- Historic Sites
Traveling With A Sense Of History
From Fort Ticonderoga to the Plaza Hotel, from Appomattox Courthouse to Bugsy Siegel’s weird rose garden in Las Vegas, the present-day scene is enriched by knowledge of the American past
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
New York is the financial capital of the United States and the capital of fashions and of crime, but it is also the capital of writing, so you can read the city in terms of Henry James’s Washington Square or the customshouse where Herman Melville worked, but 1 like it best as the site of Scott Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age . Come back, now, to Saint-Gaudens’s statue of General Sherman, and look over toward the Plaza Hotel, and is that fountain not enriched by the recollection that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald once plunged into it out of sheer delight in their own triumphant youth? The ghost of Fitzgerald, if you have eyes to see it, flickers at several points in midtown Manhattan. The Racquet Club, that pseudo-Renaissance palace on Park Avenue, was where the brutally beaten Abe North, who was modeled on Ring Lardner, crawled home to die. Another character in Tender Is the Night disputes this disclosure: “It wasn’t the Racquet Club he crawled to—it was the Harvard Club. … I happen to know most of the members of the Racquet Club. It must have been the Harvard Club.”
Over on Fifty-sixth Street and Seventh Avenue is the building where Arnold Rothstein was murdered. You may remember Rothstein, who was the model for Gatsby’s friend Meyer Wolfsheim, as the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. “I see you’re looking at my cuff buttons Wolfsheim said to Nick Carraway, who hadn’t been. “Finest specimens of human molars.” And a little south, at Fifty-fourth and Sixth, stands the Warwick Hotel, where Fitzgerald fell so disastrously off the wagon while he and the young Budd Schulberg were on their way to New Hampshire to research a film script on the Dartmouth Winter Carnival, a misadventure that Schulberg later dramatized in his novel The Disenchanted .
Public places almost inevitably get torn down, if their sites are valuable.
Perhaps the most historically self-conscious city in America is Washington, though its sense of history is largely limited to domestic politics and largely expressed in stone monuments. Unlike the heroine of Born Yesterday , I have never been overwhelmed by the Lincoln Memorial, much less the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. Perhaps that is because 1 sympathize with the disdainful view of Henry James’s Alfred Bonnycastle, the character in “Pandora” modeled on Henry Adams, whose idea of a really eclectic dinner party was to tell his wife, “Let’s be vulgar and have some fun—let’s invite the President.”
There are many Washingtons, of course —the Reagans’ mink-coated Washington, the Kennedy Camelot, the New Deal Washington of all those neoclassic office buildings—but the one I like best is Henry Adams’s Washington. It was a sleepy Southern town then, not the imperial city that considers itself the command post of the Western world, and pigs rooted in the unpaved streets. The Washington Monument was still unfinished, though Mark Twain reported that it “towers out of the mud [and] has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off.” Twain regarded the whole city as the “grand old benevolent National Asylum for the Helpless,” but Adams was more sympathetic. “One of these days this will be a very great city … ,” he wrote to a friend. “Even now it is a beautiful one.”
Adams moved into a handsome house just across Lafayette Square (then President’s Square) from the White House, a building about which he still had proprietary feelings since he had first known it as the residence of his grandfather John Quincy Adams. Two weeks later Henry’s wife, Clover, condescended to visit the White House and pay her respects to Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes. She had already heard from a friend that “they suffer much from rats in the White House, who run over their bed and nibble the president’s toes,” but she was not prepared for “a stout, common-looking man [who] came in and came towards me and held out his hand. …It didn’t dawn on me that it was the master of the house.” One can only imagine the contempt with which Mrs. Adams probably regarded that outstretched hand and marvel that there was a time of innocence only a century ago when a well-informed woman could visit the White House and not know what its occupant looked like.
When I go to Washington, I like to stay at the Hay-Adams Hotel, the comfortable old place that stands on the site of the houses that Henry Hobson Richardson built for Adams and John Hay. The scene is still faintly haunted by the ghost of Clover Adams; bitterly depressed after the death of her father, she took poison. I also like to go out to Rock Creek Cemetery, where Henry and Clover Adams lie buried underneath Saint-Gaudens’s grieving statue. Alexander Woollcott spoke with characteristic hyperbole, but was not far wrong, when he called it the “most beautiful thing ever fashioned by the hand of man on this continent.”