Chicago Haunts

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Hauntings. Resonances. Melancholy. Delicious melancholy. Chicago.

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In April LW returned to Chicago, one of her favorite cities, for the first time in five years. She went with no agenda aside from visiting a few friends. She did, however, go with her usual travel strategy of giving herself over to the serendipity of books.

Which is why her first destination was the Unabridged Bookstore on Broadway in the Lakeview neighborhood, a few blocks from where her son once lived. This store is one of her favorites, a browser’s delight because of the thoughtful, passionate reviews taped to the bookshelves by the young staff.

That day one of those reviews, hand-written on an index card, drew her to a book called After Visiting Friends – A Son’s Story by Michael Hainey.

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From the card and the cover she learned that Hainey’s father, a Chicago newspaperman, had died under mysterious circumstances when his son was just six years old. The book chronicles the author’s quest to learn more about his father and the circumstances of his death. It was her kind of a book: a hunt, a mystery, and also a memoir, the kind that evokes and explores lost worlds.

That night in her hotel room above a quiet side street once home to several old-time Chicago mobsters, she opened the book and began to read. For some reason, perhaps from contractions and expansions of old beams and joists, noises like cracking knuckles emanated from the walls and ceiling all night long. Michael Hainey’s words also popped from the page, filling her head as she read:

“One reason I ask so many questions, maybe why I became a reporter: It’s what happens when you have a dead father. Even now, my boyhood so far behind me, I believe I might have made something more of my life had my father lived. Had he lived to share with me his secrets of life. His knowledge. To this day still, I scavenge for scraps in the hearts and minds of men I meet. Forever searching, believing the answers are out there. Somewhere.”

The passage made LW recall her own father. That last time she saw him. It was her eleventh birthday, a week before Christmas. She had seen him only a few times since her mother remarried and they’d moved away at the beginning of the previous June. He had stalked them for a few months, revving his old Dodge truck as he’d tear around the neighborhood. Eventually he gave up, except for this last visit. Her sister was with him, the one who had stayed behind with him instead of moving on.

He passed an unwrapped birthday present to her through the front door. It was sleeveless, scratched 78, one of those plastic yellow “kiddie” records that small children played on portable record players in the ‘40s and ‘50s. She stared at the title: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Her sister took her aside. She whispered how their dad was broke and sick and it was the best he could do. LW thanked him, hugged him, said good-bye. Someone closed the door and he and her sister left. Five years later he was dead.

———-

To the best of her knowledge, her father never visited Chicago, although it is possible he may have driven through or near the town on a trip he took through the Midwest as a young man in the 1930s. She remembers he once mentioned being amazed by the size of the corn stalks in Illinois that he saw in passing, stalks much taller and thicker than those that grew in their native Maryland. Whether he saw Chicago or not, there is something about the place that speaks of the man to her. And she can never quite figure out what that something is, but she keeps going back.

Some of the older-looking Chicago streets do remind her of parts of their hometown her father frequented: Hopperesque storefronts and diners, back lots and barber shops, gas stations and train tracks. In her minds-eye she sees him walking alone in these places, light jacket over paint-flecked shirt and pants, collar up, back sloped, hands in pockets, a Sherwin-Williams hat on head.

Maybe it’s the old news stories that still reverberate from some of Chicago’s Depression-era buildings, stories he, an avid reader, must have devoured. She learned from an aunt that as a young man he closely followed the exploits and escapes of John Dillinger and other colorful gangster types in the daily papers. Or maybe it’s remnants of The Depression itself, those hard years that destroyed his youth, remnants that still linger about some Chicago streets and alleys.

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A few days later as she walked across town, headed toward Powell’s Books, LW found herself at the Golden Apple, a favorite diner from years past. She used to meet up with her son and other actors at the restaurant after their comedy shows at the nearby Atheneum Theater. She decided to have an early lunch, remembering how she had once lingered there over pancakes at midnight, savoring that joy of being on vacation, of not having to be any particular place at any particular time. Then she thought: Maybe that’s it. Freedom. Trips to Chicago always meant freedom to her. And her father’s trip to the Midwest had been his one gesture toward a kind of freedom. But his family in Maryland–his parents and nine siblings– still struggled to recover from the loss of their home and business in a devastating fire. Responsibilities would pull him back home. He had to turn down the opportunity for higher education offered by his friend’s family in Missouri.

She took a booth by the front windows and ordered sliders and fries. While waiting, she gazed out the windows onto St. Alphonsus Church and the overcast sky that always seemed to hang over Lincoln Avenue.

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Coffee. Random thoughts. Then back to the book. She opened to the place she had left off and read:

“Chicago. I am of that place. Spires loom. The sky, a soiled shroud.”

Well, yeah. Tell it. Reading on, she became the author’s conjoined twin, comparing his father’s obituaries (each of which differed from the other), poring over the contents of his father’s wallet, and visiting his father’s haunts in the hope his story would reveal itself.

She downed cup after cup of coffee, riveted to passages such as this one in which Hainey recalled toasting his dead father with a glass of watery scotch.

“…I want to be that man. The dead man. I envy him. I want his power. The power, years later, that you have over someone. Still. Your absence is greater than your presence. Presence is fleeting. Presence is easy. But absence? That’s eternal. The great constant.

“Absence is everything.”

And absence is everywhere in Chicago, she thought, thinking of its fires and shootings and drownings, its people and places lost to time. A paradox. Absence trumps presence and thereby becomes. . . presence?

Maybe that’s where the ghosts come in. Chicago is a city of ghosts, those presences of absence. A library of books written and unwritten.

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One evening it snowed, a last trace of snow following a brutal winter. LW had a cheap dinner at a soup place on Broadway before returning to After Visiting Friends. Page 179. The part where Hainey is heading north on Lake Shore Drive on his way to the hospital where his father had been pronounced dead years before.

“I love this drive. The city on my left, the lake on my right. This is the route he would’ve taken that night. I see him in his LeSabre. Window down. Cool air streams in. The air that night rich with the first whiffs of spring. Maybe the radio’s on. The dashboard, big and wide. His face, illuminated from below. No seat belt. A time before restraints.”

She could feel the cool air from The Lake as someone entered the restaurant, air that also carried the first whiffs of spring, even as it began to snow one last time. The song Norwegian Wood played from an overhead speaker, a song almost half a century old, and yet somehow quite fresh. She lowered the book as the vibrating twangs of a sitar filled the room, music played by one dead man and sung by another. Dead, yet present, NOW, present in the music like Michael Hainey’s father was present through the book I had in my hands. Absence is everything.

Or, maybe, she thought, Marvin Gaye had it down. Everything is everything

She stuck a straw wrapper into the book to mark the page, paid her check and stepped outside to return to the hotel. And then, just as she lifted her camera to record the snowy night, a man passed by who looked a lot like the young lost newspaperman of the book—dark hair, coat, glasses.

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Do ghosts ride bikes?

A Ghost in Spring: The Haunting of Edwin Booth (Part II)

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Edwin Booth was about to be upstaged. True, the great actor could still command an audience, even from his perch atop a dusty end table. His mournful eyes drew LW across the floor of the antique shop. His curling locks fell across his forehead. (I do so want to place the word “fetchingly” here, but I’ve read adverbs should be used sparingly.) His mouth was pressed into a hard straight line, as if tense with unspoken words. She picked up the portrait of Booth by its frame, and, still fond of the old “Separated at Birth” game, looked around for someone with whom she could discuss his marked resemblance to the actor Kevin Kline. But then she noticed the books.

There were two of them on the table, both about Booth. She replaced his portrait and picked up each book in turn, riffling through them. They were not in perfect condition, but they had the haunts about them. And the haunts*, as you must know by now, are what this library is all about.

Books can, of course, haunt a body through their contents, with stories that prick the skin, characters that warm or chill the heart, illustrations that fire the imagination, ideas that catch the breath, and truths that scrape the bone.

But books can also haunt as objects in themselves, through their smell, bindings, weight and feel, and LW’s favorite: reader-added-ephemera. The latter can include dedications, marginalia, memorabilia, bookplates, bookmarks, or items tucked between pages as ad hoc bookmarks or for safe keeping (postcards, letters, lists, receipts, four leaf clovers, etc.). So when LW saw inscriptions and notes inside the two Booth books, she knew they belonged here with me, her fetchingly haunted library. They were not expensive, so she asked the shopkeeper to pack up “Edwin,” whose eyes pleaded “Don’t leave me,” as well.

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While the shopkeeper wrapped up her purchases, LW asked him if he knew anything about their previous owners. He said that they came from a woman from old acting family who was downsizing her living quarters. He did not offer her name.

And here they are. The smaller of the books, published in 1931, is “Behind the Scenes with Edwin Booth” by Katherine Goodale, whose stage name was Kitty Molony.

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Its cover is faded and water-stained, but LW liked the way Booth’s name is printed onto both endpapers and, being fond of symmetry and shadowing, how each name has bled onto the opposite page.

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Mrs. Goodale had been a young supporting actress who toured with Booth’s troupe late in his career. She kept a diary during these travels and used it as her main source decades later when she wrote this book, which might explain its gushing, star-struck tone. On the other hand, she does provide up-close, real-time sketches about the man. For example, when she thoughtlessly asked him about his siblings, he skipped over the name of his infamous brother John Wilkes. (In “The Hamlet of Edwin Booth,” a book LW found online, author Charles Harlen Shattuck notes that Kitty did not realize her idol felt her acting to be a hopeless case [p. 45]. Booth even felt so fatherly toward the young woman that he preferred to drop certain plays in which she had parts rather than hurt her feelings by replacing her.)

This book’s “haunts” come not only from its glimpses of Booth, but from a previous owner of the book who passed it on to his son with the enchanting inscription you can read below.

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There was enough information from the inscription and a list and notes left in the book that LW was able, through some digging, to determine the identities of both father and son. Because the son’s widow is still living, she does not want to reveal his name. Suffice to say that his father was a comic actor whose heyday was around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, and who may have known Booth. The depth of his admiration for him suggests he had at least seen him perform on stage. His son, the book’s recipient, enjoyed a long, successful career as a character actor on the Broadway stage. I find the inscription is so touching that I couldn’t resist sharing it as an example of a man’s dedication to his son and his art.

The second book LW found that day is dated 1894 and entitled “Edwin Booth” and subtitled “Recollections by his daughter Edwina Booth Grossmann and Letters to Her and to His Friends.”

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Edwin Booth had one child by his beloved first wife, Mary Devlin. Edwina was only a toddler when the death of her young mother left Edwin a distraught and guilt-ridden widower. Edwina describes herself as having been a “lonely, motherless child” who “entertained a more than filial affection” for her father. She also believed that “his own sorrows made him cling more closely to the child who had been left so suddenly in his care.” [p. 1] No doubt collecting these letters and remembrances of her late father was deeply important to her.

This book, too, has an interesting inscription, which I show here.

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LW blurred out the name of the person to whom the book is inscribed for privacy purposes. She believes him to be the son of the man who wrote the inscription in the Goodale book, as his nickname is used. (There is a small possibility that he could be the father, if that father used the same nickname, but she doubts that was the case.) She has not, however, been able to identify the picture below the inscription, which was originally taped to the opposite page but had come loose. The main building appears to be an old hotel, as “HOTEL” can be seen above its doorway. If you have any knowledge or a guess as to the nature of this scene is or why it would have been taped into this book, please comment.

The name of the signer, “Ted,” piqued LW’s curiosity. Edwin Booth’s nickname was Ted. She recalled that Edwina had a son. It seemed likely that she would have named him for her beloved father. An online search led her to the website www.findagrave.com which lists the grave of her son Clarence Edwin Booth Grossman, a “rather accomplished painter.” Furthermore, the site notes, his parents called him “Edwin” or “Ted.” Had Edwin Booth’s grandson inscribed this book? And, if so, when he describes it as “this book of my Mother’s,” was he just referring to Edwina Booth Grossman’s having written the book or did he mean this was her personal copy of it?”

The safest guess is that he (assuming he is “the” Ted) meant she wrote and compiled the book. I think it unlikely Ted would give away his mother’s personal copy, but who knows? It could have been one among several copies passed on to him, or perhaps his own personal copy. It is a first edition. LW also learned that both men were members of The Players (founded by Ted’s grandfather–see my previous post), which raises the likelihood that the Ted who inscribed this book was, in fact, Edwin Booth’s grandson.** The two men may have come close through their activities at The Players.

A side note: The same post states that Ted Grossman was married in 1908 at Christ Church in New York City, a church that, until its demolition a few decades ago, stood just a block from where LW and I currently reside. Its congregation merged with that of a nearby church, the same church LW has attended for decades. (She loves when a tendril branches out from a book and entwines with her own life in some small way.)

Let me close with a recommendation of a more recent Booth book you might enjoy: “My Thoughts Be Bloody” by Nora Titone.

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For years LW had absorbed from various accounts the idea that John Wilkes Booth, a popular actor of his day, killed President Lincoln primarily for political reasons and perhaps out of a johnny-come-lately shame at having avoided the battlefields himself. This book provides deep background on the Booth family dynamics, which were, to say the least, complex and tragic. It reveals that John Wilkes’ limited success as an actor never, in fact, approached that of his older brother Edwin. Edwin had picked up his craft directly from their talented, if oft-times deranged father, Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth, while attending to him on grueling cross-country tours. 

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John Wilkes excelled at swordplay and could leap across a stage (talent enough for theater-goers in some far-flung towns), but he was too poor an actor to win over audiences in the larger, more cultured northern cities, which Edwin reserved for his own territory.

Titone explores how a sibling rivalry with Edwin may have contributed to the warping of his high-strung younger brother into an assassin. She shows how the ongoing conflicts between the brothers mirrored those of a nation at war with itself. It’s fascinating stuff and could serve as a mini-course in 19th century American history. The lesser man’s fame, of course, would ultimately far eclipse that of his admired brother not through talent, but by an act of tyranny. No wonder that Edwin is the one who still haunts.

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*LW prefers the word “resonances” to “haunts,” but, then, whose blog is it anyway?

**A year or two ago, LW found a sample of Ted Grossman’s handwriting online that matched well with this handwriting, but, of course, she’s no expert.

A Ghost in Winter: The Haunting of Edwin Booth (Part I)

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A confession: I am haunted. Yes, I’m lousy with ghosts. No big deal, all libraries are haunted. Ever notice how the more haunted the house, the bigger the library? Ever see Ghostbusters?

There’s something about winter, too, particularly a stormy winter such as this one, that draws the ghosts out of the walls, particularly if those walls are lined with books. Come a snowfall, I’m sure to find LW poking around my history and biography sections where ghosts like to congregate.

As the Arctic Vortex descended upon the City last month, LW picked up a book about the relationship between the Booth brothers, Edwin and John Wilkes, that she’d bought two years ago. When she was deep into this book, an email from Edwin Booth popped up in her In Box. At least that’s my theory–I told you the ghosts come out this time of year. She claimed it was just a generic invitation from the office of The Obscura Society to which she subscribes. No matter, for the email invited her to tour The Players, the historic social club Edwin founded on Gramercy Park South in 1888. Regardless of who actually sent it, I think Edwin wanted her to come.

One way or another, LW got to tour The Players, which she had longed to do for many years. Whenever she was in the neighborhood, she would seek out the building to linger a moment near a window, not unlike the woman in this photo (taken before the current scaffolding was erected on the building’s front), hoping to catch a glimpse of its interior.

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Edwin Booth was the most celebrated American actor of his day. His fame was to be eclipsed, however, by the infamy of his younger brother John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln. It is Edwin, however, who interests LW, and what interests her tends to interest me. I couldn’t wait to hear about the tour.

She toured, she saw, and she returned with a few photographs and perhaps a dusting of ghost. She told anyone who would listen how she had felt Edwin’s presence throughout the 19th century mansion. I had to settle for poring over the rather poor quality photographs she took, some of which I will show here. (Her camera phone was old, she complained, and the rooms were dark.)

I am intrigued by this photograph. I ask: Do you see a ghost here? Is it me, or is there something spectral here? Is that a large hand I spy with my little bookish eye, reaching down from the ceiling?

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The photo shows a glass tabletop reflecting a window (semi-covered by temporary scaffolding) that overlooks Gramercy Park. [At the Park’s center is the statue of Edwin Booth shown in the photograph at the top of this post, taken in a warmer season.] I confess to having rotated the photo upside down; I thought it might be easier to view this way. The glass protects two papers and a photograph of Edwin. The papers are copies of the same letter; one typed, one handwritten.

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The letter is addressed to the People of the United States. It expresses Edwin’s and his family’s abhorrence at his brother’s crime and announces his (Edwin’s) retirement from acting. John Wilkes was still at large at the time Edwin published this letter and would be dead within six days of its writing. Edwin had been a staunch supporter of the Union cause and President Lincoln. In an uncanny coincidence, Edwin had once even saved the President’s son Robert from possible injury or death at a train station, pulling him up by his collar to the platform from where the young man had fallen just as the train began to move. Edwin would continue to be greatly admired by his audience despite his brother’s treacherous act, and they did not hold him to his retirement vow. These letters are just a few of the extraordinary items on display at The Players, where Edwin lived out the last years of his life.

LW was not able to see every room of The Players, but she did see the Grill Room, the social heart of the Club. Here is the bar at the room’s front end. Booth himself requested that passages from Shakespeare be inscribed on the walls wherever they seemed fitting, and several of those can be seen here.

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Next stop was the library, which was particularly dark, probably so as not to wake the ghosts.

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Edwin Booth’s personal collection of theatrical books, scripts, playbills, photographs, costumes, props, and memorabilia became the base of the library’s holdings. LW snapped this photo on her way out, and those books certainly do have the haunts about them.

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Booth’s costumes and props are displayed along halls throughout the building. I wonder which role he was playing when he wore this robe—Cardinal Richelieu, perhaps? (I think I’m scared now.)

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But what she wanted most to see was the inner sanctum of Edwin’s third floor apartment, seldom opened to the public, and which had been left more or less in place as it was when he died there. She first read about this room years ago in a popular biography of Booth called The Prince of Players by Eleanor Ruggles. Her beat-up copy is a Book-of-the-Month edition she picked up on the cheap at The Strand, but at least it has its jacket, which shows Booth in the prime of his life–and looks.

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A passage of this book impressed her so deeply that she remembered it as being the opening scene, though it does not actually appear until page 346. It describes Edwin in his last years by the window of his room at The Players “…a still figure reclining on a sofa, so nearly perfectly quiet he could hardly be distinguished in the darkening room—while the church clocks chimed from near and far, their strokes emphasizing the desertedness of the city so late in these summer nights.”

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The passage continues: “Sometimes he dozed. Sometimes his mind seethed—‘vulture thoughts,’ he called them—and he stared out with desperate wakefulness at Gramercy Park, whose trees were bathed in the light of a moon more remote and silvery than the low-hanging California moon. One o’clock struck, and after a long interval, two, then three. Often he heard four strike, and he looked expectantly for the gradual paling of the sky in the east; watched the slow taking shape of objects in his room; heard the clatter of milk carts, the imperative whistles bidding others to work. He called these his ‘vulture hours.’”

The tour culminated in this very apartment, where LW took the photo of the “sofa” described above, as well as his bed, seen below.

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My recent posts have described LW’s fascination with windows and scenes or objects displayed behind or under glass. A related interest of hers, as my heavy shelves will attest, is rooms and interiors, particularly as described in books, fiction or non-fiction. She has even kept a notebook of interesting descriptions of rooms. This one, from pages 365-6 of the Ruggles book, is a favorite:

“Booth’s room was divided by a fretwork arch and draw curtain that shut off the alcove where his bed was. The brass bed, which had a tester and curtains, was spread with the crazy quilt Mrs. Anderson [wife of an old actor friend] had made him. On the bureau in the alcove were two small photographs, one of his mother, stern and sad in old age, and one of his grandchildren. To the left of the bed in the most retired position in the room was the picture of John Wilkes from which Edwin had never parted…

“On the center table under the chandelier in the main section of the room lay a bronze cast of Booth’s hand holding [his daughter] Edwina’s baby hand. To the right of the fireplace leered three skulls, all used in Hamlet…”

You can see the crazy quilt on the bed in the photo above. The picture of his brother hard to see here, but it, too, is still in place, the uppermost of the two pictures hanging to the left of the bed (the viewer’s right) in the white matted frame. And you might be able to make out the bronze cast of hands on the table in the photograph below.

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The description continues: “His desk stood against the wall, neatly piled with sheets of the club writing paper embossed with masks of Comedy and Tragedy. Above the desk was a portrait of his father and just below the portrait he had fixed appropriately a panel hewn out of the wood of the giant cherry tree from the farm in Maryland. On the wall nearest the window hung the most remarkable picture in the room, of Mary Devlin.”

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That portrait is directly in the line of vision from the daybed. Many tragedies stalked Edwin, not the least of which was the death of his beautiful young wife Mary. Adding to his pain was the guilt he felt from knowing he had been distracted by drink when notices of Mary’s sudden illness arrived—she was in Boston and he in New York at the time—and he had arrived too late to be with her at her end.

LW has a small but interesting collection of books about Edwin Booth, and I will discuss some of them in the Part II of my post. I’m not sure if Edwin is haunting us, or if we are haunting him.

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Winter Windows

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The Bear of Winter has gripped our City.

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We pay it no never mind. When the snow blows, we stay snug, enjoying the view from our windows.

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We have our books. And LW has Wolfie, the fake fur blanket that cozies up to the Reading Chair. I have my nooks and crannies, which include the windowsills, where some of my books take turns sunbathing. Yes, I know the risks of sun on books, but we can all use a little extra light this time of year, and it clears away the must and mold.

She moved here for those windows, even though by doing so she sentenced herself to forty years (and counting) of climbing four flights of stairs with every homecoming. I agreed with her decision. If books do make a room, windows (and books) do make a library, for they anchor us to that larger world for which we, even us private libraries, exist as a place of exchange. I prefer Palladian windows, or, at the very least, tall ones arched at the top like ours. The arches trace the arc of the sky.

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Our three southern windows face the street (two in the main room as shown above, one in a smaller side room). Two narrow casements in the rear of the apartment ventilate the kitchen and bath. These may not seem like much to house dwellers, but that’s a lot of window–and light–for a small apartment in this City. Take it from someone who has lived in the shadows.

Too, as a descendant of tree nymphs, I appreciate the view of the tree across the street. As I wrote in one of my first posts, the word library goes back to the Latin term for “a chest of books” and on down the etymological line to “book, paper, parchment,” “the inner bark of a tree,” and to the verb “to peel,” from which I acquired my name, Willa Peel. Trees are us.

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Yesterday, in a presentation before church, LW learned that the mystic and abbess Julian of Norwich lived in a cell with three windows. One of the abbess’s windows opened onto the adjoining church so she could receive communion and hear the services. A second window allowed her to communicate with the outer world (and hopefully to see a tree), and a third allowed an attendant to deliver her food and remove that which needs removing. Her three windows served a dynamic of exchange among God, church, the outside world, her attendants, and herself.

Learning that Julian’s room also had three windows made LW feel all “abbessy,” as her personal saint Pee-wee Herman might describe it. And if LW was an abbess, and she was asked (through a window) for her recommendations for winter reading, she might recommend Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, Winter–Five Windows on the Season by Adam Gopnik, and a good, rich biography, the kind which opens windows to other worlds. (In my next post, I will discuss the good, rich biography that saw her through the coldest days of this snowy season.)

Sometimes, however, windows are not enough for LW. She needs a door and she needs to push through it. Then she risks the ice and slush and cold to get out among life at large, even it it’s just to, oh, buy a pencil as Virginia Woolf describes in her essay “Street Haunting – A London Adventure”* (“The hour should be the evening and the season winter…”)—or a cupcake.

I leave you two pictures from our bright, if not warm, St. Valentine’s Day. The first LW took at her local bakery (Magnolia) where she bought her cupcake. The second shows the remains of the day, which reminds me of another good book for winter reading. And speaking of good books for winter, what are your favorites?

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*High-ranking candidate for LW’s all-time favorite essay

Books in Windows, Windows on Books

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If I had a collar, I’d turn it to the cold and damp. Yes, I’ve been humming “The Sound of Silence” again. Yes, libraries hum.  A kind of dusty hum, but a sensitive ear should be able to pick it up. Listen for it next time you’re in a library.

Where was I? The cold and damp. Luckily I don’t have to go out into it. LW does. She has to go to work and other places. And walking to work often takes her through the Park.

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She exits the Park near the Plaza and typically stops to gaze at the Bergdorf show windows on the next block. Lately she had avoided this route, fearing she would miss their holiday displays.

But this week, she found herself once again by the store, and she looked. And there, in the windows—Oh, Joy in the Morning—she saw Books! Lots of books! And a few mannequins (who cares?). But oh, those books. Here’s what she saw.

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And this.

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And this.

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In case you can’t see them well, these books are mostly from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. A few are from the ‘60s. They seem to have been chosen for their color and old-school graphics, which have been enhanced by those clear acetate covers favored by antiquarian booksellers. 

Their quality as actual reading material varies. She scribbled down the titles of a few of them, and you can probably make out a few more. Excuse My Dust by Bellamy Partridge. The Second Mrs. Draper by Noel Pierce. Cheaper By the Dozen by Gilbreth and Carey. Pearls Before Swine by Margery Allingham. Bad Girl by Vina Delmar. Great Horse Stories in Truth and Fiction. Ride ‘Em Peggy by Elisa Bialk.* Where to Dine in ’39 –200 Recipes by Famous Chefs. The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag by Jim Corbett.

LW loves curated books, even as odd a lot as those chosen to decorate store windows. The carefully selected books of a small literary bookshop, the bedside books set out for a guest, the “take one-leave one” books of an outdoor mini-library or the books in lobbies of old hotels—she is seduced by them all.

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These store window books reminded her of the latter (being a devotee of old hotels), even though more than a few of them seem to have been borrowed from BG’s small rare books department, which she scouts out now and then. They induced in her a kind of nostalgia for the books Reader’s Digest editors would select for their Condensed Books anthologies, books like My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier or Merry Christmas Mr. Baxter by Edward Streeter.

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She was tempted poke her hand through the glass, grab a few books and make a run for it.

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“The show window arouses desire by denying the passerby physical access to what the eye can see: it tantalizes the person on the outside of the glass, looking in,” writes Karel Marling. (See my previous post.)

True, that. And I also think an acetate book cover creates its own kind of “window of desire.” Used by rare books sellers to ostensibly protect delicate dust jackets, the shiny covers act as a barrier between book and hand, a kind of veil with a come-hither sheen.

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But back to the BG store windows. LW likes the way they reflect the buildings across the street and interact with them.

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 In this shot, the books seem to turn into windows themselves, or is it the windows that become books? Books and windows both suggest possibilities, mysteries, intrigue. What goes within? Who dwells there?

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I am reminded of how LW likes to think of my – OK – our books as a city, a place in which authors or characters might commune after dark. She imagines small people emerging from their book houses to visit friends in other books.

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She has even considered cutting out glow-in-the-dark doors and windows to stick on the book spines, so they will resemble a city at night when the lights are off. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

However, I will recommend a lovely children’s book that explores the idea of libraries as cities: How to Live Forever by Colin Thompson.

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Find yourself a copy and you, too, might be tempted to create your own Book City. (Below: Don’t you think your library should have a copy of Colin Thompson’s book?)

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I close with thoughts of seeing books as windows and windows as books. And this thought: If I could get glass-fronted cabinets for all my books, I might be willing to tolerate some glow-in-the-dark stickers.

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*A coincidence: I discovered that Ride ’em Peggy is illustrated by Paul Brown, grandfather of one of LW’s best friends.

Worlds Under Glass: An Epiphany

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The Twelve Days of Christmas are almost over, and I can’t seem to pull LW away from her football games, of which there are way too many these days. Books! What about the books? Looks like I will have to throw in the towel and select one of the most Christmassy books on my shelves to send off the holiday season.

I’ve decided to go with Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday by Karal Ann Marling.

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My previous post described old Baltimore’s Christmas gardens and miniature villages. Professor Marling explores the visually- and commercially-driven American Christmas in depth, covering not only toy villages,

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but Santa-lands,

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sidewalk Santas, Coca-Cola Santas, and Christmas trees, cards, letters, wrapping paper, cookies,

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and many of the holiday’s other visual enchantments and enticements. (Shown above: LW’s Xmas Village with A Christmas Story theme, a Macy’s window, and cookies made by LW’s niece JM and eaten by LW. )

[A side note: When LW grows up, she wants to be Marling, a professor of Art History who has also written about American television, Elvis’s Graceland, and other pop culture subjects. She also says she wants to be John Waters, but just his Christmas side, and sans the pencil mustache that kind of creeps her out. Maybe she just wants to be his pen-pal.]

LW was particularly drawn to the book’s third chapter called “Window Shopping,” which echoes the appeal for her of the Baltimore book. Its descriptions of elaborate 19th century store window displays are the stuff of a Stephen Millhauser* fantasy. (*Favorite Author Alert.) Marling describes eye-popping tableaus in which hundreds of dolls were arranged to depict a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, a reception at the Doge’s palace, a picnic at Niagara Falls, or (as in Macy’s 1889 windows) Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the latter, “an Eliza doll fled fuzzy bloodhounds from window to window, all the way down 14th Street.” [p. 91]

The “Window Shopping” chapter begins with a discussion of the scene from the 1947 movie “A Miracle on 34th Street,” in which Kris Kringle stares into a gift store window and protests the order of the reindeer displayed therein. This scene (which is not in Valentine Davies’ book) was recreated in Macy’s window a few years ago. LW looked in the window to take this picture of Kris looking in the window:

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Professor Marling goes on to explore the role of the store window in holiday merchandising and as a civic enterprise. Like movies (Marling notes), “the window display is a framed, visual narrative, a kind of entertainment. Attractive by reason of its remove from the sullied world outside the glass pane, the tableau in the window constitutes a utopian place, meant for distanced contemplation.” [p. 83]

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Time constraints keep me from quoting from the parts of G.K. Chesterton’s Autobiography that discuss the role that framing plays in delights such as the toy theater, or life in general. But it’s true that LW’s first frisson of Christmas these days often comes with the unveiling of (framed) holiday window scenes.

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Another of LW’s Walter Mittyish selves is that of a window dresser, preferably for Bergdorf’s. Among the book’s fun facts: L. Frank Baum, who went on to write the Oz books, “began his writing career as the author of a treatise on store window decorating and the editor of a Chicago-based journal for professional trimmers.” [p. 91] Also: Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Jasper Johns and other artists decorated show windows for various New York stores [p. 101].

Here are some more of LW’s favorite photos of Bergdorf’s holiday windows:

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She would probably be more at home, however, taking up Anthropologie’s DIY style.

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It occurs to me (oh, the joys of biography!) that there may be a connection between LW’s childhood fascination with Advent calendars and her adult fascination with store windows. She loved this display in Anthropologie a few years ago.

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The New Year has begun, the sky is bright, and Christmas trees are already being tossed out onto the sidewalk. And I didn’t even get to the rest of this book of wonder and joy, let alone the other books I set aside for—How many Days of Christmas was it?

If you do get a copy of this book, please note that we also love Chapter 9, “Somebody Else’s Christmas – Hot Christmas, Black Christmas, Faraway Christmas.” And how about the parts on Elvis and Bing Crosby and Joan Crawford and Charles Dickens and David Sedaris and Dr. Seuss and Tony Sarg and Liberace and Thomas Nast?

Yes, I know, I left out Baby Jesus. I was going to get to Him in a new post on crèche scenes. But I’ll leave you on this 11th Day of Christmas with my Epiphany about store windows and the rest of the world as well (houses, roads, cities, woods, fields, mountains, oceans, stars)—It’s all one big crèche scene. 

Christmas Gardens, Christmas Worlds

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“Always, worlds within worlds.” –Clive Barker, Weaveworld

We private libraries do like a theme. We may start out looking random, but patterns tend to emerge as we grow. Fiction. Non-fiction. Mysteries. Biographies. Science. Sci-fi.

Take my shelves, for instance. Memory is one of my big themes. And place and space. Storytelling and identity. Childhood, holidays, time. Art, music, poetry. Museums and the collecting impulse. Creation and salvation. Melancholy and death. Re-creation. Play. Call me existential, but call me.

If I had to describe my theme in one word, I’d say “worlds.” And then I’d say “and world-making” because I’m not a one word (or one world) kind of library.

But back to Christmas, another of my big themes. Today I unveil the first of our favorite Christmas books, unless you count the Sears, Roebuck Wishbook mentioned in my previous post. And it has to do with worlds and world-making.

So, Little Drummer Boy drum roll, please. Pa-rumpa-pum-pum. (God, I hated that song, and I don’t even have ears. Just my mind’s ears.)

For the first of my Twelve Days of Christmas Books, I select: Keeping Christmas – An Edwardian-Age Memoir by William F. Stricker, and illustrated by Joseph Sheppard.

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Stricker, a priest-monsignor, grew up as a neighbor and friend of H. L. Mencken in the Union Square neighborhood of Baltimore. This manuscript was found among the Monsignor’s papers after he passed away.

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The book touches on several of my themes: memories of childhood, lost worlds (Baltimore, Maryland around the turn into the 20th century–LW, of course, is originally from Maryland, but east of the Bay), and Christmas. It also has some lovely watercolor illustrations as seen above. LW’s big on visuals.

But since she has lots of new books to read (Boxer’s Day is “Browser’s Day” in this live-in library), I’ll cut to our favorite part of Keeping Christmas, the part that has to do with world-making.

It’s the part Mgr. Stricker describes in Chapter 5, The Land of Lilliput about the elaborate preparations Baltimore citizens of all stripes put into their renowned displays they called Christmas gardens. Every firehouse as well as many shops and private homes in Mgr. Stricker’s day created models of Christmas or winter scenes for their front windows. Firehouses competed among themselves for the best display. (Even now parts of Baltimore are known for going all out with holiday decorations.)

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Some of their scenes, Mgr. Stricker writes, “were enlivened by special mechanical effects,” such as the scene that featured “a periodic fire and spurting water to put out the recurring blaze.” He continues, “What renewed the fire is still unknown, for the inventor perished in the line of duty and took his secret with him.”

Another inventor-type he describes hung only angels on his tree. Using a rod and axle arrangement, the man suspended the tree through a hole in the ceiling from the room above it. Windmill blades were attached to this get-up, and a ring of gas jets propelled the blades, causing the tree to rotate. And when the tree rotated, the angels would fly.

The Christmas garden displays resonated with LW because she had heard that her paternal grandfather used to put up similar scenes in the family’s apartment above his photography studio in Salisbury. These featured a miniature windmill he had made (and that her parents would continue to use for some of their first holidays together) set on a river of aluminum foil that was populated by rubber ducks. A church, some trees, perhaps a train(?), and another house or two completed the scene, which was so popular in the neighborhood that some years (an aunt told her) it was not taken down until April.

LW has vague memories of some similar, if less elaborate displays from her earliest Christmases. The vagueness of these memories make her want to fill them in, recreating Childhood Worlds.2 or .3 or .4 with whatever bits of information she can find.

In recent years she has enjoyed world-making in the Christmas garden tradition. She sets up her own Christmas village, a mix of several kinds of store-bought buildings and kitsch, including some inspired by the movie A Christmas Story. (Needless to say, we keep Jean Shepherd’s books close.)

She is open to suggestions for the name of the town as well as the streets. Here is the main drag, currently called Main Street.

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LW enjoys immersing herself in these scenes. She claims to be inside the theater shown below, watching “Babes in Toyland.”

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And here’s the elementary school on the night of the holiday pageant. That’s her on the right, coming out of the candy store. Its owner kept it open late, knowing she and her friends would be stopping by for Pom-Poms.

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And the photo below was taken the night her sister JW sang Christmas carols at the local radio station with her Girl Scout troop. In real life, the Scouts’ radio gig went down without incident, but in Christmas Town, the troop came on right after the tipsy yahoos you see in the window and before The Chipmunks. (“Thank God we didn’t have to follow The Chipmunks,” she said later.)

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Next up: more world-making at Christmastide. Joy to the world!

 

Christmas Books and Memories

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A confession: This Library Spirit consorts with the Christmas Spirit year-round. We (Kris K. and I) like to mingle among LW’s holiday books—all five shelves of them—and, yes, sometimes in the kitchen among the cookbooks as well. Smells of balsam and gingerbread and old books ensue.

LW loves her Christmas books—and I do, too. Last month I was thinking of featuring some of our favorites in the style of an Advent calendar. Present a book a day, leading up to Christmas. That didn’t get anywhere, what with LW traveling to California for Thanksgiving and then getting caught up with the busyness of the season. [Shown below: Dawn over Los Angeles. Who could pull her away from views like this?]

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So now I’m thinking of The Twelve Days of Christmas. I could feature one (or more) Christmas-themed book for each day of the traditional Christmas season that begins Christmas Day and ends with Epiphany. This might work if Epiphany can be pushed back into April. Don’t hold your eggnog-scented breath. And no promises.

But I begin with some background: Why does LW have so many Christmas books, anyway?

Her love of the holiday goes back to those 1950s Christmases at that small farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The season would begin with a book–not the Bible, which tended to collect dust until Christmas Eve–but the Sears, Roebuck holiday catalogue called “The Wish Book.” Someday I hope to possess a copy of this marvel, but suffice to say that its shiny pages spoke comfort and joy to LW and her sisters as much as any Christmas carol. (In the interim I will refer you to Harry Crews’ memoir A Childhood: A Biography of a Place to read of the fascination The Wish Book held for rural children.)

Her holiday season began in earnest, however, with the opening of the first Advent calendar window. And now, this Christmas morning, LW’s holiday memories reflect back to me (Willa, her books-bound shadow), much like those small calendar windows, back-lit with a magical glow.

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And so many windows to open: Christmas cards with glitter snow, paper chains made from construction paper,

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ferns of frost on the windows, the bright red berries of the holly that grew in the woods, the long-needled pine trees, too; and church, with air tinged blue by the singing of O Come O Come Emmanuel, and the glow of the candles there.

And folded and cut paper snowflakes,

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reindeer and sleigh stenciled on the windows with Glass Wax, a cake for her birthday (she conflated her December birthday with the holiday), rimed red bells suspended from tinseled garlands across Main Street in town, “snowballs” thrown from a float in the Christmas parade there,

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the foil-wrapped marshmallow Santa pressed into her hand by Stranger Santa in his makeshift workshop on the Courthouse lawn, the cards strung across the ceiling of her grandfather’s house, favorite prints on recycled gift wrap, Christmas sheet music,

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cardinals in the snow, a plastic snowman that once held candy (still cocky with a broken pipe in its mouth), icicles hanging from the roof, candy canes, the crèche scene her sisters made in a shoe box, and the house lined with all blue Christmas lights found (every year) on a night ride through back country roads.

Then, behind the big window of Christmas Eve, that last look out the back door into the silent night: the steam of her breath in the cold air, the silhouette of the piney woods, the inscrutable stars.

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But the greatest delights of the season were held back, restraints that built the excitement to almost unbearable levels.  When she and her sisters hung their stockings on the upright piano on Christmas Eve, the branches of the balsam in the far corner of the living room were still bare. Not a present was in sight. Her parents shut the doors to the room, and no creature stirred, not even a mouse, for another (agonizing) eight or nine hours. Presumably Santa Claus himself dropped in to stuff the stockings, nibble the cookies, decorate and tinsel the tree, 

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fill the candy dishes, pose the dolls and bigger toys just so, and set out a miniature scene on cotton snow, all in one night. 

Then, near dawn, her parents hustled into the living room before anyone else was allowed in, perhaps to move a few things around for aesthetic purposes or to wrap an errant present. This stalling left LW and her sisters waiting in robes and slippers, teeth chattering, just outside the door for another half hour, until the Grand Opening. The impact of that amazing transformation that awaited them—tree lights blinking, angel topper glowing, gifts tumbling over one another, fruits and nuts and candies abounding,

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smells of balsam and orange and furnace heat permeating all—was never to be forgotten, and, within just a few years (when their parents would separate, then divorce), never to be repeated. [Shown above, her mother’s candy dishes, still in use.]

In years to come, LW became enamored of Christmas books of all kinds. Some of them, written about holidays from times and places similar to those she knew, brought to mind a forgotten moment from those Christmases past. Others told of Christmases as celebrated in other ways in other places and at other times, Christmases she would add to her own memories. Some books provided deeper meaning to the holiday. Some were just for fun. If a certain kind of Christmas can’t be repeated (and, of course, nothing can be repeated—the world being born ever-new), she learned it can still be imagined and reimagined. Ah, books—they are good for that!

Next: my first Christmas book selection!

Books of Ages – Part II

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Jane Franklin’s Book of Ages (see my previous post) reminded me, in my role as LW’s biblio-biographer, of another Book of Ages that, unfortunately, did not survive LW’s adolescence. In a pique of embarrassment, teenaged LW threw out her own Book of Ages, along with her hormonally-driven five year diary and other juvenilia. This was probably smart of her in case she should ever run for office, but I remember the book fondly, as my development into a well-stocked library owes something to it.

When LW was ten years old, she had a love-hate relationship with her local public library. She loved to borrow its books, and she hated to return them. Library fines bit deeply into her scavenged movie and candy funds. When she finished a book she liked, she closed it in dismay–She wished the story could go on and on. Given that she had to return the book, she wanted to keep its characters close so as to continue their stories in her mind.

So she created her own version of a Book of Ages. In one of those stitched composition books with the granite-like pattern on the cover, she wrote down the names of favorite characters and their ages from a time of her choosing. Sometimes she drew the characters’ portraits as well, usually in profile. She mastered the old “smaller curve atop a larger curve with an eyelash in the middle” style of silhouette immortalized by Alfred Hitchcock’s famous profile. It looked something like this:

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This was a difficult time in LW’s life. Her parents had divorced. Her oldest sister had moved out of state. When her mother married a gruff former ship captain, he moved them to another town, away from friends and family, including her other sister who stayed behind. Perhaps this is why many of the names LW recorded in her book of ages were siblings from large, close families.

From what I can recall, her reading from those years (the early sixties) consisted of mostly standard fare somewhat dated for the time. Her first entries into her book included balanced but bland Bobbsey Twins (Bert and Nan, Freddie and Flossie) and the antique Five Little Peppers (Ben, Polly, Joel, Davie and Phronsie), hangers-on from her earliest chapter-book days. The Little Women–Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth–lived on in her Book of Ages (Beth having somehow staged a miraculous comeback), as did the generation that followed in Little Men. And she included the Banks children from her beloved Mary Poppins books. [Show below: the Dutch doll from which P.L. Travers modeled Mary Poppins, displayed at a recent NYPL exhibit.]

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She was particularly fond of the siblings in historical novels such as Johnny Tremain, On to Oregon!, and Across Five Aprils. And she recorded her favorite characters from the series of books by Lois Lenski that featured lower class families from distinct regions and cultures of the country. She could relate. (I have acquired a number of Lenski’s books over the years, and they are all beat-up library books. Before the Scholastic book services was introduced into classrooms selling cheap paperbacks, few kids from her day had  many books of their own.)

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LW also loved anthropomorphic animal stories. Her most extensive character lists were drawn from the Thornton Burgess nature series, some early Richard Scarry-illustrated books, and the Winnie-the-Pooh books that were her secret indulgence. [Below: the original Winnie and friends, also from the NYPL, with photo of author A.A. Milne and son.]

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Other long lists were inspired by the movie Fantasia. She became obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology, particularly the intricate relationships among the Gods and demi-Gods. She charted the genealogies of the Olympians, mostly procured from her paperback of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, along with their powers, totems, and personality traits. She went on to construct her own pantheons as well.

At some point she decided to make up stories about people in her own extended family, people who had been left behind. She knew her mother grew up in the country with her four sisters, and that her father had grown up in town with seven sisters and two brothers. She asked her mother for a list of her aunts’ and uncles’ birthdays and was given some family records. Like a latter-day Jane Franklin, she recorded the birthdays in her book. She then computed their ages for the setting of her stories. She set her father’s age at fourteen so as to be able to include his youngest sister into her stories.

 As she poured over the lists her mother gave her, she discovered other lists—her grandparents’ siblings, parents, and more. She was shocked to realize that just a generation away, she knew of only a few of these relatives. How was it that a family, even a close family, could so quickly become lost to one another and to time?

And so, like Jane Franklin, she became something of an archivist, collecting names and stories. And books, many books. Books of ages. Books of her own. My current existence as a Library of Sagging Shelves [L.O.S.S.?] grew out of this original collecting impulse: to save and remember the names of those left behind and their stories. And to create a library where the books don’t have to be returned.

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Books of Ages – Part I

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With new readers in mind, I wish to re-introduce myself. My name is Willa Peel, and I am the presiding spirit of the personal library of L. Williams (“LW”) of this City. I am also the Reader Over Her Shoulder—I read what she reads. My purpose is to chronicle our shared lives through our books.

I am pleased to report that the Great Book Reorganization project LW undertook over the summer has been completed. No, she did not reach those books on the top shelves near the ceiling. No, she did not take down the books on the closet shelf or go through the boxes of books in storage. But she did sort through all the others and rearranged them mostly by subject and gave away some duplicates and such, and for the first time in years we can find most of our favorites. However, this undertaking has kept me from posting as frequently as I’d wished. [Seen below: Part of my reorganized “Books on Books” section, in which the books are stacked literally “on” books. Not exactly how one should store books, but if you had to deal with my lack of space, you’d understand.]

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But now I’m back to tell you of a recent acquisition, already beloved, and, in a second post to follow, of another book that I feel connects with it in a small but poignant way.

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The new book is Book of Ages – The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore. Jane Franklin, like her famous brother Benjamin, loved reading, writing, and books. Much of Benjamin Franklin’s success in the world resulted from his prolific writings and his ability to publish and distribute what he wrote. His books, essays, treatises, and almanacs were widely read and admired. Sister Jane shared his curiosity about the world but was too busy birthing, raising, and burying her children (twelve!) and grandchildren to find time (and books) to read—but she tried. “I Read as much as I Dare,” she once told her brother. (p. 33)

She did write some letters, a few of which survived. And she wrote one book of sixteen pages that she stitched by hand.  “She called it her Book of Ages,” Lepore writes. “It is a record of the births and deaths of her children, a litany of grief.” (p. xii) 

Lepore describes this book as Jane Franklin’s “remains.” “The Book of Ages is a book of remembrance. . . She had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones. Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together. The remains of her remains.” (p. 57)

Lepore’s Book of Ages covers much more than the life of the nearly forgotten Jane Franklin. Lepore weaves in histories of women’s reading and writing and their relationships with books and paper, correspondence and chronicles. Often she must work with shadows, the negative space that is too frequently the only remains of women’s lives to be found in “history.” She sees Jane’s life as an allegory for this process, writing, “It explains what it means to write history not from what survives but from what is lost.” [p. xii]

That said, Lepore does an amazing job of fleshing out Jane Franklin’s life from the few letters and scraps of information that still remain, including Jane’s own Book of Ages. And this is what interests us, this collagist’s process, this search for clues about lives from what remains. And from what doesn’t. Lepore’s book is a fascinating read and an excellent addition to one’s library.

In my next post, I explore the role of LW’s own Book of Ages (a notebook she kept as a child) in my expansion from a mere shelf of books into a private library.

 

[Quotes are from Book of Ages – The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore, New York, 2013. Alfred A. Knopf, publisher.]

 

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