Traveling With A Sense Of History

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The reason I know all this is that there was a time in the 1930s, during the first years of my father’s exile from Nazi Germany, when both my parents became obsessed with establishing our early American ancestry. My mother, despite her Germanic married name, was determined to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. So we all wandered around Hatfield and the site of the Bloody Brook Massacre searching for traces of our past. The thing I remember most clearly is the scene of my father stopping the old blue Ford outside the weatherbeaten house of a farmer named Sanderson, who, according to my parents’ researches, had to be a distant cousin, and my father asking, in his rather marked German accent, whether Mr. Sanderson knew about Benjamin Wait, their common ancestor, and the Hatfield Massacre of 1677. What? Wait? Hatfield Massacre? Sorry, mister.

 

My mother didn’t get very much satisfaction out of her enrollment in the Daughters of the American Revolution either, because in 1939 the DAR forbade the black contralto Marian Anderson to give a concert in the DAR’s Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., so my mother felt that she had to resign her newly won membership. Do you remember that a black contralto was forbidden to give a concert in Washington, D.C., in 1939? That, too, is part of the sense of history —not just the celebration of what we enjoy celebrating on July 4 but also the remembering of what we would rather forget. And not just things that happened long ago but things that happened in rather recent times and only seem long ago.

In New York City, where I now live and work, the sense of history is constantly at war with the yearning for progress and profit. The sense of history is defended by a bureaucracy of landmark preservation; everything else supports the yearning for progress and profit. There is even a famous neo-Byzantine church on Park Avenue that is trying to have an office tower built in its own garden. The sporting institution known as Madison Square Garden keeps being torn down and rebuilt, farther and ever farther from Madison Square. For its latest and ugliest reincarnation, the builders destroyed the neoclassical splendors of Pennsylvania Station, which now survives only underground. But public places almost inevitably get torn down, if their sites are valuable, or, if not, become moribund.

And so in New York, the capital of novelty and fashionability, the sense of history survives not only in those ostentatiously preserved public ornaments like the splendid statue of General Sherman riding his horse past the Plaza Hotel but also in the lore that surrounds them. It helps to know not only who Sherman was but also that the statue was created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and that the angel guiding Sherman onward was modeled by a girl whom the sculptor was pursuing.

History also survives not only in the preserved establishments but in the unpreserved ones. I never walk past Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street, for example, without remembering that this was where the Metropolitan Opera used to stand, the real Met, with all those pillars, not that new place in Lincoln Center. Here it was that the wonderful baritone Leonard Warren fell dead onstage in the midst of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino . And here it was that Sanche de Gramont won a Pulitzer Prize for scrambling across the street from the Herald Tribune and interviewing, under deadline pressure, witnesses to the singer’s death.

Because of my profession I tend to think of such fading events in terms of the newspapers that once covered them. When I first came to New York in 1950, it still enjoyed more than a dozen major daily papers, and though most of these grimy but exciting places are now gone, I still remember being inside most of them, either working or looking for work. The Daily News , where I used to write half a dozen stories a day, still struggles along, but what trace is left of our great rival on East Forty-fifth Street, Hearst’s Daily Mirror ? The Post , where I worked on the copy desk in the ramshackle building down on West Street, took a vague sort of pride in having been founded by Alexander Hamilton, in 1801, and edited throughout much of the nineteenth century by William Cullen Bryant; but now it is losing millions over on South Street, and its fate depends on the benevolence of Rupert Murdoch. The Times is still strong, of course, but I miss the Herald Tribune , an elegant and well-written paper that was rather proud of its descent from the Tribune of Horace Greeley. Just the other day I went looking for Bleeck’s, the tavern on West Thirty-eighth Street where the Herald Tribune ’s social life was conducted, where you might find John Lardner playing the match game with Red Smith, and I could see no sign that the place had ever existed, except in my own head.