Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mark Twain's Party (Part 2)

Mark Twain at his birthday party, looking irascible

To continue what was a brief but most exciting, glittering, breathtaking research adventure:  my investigation into the guests (including my grandmother) at Mark Twain's 70th birthday party, which was described in Harper's Weekly for Dec. 23, 1905, with pictures of the 170 literary guests.  The New York Times reported the following observations about the women guests:

Many Women There.

"A particular feature of the dinner was the strength of the feminine contingent. There were fully as many women there as men, and they were not present as mere appendages of their husbands, but as individuals representing the art of imaginative writing no less than the men. An observer looking over the host of diners, after having scanned the list of guests and noticed that every feminine name in it was familiar to all readers, could not but wonder that the women he found corresponding to those names were all young and pretty. The whole gathering did not seem to include half a dozen women with streaks of gray in their hair."

Agnes Repplier (1855-1950), distinctly grey-haired essayist ("There are few nudities so objectionable as the naked truth"), reading a poem in tribute to Mark Twain

Gray hair?  Well, the past is a different country; and to put these views of women guests into context, Harpers points out:  "At Whittier's seventieth birthday, women were admitted into the room only after dinner, to hear the toasts. At Grant's Chicago banquet they were not admitted at all."

Now to meet some of the women.

Jean Webster's Table

Left to right:  J. Henry Harper, Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore, Nelson Lloyd, Frances Aymar Mathews, Jesse Lynch Williams, Richard Le Gallienne, Jean Webster.

At the height of their friendship, Jean Webster and my grandmother Winnie (Onoto Watanna) frequently went to plays together, and Jean was Winnie's literary mentor and advisor, writing the foreword to her memoir, Me.  Those days were a decade in the future, though they probably knew each other by the time of the Twain party in 1905, as Winnie's husband had grown up with Jean in Fredonia, NY.  Jean was present despite the mixed feelings she must have had about her great-uncle Mark Twain. He fired her father, his publisher, who later committed suicide, and their relations can be guessed by this anecdote, from an historical site about Fredonia:  http://app.co.chautauqua.ny.us/hist_struct/Pomfret/20CentralPomfret.html

[Charles Webster] was proud of the honor bestowed on him by the Pope when he visited Rome during his European travels. He now had the right to wear the uniform of a Knight of the Order of Pius. It was a pale blue jacket with gold epaulets, white cashmere pants, and a tricorner hat. On occasions he appeared in the village wearing it with sword in hand. His neighbors called him Sir Charles. His bitter uncle, Mark Twain, was said to have commented, "If Charles deserved to be a Papal Knight, Twain deserved to be an archangel."

Karen Alkalay-Gut writes, on her website about Jean Webster:  http://karenalkalay-gut.com/web.html

"In later interviews she never charged her famous ancestor with crimes against her father, but covered up her relationship with Twain until it became a matter of public knowledge, and the expression on her face when photographed at Twain's seventieth birthday tells what she was not allowed to express."

And now we see that expression! Jean is lovely in her delicate gown, hair piled high, hands primly folded in her lap, but she is a little slumped, and is frowning. She looks depressed, a bit alienated. The man nearest
her, Richard Le Gallienne, has his back turned to her; he is an elegant piece of work himself, rather Oscar Wildeian. Looking him up, I see his dates are 1866-1947, he is an English man of letters, literary critic and
contributor to the Yellow Book, father of the actress Eva Le Gallienne...and the bio says he was associated with "the fin-de-siecle aesthetes of the 1890s" which is exactly what I would have judged from the look of him. Jean would have written something wickedly funny about him, no doubt. Another woman at Jean's table was somebody who really should have been sitting at Winnie's table, Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore. Now, my goodness, just read about this lady - I read with my mouth open - it makes you want to write her biography:

Elizabeth Bisland

Elizabeth Bisland was a journalist who in 1889 was ordered by her boss to race Nelly Bly on her round-the-world journey. Protesting the assignment, Elizabeth went in the other direction. Her personality was utterly unlike that of outgoing Nelly; we're told she was "dignified, autocratic, flighty, sybaritic, temperamental, patronizing, powerfully intellectual and effusively romantic...a minefield of complexity. Diminutive, half-blind Lafcadio Hearn, the bohemian journalist who worked with Miss Bisland when, at age 17, she was culture and society editor for the New Orleans Times-Democrat [described her thus]...'She is a witch - turning heads everywhere - but some of her admirers are afraid of her. [An admirer] felt as if he were playing with a beautiful dangerous leopard, which he loved for not biting him. As for me, she is like hasheesh. I can't remember anything she says or anything I myself say after leaving the house; my head is all in a whirl, and I walk against people in the street, and get run over and lose my way - my sense of orientation being grievously disturbed. But I am not in love at all - no such foolishness as that; I am only experiencing the sensation produced upon - alas! - hundreds of finer men than I."

Nelly Bly

And indeed, Nelson Lloyd is staring, mesmerized, sideways at Elizabeth, with the look Henry Kissinger once gave to Princess Diana's chest. Lloyd is a very handsome blond man who wrote romances with such titles as A Drone and a Dreamer and The Chronic Loafer. Doesn't sound too energetic.  Beside him is Jesse Lynch Williams, a Princetonian who wrote things like Adventures of a Freshman; I think it's him Le Gallienne is looking bored with. But front and center in this picture, larger than life, is a really raffish looking woman, ugly, flamboyant, and altogether too much at her ease - ah! no wonder she looks so loud, Frances Aymar Mathews is a Broadway playwright, and her Pretty Peggy was a big hit a couple of years before. But look! She got in on the Winnie boom! Wrote a book in 1904 called A Little Tragedy at Tien-Tsin, which is described as being about "a culture clash between East and West.

A review tells us that the story is about "the lovely young Mrs. Wing Tee (of course married reluctantly to an aged husband) who nurses a young British gentleman thrown from his horse outside her gates, despite having been warned about the foreign devils. She dreams of a future with him, while he dreams about his fiancee. When the husband returns, tipped off by a nosy neighbor, there is a feast in which a ginger jar figures prominently (and tragically)." The notes comment, "The author provides local color in this story by describing an exotic milieu, and by attempting to render the heroine's dialogue in pidgin English. There is no evidence the author had any direct knowledge of Tientsin (or indeed China), but an oriental setting would appeal to a popular audience at the time." How jealous she and Winnie must have been of each other!

Frances Hodgson Burnett's table

Frances, Thompson Buchanan, Henry van Dyke, Carolyn Wells, Prince Troubetskoy, Will Carleton, Lloyd Osborne

Hard to believe there were two Winnies in the world - or five or six - but we are also in the world of Frances Hodgson Burnett, where such things could happen.  So now, Frances's table. She sits to the left, a little apart from the others and hunched over, rather like Jean Webster, with no one regarding her at all (which must have been odd for her); but her expression is pleasant. Her frou-frou lace gown trails on the ground, she is aged 56, rather older than most of the women at the party (however, her hair is not gray). She seems ignored by those at her table; young Thompson Buchanan, whose playwrighting and directorial career lies mostly in front of him (so how did they know to invite him then?), has his back turned to her for the picture. Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933, clergyman and professor of English literature at Princeton, author of inspirational stories), is turned away as well (though we know from the New York Times he escorted her into the dinner), to talk to an unnamed but more attractive woman. In the center of the picture is Carolyn Wells (1862 - 1942), wearing a very advanced looking draped gown; she would seem to be an even more prolific - and forgotten - author than Frances, having written some 170 books, mostly mysteries and girls' books. A humorist, her Rubaiyat of a Motorcar (1906) is one of her most famous books, and she contributed to Gelett Burgess's magazines, The Lark, The Chap Book, The Yellow Book. Other gentlemen at Frances's table are Prince Troubetzkoy, an artist and sculptor, whose wife was also there though not at that table (unless she's the unnamed woman, but I don't think they were seating husbands and wives together). More about her in a minute - she was another "hold on to your hat, how many women like this could there BE in one room?" types. Will Carleton, then known as "the poet of the people," and now forgotten, rounds off the table, along with Lloyd Osbourne, stepson of Robert Louis Stevenson, who collaborated with him on three novels while they lived in the South Seas (The Ebb Tide, The Wrong Box, The Wrecker) and was the "indirect inspiration" for Treasure Island. He looks intellectual and bored. Here's an interesting little piece he wrote on Stevenson, telling how he would:

"rail at the respectable and well-to-do; RLS's favourite expression was 'a common banker,' used as one might refer to a common labourer. 'Why, even a common banker would renig at a thing like that!'--'renig' being another favourite word. I got the impression that people with good clothes and money in their pockets, and pleasant big houses, were somehow odious, and should be heartily despised. They belonged to a strange race called Philistines, and were sternly to be kept in their place."

Amelie Rives, Princess Troubetskoy

Now for Princess Troubetszkoy:  good Lord.  A hair raising article entitled "The Strange Story of the Princess Troubetszkoy, Born a Polish Serf," begins with the memorable words, "Princess Troubetzkoy, under arrest here on extradition demanded by Italy for forging documents, committed suicide in the police station in which she was detained..." Short version, this Polish serf girl worked in old bachelor Prince Pignatelli's castle, and since "such loveliness as hers was born only to wear a crown," she got him to marry her. He soon died, and his relatives tore her inheritance from her, so she resolved to disgrace his name and went onstage in the Folies Bergere (wouldn't you?). Many gilded gallants were driven to suicide by her siren eyes. Well, she ran around Europe under various titles, an adventuress and con woman; according to the San Francisco Call she did herself in, in 1898...1898? But that would mean she could not have been at Mark Twain's dinner in 1905, though the New York Times says she was. Better check that again...Aha! Sorry to have misled you. The lady at the dinner was the "Princess Troubetzkoy, who once was Amelie Rives and still writes under that name." I see this one is a poetess, author of an ode unfortunately called "The Farrier Lass o' Piping Pebworth"; and there's a collection of letters she exchanged with Ellen Glasgow. She was a Southerner and wrote several novels, her first and most famous being in 1888, The Quick or the Dead, which caused a sensation because of the "immorality" of the plot (a young widow ponders whether or not to remarry shortly after the death of her husband).  Robert E. Lee was her godfather, and she had a tragic first marriage with the grandson of John Jacob Astor.  Theirs is a tale of morphine addiction in France, affairs, and madness. The Astor family claimed that Amelie drove him mad, her family claimed that he was already mad. There's a "salacious" biography called Archie and Amelie, Love and Madness in the Gilded Age...This was all before she married Prince Troubetzkoy, of course.

Well!  One could chase Internet stories all day and all night, in fact I have, but to calm us down, let's close with a look at Willa Cather's quiet table.

Willa Cather's table

Charles Major, Arthur Colton, Elinor Macartney Lane, Lilian Bell Bogue, Frederick A. Duneka, Willa Silbert Cather, Edward S. Martin, Anne O'Hagan.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Cather's lifelong friend and sometime enemy, was there too, at another table, but much as I love The Deepening Stream and The Homemaker, we have to stop somewhere.  I certainly have quite enough material for several more posts about Twain's gala, but shall next turn back to the more restful pastures of my thrift store finds, interspersed with sleeping cats.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My Ten Best Places to Read

Simon Thomas, on his Stuck-in-a-Book blog, has issued a challenge to book bloggers:  post a picture that sums up your reading tastes.  I found so many pictures of beautiful reading spots from memorable moments in my life, I thought I'd make a Best 10 list.  Here is Simon's post, with his own "reading" picture: 

And now my choices:

1.  The Winding Stair Bookshop, Dublin, 1990s

Apparently this famous bookshop/cafe in Dublin overlooking the River Liffey has closed and re-opened since we were there, so I don't know if the atmosphere is as bookishly magical as it was when Peter and I spent several long and happy Irish afternoons there...reading.

 2.  The Accademia Pensione, Venezia, December 2005.

I don't think there are very many places in the world where I've been more delighted, exalted, happy, than in Venice.  After a day of showing Venice to Paul (it was his first trip there), to come back to the beautiful Accademia (a former palazzo, later the site of the Katherine Hepburn movie Summertime) and relax by the fire with a book and a cup of cappucino, was very heaven. When we left, the staff bid farewell to the "cappuccinistas," we drank so many of them!


3.  The Novel Cafe (now known as 212 Pier),
Santa Monica, California

By rights, the Novel should have come first.  After all, this venerable bookshop/cafe is where all three of us have done most of our reading and writing daily (and nightly) for the last twenty years.  But it's so familiar, so every day, that beloved as it is, I began the list with the glamorous exotic ones instead!  In any case, this list isn't in any particular order:  it couldn't be.

  4.  Lake Temagami, Canada.  Most peaceful place where we've ever read.

5.  Tamarack Lodge, Mammoth.  An old favorite.

6.  Bearpaw. 

Is calling Bearpaw our most beloved spot on earth going too far?  No.  We've been to this back country tent camp, a 12 mile hike up the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia, maybe 40 times.  Don't know how many more times we'll be able to make the hike.  But it's our personal heaven...and a wonderful place to read.

7.  New York City - home town life

New York's our home town and when we go back to visit family, we often stay at my cousin the rabbi's apartment...which was his father the rabbi's apartment before it was his.  I remember Seders here, back in the 1950s.  A lot of family memories...and a lot of great reading.

8.  Greenwich Village...back in the day.

Cafe Figaro, as it looked in the '60s, when Peter and I first met there, age 17 and 19.  Me in Washington Square Park, 40 years on, sitting in the same spot as in my avatar picture.

9.  Homer, Alaska. 

One of our greatest trips...and my high school friend Denise's cabin is cozy, full of character, and a great place to read. 


      10.  And best of all - at home in bed with a cat!