April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
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
To acquire a sense of history is to acquire a sense of who one is, a sense of where one is, in time as well as place. Conversely, to lack all sense of history, to scramble continually after what is new and fashionable, is to lack all sense of identity. David McCullough, the historian, gave eloquent support to this view of the whole nation when he told last year’s graduating class at Middlebury College: “Imagine a man who professes over and over his unending love for a woman but who knows nothing of where she was born or who her parents were or where she went to school or what her life had been until he came along, and furthermore, he doesn’t care to learn. What would you think of such a person?”
The highest social prestige in Concord was claimed by the survivors of those families like the Buttericks or the Wheelers who had inhabited the town since “before the fight,” meaning 1775. My own ancestors had not been there then, for they had already gone West somewhat earlier, West being the Connecticut River valley and beyond, the Berkshires, the wilderness. I was thinking of them when I visited Fort Ticonderoga not too long ago and reached that majestic stone parapet where the row of black cannons stands guard over the southern tip of Lake Champlain. There are a few buildings nearby, of course, but as one gazes out over the thickly wooded hillside sloping down to the lake, one can imagine that this is the way everything once was. Here in 1758, when the stronghold was known as Fort Carillon, the Marquis de Montcalm and his thirty-six hundred men beat back a British force four times as large; here, nearly twenty years later, the British occupiers were surprised and overwhelmed by Ethan Alien and his Green Mountain Boys.
But the scene before me was all illusion. The fort was abandoned after the Revolution, and neighboring farmers made off with everything that remained in the ruins: stones, window frames —everything. There was virtually nothing left when Stephen Pell fell in love with the place and, beginning in 1908, spent the next half a century rebuilding the vanished stronghold. And if the handsome fort now boasts the world’s largest collection of eighteenth-century cannons, it is partly because one of Pell’s friends went roaming through the Caribbean, soliciting antique guns from Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic.
It was long before Fort Ticonderoga was even built that my great-great-greatgreat-great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Wait came wandering through these same woods in search of his kidnapped wife. Wait had been out harvesting his crops in Hatfield, Massachusetts, on September 19,1677, when he heard shouted warnings of an Indian surprise attack. He hurried back to town to find that his house was a smoking ruin and his pregnant wife, Martha, had been taken captive. With only one companion, whose wife also had been abducted, Wait set out into the wilderness in pursuit of the retreating Indians. They hired a Mohawk to guide them to Lake George. They carried their canoe two miles overland to Lake Champlain. Then, with very little idea of where they were going, they continued paddling northward into the wilderness. According to one account, they “traveled three days without a bit of bread or any other relief but some raccoon’s flesh which they had killed in an hollow tree.”
In early January 1678, four months after the pregnant Martha Wait had been kidnapped, Wait and his companion found their wives and more than a dozen other captives in an Indian camp near a little Canadian town called Sorel. The Indians were not averse to a bargain with two such devoted husbands, so for two hundred pounds sterling, the colonists bought back their wives and all the other captives. One of these was Martha Wait’s new baby, my great-great-great-greatgreat-great grandmother, whom they named Canada Wait.
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.
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 .
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.”
The Southern sense of history is scarcely less fervent than that of Boston and Washington, and as we drive south through Virginia, we constantly encounter road signs that evoke the past. I don’t mean Richmond or Williamsburg so much as Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg and that wonderfully rightly named battlefield the Wilderness. I have read many stories about the New South and the Sun Belt, but to me the South is still to some extent the enemy side in the Civil War, the slave state.
My great-grandfather Alva J. Smith (Canada Wait had married a man named Joseph Smith) fought his way across this countryside as a corporal, then lieutenant, then captain, in the 4th New York Artillery Regiment. I thought of him hauling those horse-drawn guns through these gentle hills —hardly more than a boy, really, but trained to fire those cannons against the South.
I was visiting an old friend in Columbia, South Carolina, and he wanted to show me the state capitol. We drove downtown to inspect the building, over which, as my friend observed, local patriots periodically raised the Confederate flag. Then he pointed out the scars inflicted by General Sherman’s invaders, bullet holes surrounded by accusingly commemorative circles of white paint.
“A little more effort, and Sherman could have knocked the whole place down, Confederate flag and all,” I said. I hate nationalism and all forms of extremism, but when I found myself in the South, I suddenly found myself becoming extremely nationalistic, meaning proUnion, anti-Confederate, an abolitionist. Most people north of the Mason-Dixon line hardly have any feelings at all about the Civil War; only in the South do they have such feelings, and the feelings generally are based on the assumption that the South was right or at least misunderstood and ill used. My antagonism derives, 1 suppose, from World War II, the only other American war in which much blood was shed for an essentially moral cause, and I hate the attempts to strip away that moral element and to justify or exonerate the enemy.
“A little more effort, and Sherman could have killed all the rest of the civilians in town too,” my friend said.
“Well, I think Sherman was one of the great heroes,” I said, remembering that splendid statue outside the Plaza. “He would have been elected President if he’d been willing to accept it.”
“He wouldn’t have been elected if the South hadn’t been disenfranchised,” my friend retorted. “My grandmother used to get into a rage every time his name was mentioned.”
“The liberator of Georgia.” I couldn’t resist firing a final shot.
“Liberator—hell!” my friend shouted. Even Southern hospitality has some limits.
Heading northward out of the Confederacy, I decided that I wanted to stop at some of the Union shrines—Harpers Ferry, Appomattox Courthouse, Gettysburg—all meticulously restored and preserved by the National Park Service. Then, when I got back to New York, I dug out a list of half-forgotten battles that my great-grandfather had recalled and written down in the quieter years when he worked as a railroad official: Rapidan campaign, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Po River, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Deep Bottom, Strawberry Plains, White Oak Swamp, Poplar Springs Church, Dabney’s Mills, Peeble’s Farm, Hatcher’s Run, Boydton Plank Road, Sutherland Station, Siege of Petersburg, Andrews Springs, Sailor’s Creek, High Bridge, Appomattox Courthouse. Yes, it is all there.
Out West these things are forgotten, were never known. Colorado, one reads in an account of the state’s history, had not a single white resident before about 1830. A proud guide in the home of the Unsinkable Molly Brown speaks of it as one of the oldest houses in Denver; it much resembles the scores of brick houses lining Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, the new houses built when the Back Bay was filled in after the Civil War.
The best thing about the West, of course, is precisely its lack of history, in the sense of history’s being an encrustation of human occupation, creation, and debris. Yes, I know that Santa Fe boasts of its quaint antiquity and that the Governor’s Palace dates back to 1609, a decade before anyone ever landed at Plymouth Rock, but the West I am talking about is the West of vast forests and vast plains. You can drive for miles and miles along, say, Route 14 across northern Wyoming without ever seeing any evidence (except, of course, for the highway itself) that any human being has ever set foot here. Then you come to a sign announcing the existence of some town with a name like Shawnee Fork and a population of twenty-three. And then you reach the perfection of Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. If Jenny Lake were located in Switzerland, there would at least be a Benedictine monastery with a bell tolling across the meadows; if it were in New York, there would be Jenny condominiums and a Jenny marina. Here there is nothing but the incredible beauty of Jenny Lake itself, exactly as it was when God made it.
Still, the West has a peculiar kind of history all its own, not an imitation of Eastern history, as Eastern history is an imitation of European history, but—well, consider Leadville, Colorado, a small town of no distinction whatever except for the morality play that was enacted here not once but three times. Gold was discovered in 1860, in a place called California Gulch; the town that sprang up nearby was named Oro City. Within a year, five thousand prospectors had crowded in, making Oro City the largest place in the Colorado Territory. Greed was its only reason for existence and its only law. In the little town museum there are still brownish pictures of rows of miners sleeping on floors (and paying handsomely for the privilege), carousing in crowded saloons, murdering each other, and being murdered, in the ruthless struggle over gold claims.
After some three million dollars’ worth of gold had been dug out of the mountain, the lode ran dry, and everyone decamped, and Oro City shrank to a somewhat battered village. Dust unto dust, vanity of vanities, and they that live by the sword. About ten years later somebody discovered that the slag stripped of gold still contained silver. Another explosion of greed. The new town that grew up was called Leadville (there was lead, too, of course). More miners sleeping on the barroom floors, more miners being murdered in the battles over silver claims. The silver rush proved even richer than the gold rush. By 1880, when Leadville had swollen to thirty-five thousand inhabitants, it was the largest silver-mining place in the world, with thirty producing mines, ten large smelters, nearly thirty miles of streets, and an opera house. After millions of dollars’ worth of silver had been extracted- $11.5 million in 1880 alone—the price dropped sharply in 1893, there were strikes and the summoning of militia, and the town began dwindling again. Then, about 1900, somebody discovered that the hills, stripped of gold and silver, still contained molybdenum. There was reenacted the same old melodrama of greed and destruction. Is there not some lesson in all this? Hegel said that the only lesson we learn from history is that nobody learns a lesson from history.
As our westward travels finally bring us to California, we see that there are two kinds of history: old history and new history. San Francisco takes pride in its archaic cable cars and the square-rigger anchored at the pier, but though the city has its comfortable charm, I think I prefer the swaggering modernity of Los Angeles. Where else in the world could Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose , the gigantic wooden flying boat that never flew more than about a mile one day in 1947, be a tourist attraction? Where else could the barn that Cecil B. De Mille rented to film The Squaw Man in 1913 be treasured as a relic of preclassical antiquity? Where else could J. Paul Getty have created a major art museum in the form of a Roman imperial villa? Where else could a guide on a bus tour point with pride to the site of the filming of “The Beverly Hillbillies”?
For that kind of history we must eventually visit Las Vegas, where the sense of time has been totally abolished. Wander at any hour through the garish gambling casinos, which have no windows that might reveal whether it is day or night, and you can see the money-drugged customers hunched in front of the slot machines, each of them hoping to reenact the melodrama of Leadville. I asked one of the bartenders at the Rainbow Bar of the Flamingo Hilton, a middle-aged man wearing a string tie in the fashion of the Old West, whether there remained any trace of the original hotel that the notorious Bugsy Siegel had built back in the 1940s. He could suggest only that I inspect a series of photographs of the hotel in that vanished era, now framed and hung on the walls of an obscure corridor, and that I wander outside to take a look at “Bugsy Siegels rose garden.” Out in the empty darkness near the swimming pool, I eventually found the spot, a handsome array of about seventy-five rosebushes, which 1 suspect were no more than five or ten years old. There was a plaque, though, that claimed that every year the roses “bloom bigger and with a deeper red than the year before” because Siegel buried some of his victims here. If you wander here at midnight under a full moon, the plaque declared, you might hear the voices of those victims murmuring, “Bugsy, how do you like the roses, Bugsy?”
Now I am back home in Long Island, where it takes only a little 5-10-5 to make the roses grow. The real estate agent who sold me this 150-yearold house at the edge of the Sound gave me a handbill claiming that “among its occupants … have been a secretary of defense and a justice of the United States Supreme Court.” I seem to remember her telling me that the secretary of defense was James Forrestal, but when I telephoned one of his sons to find out more details, the son said that he was fairly sure that his father never lived here. Such futile inquiries and such dispiriting answers are all part of the course of history. When the young Henry Luce went to Oxford and enrolled at Christ Church, his prospective tutor asked him what period he hoped to study. Modern European history, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the young Luce replied. “Luce, I am bound to tell you that here at Oxford we consider that modern history ends with the Glorious Revolution of 1688,” the tutor said. “After that all is mere hearsay and rumor.”