Thursday, April 29, 2010

Robert A. Van Wyck

Here's what probably will be the final entry in my gallery of disreputable relatives. A distant member of the family, Robert A. Van Wyck, was elected Mayor of New York in 1898. As it happened, that made him the first Mayor of Greater New York since the five boroughs had only just come together under a single administration. It's partly to due to his leadership that the transition from five to one was successful. It also happened that work was begun on the New York subway system while he was in office. If these are two major occurrences to his credit, there, is, unfortunately, quite a bit more to be debited from his account in the tally of good and ill for which he was responsible. Caroline Hague's smuggling was a crime, but one of very small proportion when compared to Van Wyck's. She paid a fine for hers and got on with her business while he, publicly condemned but not judicially convicted, retired to live a life of leisure in Paris on the ill-gotten wealth he acquired while in office.

Robert A. Van Wyck was a descendant of Cornelius Barentse Van Wyck who had come to New Amsterdam from Holland in the middle of the seventeenth century. The Van Wycks are an old Rhenish family, tracing themselves back to the Chevalier Hendrick Van Wyck, who lived in fifteenth century Utrecht. After settling on Long Island, Cornelius Barentse had a son, Theodorus, who is the common ancestor of Mayor Van Wyck and myself: Altje, daughter of Theordorus, married a member of the Thorne family of Long Island and they are progenitors of the branch of the family in which I reside, and Barent, son of Theodorus, produced the ancestral line in which Robert A. Van Wyck can be found. You can see here what the descendancy looks like.

Van Wyck was a well-educated and apparently intelligent New York lawyer who had become a judge before entering electoral politics. He was also an ambitious and opportunistic member of the powerful local Democratic political machine called Tammany. The infamous leader of that organization had been Boss Tweed, a man of superlative greed and corruption whose misdeeds resulted in a prison term during the decade preceding the election which brought Van Wyck to office. Although an outcome of this Tammany defeat had been the election of a reform mayor in 1896, the organization had bounced back under the leadership of Richard Croker as Tammany managed to put Van Wyck in the Mayor's chair for a term. There, his actions so outraged the electorate that a second reform administration immediately followed. It's a bit comforting to find that my great-grandfather, Louis Windmuller, fought strenuously against the corrupt politics of Tammany, Croker, and Van Wyck.* Louis Windmuller may not have known he was a distant cousin of Van Wyck's; if he did, he did not admit it. It was Windmuller's wife, Annie Lefman, whose mother, Sarah Lenington Thorne, was a direct descendant of Theodorus Van Wyck.

Van Wyck hated speech making and didn't bother to court the voters during what passed for his electoral campaign. He merely carried out what boss Croker asked of him as a pliant, cooperative, unenthusiastic, colorless party tool.

His biggest offense against the law and human decency was to use his position to permit a business called the American Ice Company to create an iron-clad monopoly in the five boroughs. Refrigeration had not yet been introduced and New Yorkers had become dependent on cheap ice from states farther north to keep cold their food and beverages. When American Ice doubled the price to consumers, the impact was very serious. Van Wyck's reward for making sure that the company was able to do this with impunity was a gift of 5,000 shares of its stock. Allowing for inflation, the value of those shares would be considerably more than $12 million these days.

After his death in 1918, the New York Times summed up his corrupt actions in a short article. I quote here the whole thing. Note the links I've included to explain some of the details (well-known to readers of the time, not necessarily so today).

In the days of Robert A. Van Wyck, the first Mayor of Greater New York, now dead in Paris, this city had had neither a partisan nor a non-partisan government. Politics, as we understand the word today, had nothing to do with it. The city was swag, divided on the exact principles upon which Fagin used to divide the swag which the Artful Dodger and his pals brought home. Tammany had once been a political party, and now again has some resemblance to one, but in Van Wyck's day — that is, Richard Croker's day — it was simply a gang.

When, in 1897, Tammany won back the city, Croker and his associates went off to Lakewood, where they spent the next six weeks apportioning the spoil of victory. Some of it had been already apportioned. Croker had selected Van Wyck for the Mayorality, for instance, not permitting his name to come before the public until the day the so-called convention met. Van Wyck was thus appointed to the Mayoralty as Devery was later appointed Chief of Police and as other members of the gang received their several appointments. In no case was the appointment regarded by the recipient as one in which to perform a duty. He accepted it in a military spirit, as one pirate might have been told off by Blackbeard to watch the prisoners, another to run up the Jolly Roger, another to command a landing. Croker, had he chosen, might have appointed Devery to the Mayorality and Van Wyck to the Police Chieftainship. Each would have obeyed like a soldier.

Then began the partition of the city on a scale never seen before. It was scientifically mapped and surveyed. There bad been much spoil when Croker had control before, but except in the Police Department it was unscientific. Besides, Croker had not had full control. Now It almost seemed as if he had spent the three years of his retirement in devising a scientific plan for the making of fortunes out of every nook and corner.

In Tweed's time fortunes bad been made by the vulgar and easily detectable method of robbing the city treasury. The method under Croker was that of "assessments" levied upon individuals and corporations, and the city government was not used for robbery, but for the purpose of greasing the wheels of various schemes for which these contributions were collected. Never, under Tweed or anybody else, had the city been so systematically "worked." It was done almost openly, the gang apparently figuring that four years would be enough, and that at the end of that time it did not matter what the people would do. The people turned them out of office, of course, and Croker retired to Ireland and Van Wyck to Paris, each, doubtless, with a chuckle.

Van Wyck never for a moment regarded himself as Mayor of New York, but solely as the member selected by the chief to hold a certain post for the purpose of facilitating the work of the gang. He rendered faithful service and was liberally rewarded, especially in stock of the Ice Trust. New York had never seen such a Government as it had during the four years of his nominal Mayoralty. Although an educated man, and coming from good stock, his manners were coarse and his temper violent, and there was nothing to choose between his way of receiving a deputation or clergymen and an east side Police Captain's way of receiving a derelict at the station. His vulgarity was apparently acquired rather than natural. He kept constantly in mind the fact that he was in the City Hall to perform certain duties marked out for him by his superiors in Tammany Hall. It cannot be denied that he was staunchly faithful to such superiors as he acknowledged; if he had not been staunchly faithful be would not have been so richly rewarded.

-- WHEN VAN WYCK WAS MAYOR. New York Times, Nov 16, 1918, p. 12
Van Wyck's obituary in the New York Times fleshes out this colorful condemnation. Some extracts:
As Mayor, Mr. Van Wyck became involved in probably more administrative scandals than any other Mayor in the city's history.... The election campaign is still remembered because of the utter absence of any oratorical effort on the part of the Tammany candidate....Van Wyck weathered the Ice Trust scandal but the same year became involved in the so-called Rampo water steal. The Ramapo Water Company, a dummy concern,...was given a contract for $5,000,000 a year [and] the contract aroused public indignation to such an extent that the matter was taken before the State Legislature and the special privileges given to the company were revoked.... There was a big police scandal during the Van Wyck administration. "Big Bill" Devery was Chief of Police, and it was openly charged that under him the police were in league with vice and crime.... [Although the subway was begun in his administration,] Mayor Van Wyck was charged with trying to prevent progress on the enterprise [and was able to hold up work eighteen months]. Nearly every department head under the Mayor came in for public condemnation. It was charged of the Mayor that he was irascible and vituperative, and that he ignored demands for the removal of incompetent or guilty heads of departments....
-- ROBERT A. VAN WYCK DIES IN PARIS HOME; First Mayor of Greater New York Had Lived Abroad for 12 Years. HE WAS CROKER'S "CHOICE" His Administration Marked by SoCalled Ice Trust, Ramapo WaterSteal, and Police Scandals. In Administrative Scandals. Police Department Accused. Effort Made to Remove Him. New York Times, Nov 16, 1918, Saturday, Page 13
Robert A. Van Wyck

{source: wikipedia}

Boss Tweed

{Boss Tweed by Thomas Nast; source: aft586.wordpress}

Richard Croker

{Richard Croker; source: flickr}

Further reading:

Robert Anderson Van Wyck in wikipedia

The Van Wyck Question in The New Yorker by Nick Paumgarten on how to pronounce the name

Bangor men testified against ice monopoly on American Ice freezing out the state of Maine

One Hundred Per Cent. Rise in Ice; New York's Big Trust Limits Harves and Controls Distribution. Big Dividends and Market Manipulation the Cause. American Company Has a Monopoly and Squeezes Rich and Poor Alike. New York Times, Sunday, May 6, 1900, p. 18

The Case of the American Ice Company, The Nation, Nov. 29, 1900

Tammany Hall and Rapid Transit. New York Times, Sunday, November 3, 1901, p. 15

Mayor on the Stand, Van Wyck Admits That He Owns Stock In American Ice Company. How He Got Into The Trust. Van Wyck Says He Didn't Realize His Veto of Bills Would Personally Benefit Him. Brooklyn Daily Eable, Saturday, June 9, 1900, p. 1

Declines to Oust Van Wyck. Roosevelt's Decision in the Ice Trust Matter. No Proof Produced. Utica Herald-Dispatch, Saturday, November 24, 1900, p. 1. Governor Theodore Roosevelt determines that he cannot remove Van Wyck from office.

The Ghosts of Gracie Mansion: Robert Anderson Van Wyck by James Caldwell


Some previous posts on famile stories like this one: --------


* My grandfather fought for clean government in his writings and in his participation as officer in the Reform Club and the German-American Reform Union. See, for example:

1. FOR BETTER CITY GOVERNMENT; THE GERMAN-AMERICAN REFORM UNION ORGANIZED. Ready to Take an Active Part in the Movement to Improve the Conduct of Municipal Affairs -- An EnthusIastic Meeting at Which Many Well-known Citizens Were Present -- Thorough Organization to be Effected -- Mr. Windmuller's Figures. New York Times, December 10, 1893, Wednesday, Page 5. "A goodly number of American citizens of German birth or descent met at the rooms of the Reform Club yesterday afternoon to arrange for the organization of the German-American Reform Union as a local political body. The object of the organization is to take an active part in the attempt to secure reform in the conduct of municipal affairs."

2. FOR GOOD CITY GOVERNMENT; CHAMBER OF COMMERCE TO APPEAL TO THE LEGISLATURE. Resolutions Adopted Calling for Laws That Will Invite Capital to the City -- To Ask for a Single-Headed Police Department -- Mr. Windmuller Urges Separating Municipal form National Elections -- Col. Erhardt Against the Non-Partisan Police Bill. New York Times, January 26, 1894, Wednesday, Page 3

3. TALK OF A GREATER CITY; SUBJECT DISCUSSED BEFORE THE REFORM CLUB. Theodore Roosevelt Gives His Police Views and Favors a Single-Headed Commission -- Edward M. Shepard and Others Also Speak. New York Times, December 10, 1896, Wednesday, Page 8. "Greater New York was the subject of discussion last night at the dinner of the Committee of the Reform Club on Municipal Administration."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

at Madame's

I wrote yesterday about the less-than-honorable doings of my great-aunt, Carolyn Hague. While I was doing research for that post I found a short story in which she appears as an incidental character. The story is found in the January 1907 issue of McBride's Magazine. At that time Hague was a successful "modiste," to use a term favored by the author of the story. She was then 42 years old and almost seven years into her marriage with my great-uncle Adolph. She was sufficiently well known among the society women of New York that the story's author needed only to name her in order to evoke the high-toned atmosphere of her dressmaking establishment.

The story is interesting not just for making use of the social caché; of my great-aunt's business but also for having its plot turn on a matter of ethics and personal integrity that isn't far from the situations that I dealt with in yesterday's blog post. It concerns itself with the difficulty of maintaining personal moral values when need for money and temptation to do wrong are both great and the likelihood of being caught out seems very remote. It's Grace MacGowan Cooke's Love Among Thieves. I won't summarize the whole plot. It makes an interesting read and is worth a half hour of your time.

A love story reminiscent of the primary plot in Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, it weds its heroine to its hero after numerous trials and misunderstandings. She's beautiful, having poise, self-confidence, excellent carriage, and all the advantages of youth, but no money. He's rich but mistakenly taken for indigent; he's a truly honorable gentleman but seems to her to be a thief. They both move comfortably among New York's social elite, tolerating the foibles of their class and carefully observing its norms of behavior. They both know that personal integrity matters. They appreciate the importance of moral behavior as a fact. To them doing right is an ingrained personal attribute and not simply a matter of appearance. They come to realize that that their ethical standards are higher than those of many with whom they associate. In one scene the hero tells dinner table guests that "the lax morality of the public at the present day is rooted in loose dealing between members of the same social circle. We condone among our friends and acquaintances what the law cannot reach, and in so condoning we lose our standard. If a man likes being absolutely honest himself, the next step is to like absolutely honest men for his friends."

I mentioned this "lax morality of the present day" in yesterday's post. At the time the story came out the free-wheeling laissez-faire unregulated culture of the late 19th-century was beginning to give way as revelations made my muck-raking journalists and literary authors led to government regulation and, gradually, to a somewhat higher level of behavioral norms.

A seamstress is one of the story's minor characters. Brought up in an upstanding but decayed family from the upper South, she possesses a strong sense of what's right and wrong and her standards contrast strongly with the standards shown by a man who assumes himself to be her social better. As it happens, the seamstress works for "Madame Hague" ‒ my own great-aunt in person ‒ and the story gives a bit of a portrait of that woman in her natural environment, the high-class fashion salon that she owns and runs.

The atmosphere is not different from what you see of such places in movies (Pretty Woman, comes to mind) or read about in books (as, for example, ones that discuss Jackie Kennedy's dealings with Hubert de Givenchy, Oleg Cassini, and other fashion houses).

The heroine, Violet Rensselaer, has an uncomfortable relationship with Mrs. Dunning, a wealthy woman who patronizes Mme. Hague and Violet herself is well acquainted with Madame. On the story's first page, Violet is sent there on an errand and this visit sets the plot in motion. Cooke writes of the shop and Madame herself:

Arriving at the small parlors which bore the name of Hague on their shining windows, Violet tried on the evening wrap as Mrs. Dunning had instructed her. "I'll send it out early next week," the Belgian assured her. "I'm sorry, Madame, but that will not do. Mrs. Roache-Dunning must have it to-morrow. She especially cautioned me to tell you so." "To-morrow!" The big hands with their many rings went out in an expressive movement which accompanied the rising shoulders. "If she had come to try it on a week ago, as she promised &mdash‒ " "I know‒I know. But Mrs. Dunning is‒you know she will certainly not accept it if she says she will not." ‒The modiste pushed back the ivory-tinted folds with a gesture of despair, called in an attendant to remove them, and turned to serve her customer further. A frock, now‒would Miss Rensselaer be good enough to look at it and tell Mrs. Roache-Dunning about it? Mrs. Dunning liked bargains. Well, that was right. If ladies had money, that was no reason for them to waste it when bargains were to be had. And such a bargain‒this!
It's not surprising that the author makes Mme. Hague a Belgian. We can take it to mean that she has European cultivation but is not, as might otherwise be expected, Parisian. In fact my great-aunt was born in New York, but both her parents came from Saxony and German was probably the language of her childhood home. She would have traveled to France at least once a year for the last couple decades and presumably knew well how to speak and behave so as to seem Northern European by birth. Belgian makes sense as straddling the Germanic and Frankish cultures.

As shown in the story this Madame Hague is a practiced saleswoman, a bit conniving, sometimes obsequious and sometimes aloof. To her employees she is said to be a hard but fair boss. She is concerned with their well-being but not when it might conflict with her merchandising. A shop assistant who is ill risks being discharged.

Here is a bit of a scene between the heroine and the poor seamstress. Violet has put on a dress that Mrs. Dunning is having altered. Octavia Randolf, the seamstress, has shown herself to be deeply troubled.

"Never mind the dress," said Violet, pulling away from the kneeling girl. "It's perfect‒and much too pretty for the woman who will wear it," she added under her breath.

For a moment the seamstress knelt, looking up at the tall, regal figure before her with hopeless eyes. Then she pitched forward and quietly fainted upon the billowy folds of silk and chiffon which she had been trying to adjust.

Unable to move for fear of tearing the train of fragile stuff which was held down by the girl's weight, Violet called Madame's name, preferring that to the time-honored cry of "Help!"

At her voice the girl on the floor quivered, tried to sit up, and moaned faintly:

"Don't tell on me! Don't call anybody‒they'll find out. I'll be better in a minute. Oh, thank you! You're so good. If Madame Hague knew‒ "

Violet drew up her long train, which was now released, stepped swiftly to the door and locked it, swept her street suit from the couch, and helped the girl to lie down.

"Never mind," she said quietly. "I'll put the pins in where those seams were to be altered. Then I'll have to change to my own frock. That will give you time to pull yourself together. Does Madame Hague discharge you girls if you are ill?"

The blunt query brought the blood to the pale face. The sewinggirl nodded with closed lips.

"Sometimes she sends us away when she is afraid that we are going to be ill," she said finally. "She‒she knows that sickly people cannot work well, of course; and then, if we actually get down while she is employing us, we might expect help from her."

To Violet Rensselaer's soul, already up in revolt against the conditions of her life, it seemed as though this girl were a poor little sister.

"Haven't you a home you can go to?" she asked, as she tied an immaculate four-in-hand before the mirror.

"Not in New York. I came from Virginia, and it would cost more to go back there than to‒well, than to pay the debt I owe, and that I am sure is going to make me sick unless I can pay it. You see, it's my mind, not my body, that ails. I've worried over the thing till I can't sleep." ...

"I came from Albemarle County," she began succinctly. "It sounds like a paragrapher's joke to say it, but we were rich people before the war. My mother was a widow for fifteen years, and earned her living and mine by sewing. That was at home, you know; she went to the houses of friends, who treated her almost as a guest. Everybody was poor, more or less, and I never knew what the horrors of lacking money meant till mother died and I came to New York." ... Violet's face clouded. Money‒money‒money‒if she only had money! It seemed that it was the panacea for all ills. ... The seamstress arose with a sigh. "I mustn't tell you any more of this," she said; "Madame would be furious if she knew I did it."

This drawing, made in 1906, may give an idea of what Violet looked like in one of Madame Hague's gowns.
{Caption: Armour's Harrison Fisher girl, c1906; source: Library of Congress}

This shows fancy gowns of the type Madame sold in 1906.
{Caption: The Misses Gerson, by Gertrude Käsebier, 1906; shows Virginia Gerson, seated, as her sister stands and admires her gown; source: Library of Congress}

Monday, April 26, 2010

the shame of Madame Thurn

In 1909 my great-aunt Carolyn Hague was arrested for defrauding the US government of customs revenues. I wrote yesterday about the business career of this woman who came to be "to the women's clothes business what Tiffany has been to the jewelry trade."* The smuggling racket in which she was a leading player was complex, but though it relied on the secrecy of quite a few individuals, it was successfully concealed from police and inspectors for some years. As a historian of the Port of New York later wrote, "It required nearly a year of constant effort and surveillance to break up the practice. The fraud was cleverly executed. It is an interesting speculation to imagine what might have been accomplished for the world's greater happiness if the study, inventiveness, persistency, thoroughness, foresight, and courage which were involved in this attempt to escape customs had only been spent legitimately."**

Along with other dressmakers and milliners, Hague arranged for goods that she had purchased to be smuggled. Like them, she would make regular trips to Paris and other European cities to examine the new styles and to place orders for model dresses, fabrics, and decorations. She would then arrange to have her purchases delivered to one of the conspirators who would pack them into large steamer trunks just like the ones used by well-to-do travelers. This man would label the trunks using the names of actual passengers from earlier trips. He would then have the trunks shipped from Paris to New York. Once on pier in New York, they would be marked as luggage mistakenly left behind by the passengers whose names they bore. This left-luggage would remain unclaimed, then surreptitiously moved to a concealed area, where, with connivance from bribed customs officers, it would be picked up, uninspected, for delivery to the dressmakers and milliners who had originally made the purchases. The government claimed it lost about $1,000,000 a year in this elaborate scheme. Duties on fabrics and women's clothing was so high at that time, that even with all the payoffs, the fashion shops benefited greatly from the fraud.

Leftover bags were known as "sleepers" on the docks of New York and so the smuggling operation came to be know as the "sleeper trunk" game. It became more elaborate when customs officials began to have suspicions about the operation. Sometimes shipboard baggage handlers would be bribed to keep the trunks off ship manifests. Sometimes the contraband would be moved from one trunk to another to avoid detection. Sometimes the trunks would be claimed by people using false names. Sometimes the "sleepers" would be marked for transhipment to fictitious dealers in the New York suburbs.

An article in the New York Times describes how the government first uncovered the crime: "The story behind these arrests goes back to the time, last March, when a seizure was made on the American Line pier of five trunks containing silks, laces, and other articles of large value, representing a total of approximately $52,000. The arrest of Swartz, head baggage man at the pier followed, and then the Government, through Mr. Wise, took up an investigation of the whole subject of the frauds involving the smuggling of millinery and dressmaking materials into this country, which eventually unraveled a remarkably story of an underground express route that had cost the Government a million dollars or more a year in duties."***

Because she was considered to be one of the principle offenders, Hague's bail was set at $5,000, twice the amount set of the dozen other modistes who were arrested with her. When the case came to court she pled guilty and paid a fine of $7,500. There was no jail sentence. You would think that her involvement in the conspiracy would damage her reputation and ruin her business. To the contrary, I've found no evidence that it had any bad effects. A few years later she changed her professional name from Thurn to Hague, but since she called her shop the House of Thurn, it's unlikely she was trying to conceal her prior operations.

This was not Hague's only recorded transgression. Yesterday's post tells of a deceptive practice in which she engaged: the re-labeling of American-made gowns to make it seem that they had come from Paris. This was said to be a widespread trick-of-the-trade in the New York dressmaking business of the early 20th century. Hague was also a bit cagy about her identity. In addition to using first Madame Thurn and then Madam Hague as business name, she let it be known that her dressmaking firm had been begun by her mother. She did this when she was in her 60s and 70s, presumably to make it seem that she was younger than she actually was. A source I quoted yesterday says "Madame Hague [is] daughter of the first Thurn. The present head of the house is a tall distinguished woman who does her own buying in Paris and inherits the taste and business sense of her clever mother." I can't find any evidence to support the assertion that Hague took over the business from her mother. In fact there's quite a bit that contradicts it. I'm sure that Madame Hague was the same person as "the first Thurn."

The first two of these transgressions do not speak well for my great-aunt and the third, if understandable, is hardly praiseworthy. It would surely be said on her behalf that what she did was no more, and no worse, than what others in her trade would do. It might be said she couldn't have survived in business without doing things of this nature. It might also be said that the tenor of the time was somewhat free and easy in its ethics. The adulteration and misbranding of food and drugs was known to be all too common. The heads of great business ventures — the Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and their like — were called Robber Barons for a reason. City mayors were frequently elected by corrupt means by organizations like New York's Tammany Hall. The movement to rein in these wrongdoings was still gathering steam at the time the dressmakers were caught smuggling.

On top of that the fashion industry, then as later, wasn't much different from the entertainment industry and was associated with celebrity culture in general. In this environment it may not be too much of a generalization to claim that adherence to strict moral values was not a commonly shared value. Certainly, the use of stage names was and is so common as to be near ubiquitous and not thought to be deceptive. It's also not surprising to find that people were and are not careful to adhere to factual accuracy when giving biographic details about themselves. It's also likely that an in-group sense of solidarity did and does lead people to overlook one another's transgressions.

These considerations may help explain why Caroline Hague did as she did, but they do not excuse.

{Type of trunk shipped by steamship early in the 20th century; source: The port of New York}

{Customs officials at work; same source}

See also:

Indict 27 for Customs Fraud, Importers Involved in "Sleeper Trunk" Smuggling, Gettysburg Times, Dec. 22, 1909

Dressmakers Plead Guilty, Maybe They Will Tell All About the Sleeper Trunk Game, The Sun, Wed., Jan. 5, 1910

Federal courts and practice: all Sherman law trust prosecutions and syllabus of equity, jurisdiction, pleading and practice by John A. Shields (The Banks law publishing company, 1912)

The Ogden standard. (Ogden City, Utah) 1902-1910, July 02, 1910

New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]) 1866-1924, December 05, 1909



*Dobbs Ferry Woman Gets $85,000 Award, Stylist Who Fell From Train at Ardsley Wins Suit Against Railroad, Special to the Herald Statesman, White Plains, Dec. 4, 1936, Herald Statesman, Yonkers, N.Y.

**The port of New York by Thomas Edward Rush (Doubleday, Page, 1920)

***INDICT 27; ARREST 20 IN SMUGGLING CASE; Importers and Pier Employes Accused After Discovery of Big Frauds Here. LEADER OF THE GANG DEAD Innocent Voyagers' Names Used to Get Finery Through -- Government's Loss $1,000,000 a Year. New York Times, December 22, 1909, Wednesday, Page 1, 1086 words

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Caroline Hague

In doing family research I've uncovered some stories that my parents didn't tell me, possibly didn't even know. So it is that my great-uncle Adolph C.E. Windmuller, whom my father characterized as a ne're do well, turns out to have been husband of an extremely successful business woman who was renowned as owner of one of New York's most exclusive fashion houses and who was also, at one time, deeply involved in an extensive smuggling ring.

Adolph let his father pay most of the bills while he was alive and then inherited enough that he could live well without exerting himself to do much work. My father said Adolph had almost no contact with his sister, my grandmother, and that he was hardly ever to be seen. As a child, my father recalled glimpses of the man driving around in his Rolls Royce, presumably enjoying his role as a favored member of New York's high society.

So far as I can recall, he never mentioned Adolph's wife. When he married her in 1901 the event generated news coverage in a dozen or so newspapers that can now be accessed via the internet. His new wife was a few years older than he and had two small sons by a previous marriage. Unlike him, she earned a good living as owner of a high class ladies' clothing store in one of Manhattan's wealthiest shopping districts. After their marriage, their names appeared on the Social Register of wealthy and well-connected New Yorkers (as it happens, in fact, theirs are found immediately below those of the Wilson family in the White House).

The woman was Mrs. Caroline (or Carolyn) Hague. She was daughter of a German immigrant named Leopold Thurn and his wife Sidonie. She had a sister named Clara and a brother named Leopold. On her wedding day in 1901, her mother hosted a reception for the two immediate families and a few friends. She was then a widow, Leopold having died in 1898. Sidonie was an assumed name. Her full maiden name was Sophie Caroline Dittmarsch.

Caroline Hague's matron of honor was her sister, identified as Mrs. Patterson. On the death of that sister 40 years later, her name is given as Clara Emile Leopoldine Thurn Wilson, so presumably Mr. Patterson had died or they had by then divorced. The news account of Clara's estate says she left everything to her sister, Carolyn Thurn Windmuller (New York Times Feb 22, 1941, pg. 1).

Caroline was also known as Lilly or Lillie. She shows up as Lillie in the 1880 census and is identified as Lilly Hague in the database of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Before 1914, Caroline used the business name of Mme. Thurn. Her millinery shop was located at 424 5th Avenue, on the corner of 5th and 38th St. This corner, and indeed the whole block, was taken over Lord & Taylor in 1914 for construction of a new flagship department store. From 1914 to 1933, she ran a dressmaking concern called The House of Thurn, a name which gained luster from its association with the German family, Thurn und Taxis, famous for building castles. During that time she called herself Mme. Hague. After 1933, while in her 70s, she worked as a designer for the Manhattan fashion house of Jay-Thorpe and other dressmaking concerns. Throughout these years she was a successful businesswoman.

Under the names Thurn, Hague, and Windmuller, Caroline transacted business that got her name in the press from time to time. She was a self-made person in the classic 19th-century Horatio Alger mode, except, unlike almost all others, she was a woman. She would have faced many hardships on her upward journey and hers would have been much more difficult than those of her masculine peers.

She came from an immigrant family whose business (man and wife) was stated as "Children Furnishing Goods" in the 1880 census. Furnishings in this sense are decorations, trimmings, and notions. She was 15-year-old Lillie Thurn when the census taker filled in the questionnaire for the family. As an adult she earned the reputation of leading figure in the American fashion industry.**

One account says she began in the children's clothing trade in which her parents specialised. Her first venture was the importing of materials for making up these clothes. Succeeding in this, she expanded into making them up herself, both to her own designs and to designs she copied from European models. Her next move was to import fashionable clothes from abroad, and, once again succeeding, she shifted business into design and manufacture of women's fashions.*** She would find her niche at the high end of the business, catering to the blue bloods of America's Gilded Age, their children and grandchildren. The authors say:

One of the infant clients of early days was John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Thurn made his first pair of trousers. This, we hasten to confess, was discovered by us, not confided, for this grand old house guards its clients' secrets in the British manner. Even the brides' pictures in the trousseau room are keyed, not marked outright with names, but here, too, our detective instincts helped and we recognized the photographs of Ailsa Mellon of the Pittsburg Mellons and Isabella Rockefeller of the Rockefellers. -- New York is Everybody's Town by Helen Josephy and Mary Margaret McBride (G.P. Putnam s Sons, 1931)

Some of the challenges Hague would have to face in establishing and maintaining her flourishing business are described in Wendy Gamber's book, The Female Economy. In reviewing that book, Pamela Nickless wrote:

Most proprietors of retail establishments were single women ("man milliner" was an epithet)... Gamber also finds strong evidence of the working class origins of many of the "Madams" and, she argues, dressmaking and millinery was one of the few paths to independence for the working class daughter. Although this seems a very female world, men controlled access to credit and in the case of customers, husbands often decided when and which bills would be honored. Millinery and dressmaking was a risky business and few women became wealthy but many did manage to maintain a "precarious independence." ... A worker might rise from apprentice to shop owner. Gamber describes the transmission of skills and how a young woman, with hard work and luck, might learn a craft and own her own small shop. [But success became more and more difficult at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th and the number of independent shops declined dramatically.] Gamber is careful to note the complex interaction among consumers, retailers, wholesalers and producers in this process of transforming an industry. The development of the department store and the availability of factory-made dresses (altered in the store for the up-scale customer) in the early twentieth century completed the transformation of dressmaking. -- from a review by Pamela Nickless, Department of Economics, University of North Carolina- Asheville, of The female economy: the millinery and dressmaking trades, 1860-1930, by Wendy Gamber; series: The working class in American history; Women in American history (University of Illinois Press, 1997)

The business in which Hague was engaged was a complex one. It was seasonal, requiring agility to stay ahead of the fashion curve. More than an unerring sense of style and understanding of fashion, it required excellent financial and managerial skills. I don't know about her access to credit, but she showed unusual business sense in keeping herself independent of clothing wholesalers (all of them men), importing both raw materials and finished goods on her own. By the end of the 19th century she was running a large, complex design, manufacturing, and retail establishment. Businesses of the type she ran kept anywhere from 10 and 70 workers on the payroll; given its prominence, hers probably was on the high end.

The dollar value of her business must have been enormous. Even single transactions could involve extremely large sums. Evidence of this comes from a successful legal action that she took in 1893 against a non-paying customer. In an afternoon's shopping, a woman had bought $1,000 worth of hats at Madame Thurn's and failed to pay what she owed. After considerable trouble, Hague obtained a judgment against the woman. The $1,000 she owned would be worth at least $24,600.00 today, probably closer to $69,000.****

Hague's success is evident in her real estate transactions. When she was forced to close the shop of 5th Avenue, she did not rent, but rather bought a new place. She chose the new location wisely in an area that was about to become equally chic. The new address was 108 East 57th St, near what was then 4th Avenue, soon to be renamed Park Ave.***** Though unprepossessing in 1905, the address would tote considerable caché by the 1930s. Then, the phrase "Fifty-Seventh Street" would convey an atmosphere of "ultra-ultra" ladies' clothing shops.

By the 1930s it was known that one did not stop by one of these shops at the height of the season without being known or having an introduction. Customers were treated royally and the staff were trained to be extremely discrete. A book (MacBride's, quoted above) describes the ambience:

The stately house of Thurn is easily the most dignified institution left in New York. To the right as you enter is the famous stone staircase so often seen in news photographs of the season's fashionable brides both because its curve is perfect for trains and because so many brides get their white satin at Thurn's. In the impressive drawing room upstairs, elegant, gleaming mannequins, some of them Junior Leaguers, saunter past and into the fitting rooms. All the blue-bloods in town come here at some time or other, as do many rich and aristocratic out-of-towners, to put themselves into the competent hands of Madame Hague.
It's interesting to note that even after her marriage to Adolph, she seems to have been the one to make real estate transactions. As for example in 1815 when she rented a summer place in upscale Darien, Connecticut, along the Long Island Sound:
THE REAL ESTATE FIELD New York Times; Mar 18, 1915 Fish & Marvin have leased furnished for the Summer the Colonial House and three acres owned by John D. Crimins at Collender's Point, Noroton, to Mrs. A.C. Windmuller of this city.
She gave up running her own shop in 1933, but she continued to prosper. Working as a designer, in the mid-1930s, at the height of the Depression, she was reported to be making $65,000 a year from "a Manhattan concern specializing in women's apparel" (New York Times, Jul 10, 1937, p. 32).

When in 1914 Lord & Taylor took over her shop at 5th and 37th St, she not only moved her business to the new place she had bought on 57th, but also changed its name. The new name, House of Thurn, was dignified and sounded appropriately exclusive, but it also lacked unpleasant associations with an event that occurred in 1909. In that year Hague had been forced to admit guilt in federal court for having defrauded the government of customs revenue by smuggling expensive French fabrics through US customs. She was fined $7,500 and was not made to serve time in jail. Although other milliners were involved in the "sleeper trunk" scheme by which dressmakers avoided payment of heavy federal duties on imported fabrics, Hague's business was deemed to be one of the largest and most visible. I'll write about the gimmick they used in a separate post.

Hague almost certainly engaged in other forms of cheating to boost her profits at that time. For example, a 1912 article in the New York Times by a designer who worked for her shop admitted to faking labels:

"The support of the press of New York City and the co-operation of the dressmakers and tailors with American manufacturers -- these are the two great things which the movement for American-made fashions needs." James B. Blaine, head designer for Thurn is energetic in his indorsement of The New York Times's competition for American-designed hats and gowns.... Blaine is very frank in admitting the use of the fake label in the American-made gown. "It was a well-known trick of the trade, you understand. We all did it, and many do yet.... When the public got on to the fake French label,... [the Americans would] send their silks to Lyons, brings them back again and sell them plus export and import duties at a greater profit than they could have obtained for them sold as American-made silks." -- IT WAS AMERICA THAT MADE PARIS; Thurn's Head Designer Tells How We Made France a Present of Fame and Fortune. New York Times, December 22, 1912, Sunday, Page 11, 1249 words.
There's much to be said for Caroline Hague's acumen, artistic ability, and spunk. What she achieved is simply amazing, particularly given the special difficulties faced by women entrepreneurs of her time. It's also true that, as an admitted smuggler and probable deceptive merchant, she's not really an admirable ancestor.

The photo below shows a Thurn design from 1921. The ensemble was intended for overseas travel. The accompanying description says: "For her trot-about street dress one may take advantage of fashion's verdict for two-faced fabrics and wear a Thurn gown of dove down satin, the duvetyn face enhanced with embroidery.Circumstances alter wardrobes just as they do every other case in the world. Some plans will call for what might be described as an extensive wardrobe, even for the traveler, while others will permit the shopper to limit her needs to bare necessities. But there are certain fundamentals that almost any sea voyage will demand. After all, life on the great floating palaces is very much that of the everyday routine at a metropolitan hotel. Within the prescribed limits one eats and sleeps and drinks; walks a little, chats a great deal, bridges and teas and dances, and in fact even indulges in the good old sport of shopping. Of course it is life at sea, but life at sea today is very much like life ashore, everything is so up to date."

{source: When She Travels - Fine Women's Fashions for Ocean Liner Travel - 1921

Here are two photos taken between 1939 and 1941 that come in a collaboration between the Works Progress Administration and the New York City Tax Department. Their goal was to collect photos of buildings throughout the city. My source is the NYC Municipal Archives. The first shows the building at 108 E. 57th St.

The second shows 15 E. 57th Street, just off 5th Avenue. That was Hague's third and final retail location.
Chanel now occupies that prestigious location.

This is not the summer residence that Hague rented in 1915, but gives an idea of the wealth of Collender's Point residents.

{source: dariennewsonline}

See also:

Millinery as a trade for women, Volume 5 of Studies in economic relations of women by Lorinda Perry, Susan Myra Kingsbury, and Marion Parris Smith (Longmans, Green and Co., 1916)
A seasonal industry: a study of the millinery trade in New York by Mary Van Kleeck (Russell Sage Foundation, 1917)

*It's possible that Caroline's mother had a second marriage to a man named Thorn after the death of Leopold Thurn because a death notice of 1938 identifies a Mrs. C. S. Thorn as daughter of Charles H. Chrystal:

Chrystal, Margaret R. , suddenly, at her home, 6 Gifford St., Tuckahoe, NY, beloved wife of Charles H., and mother of Mrs. C.S. Thorn and Mrs. F.J. Meyer, Paul and Charles, Jr. Requium Mass Church of the Immaculate Conception, Tuckahoe, Saturday at 10 AM Interment Gate of Heaven. -- New York Times, Nov 18, 1938, pg. 1

Charles H. Chrystal was a lawyer, judge, and local politician who resided in Tuckahoe, NY.

**As an example of Hague's standing in the business, see a report of a liability action she made against the New York Central Railroad. Of witnesses called to testify on her behalf, the reporter said: "An Italian baroness, a New York society matron and leading figures in the women's fashion world paraded to the Supreme Court witness stand Saturday and paid glowing tributed to seventy-one-year-old Mrs. Caroline T. Windmuller's former standing as a stylist." ("Once Style Expert Sues Railroad for $250,000 for Fall at Ardsley," Herald Statesman, Yonkers, N.Y., White Plains, Nov. 27, 1936

***The account says she "went into business as an importer of white goods for children's dresses, fine nainsook, dotted swiss and French piques, which were snapped up by aristocratic mamas who later persuaded Mrs. Thurn to try making up clothes for their treasures. From this the house of Thurn went on to importing and copying children's models and finally to women's clothes and the present business."

**** Here is an extract from a report of the final decision in Hague's suit for payment of the money owed her:

Receiver in a millinery Case One Woman Suing Another in a Jersey City Court An interesting millinery suit was before Vice Chancellor Green at Jersey City yesterday on the application of Mme. Thurn of Fifth Avenue, New-York, for the appointment of a receiver for property at South Orange, N.J., and Wilkes-barre, Penn., owned by Mrs. Margaret Paine, wife of a New-York lawyer. Some time ago Mrs. Paine lived at the Marlborough House, New-York. One day, it is alleged, she went to Mme. Thurn's establishment and bought hats and bonnets. Her bill was $1,000. When Mrs. Paine did not pay, Mme. Thurn brought suit in a New-York court, but Mrs. Paine evaded process by removing to South Orange. Mme. Thurn availed herself of the New-Jersey courts, and then Mrs. Paine went back to New-York. Mme. Thurn's lawyer, William B. Gilmore, learned where Mrs. Paine's property was, and then went into Chancery with the case. It was shown that, besides the house she owned at South Orange, Mrs. Paine received $250 a month from the People's Bank of Wilkes-barre as the income of property she owned there, and Vice Chancellor Green decided to grant the application. -- New York Times, March 30, 1893, pg. 1

The $1,000 debt would be worth $24,600.00 today by the Consumer Price Index and almost $69,000 using the value of a consumer bundle. It would be even more by other constant-dollar measures of value).

*****The real estate transaction was reported in the New York Times in 1905:

Maria W. Burtin has sold to Mme. Thurn the four-story dwelling 108 East Fifty-seventh Street, 20 by 100.5. -- East Side Houses Find Buyers, NYT, Friday, July 7, 1905.


1. My father's sister, Aunt Virginia, worked for Lord & Taylor at the flagship building on 5th Avenue for most of her adult life. My father said she was highly valued there and enjoyed her work.

2. When I was in sixth grade, my best friend Tommy moved from our suburban village in Westchester County to a big house close on Contentment Island, not far from the place Caroline Hague rented in 1915. Thereafter, I would spend a week or so of my summers with him out on the water just about every day.

3. In this post I've quoted from an interesting book by Mary Margaret McBride and Helen Josephy. McBride was a popular radio personality. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say she was the Oprah of her day. She was a talented journalist as well as talk show hostess. You can read about her in wikipedia and quite a few other sources. Before she succeeded on radio, McBride teamed up with another writer, Helen Josephy, to write New York Is Everybody's Town (G.P. Putnam s Sons, 1931). Subtitled Paris in Manhattan, it was a follow-up to two books the pair had previously written: Paris Is a Woman's Town (1929) and London Is a Man's Town (1930). Their style is informal and urban-chic. The sections on fashion and the dress trade are interesting and informative. Here's an excerpt that gives their flavor:

An effective, though refined, version of the bum's rush is to be expected if one drops in at an exclusive New York dressmaker's unknown and unintroduced, especially in the height of the season.

Not lack of hospitality but the instinct of self-preservation is the basis of this reception. The bug-a-boo of ultra-ultra shops is the copyist who comes in the guise of client and goes away with a dozen smart ideas which eventually will appear as $6.84 dresses in Fourteenth Street.

There is no need to feel insulted when suspected of being a copyist. A successful one is often beautiful, may be in the social register and as likely as not comes clothed in mink and with money enough to buy a dress or so while secretly sketching a dozen others.

Fifty-Seventh Street imports Paris models for ideas chiefly. The clever adaptations of these to American needs by skilled designers and fitters are extremely use-ful to Fourteenth Street.

And that, my children, is the true explanation of why the best houses religiously save their finest models for customers of long standing and show them in the sacrosanct privacy of fitting rooms! ...

Even after the couturier's perfect collection is assembled and adapted, even when he has successfully exterminated all copyists, there remains still the difficult and harassing American clientele.

Manhattan, it seems, is filled with goodlooking society women who honestly believe they should have clothes for nothing because they are "so chic and elegant that it will advertise the house." Then there is the woman who will not buy a dress if copies are being made and the richest one of all who goes into hysterics about prices that would have seemed bargains in the Place Vendome. ...

Workmanship and fit are undoubtedly better at good New York houses than in Paris, but due to higher wage scales and stricter laws governing working conditions, prices are considerably higher.

The older houses are notable for the dignified serenity of their atmosphere. ... At Thurn's a Scotch butler lends atmosphere. Tea or coffee is served at Bendel's. In other houses, cigarettes of a special brand are placed at Madame's elbow and messenger boys are on hand to run errands or to take care of fatiguing telephone calls.

The saleswomen in these houses are solicitous and trustworthy. They usually hold their places over a period of years and learn their clients' needs.

There are certain shops so well-established that their faithful following mostly of the Social Register depend upon the heads for sartorial well-being just as they depend upon the family physician for health.

Unhurried dignity so predominates at Thurn's that the story of a rush job of a few years ago is still told as a curious phenomenon. It seems a girl whose family had long been on the books was selected to be queen of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, and telephoned one after-noon for a royal robe. An all-night session of cutting out and pinning up followed and next morning, a weary fitter and two seamstresses left for New Orleans with a gorgeously-embroidered dress upon which they again worked all night so that it was practically complete by the time they reached their destination.

Two hundred dollars is the rock-bottom price for Thurn gowns, with the exception of an occasional sport dress.

-- New York Is Everybody S Town by Helen Josephy and Mary Margaret Mcbride (G.P. Putnam s Sons, 1931)

4. I haven't intended to violate anyone's copyright in putting together this post; if what I have done has strayed from what's permissible under fair use practices, I'll remove the offending items.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Dylan's Bonneville

Dylan on a Triumph Bonneville

The site where I found the image says he's riding a red-and-silver ’64 Triumph Tiger 100, but that's just plain wrong. The Bonneville was successor to the Tiger T110 was its model number was T120. There's no doubt Bob's riding a T120. Though it made that error, the site is a good one, having lots of Dylan-on-bike photos.


See also:

My post on Steve McQueen


Dylan's Motorcycle

Triumph Bonneville on wikipedia

Bob Dylan on his Triumph motorcycle Bearsville, New York, summer 1964

Bob Dylan Triumph

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Spinoza on peace and good government

Occasionally I see an interesting quote and occasionally I try to find its source. On a blog post this morning I happened to see this: “Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” Reading it, and giving it some thought, I found myself to be curious about its context.

The first phrase, a sentence to itself, has to be meant figuratively since it's literally untrue. Peace is not simply and by itself an absence of war, but it is the state which exists when war is not present. The rest of the sentence — also a complete thought — gives three attributes of peace. Virtue is an interesting aspect to claim for peace since virtue is traditionally associated with manliness, performance of duty, and valor but has come more generally to connote moral behavior and observance of social rules. Peace as a state of mind suggests something very different: contemplation, attainment of bliss by means of meditation or prayer, and — by extension — a self-confidence bred of habitual right thought and action. Benevolence, confidence, and justice seem not to be components of a definition of the word peace but rather by-products, that is benefits that societies can attain during times of peace.

Seeking the source to learn its context, I was pleased to see that the blog post where I found it gives an unusually complete citation.* Most of the time you get no more than the name of the person to whom the statement is attributed.

Before searching the source, however, I did a G-search of the exact phrase. This long text string surprisingly yields over 9,000 hits**

Paging rapidly through some of the 9,000, I thought it odd that I couldn't find any that led back to the book that is the reported source of the quote: Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise. The exact phrase does not show up at all in some of the obvious book searches,*** but it does occur in 53 books located via Google Book Search. I found it odd, again, that none of these hits are from Spinoza's book (they're all books of quotations, inspirational readings, memoirs, political studies, and the like).

A bit of further searching in Google Book Search turned up some sources that were reasonably close to the quote. Of the half-dozen that I found, all turned out to be translations from Spinoza's original Latin by only two writers, Robert Harvey Monro Elwes and William Maccall.****

Here's Elwes's version:
Of a commonwealth, whose subjects are but hindered by terror from taking arms, it should rather be said, that it is free from war, than that it has peace. For peace is not mere absence of war, but is a virtue that springs from force of character: for obedience (Chap. II. Sec. 19) is the constant will to execute what, by the general decree of the commonwealth, ought to be done. Besides that commonwealth, whose peace depends on the sluggishness of its subjects, that are led about like sheep, to learn but slavery, may more properly be called a desert than a commonwealth.
-- The chief works of Benedict de Spinoza, Volume 1 The chief works of Benedict de Spinoza, Volume 1, translated by Robert Harvey Monro Elwes (G. Bell, 1887)
And here is Maccall's:
But on the other hand experience seems to teach that in the interest of peace and concord, all power should be entrusted to one. For no government has remained so long without any notable change as that of the Turks, and on the other hand none is less enduring than the popular or democratic, none disturbed by so many seditions. But if slavery, barbarism, and solitude are to be called peace, nothing is more miserable for men than peace. More numerous, and more bitter contentions indeed usually arise between parents and children, than between masters and slaves and yet it would not be for the interest of the family as an institution, that the paternal power should be changed into despotism, and the children be treated, as slaves. It is therefore in the interest of slavery, not in that of peace that all power should be transferred to one person: for peace, as we have already said consists, not in the absence of war, but in the union or concord of minds.
-- A treatise on politics by Benedictus de Spinoza, translated by William Maccall (Holyoake, 1854).
If nothing else, these two excerpts and the original quote, taken together, show how much freedom is taken in translating Spinoza. They all have the same gist, but very different development of the common theme.

Here is Spinoza's Latin:
Civitas, cuius subditi metu territi arma non capiunt, potius dicenda est, quod sine bello sit, quam quod pacem habeat. Pax enim non belli privatio, sed virtus est, quae ex animi fortitudine oritur; est namque obsequium (per art. 19. cap. 2.) constans voluntas id exsequendi, quod ex communi civitatis decreto fieri debet. Illa praeterea civitas, cuius pax a subditorum inertia pendet, qui scilicet veluti pecora ducuntur, ut tantum servire discant, rectius solitudo, quam civitas dici potest.
-- Opera quae supersunt omnia: De intellectus emendatione. Tractatus politicus. Epistolae, Volume 2 of Opera quae supersunt omnia: Ex editionibus principibus denuo, edidit et praefatus est Carolus Hermannus Bruder, Benedictus de Spinoza (B. Tauchnitz jun., 1844)
This reads more like Elwes than Maccall and not much like the original quote. It does state that peace is not the absence of war and it does contain the sense that peace is a virtue (virtus est). Only by implication does it extend the concept of peace to benevolence, confidence, and justice. Basically it says, as do Elwes and Maccall, that governments should govern by the consent of the governed and the coercion they use to enforce peaceful conduct should be legitimated by general agreement of the population.

It may be a shame that the full, eloquent thought that makes up the original quote is not exactly what Spinoza had in mind, but what he did say is no less interesting. If it has less impact that's only because we now accept that the democratic commonwealth is one of the best, many would say the absolute best forms of government. As the Baruch Spinoza article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, "Of all the philosophers of the seventeenth-century, perhaps none have more relevance today than Spinoza [and] it is hard to imagine a more passionate and reasoned defense of freedom and toleration than that offered by [him]." His achievement is the more remarkable for the courage and pertinacity which he showed in challenging the accepted wisdom of his time.****


{a drawing of the young Spinoza from a nice site of Spinoza caricatures, drawings, and cartoons; source:}

{This is a work by Jean Hélion (April 21, 1904 - 1987): “Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” —Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, 1670. From the series Great Ideas of Western Man., 1963 - oil on canvas (Smithsonian); source: Ordinary Finds}

{source: wikipedia}

{The Spinoza house in Rijnsburg, near Leiden; source: Leiden Institute of Physics }


*The cite is: "Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, 1670"

**I don't know why, but if you go to the last page of a set of Google hits you'll usually find you've been given quite a lot fewer than the number of hits listed on the first page. In this instance the last page of hits (screen 32) says: "Results 311 - 313 of 313." When I accept the option of having all results displayed, including duplicates, I'm told on the last page (screen 77): "Results 761 - 770 of about 9,190." Where are the rest of the hits and why doesn't Google offer them up to me?

***There are no hits in either Project Gutenberg or Internet Archive.

**** Both men don't seems to be known for anything other than their translations of Spinoza.

*****Einstein said his world view was influenced by Spinoza more than any other thinker. This concerns a poem he wrote on the subject in 1920.
Ben Thorn
Oct16-07, 10:48 PM
So it is. The translation is mine, so beware:

To Spinoza’s Ethic

Wie lieb ich diesen edlen Mann
Mehr als ich mit Worten sagen kann.
Doch fuercht’ ich, dass er bleibt allein
Mit seinem strahlenden Heiligenschein.

So einem armen kleinen Wicht
Den fuehrst Du zu der Freiheit nicht[.]
Der amor dei laesst ihn kalt
Das Leben zieht ihn mit Gewalt[.]

Die Hoehe bringt ihm nichts als Frost
Vernunft ist fuer ihn schale Kost[.]
Besitz und Weib und Ehr’ und Haus
Das fuellt ihn vom oben bis unten aus[.]

Du musst schon guetig mir verzeihn
Wenn hier mir fellt Muenchhausen ein,
Dem als Einzigen das Kunststueck gediehn
Sich am eigenen Zopf aus dem Sumpf zu zieh’n.

Du denkst sein [replaces crossed out: ‘Spinozas’] Beispiel zeigt uns eben
Was diese Lehre den Menschen kann geben[.]
[crossed out original conclusion:
Mein lieben Sohn, was faellt dir ein?
Zum Nachtigall muss man geboren sein!]
Vertraue nicht dem troestlichen Schein:
Zum Erhabenen muss man geboren sein.

To Spinoza’s Ethic

How I love that noble man
More than I can say with words.
Though I’m afraid he’ll have to stay all alone
Him with his shining halo.

Thus a poor little dwarf
Whom you do not lead to Freedom.
Your ‘love of god’ leaves him cold
Life drags him around by force.

The high altitude brings him nothing but frostbite
Reason is stale bread to him.
Wealth & Women and Fame & Family
That’s what fills him up between dawn and dusk.

You must be good enough to forgive me
For I can’t help thinking of Munchhausen just now,
The only one ever to pull off the trick
Of hoisting himself out of the cesspool by his own hair.

You think his [Spinoza’s] example shows us
What human teaching has to give.
[My dear son, what’s gotten into you?
You have to be born a Nightingale!]
Don’t trust the comforting mirage:
You have to be born to the heights.

That's it. I was a bit, well, stunned by it at first.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010


As previously mentioned, the Icelandic eruption made its biggest splash on my birthday just a week ago. The news continues to pile up about this event (the volcano, not my birthday). This I surely need not tell you.

As the news piles up, so, too, the images, and some of them are breathtaking. As is often the case, Alan Taylor's Big Picture, on, assembles many of the best. Their second set, which came out a few days ago, includes this one.

If you've been struggling over how to pronounce the name of the thing, there's a new video which aims to help: It's a simple tune, with ukulele accompaniment, by Icelander Eliza Geirsdottir Newman, and is called simply Eyjafjallajokull.

Complementing the Big Picture photos, a microblogger called IvanZero has compiled quite a few volcano images, including these:


On fire (by Jaana-Marja)

Fire and Ice - Eyjafjallajökull Eruption (by orvaratli)

Electrified Ash - Eyjafjallajökull - Iceland (by orvaratli)

Eyjafjallajökull (by hallgrg)

Eruption in Eyjafjallajökull (by Gunnar Gestur)

Eyjafjallajökull eruption (by hallgrg)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I'm fond of a tumblr blog called they humm of mystery by a person called sealmaiden. True to its subtitle, Art Finds, it gives a daily dose of paintings and other high art. Sealmaiden never fails to interest and amuse and sometimes strikes a lot deeper.

Today the blog shows a detail from this painting by Konstantin Makovsky.

A Russian artist who thrived during the second half of the nineteenth century, Makovsky is known for large scale historical genre paintings. This one, which he completed in 1889, depicts a scene from the mid-seventeenth century. It's oil on canvas and it's life size: 110 x 147 inches or better than 9 by 12 feet. Sources give the title as either The Russian Bride's Attire or simply The Russian Bride.

The curators at San Francisco's Legion of Honor Museum, where it's hung, give this description:
This is believed to be a picture of Tsar Alexis of Russia (upper right, entering the room) and his bride. Be that as it may, Makovsky has also painted a marvelous mixture of culture, design, technique, color, and narrative. The clothing is faithful to Russian custom and tradition. The architecture of the room is true to the period, from the ceiling beams to the beautifully patterned carpet. Makovsky was careful to use indirect light from the window to gently illuminate the room and the figures, allowing for local (true) color. Here, Makovsky describes the moment when family and friends help prepare the bride for a wedding. Tsar Alexis is held off by a bride's maid for good luck, a narrative of the superstition that the groom must avoid viewing the bride before the wedding.
Here are details.


Intrigued by the Russian Bride, I sought out other paintings of Makovsky and came up with these two:

1. The Appeal of Minin, a painting that depicts a crucial moment in the effort to defend Moscow from an attack by a Lithuanian-Polish force. It shows a local merchant, the butcher Kuzma Minin, rallying citizens to support a counter-attack of the invaders after the Russian army had been crushed by them. The volunteers he assembled succeeded in driving off the Poles and Lithuanians and consequently the area in front of the Kremlin is now known as Minin Square. The painting is held by Nizhni Novgorod Art Museum whose curator says: "The subject-matter of this huge painting (42 m. sq.) is Kozma Minin's speech before the citizens of Nizhni Novgorod in 1611 in which he appealed to sacrifice money for creating people's volunteer corps to liberate Russia from foreign enemies." Forty-two square meters! It must be about 19 by 24 feet.

Some details:

2. This one is called The Kissing Custom. It's difficult to find information about it. One source says it's subtitled At the Feast of Boyar Morozov and was completed in 1895: "This is at the end of the wedding reception, and everyone is a little worse for wear, I say. I doubt there are many sober faces amongst the men. Thank God, we women are exempt from the vodka bouts. Although I should tell you… most of us can keep pace with the fellows. However… SOMEONE has to roll them home." Just below, I've included a short piece on the custom itself.

Some details:

Numerous foreigners who visited Russia in 17th century were deeply surprised when a Russian husband would ask all guests to kiss his wife on the lips and at the disappointment that would follow if someone refused!

Another tradition existed in the 17th century that called for everyone to kiss one another in honor of Christ at Easter. This was also the case in Europe, however the Europeans carried out this tradition only on Easter Sunday. In Russia however, people would keep on kissing each other for 40 days after Easter Sunday. Even in the Russian Orthodox Church men and women were kissing all the time: at first they kissed an icon, then a Priest "without any shame" and then each other. The advantage of this approach – even the ugliest got a smooch.

One more Russian tradition is to yell out the word "Gor'ko" (bitter) at weddings. If you have ever been to a Russian wedding, you will know what we are talking about. The guests start to chant gorko, gorko, gorko and the newlyweds kiss and kiss and kiss. This tradition has its own wisdom. The guests by asking the "молодых" (young folks) to kiss are performing two tasks: to entertain and also to prepare the couple for their wedding night. This tradition is very relevant nowadays and probably will live on for many years to come. It is similar to the symbolism of the kiss that can frequently be found in mythology. Here, the kiss symbolizes the union of human souls - almost like a mixing of the two people's blood.

For more on The Appeal of Minin, see Russian Unity Day.

Monday, April 19, 2010

a book story

I've been struggling with this post, as will, I'm sure, become increasingly apparent as you read.

I just finished The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn. It's one of many books I've consumed concerning the murderous 30s and 40s of the last century.*

The Lost is as good as the reviews say; I wholeheartedly recommend it. It's also a source of frustration.

To my way of thinking, there's a contrived naïvete in Mendelsohn's writing. He does full justice to the importance of his subject but he indulges too much in showing his own uncertainties and the difficulties he faces in telling the story. He foreshadows overmuch and he tells us too frequently that he doesn't believe in the magical significance of coincidences as he's revealing yet another one of them. As one critical reviewer puts it the book shows a bit too much self-absorption, is a bit too dismissive about the victims apart from his six relatives, builds itself into a bit too much a bloated memoir.

Mendelsohn took Proust as a model and this was not a wise decision. As Beckett found when he came to write about Proust, the man adored making what seem to be loose-ends but are actually stylistic foreshadowings, setting off on what seem to be meaningless excursions away from his subject, and mapping these side trips into what one writer calls "clinching and resonant conclusions." Beckett did not allow his respect for Proust's writing style to keep him from mocking it. Mendelsohn seems too much to give it untempered reverence.

Beckett's Proust comes to mind because I happened recently to be reading a book about Beckett's writings. There was no forethought in this. We went to the Easter Vigil service this year and arrived early to be sure of decent seating. To pass waiting time I brought with me the smallest book that came to hand which happened to be Richard Coe's Samuel Beckett. During the wait I managed to get through most of the second chapter, "Baroque Rationalism," which is mostly about Murphy's self-annihilation.

I think the accident of this reading was fortuitous. I'd brought pocket books to Mass on other occasions when we'd arrived early and, having once before left my book behind, I tried not to forget my Coe this time. When I found I'd done so, I thought first I'd just let it go. The book had fallen to the floor of our sometimes wet basement and gotten water damaged. I said to myself I'd replace it some day, but a little checking showed that would not be easily or cheaply done. Having decided to get it back, it took two tries before I succeeded. When located at last, it was not in the usual lost and found place, but in the priests' robing room. There's something to think about: my little Beckett book in its Grove Press Evergreen Black Cat edition** and me seeking help from robing priests before Mass in order to retrieve it.

The book impressed me more this reading than it has before. Coe brings out Beckett's fascination with many sages, mystics, and above all philosophers of past millennia, for example, Arnold Geulincx, he, the man of celestial clocks, whose "ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis" Beckett quotes as a "beautiful Belgo-Latin."
And Coe also makes plain that Beckett's exploration of the metaphysical and philosophic problems associated with Murphy's contemplation of a blindingly opaque, infinite, nothingness are, to Murphy anyway, "of little interest."

The Sunday after Easter we were introduced to a newly ordained deacon, and, being new, he was empowered to give his first homily to us. He got through it just fine, but managed early on to startle a woman standing a row in front of me and a bit to the right. He used a strong image to show how the Jerusalem mob which condemned Jesus would, following his death and resurrection, come to praise and worship him. The image was out of Nietsche: "God is dead." When he uttered these words and began to explain what they meant to him the woman gasped and said something I couldn't make out. I'm pretty sure she was distressed at the deacon's misuse of the reference. Nietsche was not writing of an unthinking mob, out for blood. Nor was he exulting in the conquest of a supposed religious superstition, but rather he was declaring that the abandonment of religious beliefs carried with it a dreadful burden. Without religious certainties to guide life, people would, he believed, find it almost impossible to lead ethical and fulfilling lives. With Ralph Waldo Emerson before him, Nietsche saw the assertion of an individual, transcendent morality to be both an unavoidable responsibility and an extremely heavy one.

The men and women in Beckett's works can be seen as grappling with the trauma that descends upon them from this state of affairs. Quite unlike them, Beckett found in himself the will to rise above it. He himself was not a victim of doubt-induced immobility, indecisiveness, and confusion. He persevered in his art although first publication and then recognition were long in coming. He was a good companion to his friends and strove to be helpful to them. He opposed Fascism, Stalinism, and other forms of repression. Although citizen of a neutral country and not subject to military draft, he chose to fight Germans in France as member of a Resistance cell.*** Although his writings are rigorously anti-romantic, he himself formed and over 50 years maintained a close relationship with a woman Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil and, ultimately, was interred next to her, as her marriage partner.**** He loved sports and the outdoors. Most surprisingly, to me anyway, he enjoyed the pleasures of bourgeois life in upscale Paris and his suburban retreat. As one brief biography has it: "Unlike his tormented characters, he was distinguished by a great serenity of spirit."*****

The people whose lives Mendelsohn researches are dissimilar from one another in the way Beckett was unlike the fictional characters he brought to life. Some are decisive, confident in their ethical judgments, and heroic in their resistance to an overwhelmingly powerful combination of evil forces. Others are passive by-standers, passive victims, informers, or collaborators.

Mendolsohn tries not to takes sides, tries himself not to judge others based on the evidence of their good or bad actions that he uncovers. This approach has the appearance of scientific detachment, but, in context, makes no sense. Historians, genealogists, memoirists all have moral attitudes and their attitudes suffuse their writings whether they will or no. When the subject is something as morally charged as the Holocaust, it is not only impossible to be dispassionate, it is wrong to try.

Their subject matter is similar and Beckett shared with Mendelsohn a deep concern with clear expression, but they are stylistically at odds. Beckett wrote spare prose, verse, and dialogue. He used gestures, allusions, symbols to express what he, rightly, found language inadequate to express. He wasn't concerned with plot or the mechanics of story-telling. Mendolsohn constantly worries the reader with his uncertainty about the unfolding of his story and how it should be told. Beckett's silences are emphatic and informative. Mendelsohn tells us what he's telling, reviews what he's told, foreshadows what's coming, and even tells us that there are things he's not telling. Where Beckett is dignified and reserved, Mendelsohn seems to lower himself on occasion to gossip about the characters he's researching.

This is Beckett.

These photos from Mendolsohn's family photo albums appear in his book. I've reproduced them from an Italian web site — Daniel MENDELSOHN, Gli scomparsi — and will take them down if their appearance here is inappropriate.

{caption: Mendelsohn's uncle, Schmiel Jäger, his wife Esther and daughters Lorka, Frydka, Ruchel, and Bron}


{Schmiel Jäger, his wife Esther, and daughter Frydka}

{Schmiel Jäger}


See also:

Le Temps de Proust: About reading In Search of Lost Time, associated Proust criticism, and other secondary literature.

Beckett’s ‘Proust’ John Pilling

Samuel Beckett Is Dead at 83; His 'Godot' Changed Theater

Samuel Beckett and the Philosophers by John Fletcher in Comparative Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter, 1965), pp. 43-56 — you need a Jstor account to read this.

Beckett in the French Resistance



* From the catalog of books I've read that I keep in my LibraryThing account:
  • Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred, by Robert Solomon Wistrich, 1994
  • The Journal of Hélène Berr, by Hélène Berr, 2009
  • Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler, by Anne Nelson, 2009
  • Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945 (Social Studies: History of the World), by William Allen, 1984
  • The Third Reich at War, by Richard J. Evans, 2009
  • Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946, by Debórah Dwork, 2009
  • Resistance: A Frenchwoman's Journal of the War, by Agnes Humbert, 2008

**Grove Press is celebrated as an avant-garde publisher of works that formerly would be found on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum as well as many that used to be illegal to send through the US mails.

*** "Although Samuel Beckett rarely if ever spoke about his wartime activities, during the two years he stayed in Roussillon, he helped the Maquis sabotage the German army in the Vaucluse mountains. While in hiding, he continued work on the novel Watt, started in 1941, completed in 1945, but not published until 1953. For his efforts in fighting the German occupation, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French government. Even to the end of his life, Beckett would refer to his laborous efforts for the French Resistance as 'boy scout stuff'." -- Samuel Beckett

**** Beckett's romance with Dechevaux-Dumesnil was not a fairy tale love story, as the wikipedia article says: "In the 1930s, Beckett, an avid tennis fan his whole life, chose Dechevaux-Dumesnil [also a tennis player] as his lover over the heiress Peggy Guggenheim. Six years older than Beckett, Dechevaux-Demesnil was an austere woman known for avante-garde tastes and left-wing politics." They stuck together and nurtured each other though Beckett is known to have taken at least one other lover during their long association with each other.

***** Another: "All in all he had a good life, was loved by those around him, honored by the world, read and performed with deep admiration and attention by admirers and interpreters, always his own man, who, after initial pains and confusions, found his genuine self and was true to it to the end. There was sorrow at the close, but is it otherwise for any of us? He was modest but richly gifted: he worked hard, and the work repaid him in consummate artistic achievement."