Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Our Public Library

Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Public Library, 1930s

Growing up in the 1960s, my brother and I visited the public library nearly every week. Sliding around the back seat of the car, pre-seat belt, we traveled across the city along streets named for great men like Lincoln.  My mother drove.

We always perked up when the car merged into a traffic circle with a Spanish-American War monument at its center.  That war lay in the deep unknown past.  But the various enterprises surrounding the circle were intensely familiar.  Coming first into view, a Congregational church with bright red doors.

"The Circle" -- 1980s

Further round the circle was the Artuso Pastry Shop, famous for its cannoli.  And then there was Chicken Delight.

“Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight!” according to the radio jingle, which our mother never heeded.

Oh, how we longed for Chicken Delight, fried or barbecued, delivery or 15-minute pickup.  No pots or pans – “just open and eat!”

Too bad.  On to the library.

Mount Vernon Public Library, 1920s

Founded in 1904 with a gift from the industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, the library was located on the south side of the city in a neighborhood that had declined as de facto segregation set in.

At the time of Carnegie’s gift, grand houses and spreading elms lined the blocks that would surround the library.  Nearby, commerce bustled along “the Avenue,” as residents called it. 

A small African-American community also flourished on this side of town.  However, by the end of World War II the black population had multiplied and many middle and upper class white residents of the south side had moved across the railroad tracks to the north side.

I’m sure some white people wanted to take the library with them.  But Grace Greene Baker would have opposed that idea.

Grace and her husband, Herbert, came out of small-town Ohio – a town called Bellevue, about 70 miles west of Cleveland.  She had already lived in several cities by the time she arrived at ours.  That was because Herbert was a rising executive in the printing business who previously held positions in St. Paul, Buffalo and other places.

Born in 1861, Grace became deeply interested in civic affairs while in her mid-30s.  She volunteered first with the National Consumers League, a reform organization co-founded by Jane Addams.  The group tackled the minimum wage, child labor laws, and other social problems.  By the time the Bakers landed in our suburb in 1900, it came naturally to Grace to commit herself as a public servant.  She plunged in while rearing four children.

What called to Grace Baker?  Two things: children’s welfare and the public library, both quintessential initiatives of the Progressive Era.  I imagine her steering a Model A along the Bronx River Parkway, on the way to address the county legislature about juvenile delinquency, newsboys and truancy. 

Eventually the public library would consume all of Grace’s time.  She served as board president for nearly 20 years and led a campaign for a much-needed addition to the building. 

As fiercely as the local paper editorialized against the addition, Grace fiercely explained its importance.  Just imagine the space – an expansive children’s department filled with light, plus large meeting rooms where members of the community could discuss issues and listen to lectures.  In the 1930s, however, persuading people to vote for a bigger library was like trying to get a new high school.  No one wanted to pay.

Finally, the bond referendum passed in 1936.

The 1936 addition 

Four years later, the city bestowed upon Grace its “Good Citizen” award.  On top of that, one of the paneled meeting rooms in the library addition was named the Grace Greene Baker Community Room.  

I now realize that this is where my father took me, in 1969, to hear a young woman named Anne Moody who had recently published a book called Coming of Age in Mississippi.  Anne Moody was a civil rights activist who worked with the NAACP, CORE and SNCC.  It made sense for her to speak in our city so riven by race.  The room was packed.

She started by reading the first paragraph of her book:

I’m still haunted by dreams of the time we lived on Mr. Carter’s plantation.  Lots of Negroes lived on his place.  Like Mama and Daddy they were all farmers.  We all lived in rotten two-room shacks.

Often statues and spaces memorialize people whose contributions to public life are modest to imperceptible.  But Grace Greene Baker absolutely deserved that room, and many years later so did Anne Moody.

Original dust jacket

*Grace Greene Baker died in 1949 and is buried in Bellevue, Ohio.  
**Anne Moody (1940-2015)

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Old Priest

Our Lady of Victory Church

After Father Albinger died, the housekeeper discovered the will and the key in a creaky old desk in the rectory attic.  The city fathers scratched their heads at what was revealed.  If the old priest had accumulated so much property and money, why did he dress in threadbare garments and beg for food?

And how had Father Albinger, who presided for 25 years over a Roman Catholic Church in an undistinguished suburb of New York City, come to possess so many worldly goods?   

The mysterious priest departed from this earth on April 21, 1898, the first day of the Spanish-American War.  He died in Germany, from whence he had emigrated to the U.S. during the 1850s.  

After the housekeeper found the will, one of several documents tied up with a faded ribbon, she walked carefully down two flights of stairs in the dusty house, holding tightly to the banister.  She showed the will to a member of the parish, who told everyone in town, and almost instantaneously the County Treasurer came to call.  His name was T. Ellwood Carpenter and, having founded his own bank just a few years earlier, he knew all about assets.

 Home of T. Ellwood Carpenter, who investigated
Father Albinger's bequest

According to Carpenter, who opened the deposit boxes, Albinger left 25 purses, each containing 1,000 marks, and $10,000 in securities.  Carpenter also discovered that the priest owned several houses in New York and New Jersey.  He estimated that the estate was worth well over $100,000. 

Equally surprising, Albinger named one of his former altar boys as the sole legatee and executor.  However, no one in town could recall this person, Nicholas Lauer.

Nicholas grew up in far northern New York State, near Lake Ontario.  He was the son of a grocer whose family, like Albinger’s, emigrated from Prussia.  It is likely that the boy worked with Father Albinger at the time of the Civil War when the priest was in his mid-20s.  German communities flourished upstate and Father Albinger had the good fortune to serve as a pastor there before he hit the bigtime down near New York City.    

Now three decades later, here came the will.  Father Albinger’s sisters, who lived in Germany, refused to accept it.  In 1900 they contested the will in the county’s Surrogate’s Court. 

At the turn of the twentieth century, the law still regarded expert witnesses with skepticism. Judge Silkman, who presided over the Albinger case, acknowledged that he was dubious about expert testimony.  Nonetheless, he would base his opinion on the reports of two men well-known in the field of handwriting and ink analysis.

David Nunes Carvhalo,
handwriting expert
William J. Kinsley and David Nunes Carvalho were contemporaries and competitors.  Kinsley made his reputation in financial fraud.  Carvalho, a Sephardic Jew, played an important part in the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal fraught with virulent anti-Semitism, which roiled France between 1894 and 1906.  Working long-distance from the U.S., David proved the forgery of a document, purportedly written by Captain Dreyfus, which was used as evidence to convict him.  

The Albinger matter also came down to forgery.  The priest’s signature didn’t match writing samples and there were suspicious erasures over the signatures of the witnesses, who happened to be Nicholas Lauer’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law. 
It also puzzled the judge that the will, executed in 1897 in a restaurant at the St. Denis Hotel in Greenwich Village, occupied the lower half of a sheet of paper, the top having been sheared off.   

St. Denis Hotel, New York City, around 1890

Both Kinsley and Carvalho declared the Albinger will to be a forgery and Judge Silkman refused to probate it. 

A few years passed.  Then suddenly, lo and behold!  A second will by Father Albinger appeared in the basement of the dead priest’s former church.  This will, which was accepted and probated, divided the estate among the priest’s sisters, two parishioners, a sexton, the church – and Nicholas Lauer.

“Lauer is said to be the only man whom Father Albinger ever received in friendship,” a reporter wrote in a New York Times story.

On one hand, there is the dimly lit attic, its small windows looking down to the busy street.  On the other hand, there is the musty basement with dark corners and a cold stone floor.

And in the space between them, plenty of secrets.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Peter Lenihan's Daughter

Winifred Lenihan, publicity shot, 1928

When the labor organizer Peter Lenihan died unexpectedly in February 1914, his wife Martha was 8-1/2 months pregnant with their only son.   Of course she named him after his father.  Then she moved her family – four young daughters along with the baby– to the borough of Queens where she became a janitress in an apartment building.

Peter Lenihan had been an electrician who was very active in his union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.  The IBEW may have provided some money to the widow, but it would not have stretched far.

Yet fortune smiled on Martha.  Her eldest daughter, Winifred, became a rather acclaimed actress during her early 20s.  Later, Winifred explained that she had grown up in a Brooklyn family that had no interest in the theater, but she developed a passion for the stage and started a drama club at her high school.

Winifred was admitted to Smith College and planned to leave the theater behind.  Then she had second thoughts.  She decided to stay in New York and try out for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  Her family opposed her decision, she once told an interviewer, but she followed her heart. 

In 1919, Winifred made her debut in a minor production of The Blue Bird, a fairy tale by Maurice Maeterlinck.  Alas, the critic for Theatre Magazine, who wrote under the pseudonym “Mr. Hornblow,” did not take note of Winifred in his review.  Of the production, he remarked tortuously: “the flashes of brilliancy are rarely intermittent.”  

The Blue Bird 
(Winifred Lenihan is second from left)

Next, Winifred performed in three plays lost to history – The Betrothal, The Dover Road and The Failures – and received favorable attention, as they say.  More importantly, the reviews led the board of the Theatre Guild to cast her in the plum role of Joan in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, which opened in December 1923.

Saint Joan would launch Winifred’s career, although a few critics sniped at her.  In The American Mercury, H.L. Mencken growled that she was “unequal to the heroic demands of Joan.”  The first editor of Vanity Fair and a star of cafĂ© society, a man named Frank Crowninshield, wrote:

Here is Winifred Lenihan, the Saint Joan of Uncle George Shaw’s newest play, making an impassioned appeal to the warriors of France.  Or can it be that Miss Lenihan, with the Theatre Guild at heart, is offering (at a benefit performance) the last two seats in the house to some frenzied bidder?

He couldn't help himself.

In the meantime, Winifred’s sisters became a telephone operator, a clerk, and a teacher.  Peter, Jr. appears to have died young, like his father.  By 1925 the mother, Martha, had stopped working.  In 1928 she took her first vacation, in Bermuda.    

During the 1930s, Winifred lost interest in acting and began to teach and direct.  She met her husband, Frank Wheeler, a vice president of what was then called the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, while working on radio sketches sponsored by the company.  During her tenure on the governing council of Actors' Equity, she authored an anti-Communist, anti-fascist resolution.

It’s such an old story, often an immigrant’s story: the astonishing way that a generation leaps so far ahead of the previous one.  The same stage lights that shone on Winifred might have been manufactured in a dingy Bronx shop where her father had once labored.

Winifred Lenihan pictured in Theatre World, 1950s

See posts: May 16 + June 13, 2018

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

In Memory of Peter Lenihan

Peter Lenihan, organizer for the International 
Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, around 1910

I looked everywhere for Peter F. Lenihan, a widely admired labor organizer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.   

The problem was that his name was misspelled in an old issue of the Union Telephone Operator, the trade journal for the telephone operators union.  But it was spelled correctly in the notice of his death.

In 1912, the IBEW sent Peter to Boston to work with a group of women operators who wanted to strike against the New England Bell Telephone Company.  Ultimately he recommended that they focus on forming a local – the Boston Telephone Operators Union – and try to negotiate with the company.

Years later, they remembered his patience, energy, and wisdom.

“Girls,” he told them, “there are only twenty-five of you now, remember you will not always remain this number, you will increase and in less than one year you will be the most progressive Local Union in Boston if not in the Brotherhood.”

Not striking but appealing to the public;
Seattle, 1916

Peter, a shop electrician, probably became active in the union during the late nineteenth century as the labor movement expanded in response to greater industrialization.  The IBEW was founded in 1891 and represented linemen, cable slicers, fixture hangers, trimmers, switchboard men and shop men.  

From sweatshops to meat processing plants, inhumane, unfair treatment and vile working conditions led to labor unrest.  Unions organized aggressively, and often failed.  

Some of the most famous incidents of labor strife occurred during the years surrounding the Panic of 1893, which was triggered by a credit shortage and awakened American workers to the prospect of long-term unemployment. 

The 1892 strike at the Carnegie-owned Homestead Steel Works culminated in death and defeat for the steelworkers. 

In 1894, 100,000 unemployed men led by a progressive-minded businessman named Jacob Coxey marched from Ohio to Washington, D. C.  They asked the U.S. government to provide jobs by investing in the nation’s poorly maintained roads, to no avail. 

Also in 1894, the American Railway Union struck against the Pullman Company.  President Cleveland ordered the army to break the strike and 90 workers were killed or injured.     

The Industrial Workers of the World
("Wobblies") was founded in 1905 with the
goal of being "one big union."

Brother Lenihan, as his colleagues might have called him, found a place in the middle of the action, working behind the scenes.  With a wife, Martha, and four young daughters at home in the Bronx, he tried not to put himself in harm’s way. 

When Peter arrived in Boston in April 1912, he found a list of grievances typical of its time:  excessive hours, low wages, unpaid overtime, petty penalties, no break time, and the company’s use of the dreaded “split trick,” as the split shift was known.  It forced employees to work two shifts per day with no guarantee of a stretch of consecutive hours.  The extra commuting time inflicted stress and exhaustion.

Everyone knew the conditions were bad.  In 1909, Congress had asked the Bureau of Labor to investigate the conduct of telephone companies.  The survey covered 34 Bell Telephone companies and nine AT&T companies nationwide.  Among the many problems cited were poor ventilation, the spread of tuberculosis through receivers and transmitters, eye strain related to flashing switchboard lights, ear strain related to buzzing and the callers’ poor enunciation, and verbal abuse from supervisors and callers alike.  Recent scholarship points to sexual abuse, as well.

While Peter always represented the IBEW, he also worked closely with the Women’s Trade Union League, founded in Boston in 1903.  The WTUL formed in response to the marginalization of working women; the nation’s largest union, the American Federation of Labor, focused on white men.

Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House, and Emily Greene Balch, a peace and labor activist who taught sociology at Wellesley College, were among the WTUL’s first officers.  Professor Balch, who would receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946, actually went into the field to interview telephone operators, needle workers and other factory women.    

Wellesley College, June 1912: Boston Union Telephone
Operators at an outing organized by Peter Lenihan
Perhaps it was Emily Greene Balch who urged Peter to organize an “outing” for the Boston telephone operators in June 1912.  What better place to spend the day than on Wellesley’s beautiful campus?    

Eventually Peter returned to New York.  In 1913 the Boston local struck with little success.  But the women roared back after the Great War, winning major concessions from Bell Telephone.

In 1914, Peter unexpectedly died at home at the age of 39.  In the Union Telephone Operator, his friends in Boston recalled his kindness and strategic thinking.  They wrote:   

The telephone operators always had a “friend in court” in Peter F. Lenihan, and his untimely death was a serious blow to those of us whose happy privilege it had been to work under his guidance.

Telephone operators at work, 1920

See post: 5/16/18

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Possessions & Place

  Top of a nineteenth-century mirror which belonged to my husband's
grandmother; Currier & Ives' "Home for Thanksgiving"

There’s a poem that I love, Souvenirs, by Jane Cooper.  She was a longtime professor and poet in residence at Sarah Lawrence College.  It starts:

Anyway we are always waking
in bedrooms of the dead, smelling
musk of their winter jackets, tracking
prints of their heels across our blurred carpets.

So why hang onto a particular postcard?
If a child’s lock of hair brings back
the look of that child, shall I
nevertheless not let it blow away?*

Why hang onto a particular postcard?

Very soon my husband and I will start to pack up, getting ready to leave our house in the Atlanta neighborhood of Druid Hills where we lived for ten years.

Like most people, we carry with us not only the relics of our own lives but those of our parents and grandparents. Some of it is just stuff – and some not at all.

Over time, the collections have been winnowed ruthlessly. But many letters, books, photographs, paintings, and all kinds of objects have made the cut repeatedly. Each time they open up to us, there is a story. They have to come along.  

Atlanta garden, spring 2010

As meaningful as these possessions may be, the places that we humans inhabit matter equally.

Each place where we live will echo the first place we knew, as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has written. He argued that we are always returning to that first place, a “house of memories . . . psychologically complex.”

We refer to it emotionally, unconsciously, throughout our lives.

In fact, that first space is “physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits,” Bachelard wrote.

“Like a forgotten fire, childhood can always flare up again within us.”

As children we develop ways of doing things, ways of feeling that stay with us lifelong. Many of them originate in that first place we know.

Habit.  Inhabit.  Two words that appear not to share etymology yet are intimately connected.

Nantucket box, a present from my oldest, dearest friend Ellen

*”Souvenirs” by Jane Cooper, from New and Selected Poems (1984).

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

I'd Like to Place a Call

Bell Telephone used this idealized image of the telephone
operator in its publications; World War I era

In January 1921, a trade journal called the Union Telephone Operator made its debut.  It hit the ground running, Vol. 1, No. 1, with an editorial that surely provoked J. Edgar Hoover:

The trade unionist is interested in other things than shop conditions.  Every economic, political and social question attracts him.  This type of worker is not favored by anti-union employers, anti-union newspapers, anti-union business men, anti-union bankers and their political agents  . . .  Those interests want a slave class, not in name but in fact. 

Although the FBI would not be formally established for another few years, in 1921 Hoover was chief of the General Intelligence Division within President Warren Harding’s Department of Justice.  There he dedicated himself to rooting out radical political activity and oversaw the Palmer Raids, through which more than 500 foreign nationals were arrested and deported.

In light of the focus on “Reds” – Communists, Bolsheviks, anarchists and leftists – unions inevitably fell under scrutiny.

Agitate! Educate! Organize!  The goal of the new journal was to inspire telephone operators to demand better wages, better hours, and better working conditions.  The workers were largely women and had been since 1878 when the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company hired a woman named Emma Nutt.  The job appealed particularly to women who did not wish to work in manufacturing.

But problems existed.  The women had to conform to certain body proportions because they worked in very tight quarters.  They were required to maintain perfect posture throughout nine-hour shifts.  They were not allowed to speak to each other and always had to be patient and polite, even to rude customers.  These were several of the indignities.  

Late nineteenth-century training of Chicago telephone operators

In 1892, the operators became members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. They had no voice, however, largely because men feared “petticoat rule.”  

Then, in 1918, activists formed a Telephone Operators’ Department within the IBEW.  Julia O’Connor, the daughter of Irish immigrants, led the new department.  A determined strategist and talented writer, she had worked as a telephone operator since 1908 until she became disgusted and left to be an organizer.   

Among O’Connor’s victories was the 1919 telephone operators’ strike in Boston.  In a way, the strike brings to mind the New York City Blizzard of 1888, which brought daily life to a dead stop for more than a week.  During the 1919 Boston telephone operators’ strike, communications ground to a halt for two days, which paralyzed New England.  

The outcome of the Boston telephone operators’ strike affected the local only, although it inspired operators nationwide. The local came away with higher wages, an eight-hour day, and the right to organize. But the strike also convinced the telephone company that it couldn’t afford to depend on the operators. 

Indeed, the heyday of the telephone operator had already passed.  Even in the first issue of the Union Telephone Operator, Julia O’Connor explained why: the advent of “the automatic” – also known as the dial telephone.

The union assured telephone operators that their services would be needed for at least another generation, as it would take a long time to phase in the automatic system.  In fact, operators continued to handle many local calls and all long distance calls.  And it wasn’t till 1954 that New York Telephone finally abandoned the switchboard, as shown in this amusing instructional film, “How to Dial Your Telephone":   

The Union Telephone Operator did not last long.  Its final issue appeared in December 1922. Julia O'Connor wrote many of the articles, expressing chagrin that American laborers lived in the "back wash" of World War I. 

1921 sketch of a telephone operator

On immigration she was ambivalent, even as the daughter of immigrants. The Johnson Quota Act of 1921 restricted immigration from eastern and southern Europe.  By and large, organized labor supported these restrictions because immigrants would work for less money than would unionized workers.

But she celebrated the Sheppard-Towner Act, which funded health clinics to provide maternity and child care. O’Connor knew from the 1920 census that more women than ever – over 8 million – occupied the workforce.  Like most labor activists, she lobbied for a safety net for women and children.  Sheppard-Towner passed in 1921.  

And Julia O’Connor was not without a certain sense of humor.  On the back page of one issue, a “Marriage Notice” appeared:

Miss Low Wages and Mr. Nonunion Worker were married at the home of the bride, Industrial Centers.  Mr. 100% Profit Employer, the father, gave the bride away without any ceremony.  Mr. Longer Hours blessed the union.

Scandal mongers are circulating the rumor that the couple are not happy because the newly wed husband has been flirting with Miss Join D. Union.  The bride’s father however is reported to be opposed to any talk of divorce.

Unsurprisingly, Julia O’Connor became a New Dealer.  She died in 1972.   

Julia O'Connor


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A Shack in East Hampton

Sammy's Beach, East Hampton, N.Y.
(Corcoran Group Real Estate)

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills – the opening sentence of Isak Dineson’s novel, Out of Africa.

Having lived in several states during the past 18 years, I play a game upon arriving at a new home.  How to imitate Dineson’s sentence?

I had a house in Abingdon, at the edge of the Appalachian Trail.

And so forth.

Between 1967 and 1985, my parents owned a small beach house on a windswept road in East Hampton, N.Y.  One drove from the stately old town, through woods crackling with sunlight, to arrive at a spit of land which faced a bay whose water turned every shade of blue. 

The bay was named for a seventeenth-century English settler, Lion Gardiner.  He had lived in the middle of the bay, on Gardiner’s Island, which he purchased from an Indian chief named Wyandanch. 

Sammy’s Beach Road ran along the spit, and we were the second house from the end.  The homes were modest.  I remember one contemporary cantilevered house; otherwise they had all been there since the 1940s and 50s.  One house looked like a shingled box and was extra-mysterious because its owner never, ever appeared.

The beach had not yet eroded.  A dune covered with beach grass and Rosa rugosa sloped from the deck to the end of the path.

 Easthampton Elms in May by Childe Hassam
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Main Street, East Hampton, looked much the same in 1970 as in this 1925 print. 

The town was still fun: pre-Ralph Lauren, pre-Tommy Hilfiger, pre-Tahari.  The hot spots were a grocery with a donut machine and the Ladies Village Improvement Society bookstore, packed with books that had been abandoned at beach houses after the war.   

About a half-mile down the beach from my parents’ house, an old shack stood back from the shore.  Made of weather-beaten boards that had turned splintery and silver, it contained a few benches and a partition from its days as a place to change into a bathing suit.  You could sit on a narrow deck and look at the water.  In the manner of teenagers, I thought of it as mine.

I drew the shack, as recalled, in the mid-90s. 

Recently reminded of the shack, I examined a few real estate photographs.
  It’s definitely gone.  That feels poignant, for this is exactly the time of year, a baby step toward summer, when we would head out to East Hampton to open the house for the season.  It became a habit to cast an eye toward the shack to make sure that it was still there.

I had a shack in East Hampton . . .