Wednesday, May 7, 2008

New York Trip Diary

Central Park in spring

View from our Riverside Drive window

Peter reading

New York Diary, April 29 – May 6, 2008

There, now, I have actually mastered the technique of sprinkling pictures artistically throughout the blog, and am going a little crazy with it! Great fun. All my New York trip album pictures are on Kodak Gallery, so if you want to see the whole lot, let me know.

The “Austen and Byron: Together at Last” conference was excellent - I've written it up, but must edit my notes when I get home. Jointly hosted by JASNA-NY and the Byron Society, it was held at Union Theological Seminary, a Gothic building with a large green quadrangle that looks like a cross between CCNY and an Oxford college. The talks would have sufficed for a two-day conference, but it was all packed into one intoxicating day. Best of all I liked a talk by Jonathan Gross of DePaul University about the Regency period in which Byron and Austen both flourished. In particular he focused on the intersections and connections of Albany House, where both Byron and Monk Lewis had residences, and Jane Austen’s brother Henry had his banking office. As the house was formerly owned by Byron’s friend and correspondent Lady Melbourne, and one of Jonathan Gross’s books is “Corbeau Blanc: Correspondence between Lord Byron and Lady Melbourne” (Byron’s sister Augusta was his “Corbeau Noir”) there was quite a lot of fascinating material about Lady Melbourne. Peter Graham of Virginia Tech and the Messolonghi Institute in Greece, was a good speaker, though not as interesting to me, as he gave a more basic compare-and-contrast talk between Northanger Abbey and Byron’s Norman Abbey of Don Juan. The other speakers, Rachel Brownstein and Marcia Folsom only got half an hour each but were scintillating, Brownstein talking about the Janeites and the “Byromaniacs,” while Folsom traced, through Austen’s reading and comments on poetry, her probable views on Byron. During lunch, I chatted up Jonathan Gross most enjoyably, the man is a mine of Byronical information and delightful. The conference finished with a glorious pair of readings by “Austen” and “Byron.” Kathleen Chalfont (the famous actress who was in my Courtship of Mrs. Elton playlet in October) did a truly spellbinding reading of the great Lady Catherine and Elizabeth clash, which was a terribly hard act for the “Byron” to follow, though he acquitted himself, shall we say, nobly.

For me, the most amazing thing that happened was that Rachel Brownstein, whom I'd never met, and whom I would have thought didn't know me from Adam, came up to me and said she was a FAN of mine, and that nobody else had ever done the sequel thing or caught the style as well as I have and she thought I was a good writer!!! My goodness! When I picked myself up from the floor I said it was me who was awed at meeting her, great scholar and author of Jane Austen among Women. Only fancy that! What a moment! She also took me by the hand and introduced me forcibly to a TV producer looking for sequel material, and although the woman and I looked at each other rather like strange dogs, I did feel Professor Brownstein’s good intentions to the heart.

Elsa Solender, Gene Gill and me at the conference

As for the rest of my New York visit, I am delighted to report that my dear old Peter and I are having a perfectly wonderful time alone together in New York. It is actually quite romantic! He has perked right up and we are walking around and seeing people together, like, like, why almost like any normal married couple! Too strange and lovely.

Of course, it helps that we are staying in the most wonderful place imaginable. My cousin, Rabbi Ezra Finkelstein, is out of town and has lent us his heartbreakingly lovely home in a beautiful old building on Riverside Drive. This truly is an old family home - it is the seat of some of my oldest childhood memories, of many family Seders; this was my great-uncle Rabbi Louis Finkelstein’s home for sixty years, and he would walk every day to the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was Chancellor. In his day the apartment was a musty old scholar's library. But Ezra is a different sort of rabbi, he is a warm and wonderful family man, and had a large and social parish in Peekskill for many years. He is now 80, though vigorous and active; sadly, his charming wife Elaine died a couple of years ago. When they retired and inherited this apartment it was Elaine who remodeled it and it is beautiful...retaining the old New York feeling, and combining it with great comfort. It is quiet, and overlooks the park and river, with the gorgeous French chateau-like buildings of Riverside Drive's "French quarter" opposite. Not only is it redolent with the best kind of family history memories, but it is also, needless to say, far more luxurious than the way Peter and I normally live! Not only is the place filled with a gallery full of delightful modern art, Chagall and Modigliani and Israeli artists, as well as a golden Egyptian goddess sculpture (perhaps that was Elaine’s new-broom comment on the previous regime), and beautiful old books and family portraits, but it's infinitely comfortable...wonderful beds with lovely duvets and linens and thick towels and modern marble bathrooms and finest soap. No hotel could compare to the sheer beauty and warmth of staying here.

So for a week, Peter and I are living the life of New Yorkers in a fine old home on Riverside Drive. There can hardly be a more wonderful place to live in the city, it is a peaceful enclave - I've been reading up on it and it was designed by Olmstead and Vaux, who designed Central Park, and built Riverside Park and Drive in about 1880. In the morning the sunlight floods in and we look out over the Hudson River and the springtime trees. It's magical. For once Peter is not depressed in New York: on the great long dining table where those decades of family Seders were held, attended by old aunts and uncles now long dead (but their ghosts exude a benign presiding presence over this house), Peter has spread out his books and papers and he sits there happily, looking - it gave me an odd start - for all the world like a Finkelstein. And I realize what I must have subconsciously powerfully recognized in him when we were kids!

taining on Riverside Drive

Wednesday, April 30

But I must start at the beginning. The flight wasn't bad, only miserably cramped, and we got in at almost midnight. Poor Ezra waited up for us, showed us around quickly and had to go to bed as he was leaving first thing in the morning before we got up. But we were hungry and moseyed out along Broadway looking for a late night meal. We found a marvelous Indian restaurant on Broadway and 107th, and had the tenderest lamb vindaloo ever, spinach with cheese, and garlic naan. Then to bed. Today we arose leisurely - wonderful hot bath in a great old style New York bathtub - and taxied down to Peter's mother's house where she feasted us with bagels and lox. It was a gorgeous day, cool and crisp and sunny, but we stayed in and I had a little nap, tired from the trip. Then I sallied out to meet my friend Laurie at the New York City Ballet. By coincidence we ran into Nili Olay, president of JASNA-NY, who was there for the same performance – it’s one of the last times Damiel Woetzel will appear, as he is retiring. It also turned out to be the 25th anniversary of Mr. B's death, and Peter Martins himself came out in front of the curtain and gave a talk and toasted Mr. B with champagne, which was a great moment, I was so glad to be in the house. It was a symphonic Balanchine evening, which is exactly my cup of tea, beginning with Symphony in C, a Mr. B signature ballet if ever there was one. A scintillating, glittering performance, in which I most enjoyed the up and coming Tiler Peck. Symphony in Three Movements was with Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans, and neither Laurie nor I like them much; but it was at least interesting. Last was the delectable, colorful Western Symphony, in which I loved the plush, amplitudinous dancing of Megan Fairchild, and the gorgeous Teresa Reichlen. But Damien Woetzel stole the show, as he is a dancer with such enormous charm and personality as well as bravura technique - I used to see him in LA when he was a teenager, and it's wonderful to see what he has become.

Then Laurie came back with me to Ezra's place and we loved showing it to her. Peter had already had dinner with his mother, so Laurie and I went to Henry's down the street and had very good spaghetti and Caesar salad and a melting chocolate dessert. Now I'm back at "our" gorgeous Riverside Drive apartment, feeling so strangely at home in the city. In a way this almost makes me feel as if I am back at my own, forever lost and gone, and always missed, dear childhood home at 68 East 86th Street, from which I was wrenched as an eleven-year-old when my grandparents died within a few months of each other. How they seem to be smiling over my visit here! And how at home and happy Peter is!

And there is wireless broadband throughout *both* this house and my mother-in-law's in Peter Cooper. Hosanna!

West 81st Street

My calendar is enticingly chock full of engagements, with a week to enjoy them in. It will be mostly a social week; I won’t do much more on the cultural front, as there isn’t anything I desperately care about seeing. I’m not musical, dislike New York theater, and there’s nothing calling me from the museums this time (I was just here in October). What I want is to walk under the magnolia trees in Central Park where I played as a child, in a grove near the Metropolitan Museum. I recently found mention of these magnolias in a 1907 New York newspaper, and it’s nice to know that all my grandparents, Winnie and Bertrand Babcock as well as the Finkelstein ones, may have walked there as I did.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The whirlwind was a tiring day. We couldn't fall asleep until late, and then Richard and Magda arrived off a red eye flight around 8 AM to drop off their suitcases, since their wretched B & B wouldn’t let them leave them there. I happily showed them the apartment, but when they left I realized there was no use going back to sleep: I had to go see my mother at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale today. Long grueling trip; I tried going by subway this time, but waiting at the 103rd St station it was half an hour till a train came, and then it turned into an express and we had to go back a stop to get to my stop. And then I got off at 131st Street in a bustling Latino neighborhood and had to take a bus to Riverdale. It's lovely there, on the banks of the Hudson; all the spring flowering trees are out, pink cherry blossoms and white pear blossoms. My mother was so happy to see me (well she can’t see, unfortunately), and I made a nice long visit. Took her to lunch in her wheelchair, labeled the dresses my mother-in-law Vivian sent her, and took her to sit outside in the fresh air. The Hudson was looking so peaceful and pretty, with the green banks on the other side, and the flowery trees. I left around 3, and napped a little on the express bus which dropped me at 96th and Lex; crosstown bus, then Broadway bus back to Ezra's, where I met Richard and Magda who'd come to pick up their bags. But they were worried because the B & B where they were to stay didn't answer their calls, and they didn't like to go down there if no one was there to let them in. So we called around the hotels to see if anyone had a last minute cancellation, but there was nothing. Apparently the reason hotel rates have soared is the dollar; Europeans are pouring in for visits, and they can pay $450 a night!

Garden at the Hebrew Home

Also Richard had forgotten all his pills, so he had to go to a pharmacy several blocks away, while Magda had the idea of calling the Cornell Club, since he belongs to the Cornell Club of California. He'd tried them before, but no luck; now, however, they did have a room, for “only” $350. She told them he'd take it when he returned. So when he finally got back we got in a cab and started downtown. He called the Cornell Club and they said yes they had a room, but they were “not reciprocal” with the California club, and therefore he did not qualify to stay there! They had a 7 PM dinner date with a cousin on Broadway and so they got out of the cab at a Chinese restaurant in the mid-60s with their suitcases, while I felt so sorry for them but didn’t know what I could do to help; so I continued on downtown to Peter's mother's. (Afterwards I learned that Richard and Magda gave up their battle with New York hotels and took the train that night to their next destination, Philadelphia for a bat mitzvah; when they returned two days later they found a decent Best Western on 48th Street.) Meanwhile, Peter, his mother, and I went out to one of our favorite restaurants in all the world, Seville on Charles Street, for a magnificent dinner. The owner remembers us; Vivian first went to that restaurant sixty-six years ago, with Peter's father! We all had paella valenciana with lobster, which that place does better than anywhere else we have ever known. Abundant saffron rice with tender chicken, shrimp, chorizo, clams, mussels, lobster...

Friday, May 2, 2008

We slept well and long, and then we went off to my friend Barbara’s; I’ve always wanted Peter to meet her and see her lovely Riverside Drive apartment, just a short walk along the leafy park from "ours." We had a wonderful time talking about Byron and the Lexicon trial and Peter's poetry book and the blogosphere and Cranford and Canadian lakes, and her husband’s growing up in China before World war I…and she served us lovely tea and Peter finally got to meet her and see her beautiful home and her William Morris hangings and thousands of books. We left her at six to meet my childhood friend Mark and his wife Barbara (both psychologists) at Docks, the seafood place on Broadway and 89th, right next to Murray's Sturgeon Shop. We had arugula salad, clam chowder and huge lobsters with crusty bread, all very good, though way overpriced (however, this was our only “too expensive” meal in NY, so that wasn’t bad going). Warm and wonderful conversation about the past, New York, growing up and leaving, work, publishing, and memories. Then we walked back to Ezra’s, just a nice after dinner stroll, from 89th to 106th. Barbara astutely pointed out that his modern art collection was worth a pretty penny, which I’d been clueless about. Mark and Barbara are darlings, and Mark and I have a special bond, for we were each other's childhoods, each other’s friend and beloved companion against formidably dysfunctional backgrounds. We figured out that we have known each other for 55 years! Mark now sees 4 - 6 patients a day in his West End Avenue office, and Barbara sees about 8 - 10 at their clinic in Hastings on Hudson, so they’re busy and doing well. They have a nice house right on the banks of the Hudson with beautiful flowering trees, and just bought a second home near Tanglewood. Barbara rather regrets their not having bought a Riverside Drive apartment years ago when they could have, but they seem very contented with their life as it is. It’s a very New York life and mindset that makes me realize all the more how I have diverged from New York ways.

So Peter and I are resting at "home" now. Tomorrow is the Austen/Byron conference…

Union Theological Seminary quadrangle

Trying to sell books

Sunday, May 4, 2008

After I got back from the conference (which I’ve already described), Peter and his mother and I had dinner at our favorite Turkish restaurant, Turkish Kitchen on Third Avenue and 27th Street. A couple of divinely delicious eggplant appetizers, plus char-grilled octopus salad and meltingly lemony white bean salad (they make the best ever), with Turkish bread and tea, followed by Cornish game hens stuffed with rice and pine nuts and served with little pancakes! Just superb. I was tired after this dinner, to say nothing of the day long conference, so I slept late Sunday, until afternoon. Then we taxied to the Barnes and Noble in Union Square, where we duly looked at my Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma on the big time bookstore shelf, and had cappuccino in the lively café. After that, we taxied to see my cousin Anne, her husband Jim, and 11-year-old daughter Joanna, and I gave Joanna all the presents I’d accumulated for her. Peter hadn't seen my cousins since Joanna was born, so it was lovely that we spent hours with them, and Peter inaugurated his first meeting with Joanna by playing four games of chess with her! He confirmed my opinion that she is extremely bright. She is tutored by an 18-year-old Russian immigrant grandmaster, but she firmly states (talking as if she was 17 instead of 11), that she’s going to Cooper Union to become a fashion designer. We went out for Indian food together and had a very warm family time. Peter got on extremely well with Anne’s husband Jim, who’s director of the online program at the New School. A wonderful evening, making friends long after the aforementioned dysfunctional childhoods.

The Chess Players

Afterwards we visited with Peter's parents for awhile, and then when Richard and Magda were done with their Carnegie Hall concert (they came back from Philadelphia this afternoon), we rendezvoused with them and had fantastically delicious Italian pastries and capuccino at glorious Veniero's (the venerable Italian cafe we love on 11th Street). Richard treated us and even bought a box of Italian cookies which is Paul’s present from New York! Then Peter had the idea of going on a midnight ride on the Staten Island Ferry. This was great exhilarating fun, really the high point of our trip. The round trip takes about an hour - and is free! - and the glittering skyline and Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor were as dazzling at night as ever, even minus the twin towers…and for that matter, on the Staten Island trips of my childhood, they weren’t there yet, so it was the “old” skyline. It was a balmy night and quite comfortable on the water, and I could tell that Magda, who has only been to New York once before, was thrilled!

Monday, May 5, 2008

By day New York is looking beautiful in its dress of flowering trees, cherry and plum blossoms. The weather has been nice, a couple of days rather grey and cool, but the sun came out today and it’s warmed up to near-summer weather; the town is abloom with tulips (there’s a huge pink-and-white striped bed of them in a little pocket park near Ezra’s), and whopping yellow ones in front of the canopy of our elegantly doormanned building.

Meanwhile I awoke this morning to find that this three-part piece I'm doing for the Jane Austen Today blog has started running: it's quite long and perhaps a trifle daffy, being “Mrs. Elton Sez,” views on the Cranford mini-series channeling Mrs. Elton’s voice. They've laid it out very nicely and it looks handsome:

The trouble is, we fly home Tuesday night, I return to work Wednesday, but I still have to watch a DVD of Cranford and come up with some more Mrs. Elton channeling, and then write a talk to give at the book party my kind Beverly Hills friend Judy is giving for me at her gorgeous palazzo on Saturday – plus I’ll have a manuscript to read! So I do feel a little pressured with not much time to get these things done, plunging right back into things so immediately after a trip.

At noon today I taxied to meet Laurie at the Neue Gallery, on Fifth Avenue and 86th Street, across from the Met, where they’re having an exhibition celebrating Klint’s life and work. The museum, in a Fifth Avenue townhouse, modernized and very elegant, is fairly new, I think it opened within the last few years, and it’s certainly what everybody in New York is talking about having seen or going to see; so even though I don’t care particularly for German culture or art of the period, as there’s no other major exhibit I want to see in town (the Met itself is closed Monday, or I’d go see the Poussin exhibit), I figured I might as well. Actually what decided me was Richard and Magda saying that the gallery had an elegant and superbly authentic Viennese cafe, which was not to be missed. Richard did mention it was a bit noisy and he didn’t care much for his bratwurst, but Laurie and I had a very different experience. In the first place we got the best table in the room, a banquette in the corner away from other tables so we could command a view of the windows and the whole place and the chic ladies and magnificent white blossom flower arrangement. So springlike! We ran into Mary Margaret Benson, a Janeite from Oregon, and her husband, who were in New York for the Byron conference, like me. Since this was the second time I’d run into somebody with Laurie (and she’s the one who lives here) she asked if I knew 500 people?

And then the FOOD, oh my! First we had Hungarian goulash soup with crusty bread, and iced tea: and it was divine. Slivers of beef and potatoes and lots of paprika, of course (it was soup not stew), but with a wonderfully delicate blend of subtle foreign flavors. Then we shared a marvelous egg salad sandwich on the crusty bread, with a spicy Hungarian paprika flavor, and splitting it was just right, since of course we had to have dessert too! And I had perhaps the best hot chocolate with whipped cream ever – dark chocolate like you get in Venice, with a thick dense cumulous cloud of cream. And we shared a piece of ineffably wonderful cake – light chocolate and pistachio and marzipan and hazelnut cream, with another dollop of their fabulous whipped cream. Whew!

After that we dutifully traipsed through the gallery, which was mildly interesting; there was a nice roomful of multi-colored jewelry worn by Klimt’s circle, who dressed like early bohemians in “reform dress” that was actually quite beautiful – his model, who looked like a cross between Anna Pavlova and V. Woolf, wore long flowing waistless smocklike gowns with the jewelry. The famous golden Klimt portrait was there, looking infinitely more dazzling in person, layers of multicolored gold. There was just enough to see without getting tired, and Laurie bought some gorgeous Klimty books in the excellent shop. (We skipped the $8000 reproductions of the jewelry.) Then we did what we longed to do (and needed to do, after that lunch!), dived out into Central Park. I duly performed my walk under the magnolias, and we strolled over to the Belvedere Castle lake where Mark and I played fifty years ago (it’s fenced off now so kids can no longer paddle on its banks as we did), and we saw a heron – there certainly were none of those in Central Park in my day!

Then we strolled to the Ramble and sat there, where Laurie always feeds the birds. And I had a magical surprise, something I’ve always longed to see and never expected I would: a brilliant red cardinal came and hovered in the airy green branches over our heads! Fire truck red, and exquisitely tiny, with his little crown. Then Laurie, satisfied with her magic, and I parted ways, she went East, to her East Side home, and I West, crossing the park and walking from the 79th street exit all the way to Ezra’s on 106th and Riverside – took me more than an hour and was tiring as it was warm, but an interesting walk. Then I had a bath and a nap, and at seven sallied out to Henry’s around the corner, to have dinner with my Hunter friends. There was Eva, the lawyer; Deb the science writer; Priscilla the real estate agent; and Dave the professional bridge player. A mixed set, but all very warmly disposed toward each other, and I ate a Caesar salad and giant bowl of mussels. Afterward Priscilla and Dave came up to Ezra’s, and Peter and Dave got along like a house afire, talking about bridge clubs they have known!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I write this on the plane going home. This morning I took the subway to Zabar’s, where I bought two pounds of nova, a quarter pound of sturgeon, whitefish salad, cream cheese with scallions, a dozen Zabars bagels, and a chocolate babka, as well as delicious sandwiches for the plane! (Better than what American Airlines would serve, and charge for.) Then took the bus up to 103rd where I bought champagne for Ezra and replenished a few groceries. Finally back at the house took a small nap, then Peter and I had lunch (more Zabar’s stuff) and finished packing, also making sure that the house was absolutely immaculate. A cleaning lady comes tomorrow, before Ezra gets home, so we didn’t have to worry about real cleaning, but we left things tidy. Then we taxied to the airport, arriving nice and early. To my surprise there’s quite good food at the AA terminal – New York Italian stuff – and we sat at a café and had some lovely cappuccino. And I’ve spent the whole flight working on my speech for Saturday, and finishing writing this up. My new little laptop with the 12-hour battery is absolutely perfect for airplanes. But I can’t wait to get home and see Paul and give him his bagels and cookies…