Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Blue Pencil Boys

In 1899 when they started the Blue Pencil Club, the men were a bunch of rambunctious, if well-established, writers.

They rented some rooms on Spruce Street in lower Manhattan. Around the corner, the row of buildings that housed the city’s newspapers reached to the sky with a gold dome and towers.

The club was a mess, though.

One flight up. . .

              The furnishings and appointments of the general meeting room were gorgeous to the point of extravagance . . . (sarcasm)

                             The floor, when covered at all, was carpeted with sawdust. The ceiling decorations were mostly cobwebs. . .  The furnishings consisted of bare tables, tubs, beer kegs, a telephone and a bar.*

That was just one of several problems – the bar in the club. From time to time, police busted the members for lack of a liquor license. But who had the heart to penalize such rollicking consumers of theater, literature, and Chinese culture?

Purveyors of wit that has, 117 years later, lost some of its luster, they joyously took down Tammany Hall, pompous publishers, and business titans.

But it should be noted they were rather smug themselves.

The point of the club was to have a good time, and to publish the Blue Pencil Magazine which they packed with doggerel, drawings, and tales ridiculous and fantastic.

Blue Pencil Magazine, cover of first issue

And the names of these men?

They were Billy Burgundy and Mickey Finn (pseudonyms) and Billy Fales.

And there was Forman, the pince nez’d scion of one of Brooklyn’s first families who got his start when the legendary Irish editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Thomas Kinsella, sent the lad to San Francisco in 1877 to cover an anti-immigrant uprising fomented by a labor leader named Denis Kearney.

Advertising card for cigarettes featuring Allan Forman

Forman ended up reporting on the Sand Lot riot, a three-night rampage during which four Chinese men were killed. He went on to write about theater, manners and the like. For 25 years, he edited The Journalist, the nation’s first magazine for writers and editors.

His essay, “How to Eat an Orange,” which appeared in Northwest Magazine in 1890, was well-received as they used to say.

As for Billy Burgundy!

Why would anyone named Oliver Victor Limerick need a pen name?

A Mississippi native who trained to be an allopath, Limerick was an incorrigible joker. He came to New York to edit a medical journal. After a while, he decided that he would rather write stories than practice medicine.

Limerick’s amusing advice column, “Billy Burgundy’s Balm for Burdened Bosoms,” and his books, such as Billy Burgundy’s Tales in Toothsome Slang, satirized romance.  

Percival was the confidential valve in the Borated Talcum Powder Trust, and drew down a voluptuous salary for his services in behalf of the Chafe-Allaying Industry. . .

It was Percival’s wont to stake Maxine to bon-bons and blossoms from the most expensive joints every day. . .  Maxine fanned the blissful bloke along in good style, and looked dead anxious for the Orange Blossom period of her career to show up.

Ernest Jarrold appeared on the frontispiece of
the February 1901 issue of Blue Pencil Magazine.

Then there was Mickey Finn, a.k.a. Ernest Jarrold, an Englishman who had been hanging around Newspaper Row for years, contributing short stories to The New York Evening Sun, Harper’s Weekly and other magazines. He often poked at Irish immigrants.

In a story entitled “Mickey Finn’s Dress Suit,” Finn studies a drawing of his friend, Ernest Jarrold:

              “That’s a pretty fair likeness of Mr. Jarrold, but seems to me his clothes fit pretty loose. Must be he lost a lot of flesh after he got that suit made. . .”

              Mrs. Finn turned on her liege lord with an air of superior wisdom and answered: “You don’t know anything about city folks anyhow. Now Mr. Jarrold is a swell gentleman. He drives out nights wid George Goold and Spearpoint Morgan and them rich chaps. . .”

And there was Billy Fales – of whom his friends wrote:

Brave, brilliant Billy! No man or woman ever heard from his lips of the great grief that paralyzed his ambition and made a wreck of his career, for there was no yesterday on his calendar,


He often said that life was a joke and he generally appeared to make this epigram the maxim of his career.

A poet, essayist, diplomat, attorney, and adventurer, Fales bore the nickname “the Encyclopedia.” Married thrice, indifferent father of two sons, he caroused Manhattan, eating and drinking heavily.

Chow Chop Suey at Mong Sing Wah in Chinatown, the spaghetti at Maria Da Prato’s on MacDougal Street, the oyster stalls at Fulton Market, and the Lomo de Puerco con Platanos at Braguglia & Carreno on Broadway; Billy loved it all.

Artist's sketch of "Spaghetti Night" at Maria del Prato's

He steered the members of the Blue Pencil Club through the night, returning at dawn to his home on Pineapple Street in Brooklyn Heights.

They called him, as many had been called before, “The King of Bohemia.”  


*See posts on William E. S. Fales, 2/1/17 + 1/25/17 & about his mother, Imogene C. Fales, 5/25/16.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

‘My Wicked Vice’: William E. S. Fales in China

The British established five treaty ports, including Amoy, soon
after winning the First Opium War in 1842.  

On a beautiful fall day in 1890, the newly appointed emissaries William E. S. Fales and Edward Bedloe went off to China on the S. S. New York. 

I imagine them on deck, waving goodbye to no one because neither man had, at the moment, anyone special in his life.

Between them, Bedloe actually possessed qualifications, having served in the American Consular Service in Italy and Egypt. Fales’ fluency in Chinese would be an asset, as well. Both men were fascinated by Chinese culture: Bedloe with etiquette and weaponry; Fales with decorative art and food.

Messrs. Bedloe and Fales were heading to Xiamen, which Westerners called Amoy, a port city about 300 miles northeast of Hong Kong, along the Taiwan Strait.

They would arrive at a country stuck in time, except for a dramatic escalation of foreign intrusion.    

The Qing Dynasty, dating to 1644, continued its rule in the person of the Empress Dowager Cixi who had seized power in 1865. First she stood in for her son, Tongzhi, who died young of smallpox or venereal disease or both; then for Guangxu, her sickly nephew who advocated national modernization. (She had him poisoned.) 

During the Empress Dowager’s regency, the United Kingdom and increasingly the United States, Russia, and Japan expanded their control through treaty ports.

Treaty ports originally were established by the British after they defeated China in the First Opium War. The treaties governed trade on terms never favorable to China. They also created districts within each port city, inhabited exclusively by foreigners who answered to no one. Fales and Bedloe resided in such a neighborhood.

Parlor in the home of the U. S. Consul, Amoy;
late nineteenth century

Since Amoy was a treaty port, the men focused on American trade interests. They were pleased to find that Far East markets enthusiastically sought anything that came from the U.S.

But there was a problem with fraud:

. . . the filling of American flour bags with poor imitation British flour; filling canvas covers of Chicago ham and bacon with really unmarketable pork; putting up Siberian salmon in exact imitation of the best salmon canned in California and Oregon, and selling cheap imitations of Ames’ shovels, Collins’ axes, McCormick’s farming implements . . .

The Consul kept a special eye on arms and ammunition:

One example [of fraud] was an imitation Winchester rifle made in Belgium by an English firm of the lowest grade materials, which was liable to kill the man who fired it as the man or animal it was fired at.  

What else demanded the attention of Bedloe and Fales?

The promising tea crop of 1891,

silver curios and tea root carvings,

                             rituals of death and burial.

City of Amoy; scene with the famous tombs, 1890s

Like most Westerners, Fales and Bedloe were fascinated by the hillsides of Amoy. Across the centuries, the slopes had become packed with tombs. In some parts of the walled city, there were no boundaries between burial grounds and private property.

“Amoy proper and its suburbs have a living population of about one million, and a dead one of four and a half times as many,” Bedloe informed the U. S. Government.

In the Journal of the American Medical Association he affirmed Amoy’s “reputation as the dirtiest city on the face of the globe,” describing open cesspools and impassable roads.

Sketch of Fales from a newspaper profile
 that appeared during his years as Vice Consul

Despite the dirt, China intrigued and delighted the men.

Both were well-educated, sharp observers, and fine writers. They supplemented their annual salaries (Bedloe: $1,490; Fales: $354.19) by writing for various U. S. newspapers and magazines.

In an 1891 letter to the editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, Bedloe wrote:

You have no idea, my dear Stoddart, what an inexhaustible supply of literary material this ancient civilization possesses . . . my daily life here is one mass of surprises and arrangements. They do everything that we do, but in exactly the opposite way.
After several examples involving concubines, burglars, and animals, Bedloe closed:

Now I have two pretty poems from the facile pen of my wicked Vice which I will bring on to you in January or February. You shall have the first bid on them. They are truly great and I hope you can afford to buy them.

It appears that editor Stoddart, who had previously published poems by Fales, decided to pass.

Fales’ stories fared better: “Chinese Armor,” “”Chinese Statuary and Figures,” “Driving out an Evil Spirit,” “Fortune Telling in China,” “The Pharmacist in the Far East,” “Chinese Little Devils,” and others appeared in American papers between 1891 and 1894.

In 1893 Fales took leave and returned to the United States, where he married a pioneering journalist and suffragist, Margherita Arlina Hamm. Together they returned to Amoy and traveled to the Philippines and elsewhere.*  

By mid-September, W. E. S. and Margherita had returned to Brooklyn. Fales reestablished himself in law and journalism and resumed his love affair with Chinatown while Hamm wrote books and lectured.

The New York Press Club – a rowdy bunch – welcomed back William with a dinner featuring Punch a la Chinois.  

The New York Press Club welcomed back
Fales at a dinner in September 1894 

(New York Public Library)

*Hamm claimed that she and Fales were in Korea when the Sino-Japanese War began August 1, 1894. She reported that she had witnessed attacks on the palace in Seoul and an assassination attempt on Queen Min of Korea. However, Fales and Hamm were back in the U. S. by September 22, 1894 . . . and sailing time would have been at least 80 days.

*See previous posts on 1/25/17 + 2/14/17; also 5/25/16.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

From Chinatown to China with William E. S. Fales

There once was a city where nothing stood still.

Brilliant and wild, William Fales inhabited that place. It was New York, around 1880, when he first ventured into the narrow streets of lower Manhattan. 

He would spend many hours of his life in Chinatown.

Now, when I climb the stairs at the Canal Street subway station, Billy – as his close friends called him – is hurrying by. He’s on his way to dine at Mong Sing Wah on Mott Street, where he’ll introduce a skeptical friend to “Chow Chop Suey” and drink cup after cup of rice liqueur.

Next he’s heading to Doyers Street to see a performance at the Chinese Theater, the audience a mix of neighborhood residents and “slummers.” Those are wealthy people who enjoy escaping the confines of their class.  

And finally, long after midnight, perhaps he’ll move along Pell Street, to an opium joint…

But that’s speculation. I have a hunch both ways. 

Pell Street, Chinatown, 1890s

A big man with a twirling mustache, William Edward Sanford Fales was born in New Bedford, Mass., in 1851 and grew up in Brooklyn where he attended Polytechnic Institute. He taught himself Chinese and French. Teachers and colleagues called him a genius.

None of his friends can ever forget Fales, the many-sided, with his massive head and blond curls. . .  

Like champagne, he was often effervescent, sparkling, and overflowing. Much that he emitted was like froth, but much, too, was substantial and weighty. . .

He would deliver a talk on the history of Satan, and follow it with a paper on the origin of obscene words. This, in turn, would be succeeded by a lugubrious poem on death, or on the final “wreck of matter and the crash of worlds.” * While exercising his skill in the realm of the imagination, he was addicted to mathematics and scientific research.

William descended from an early American family of Puritans, the Fales clan of Bristol, R.I. His father, Edward S. Fales, was born in Cuba in 1833 and came to the U.S. as a child. He studied law, edited a newspaper, and reportedly became fluent in nine languages.

Along the way, Edward married Imogene Franciscus of Baltimore. They had three children together but spent much of their marriage apart. Edward worked for a pharmaceuticals manufacturer in Rio de Janeiro.

Imogene outlived her husband by 27 years. She became a writer, suffragist, populist, prohibitionist, and sometime Theosophist.

Their eldest son, who used the pen name W. E. S. Fales, received an E.M. from the Columbia School of Mines in 1873.** Two years later, he earned a degree from Columbia Law School with a $150 award to boot.

Next, William joined the law firm of Colonel Benjamin Tracy, who served in the Civil War. Active in Republican politics, Tracy would become U. S. Secretary of the Navy. This will matter later.

A young man named Wong Chin Foo, founder of a New York newspaper, The Chinese-American, joined Tracy, Catlin & Brodhead as an apprentice to Fales. He didn’t stay long, moving on to become a celebrated activist who publicly opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, lobbied for citizenship for Chinese immigrants, and wrote extensively about the Chinese experience in America (including an article about Chinese food in Cosmopolitan Magazine).

It’s impossible to know if Wong Chin Foo thought W. E. S. Fales was a great guy or just another slummer.

Wong Chin Foo, 1880s

On the one hand, Fales dove into Chinatown even though the tongs (gangs) were bloodthirsty and danger lurked on Ragpickers Row and Bandit’s Roost, filthy dark alleys off Mulberry Street.

Fearlessly, the jocular Brooklyn lawyer steamed ahead and got to know the proprietors of Chinese laundries, restaurants, and other businesses. He loved their stories and often went to bat for them – it was said – when cops and immigration officials came down hard.

On the other hand, as stated in a magazine article:

Fales speaks Chinese, and his chief delight is to pilot a party to his Mott Street yellow friends for a Chinese supper – there, he is in his glory. The Chinamen respect him . . .   

Was Fales, in fact, grimly tolerated by the Chinese?  

Either way, no one could argue with the man’s passion for Chinatown. He visited night after night, commuting by the Fulton Ferry and riding the Third Avenue El until the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883. Then he traveled by carriage in a city still lit largely by gas.

Mong Sing Wah Restaurant,
newspaper illustration, 1890s

Around 1880, W. E. S. married Agnes, the first of his three wives. He never bothered much with her or their two sons, whose names were Harold Athelstan Fales and William Hereward Fales. Athelstan, known as the “first king of England," ruled during the 10th century. Hereward, known as “the last Englishman,” led a popular rebellion against William the Conqueror in the 11th century.

So you can see where he was coming from.    

In the mid-1880s, Fales began to publish poetry. Dozens of his poems appeared in newspapers and magazines nationwide: “The Modern Spirit,” about drinking; “Unto My Ladye,” about “her faire Haire and sweete Eyes”; “Sea Foam,” about a shipwreck, and so forth. The poetry was trite, but would improve slightly.

Also during these years, Fales left his beloved Brooklyn for Chinatown. There he lived for some time in a rented room, in the thick of things on Doyers Street.

A remarkable opportunity came his way in 1890.

Colonel Benjamin Tracy, now Navy Secretary under President Benjamin Harrison, arranged Fales’ appointment as Vice Consul in Amoy, China. To top it off, Dr. Edward Bedloe, best known as a founder of a dining club, the Clover Club of Philadelphia, became Consul.

Fales and Bedloe were old friends. They both liked to drink and were practical jokers, reported the Brooklyn Eagle. You can bet that they spent many an hour trying to top each other’s wit.

Off they went to Amoy, as Xiamen was known in the West.

19th century map of China

To be continued.

See posts on 2/1/17 + 2/14/17; also about Imogene Fales, 5/25/16.

*Recollections by Fales’ law school classmate and fellow mischief-maker, Frederick W. Hinrichs. “Wreck of matter” quotation is from Thomas Carlyle.
**The School of Mines of Columbia University, founded in 1864, is today The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

An Inauguration Story

Officials arrive at the Capitol for Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 inauguration
(Library of Congress)

T’was a sparkling day, the sky full of sun and wind, when Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1905.

TR, the youngest man elected President of the United States (until 1960), was bursting with vision and promise. We know about his extreme exhilaration because Roosevelt always experienced great moments – particularly his own – on the highest plane. 

The new president -- formerly a vice president, governor, and assistant secretary of the navy among other things -- had helped steer the nation to its new position as a global power. “Much has been given us, and much will rightfully be expected from us,” he now declared.

Yet more important than international affairs, said he, were the relationships among Americans:  

Modern life is both complex and intense, and the tremendous changes wrought by the extraordinary industrial development of the last half century are felt in every fiber of our social and political being. 

TR delivers his inaugural address
(Library of Congress)

I wonder if TR counted race relations among the challenges of modern life. Four years earlier, he had invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House. Throughout his career, Roosevelt had made remarks that seemed sympathetic to Americans victimized by prejudice.

He probably did not realize that those who planned the 1905 inauguration found black Americans to be very much in the way. 

A former major general in the U.S. Army, George H. Harries, served as chair of the 1905 Inaugural Committee. Harries appointed a Sub-Committee for Colored Visitors whose 42 members (all black) were told that there must be “absolute separation” between the races although “our colored visitors should enjoy the fullest protection and be accorded the kindest hospitality in the houses of the refined members of their own race in this city.”

The assistant librarian of the Library of Congress, Daniel Murray, chaired the Sub-Committee. It’s not hard to imagine how he maintained segregation at festivities related to the inauguration. Yet blacks constituted one-third of the District population. Were they swept off the streets? Barred from certain areas?

These actions had been taken at earlier inaugurations, largely in deference to Southerners.  

Yet it is said that the 1905 inauguration was the largest and most diverse in American history, up to that point.

Two weeks out, the Sub-Committee for Colored Visitors asked the Secretary of War to include a squadron of the Ninth Cavalry – black troops – in the parade. He agreed.

And the program performed at the inaugural ball at the Pension Building included a ragtime march called “Black America, a Negro Oddity,” written by a Detroit record store owner, Harry Zickel. The Committee on Music tucked it in among Strauss, Rossini, and Sousa.

Less than ten years earlier, the Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”), had formally ushered in the Jim Crow Era.

While the number of lynchings nationwide dropped from triple to double digits in 1901, the needle wouldn’t move again until the early 1920s.

And now we bid au revoir to a black man who served as President of the United States for eight years.

1905 inaugural parade; TR invited six American Indian
chiefs to participate, including the Apache Geronimo
(Library of Congress)

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Lost Notes, Just Found


Your grandmother Elena was extraordinarily beautiful. She had long brown hair and spent much of each morning putting it up in pin curls while seated before a three-way mirror. You’ll always remember those finger rolls.

By the time you knew her, she was a vain woman who wore too much make-up and fake nails. As a little girl, you once caught sight of her undone and unmade, and were quite terrified.  

In 1913, the first of several family scandals occurred when your grandfather, Victor, left Elena for his second wife without having secured a divorce.

The new wife’s name was Ellen. By the way, it wasn’t that Victor went after someone much younger. It’s just that Ellen recognized that women had to change as the nation came racing around the bend of its first decade.

Grandfather Victor

Your own parents – Louis and Vivian – would divorce in 1942. Soon after, your mother returned home, bringing you with her to a grand estate in Greenwich, Connecticut which belonged to your other grandmother, Edith, and her second husband.

The two grandmothers were opposites. Elena raised chocolate poodles and entered them in shows. Edith threw liquor-soaked costume parties in the basement of the mansion.

Once each month your mother would put you on the train to New York City to spend the weekend with Elena, who lived on the Upper East Side. 

The daughter of a banker, Elena was stuck between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She and Victor met and courted in the old way. Nine months after they married, a little girl was born; then your father came along. But the daughter died young and the marriage never recovered.

Your father didn’t think much of his mother, and insultingly called her “the eggplant.”

Free of Elena and properly married, Victor went on to have three sons with Ellen. The family business came into their hands (and the hands of your father).

There was Otto, who was gay. He wanted to be an interior decorator.

Then came Karl and Alfred.

Your father believed he was the smartest of the four. He also wanted to be an interior decorator but did not trust his brothers to run the business.  

They all made fortunes. You and your mother never worried about money.

Your grandmother, Edith; 1920s
(passport photo)

But your mother was an alcoholic. Her sister was, too.  

Their father had died when they were ten and twelve -- a strange accident at Saranac Lake -- leaving them with Edith in a large apartment on Riverside Drive. Edith spent a decade trying to find another wealthy husband.

Their father died when they were
ten and twelve.

She took a lot out on her daughters – especially your mother, who simply could not get out from under. To the day she died, Vivian would call Edith and ask, “What should I wear?”

Vivian lost five pregnancies. When she conceived you in 1937, the family placed her at the LeRoy Sanatorium in New York City. That’s where you entered the world.

Many of the women who sought “private treatment” at LeRoy arrived pregnant. Occupying nine floors and the penthouse in an Art Deco building at 40 East 61st Street, the sanatorium was founded by Alice Fuller LeRoy, a widow who needed to earn a living.

Now back to the Greenwich mansion, which everyone called “The Big House.”

A few snapshots: three-story entrance hall with a Cinderella staircase. Library cast in chintz where Edith held court. Vast stone terrace; green lawn that ran to the water. 

Everyone had to be dressed properly at all times.

The younger grandchildren were invited into the library to have toasted peanut butter and bacon canapés. Then they were sent to have dinner with the help. That changed when each turned twelve and was allowed in for dinner on the condition that she first stood up and gave a short speech.

Edith continually admonished everyone: That isn’t how it’s done, dear.

Dining Room, Greenwich
(Library of Congress)

Your step-grandfather, a kindly man, tolerated Edith for reasons you can’t fathom. He drove you around in his woody station wagon looking for an imaginary goat.  

Drunk or not, your mother volunteered for the Red Cross, played canasta, and fell in love with a German fellow. Edith forbade her to marry him.

In 1960, your father moved out to California. When you visited, he unveiled a portrait of his second wife, known as “Sunny.” You blurted out: “It doesn’t look like her.”

“Go away till you have some brains,” your father replied. 

But he redeemed himself. He and Sunny loved objets, and they had good taste, too. They took you to Ojai to learn about pottery. Later, they came east and the three of you toured New Hampshire searching for antiques.

Your father wrote poetry, too. He died of cirrhosis in 1970.  

Now it is decades later and you’re an expert in dressage. You and your second husband live happily on a farm in New England. You have legally changed your name several times.

Very few people recall anything about your parents and grandparents although once upon a time their names were in all the papers.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Jackson, Harrison, Arthur & Trump

Grant Wood's 1939 painting, "Parson Weems' Fable," depicts the myth
of George Washington and the cherry tree.
(Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth) 

I’m not sure whether the story of the United States is still taught as if the presidents are stepping stones through history. That was the approach when we were growing up.

The teachers marched us along through various administrations, inflicting names and dates that kept slipping away. Meanwhile, the presidents peered out from the pages of textbooks: “fools in old-style hats and coats” (to steal a line from Philip Larkin).

We assumed that all presidents were smart, diligent, and honest, starting with George Washington who could not tell a lie after he chopped down the cherry tree.

Thankfully, that assumption has disappeared.

But still, it’s useful to organize our history around the, uh . . . guys.

And there are a few interesting similarities between our president-elect and some of his predecessors. 

Andrew Jackson after he left the presidency

First is Andrew Jackson, to whom historians pointed even before Trump won the election. As candidates, both appealed strongly to the “common man.” White supremacy was a cornerstone of Jacksonian democracy.

Like Trump, Andrew Jackson ignored precedent. As a general, he often acted against orders, behaving punitively toward soldiers. As president, he sent the Cherokees on a death march from Georgia, even though the Supreme Court had ruled they could stay on their land. He repeatedly violated the Constitution.  

Stubborn defiance of laws and formalities was just one of Jackson’s many awful traits.

Four years after Jackson, in 1840, along came William Henry Harrison. He hailed from Vincennes, Indiana, on the Wabash River, where he lived in a mansion called Grouseland.

College-educated and wealthy (his father had been governor of Virginia and signed the Declaration of Independence), Harrison ran for president as a man of the people.

His campaign invoked “log cabin and hard cider” against the aloof incumbent Martin Van Buren. While “Matty Van” tried to be serious, Harrison – a war hero nicknamed “old Tip” – capitalized on slogans and drew thousands of fans to rallies.

William Henry Harrison 

The vicious campaign culminated in Harrison trouncing Van Buren.

By the way, Van Buren was a protégé of the awful President Jackson and unworthy of reelection.

In February of 1841, 68-year old Harrison boarded a train to the capital city – the first time a president-elect arrived in Washington, D. C. not on horseback or in coach or carriage.

Grouseland: Harrison home in Vincennes, Indiana

His delicate wife, Anna, stayed at Grouseland and hoped to join her husband in a few months. In the meantime, her daughter-in-law would serve as White House hostess.

The comparison must stop there, for the new president served a scant month, dying of pneumonia in the White House on April 4, 1841. The conventional wisdom is that he caught his death of cold while delivering a one-hour, 45-minute inaugural speech in a snowstorm.

We can safely bet that Trump will not speak that long.

Skip a few decades to the obscure Gilded Age president, Chester Alan Arthur of New York. Adorned with mutton chops and dressed fastidiously in fancy suits, Arthur became president upon the death of James Garfield, who was assassinated by a frustrated job-seeker.

Chester Alan Arthur
(White House painting)

A widower, President Arthur entered a White House in need of remodeling, which Garfield had initiated during the six months he served before being shot.

Arthur, who adored opulence, became involved in the plans to redecorate the public rooms. With plenty of time on his hands, he took to pacing the first floor of the mansion, ordering minute modifications to his taste.

Eventually, the project was finished. But Arthur did not like the result. He threw out everything and started over – this time with the Art Nouveau designer Louis Comfort Tiffany at his side. Now the gas lit mansion would be reinvented with shimmering color and ornamental ironwork.

The piece de resistance of Tiffany’s White House was a set of vast stained-glass screens in hues of red, white, and blue that greeted visitors in the main entry hall. The panels would cast an eerie iridescent light until Theodore Roosevelt banished them two decades later.

The Republicans chose not to re-nominate President Arthur in 1884. The decision probably was unrelated to his obsession with luxurious décor.
Now it’s tempting to mention President Warren Harding and his plundering cronies. But we’re not there yet. Stay tuned.

Louis Comfort Tiffany's stained-glass screens;
White House, 1882-1902