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

Sunday morning coffee

Depression Era Hooverville in New York’s Central Park, circa early 1930s

Good morning, all. I have spent a good portion of the morning putting together this week’s presentations for our class on the life, times, and legacy of Robert Moses. I have learned a tremendous amount already this year. I thought I would share this incredible image I intend to show tomorrow in class. This is a so-called Hooverville in Central Park during the Great Depression. These squatter camps were ubiquitous across the United States and were so named in derisive “tribute” to President Herbert Hoover, who Americans unfairly blamed for the onset of the financial crisis.

I am often taken aback looking at old photographs of such cities as New York, London and Paris and seeing how dirty and chaotic they were not so very long ago. Yes, this was the era of the Great Depression and a Hooverville to boot; still, the early twentieth century cities were not the gleaming metroplises we know today. When I moved to New York City twenty-two years ago in 1997 the Bowery still had the last of its flop houses. Today those are gone and in their place are boutiques selling expensive retail goods.

(image/skyscrapercity.com)

Living with Moses

Alfred E. Smith, seen here at age four in 1877 at Coney Island, became governor of New York State in November 1918 five days before the Armistice. He was a good friend and mentor to master builder Robert Moses.

I hope everyone is enjoying their Sunday. Looking out the window right now I see it is clear and bright blue. How cold it might be is another story. I’ll find out when I run some errands in a bit. I spent a good portion of the morning preparing lesson plans for the week, which includes a sizable number of images to accompany the talks. My colleague and I decided to focus our course this semester on Robert Moses, who for good and ill gave New Yorkers most of the city we live in today. What we most want students to get from the class is an understanding of the complexity of Moses’s legacy, that Moses was less a psychotic power broker and more a flawed and complicated public servant who did the best he could within his circumstances to build New York City and State as he believed proper within the historical moment.

In a sense the course picks up where my book manuscript, Incorporating New York, ends. I finish my manuscript about Theodore Roosevelt Sr., Louisa Lee Schuyler, and their cohorts in 1923 with the opening of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. Moses gets his first position of genuine authority in 1924, when his friend and mentor Governor Alfred E. Smith appoints him leader of the Long Island State Park Commission. By this time the balance has shifted in New York City from the old Dutch and British families to the Italians, Jews and others who had arrived from the Old World over the previous several decades. The major exceptions to that of course are Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, whose stars are rising in this period and would carry on until Eleanor’s death in 1962. Moses himself holds on until six years after that, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller relieves him of the remainder of his duties in 1968. Over the years the Roosevelts would be friends, allies, and sometimes adversaries of Smith and Moses. I have been rolling up my sleeves and digging in since the start of the year and will proceed thusly until Memorial Day Weekend. It has been a great deal of work but a blast at the same time.

(image/Museum of the City of New York)

The presidents of Charles Addams

The first 37 presidents as drawn by New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams in 1972

This past August, almost six months ago now, a friend and I visited the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Upper Manhattan. Among other things, on display at the time was an exhibit of the works of cartoonist Charles Addams. The artist was the originator of The Addams Family, which he based on his real life family much in the way Matt Groening later based The Simpsons on his own family. I have no doubt that Groening knew the history of Addams’s work when starting out in the late 1980s, around the time Charles Addams died of a heart attack in 1988. Addams had begun working for the New Yorker in 1935 during what we know see was a golden age of magazine writing and drawing. His contemporaries include such figures as Rea Irvin, Norman Rockwell, and J. C. Leyendecker. The item that struck me the most that day at the Morris-Jamel house was this image we see here of the presidents, which Addams created for the June 3, 1972 New Yorker cover. This would have been the summer of the McGovern vs Nixon presidential race.

The photo is not the best because the drawing was behind a pane of glass. I told my friend on that hot August day that I would post this come late January on what would have been Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday. FDR was born on this day in 1882. We see him here in the top row, fourth from the left, standing tall with his characteristic big grin.

Alexander Hamilton, 1816-1889

Alexander Hamilton, a grandson of the Founding Father, served in the American Civil War and was prominent in the social fabric of New York City and Hudson River Valley cultural life before and after the war.

Alexander Hamilton, grandson and namesake of the first Treasury Secretary, was born on this date in New York City in 1816. Hamilton was the younger brother of Eliza Hamilton Schuyler, which thus makes him the uncle of Louisa Lee Schuyler. Hamilton served in Spain as a diplomat on the staff of his friend Washington Irving in the late 1840s and early 1850s. When the American Civil War broke out a decade later he and his brother-in-law George Lee Schuyler served on the staff of General John E. Wool in Virginia and elsewhere. It is lost on us sometimes how close to the Revolutionary War was the Civil War; many of the figures on both sides of the Rebellion were the grandchildren of the first generation of Americans and were convinced that they were fulfilling the wishes of the Founders. It is a theme I expand upon in Incorporating New York, my book manuscript about the Civil War Era generation that came of age in the mid-1850s and lived on through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Alexander Hamilton (1816-1889) headstone, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Alexander Hamilton was a Civil War officer, prominent lawyer, and founding member & eventual president of the Knickerbocker Club. He died 130 years ago this year and is buried in the Hamilton-Schuyler plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery north of New York City, up the hill from the final resting place of his friend Washington Irving. I took the photo above when a friend and I visited early this past December.

(top image/D. Appleton & Co.: A.A. Turner, photographer)

 

President Buchanan and the future King Edward VII visit Mount Vernon

This painting of President Buchanan, the Prince of Wales, and several dozen dignitaries at George Washington’s tomb in October 1860 captures a dramatic moment in diplomatic history just prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Two inspirations for visiting Mount Vernon last week was a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of the American Revolution last June and a chance viewing of the above painting at the National Portrait Gallery in August. Here we see President James Buchanan and the Prince of Wales, who forty-one years after the events depicted here would become King Edward VII, visiting Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon in October 1860. Buchanan knew the royals well, having served as Ambassador of the United States to the Court of St. James’s from 1849-53 when the prince was a very young lad. The events depicted in the painting took place in early October 1860, one month before the presidential election won by Abraham Lincoln.

The Prince of Wales was in the United States on a goodwill tour. Everyone put of a brave face but relations between the countries were strained. This all took place within living memory of the War of 1812 and even, for some very aged persons, the Revolutionary War itself, and tension in the Anglo-American relationship were evident. This was the tour during which Michael Corcoran of New York’s 69th Infantry Regiment refused to march his men before the Prince of Wales in review. The controversy in New York took place a week after this trip to Washington. The British entourage was unimpressed with the still-young nation’s capital. The unfinished crown atop the Capitol Building, stump of the unfinished Washington Monument, and shabby condition of even Mount Vernon itself–onetime home and final resting place of the colonial general and father of the country–reflected poorly on American ingenuity and even the viability of republican government itself. Given the hysteria and fever pitch surrounding the four-man presidential race then underway, once cannot really blame them for thinking such things.

(image/Visit of the Prince of Wales, President Buchanan, and Dignitaries to the Tomb of Washington at Mount Vernon, October 1860, painter Thomas P. Rossiter; Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)

Mount Vernon in January

I hope everyone’s 2019 is off to a good start. My gosh, I have not posted since New Year’s Day almost three full weeks ago, the longest stretch with no posts since I began the blog eight years ago. I went on holiday January 3 and have spent the time since my return preparing for the upcoming semester. My co-teacher and I have been discussing the syllabus, narrowing down the reading list, and such. It is always exciting and a little nerve-inducing getting ready for a new term. I’m fortunate to have such a good colleague.

I am here in the DC area for the weekend. Yesterday the Hayfoot and I visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The last time I was there was more than forty-five years ago. I wanted to visit before starting the James Thomas Flexner four-volume biography, which I intend to begin when I get back to New York City. I am supposed to give a talk related to Washington at a particular historic site in Manhattan on Presidents Day, but with the government shutdown still ongoing we will see what happens.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon, January 2019

A cold January day is an opportune time to visit. They estimated at the information desk that they would receive 500 visitors for the day, as opposed to the 6000-8000 daily tourists they receive on a typical spring or summer day. When we arrived at the mansion itself, we walked right up as the tour was commencing. No lines. Alas photography was not permitted in the house, but my favorite item was the Bastille Key given to George Washington by the Marquise de Lafayette. I made a point to the tour guide that Lafayette gave the key to Washington with the idea that future generations might see and appreciate its significance–and that that was precisely what our little group was doing at that moment. She had clearly never thought of it like that before and lit up when I said it.

A little later in the tour we were in the outdoor kitchen when a visitor asked the guide to explain again why officials at the site refer to Mount Vernon’s enslaved community not as “slaves” but as “enslaved persons.” The reason, the guide explained quite well, is to affirm the humanity of this community and tell their stories with fuller nuance. A few in the group still weren’t getting it. As it happened this came at the end of the tour, after which we all exited into the courtyard area. We joined an informal discussion at this point in which our group was still discussing the terminology about the enslaved community. As she so often does, the Hayfoot stepped up and with clarity and compassion added a few salient points that built on what the guide had said. A few eventually “got it,” with or without necessarily agreeing with the premises being expressed. A smaller number never did get it. If they went home to ponder it, or put it out of their minds entirely right then and there, I will never know.

All in all it was a great day. There was so much to see and so little time to take it all in that we became Mount Vernon members. So come spring we’ll be there again, only this time with the great masses taking in the gardens and all else there is to see and learn at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

 

 

Once An Eagle

This past Saturday I was running around the city doing some errands and in general just enjoying the day. Part of that included a stop at The Strand bookstore on 12th and Broadway, one of my major haunts when I first moved to the city 20+ years ago but which I seem to visit less often nowadays. While there I bought the copy of Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle that you see below. I had another copy of this about ten years ago that I never got around to reading due to a number of changes in my life that occurred around the same time. Instead I mailed it to a friend who read it and then passed it on to his father, an Air Force veteran now interred in a military cemetery. Both read and got a lot out of it. I had not thought of Myrer’s work until about a week ago when I heard Jim Webb talking about it on a podcast I listen to frequently. That inspired me to seek it out again. With the holidays about over and winter officially here it seemed an opportune time to read the 775+ page opus.

Published in 1968 during the height of the 1960s social unrest, Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle, the story of a career military man struggling to do the right thing in his family and calling, resonated with Americans. The author continued exploring topics related to the Second World War, lost time, and the generation gap in his later works.

Myrer published Once An Eagle in 1968, one of the most terrible years in twentieth century history, with the Tet Offensive, Prague Spring, Events of May, assassinations, rioting, and political unrest around the world. Myrer’s tale of a career military man trying to do the right thing as he rose from young enlisted man to senior general over his half-century career spanning World War One to the early years of Vietnam struck a chord with the public. The book sold in the millions in the late 60s and early 70s.

I have spent part of this long holiday weekend reading some old interviews and articles with Myrer, who died in January 1996. Myrer was from Massachusetts and attended Harvard before leaving to join the Marines in World War 2. He returned to Harvard after the war to finish his degree and then settled in Saugerties, Myrer came home from the war determined to make sense of what he had seen and done in the Pacific. He spoke often in his writing and elsewhere of how the people of his cohort, what we would now call somewhat hyperbolically the Greatest Generation, were trying desperately in the years just after the Second World War to make up for lost time, get on with their lives and, to the extent that they could, reclaim the days of their youth that the Depression and war had taken away. Thus the mad rush to finish school, start careers, marry, buy homes, and have children. These offspring of course being the Baby Boomers.

In a small coincidence related to yesterday’s post Anton Myrer married his second wife in Brooklyn’s First Unitarian Church in 1970. This is the same church in which Price Collier, Sara Collier’s father, served as reverend before she was born. Myrer split his time between the city and (mostly) upstate. Saugerties was and remains something of an artists colony. The 1969 Woodstock Music Festival took place nearby. Other famous residents of Saugerties during this time included Bob Dylan and The Band. It was there that they recorded The Basement Tapes and where The Band itself recorded Music From Big Pink. I would love to know if Myrer ever came across Dylan, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, or the others. Saugerties is a small town, so I wouldn’t bet against it. If so, talk about world colliding.

In 1969, the year Woodstock too place not far from his home, Myrer returned to Harvard for his 25th class reunion. He was pained at the cultural divide he experienced and felt compelled to explain his own generation as best he could in his writing. Out of that came The Last Convertible. Written in the where-are-we-now and how-did-we-get-here style of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, The Last Convertible begins at Harvard in 1969 with its five now middle-age protagonists returning for their reunion and encounter the students, some of them their own children. In a series of 1978 interviews discussing his then-new book Myrer explains his sympathy for the Vietnam protesters. The Last Convertible is essentially an argument for the defense; Myrer explains poignantly to one interviewer that “I was sympathetic to the children. I was heavily on their side” before adding that “youth is too quick to judge, and they judged our generation too harshly.” To another interviewer around the same time he explains that he wrote The Last Convertible because “I felt a need to interpret our romantic generation to this embittered generation.”