The Washington-Rochambeau Grand Reconnaissance

Van Cortlandt House Museum, Bronx

This morning a friend and I ventured to the end of the 1 Train on a gorgeous summer day to visit the Van Cortlandt House Museum, the oldest remaining house in New York City. The structure dates to 1748. It was more coincidence than anything else–we did not realize it when we booked out tickets online earlier in the week–but in a piece of good fortune we happened to be there on the 240th anniversary of the Washington-Rochambeau Grand Reconnaissance. The two generals had met on the premises on July 23, 1781 on the third of three days of reconnoitering British strengths in and around New York City. Ultimately they of course decided against an offensive against the Redcoats headquartered in Manhattan and instead went south to face Cornwallis at Yorktown. It was great to see people out using the park, and also striking up conversations with fellow museum visitors and knowledgeable museum staff. I took the photo you see here of one of the gardens from the second floor. Summer 2021 is on. Go get some.

FDR Library turns 80

I was having a conversation earlier this month with a friend of mine who would like to do some research at the FDR Library later this year or sometime in 2022. It had been our intention to go last year but the shutdown put that on hold. I was on the library’s website a few days ago hoping for news that, if not the library, then perhaps the visitor center, museum, house, Top Cottage, and/or Val-Kill might be re-opening sometime soon. Alas that is not the case. The site has actually done a good job with virtual public events these past sixteen months. Even after the world fully reopens virtual events and conferences here and elsewhere will be here to stay, in addition of course to in-person programming.

Today is a special day in the history of Hyde Park: Roosevelt himself dedicated his library and museum on June 30, 1941, eighty years ago today. He had been sworn in for his third term a tad less than four months previously. Pearl Harbor was six months away. My favorite place in the library is his office, which has a separate door to a hallway adjacent to an entranceway. Museum visitors often came and had no idea that ten feet away on the other side of the door, if he was up from Washington, the president was working. Or maybe he playing with his stamp collection. Here is to the places we love opening up again sometime soon.

(image/Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, Library of Congress)

A Friday at the Met

I was off today and took it as a chance to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because they are doing limited ticketing due to the pandemic, I booked my reservation ten days ago. I was the third person in line and, as you can see from this image, had the place essentially to myself for a brief period. This is the facade of the Branch Bank of the United States, later the Assay Office, that stood on Wall Street next to Federal Hall until the 1910s. When the building was torn down they boxed up this exterior, put it in storage for several years, and in the 1920s repurposed it as the entranceway to the American Wing. How one walks through the enclosed atrium with its natural sunlight into the doorway adds to that ambiance. Immediately inside are portraits of Alexander Hamilton and DeWitt Clinton, a nice touch by someone at the Met who obviously knows the facade’s provenance and connection to where it once stood in Lower Manhattan.

I was telling a friend earlier that The Met is one of those places, like Gettysburg or the old Yankee Stadium, where when you’re there time seems to have stopped. The last time I was here was Lincoln’s Birthday 2020, fifteen months ago. I had an brief talk with one of the guards who was telling me about what the shutdown was like for those who work there. Returning was a sign that in the coming weeks and months things may be returning to a semblance of normalcy.

Have a meaning Memorial Day Weekend.

Dylan at 80

Dylan (with guitar) and Allen Ginsberg, 1975 / image by Elsa Dorfman

It is extraordinary to believe that Bob Dylan turned eighty today. When we think of the music and culture of the Sixties we associate it with the Baby Boomers. It is worth remembering, however, that many whom we associate with that era actually pre-date the Baby Boom. The Beatles, just as one example, were all born during, not after the war. Run down the list and you will find it’s pretty much the same. Dylan et al were the Baby Boomers’ elders, not their peers. Of course Dylan was and is so much more than what he did during the 1960s. We have been fortunate that he found his way again in the mid-1990s and has been going strong ever since. The release of “Rough and Rowdy Ways” last June was just what I needed as it became obvious that the world was shutting down for the long haul. Along with jazz, Dylan has been my pandemic soundtrack.

I love the image above of him and Allen Ginsberg taken during the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. I know someone who worked in the English Department at Brooklyn College with Allen Ginsberg. She told me he was always on time for faculty meetings and had read the files of prospective hires when serving on appointment committees and the like. Don’t let the hedonistic stories, true though many of them are, fool you. People like this are serious about what they do. Scribble out some nonsense five minutes before class and try to pass it off as your stream-of-consciousness prose inspiration? Don’t even think about it. He would have seen right through you, and called you on it.

I was talking to someone about Dylan yesterday and wondering aloud if the Never Ending Tour will pick up again. Who knows if he’s been writing these past fifteen months, which might mean a few more works before retirement. One of the best things Dylan did was re-image himself as an ageless balladeer, as opposed to an aging rock star. Time will tell what he may still have in store.

(image/Wikimedia Commons)

Dateline: Wall Street, 30 April 1789

With the days warming, the world reopening incrementally, and a semi-normal summer potentially ahead I have been thinking a lot recently of hopefully returning to Federal Hall sometime in the near future. This has never been truer than today: the anniversary of George Washington’s first inaugural. We will see what happens. I have so missed that interaction with the public.

Above was the scene on Wall Street in 1789 and below an incredible image of President Benjamin Harrison’s entourage 100 years later.


The Women’s Central turns 160

The founding of the Women’s Central Association of Relief, Cooper Institute, April 29, 1861

Some may or may not know that I am working on a book manuscript about Civil War Era New York City in which Theodore Roosevelt Sr., Frederick Law Olmsted, Louisa Lee Schuyler and a few others are the leading figures. Today is the 160th anniversary of one of the monumental moments in the American Civil War: it was on April 29, 1861 that approximately 3000 people turned out at the Cooper Institute to found the Women’s Central Association of Relief. Louisa Lee Schuyler was selected to run the day-to-day operations of the Women’s Central and did so with great efficiency during her tenure during the war.

Changing the subject a bit: I have noted over the past several weeks the anniversary dates of many Civil War moments, not least Sumter, Appomattox, and the Lincoln assassination. It’s difficult to imagine that the sesquicentennial began ten years ago this month. So much has happened over the past decade in terms of scholarship and current events that have changed our perceptions and memory of the war. It seems the war’s consequences and legacy are the main issues in the current narrative. This will continue as we recognize the anniversaries of events related to Reconstruction in the coming years, not to mention that 2022 will be the 200th anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant’s birth.

(image/Library of Congress)

Sunday morning coffee

Ernest and Mary Hemingway on safari in Africa, 1953-1954

This past week I twice watched the full six hours of the new Lynn Novick / Ken Burns documentary about Ernest Hemingway. Several years ago an English instructor at my college explained to me and a class how the criticism and historiography about Hemingway has evolved in the twenty-first century. Out are the paeans to Hemingway the hyper masculine hunter, fisherman, boxer, and adventurer; in are explorations of the great writer’s alcoholism, PTSD, concussion-induced mental health issues, and other vulnerabilities. “Hemingway” fits neatly into these academic trends. Watching the story unfold over the course of several evenings was unsettling and emotionally exhausting. There were a few people with whom I was texting and emailing after having watched each installment. One friend was so distraught as to question the necessity of the entire project. I must say I really had no good answer or reply. Part of the reason for my unsatisfactory responses was that I too was trying to process the life and disintegration of Ernest Hemingway myself.

In addition to the documentary, I have been listening to serval podcasts and virtual events with Novick and Burns over these past several days. Burns in particular has turned several times to the evolving nature of celebrity itself in the now six decades since Hemingway’s suicide. We know more about public figures today than was possible decades ago in the time before the internet and other communication advancements. It was easier then for a figure like Hemingway to craft a persona. I would argue that personas are not lies and that public figures have a right to create a public-facing identity. How could they not do so? That the myth and reality inevitably fail to align neatly and perfectly is not something to unduly concern us. There is room for both. Ultimately it is the work that matters.

Of course none of that makes it any easier to watch the physical and mental breakdown of a man, let alone a great artist like Hemingway, so unblinkingly. I totally understood what my friend was getting at. The truth though has a value all its own. One thing I noticed in the interviews with Novick and Burns is that they repeatedly mentioned the importance of self-care and told listeners that if they felt they too might be suffering from chemical dependency or mental health issues to seek help.

(image/Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Sally Grossman, 1939-2021

I learned today with great sadness of the passing of Sally Grossman. The name may be unfamiliar but she stares out, cigarette held aloft, on the cover of one of best albums of Bob Dylan’s career, Bringing It All Back Home. I’m listening to it right now as I type these words. More than just a beautiful woman who could strike a mesmerizing pose, Ms. Grossman was instrumental in helping her husband Albert Grossman manage many of the most important individuals and groups of the folk/blues revival. In his memoir This Wheel’s on Fire Levon Helm of The Band talks about how Sally Grossman championed what was then still Dylan’s backup musicians. She carried on with the work after her husband’s untimely passing in 1986. Here is a brief video of the creation of the album cover. I have always loved that the room still exists today preserved in the condition it was in 1965. Click here for some lovely outtakes and more. Even better, do so while listening to the record.