We never know who is going to walk through the door of the Merchant’s House. One day in August of 1971, it was Helen Hayes. She had just retired from the theater, and she and her friend Anita Loos, the playwright, had decided to take a year exploring the City, visiting sites that were unfamiliar to them, including the Old Merchant’s House, as it was then called.
This was before the restoration had taken place, and the house was showing its age. The caretaker apologized: “There just isn’t enough money to do all the things we should do.”
“Just the same,” the actress replied, “the old place is still here with its original furniture, drapes, and chandeliers. No amount of rust or wear can keep their beauty from shining through.” As she left, she remarked to her companion, “With a little financial help they could give New York City back one of its treasures in pristine order.”
It would take over nine years and a lot more than a “little” financial help, but she was right. The House had just received the initial grant from the government for the restoration. The treasure was on its way back. Helen Hayes helped; she left a contribution of ten dollars.
The two women wrote about their New York sightseeing adventures in Twice Over Lightly. (1972).
When I did the research for An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City 1835-65, I relied heavily on New Yorkers’ diaries because a diary tells you what real people really did. You can count on a diary.
Imagine how delighted I was, then, to discover the diary of John Ward, in which he recounts his New Year’s Day calling in 1861. Here is an excerpt from my book:
“The most elaborate calling ritual of all took place on New Year’s Day when the doors between the parlors were thrown open for the traditional New Year’s Day reception. According to an old Dutch custom, on that day the ladies stayed home to receive guests and preside over a lavish buffet table, while the gentlemen sallied forth to make calls. . . .
“The ladies were bejeweled and beautifully dressed in low-neck silk gowns got up by their dressmakers especially for the occasion. The tables were laden with all manner of delicacies: turkey, chickens, fruits, pickled and stewed oysters, crullers, doughnuts and little New York cakes with mottoes written on them in icing. Alcohol flowed almost as freely as Croton water. . . .
“When John Ward was twenty-two years old, he made the rounds with his nineteen-year old brother, Press. They decided to make only a few calls (the total turned out to be thirty-three), so they were able to stay for more conversational exchange than was perhaps typical.
“John was impressed by the finery of the women—Julia Carville wore a French headdress of gold ornaments and velvet; Mrs. Fisher wore blue to match the blue silk on the parlor walls, and Julia Cutting, a red silk with a long train.
“He talked to Bessie Fisher about the sculpture “Babes in he Woods” by Thomas Crawford and to Lizzie Schuschardt about crossing the ocean and admiring the rosy sunsets over Mount Rigi in Switzerland. Mrs General Jones told him how she detested shopping and always just went to one large shop and bought everything she could think of and scarcely shopped in Paris at all.
“He ate tongue and biscuits at the Aspinwalls and peered into the stereopticon at the Cuttings . . . Lucy Baxter accused Press of deliberately cutting her and swore the next time she saw him she intended to march right up to him and put out her parasol or throw her muff to attract his attention.
“The stereopticon was a viewing device commonly found in nineteenth-century parlors. Using a special camera with two lenses that produced two negatives, photographs were taken of the same scene but from slightly different viewpoints corresponding to the distance between the eyes. These images were then mounted side by side and the whole inserted into the device. When looked at through the viewer, a single three-dimensional image sprang into life. To a nineteenth-century audience for whom photography itself was a relatively new phenomenon, the effect was magical.”
For more from An Old Merchant’s Housego here where you’ll find an excerpt on hair care and cosmetics.
This is the third list I’ve made of Reasons I Love New York. The other two are here and here. It is said that New York is a great place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. Actually, the opposite, it seems to me, is true. Hard to visit—there’s just so much to do and see in a short time— great to live here (same reason).
I said the next time I made a list, Uber would be at the top. I love Uber because it has made my life easier. It’s that simple. It’s not the only summon-a-ride service available in the City, but so far the only one I’ve tried.
Located on vacant lots throughout the City are a number of neighborhood gardens. This is West Side Community Garden, just two blocks from my building. Right now it is abloom with gorgeous tulips.
Benton is my favorite American artist. Like me, he lived much of his life in Kansas City. The ten-panel mural “America Today” depicts a panorama of American life in the 20s. I never fail to visit this work when I’m at the Met. It is installed in a space that recreates the board room where it originally hung.
Magnificent restoration of historic sites happens in New York, where there is access to plenty of money to carry it out. The most recent is this restoration in the Park Avenue Armory.
Okay; it’s controversial. Animal activists think these horses’ lives are too hard. But I don’t buy it. Their work in the Park is not hard. Walking to and from work through city traffic is somewhat hard, but it’s not far. Lots of us do it every day.
A runner’s dream. The last westerly street on this narrow island so there are no intersections. You can run (or walk) for almost 20 blocks til you get to the highway access roads, and you never have to pause for a traffic light. After running down hill for a bit, you circle back through
If you need a long view of water, Riverside Park is the place to go. More or less a straight line, it parallels the river. Beautifully planted, the park attracts moms and nannies with babies in strollers, bicyclists, runners, dog walkers, and me.
The Broadway theater is one of the best things about New York City. Nothing can compare to that delicious moment when the house lights dim and the overture begins. The old Broadway theaters, too, have been the beneficiaries of renovation. Most of them were built in the early-mid 20th century when more was more—and I love it.
Big dogs, little dogs, cute dogs, ugly dogs—they are all vastly entertaining—and so patient. I’d like to have one, but the walkers are expensive, and I don’t relish the idea of taking Fido down eleven stories and outside on a cold winter morning.
Finally, The Merchant’s House in a repeat performance. It’s always on the list because it is so important to me, particularly this year—my second book about the house has just been released.
Last weekend found us on the train to see a musical, The Immigrant, at the Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury, Connecticut. Based on a play by Mark Harelik, it is the story of his grandfather, a Russian Jew who fled the pogroms of Czarist Russia in 1909, immigrated through Galveston, and made his way to Hamilton, Texas, where he was befriended by a Baptist banker and his wife.
In 2000, Harelik asked Steven and Sarah to transform his play into a musical. Steven wrote the music and Sarah wrote the lyrics. Since then it has been performed off Broadway in New York and in regional theaters throughout the United States. This particular production was special for us because Sarah plays the banker’s wife, and Steven is the musical director, conducting and playing the piano. Reviews have been fantastic and no wonder; it is a beautiful piece and a superb production. Am I proud mom? Yes.
Looking through the program as I waited for the performance to begin, I read the following program note by Harelik:
This is the story of my grandparents, young Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms of eastern Europe in 1909.
Having come to America’s southern shores on the wave of the Galveston Plan, my grandparents Harelik (originally pronounced Gorehlik) settled in a small town in central Texas where full religious observance was difficult. Through the years, they raised three sons and entered the American community. All outward sins of the shtetl life they left behind were gone.
For the family, however, the experiences of my grandparents’ past lives were daily stories that were passed around the dinner table. And for me, the hero of this quotidian legend was my grandfather Haskell. I could almost picture him—the young Jew forced to carry his life in his pocket—his religion, his aspirations, his search for safety and stability, and (strangely, the most vivid image of all) me. I could picture myself in his pocket. He was bringing my life to this space—this great open space, this unimaginable future that I live in now.
The day I sat down to write this story, I had been on the phone with my dad. He’d taken my elderly grandfather Haskell on their weekly drive around town, which took all of 20 minutes maybe. They drove by the clothing store founded in 1911 on the town square. “There’s your store, Pop.” “My what?” “Your store—Look, see that sign up there? Haskell Harelik—it’s your name.” “My name?”
He had forgotten his name. He had forgotten his journey, his life, his story. Now I reach into my own pocket, and there he is—my great American hero, who traveled so far to live a simple life, raise a family, plant the seeds of my future. We bear these seeds from the faded pockets of our fathers and mothers. We are them, in an unseeable, ungraspable way. And by our single, potent glance back, their invisible lives are made worthy and meaningful and immortal. And in the end, when even memory is gone, that which remains lives only in the telling. I must tell you this story, for it’s all that remains of a good man’s life, and all that’s immortal in me.
I got to thinking that except for the very few of us who are of pure native American descent, there are immigrant stories in all of our lives. But I suspect not many of us know those stories. Young people are not always interested in the distant past and by the time they are, it is too late to ask anyone who might know. Neither of my grandmothers nor the grandfather I knew told me anything at all about their childhoods, much less about their parents or grandparents or how they came to be Americans.
Even genealogical research usually reveals only factual fragments. Except for the recent arrivals or the lucky ones with a long line of talkative grandparents or a stash of letters or diaries, the stories remain untold. That’s another reason The Immigrant is so special.
Here’s how the iconic character of pop culture, now the subject of the Broadway revival of “Annie” started out.
The original Orphan Annie wasn’t exactly an orphan, and actually her name wasn’t even Annie. She was a little girl named Mary Alice Smith, whose mother had died shortly after her birth, and who was sent by her father to live with his mother. When the grandmother became too ill to care for her, she was sent to live with her uncle, John Rittenhouse. This arrangement, however, was not satisfactory as the uncle had a large family, little money, and could ill afford another mouth to feed. So, in November of 1861, the first year of the Civil War when Mary Alice was barely eleven years old, shewent to live with the Reuben Riley family. It’s not clear what the relationship between the Riley family and the Rittenhouses was, but a bargain was struck: John Rittenhouse was relieved of the responsibility of Mary Alice, and Mary Alice would help Mrs. Riley with the chores and the care of the Riley children. One of those children was James Whitcomb Riley, who would become one of the most beloved American poets of the 19th century.
Mary Alice stayed with the Riley family for only about a year before she was bounced about once again, but she left an indelible impression on the poet. Riley remembered Mary Alice as an elfish child, a little enchantress who gathered the children around her and told them scary stories. Such stories are part of the treasure of children’s folklore, passed on to children by children for nobody knows since when. Children love to be scared to death when they know they are really safe. Scary stories serve to help children handle fear by experiencing it in a protected environment. You probably remember such stories from your own childhood. Remember the one about the baby sitter and the killer on the telephone extension? No? How about the couple parked in lovers’ lane who heard on the car radio that a maniac had escaped from the asylum? How about the baby sitter on drugs who baked the baby instead of the turkey? Well, you get the idea. It was this genre of tale that Mary Alice told the Riley children around the fireside after her chores were done.
In 1885, Riley wrote what is perhaps his most well remembered poem. He called it “The Elf Child.” It was so popular it went through two editions. When the third edition was in preparation he decided to retitle the poem “Little Orphant Allie,” but the typographer, misreading Riley’s handwriting and possibly unfamiliar with the nickname “Allie,” set it as ‘Little Orfant Annie.”
This was a time when people of all walks of life read poetry with pleasure, and children of all ages memorized and recited poems in speech contests and festivals. “Little Orfant Annie” was one of the most popular. Like much of Riley’s poetry, it was written in Hoosier dialect.
For most people today, a little of Riley’s poetry goes a long way. But here are the first two verses of “Little Orfant Annie.”
Little Orphant Annie
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An ‘shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an ‘earn her board-an-keep;
An’ all us other children, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the mostest fun
A-listin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns’ll gits you
Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers—
An’ when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an’his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wuzn’t there at all!
An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’cubby hole, an’press,
An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever-wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an’roundabout;—
An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you
If you happen to be in the neighborhood, you can visit James Whitcomb Riley’s boyhood home in Greenfield, Indiana. There you’ll see Mary Alice’s little attic room, the clothespress referred to in the poem and the fireside where the little orphan girl told her tales to the wide-eyed Riley children.