Ideas and Observations

Edith Wharton
A Little Girl’s New York
Winter 1993

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), whose novels The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth rank with the most perceptive works of American fiction, was raised on New York’s Fifth Avenue. The avenue was not, in those days, a magic mile of luxurious retail shopping, but the thoroughfare on which the leaders of the city’s social and business elite resided in their one-family brownstone houses. Seen through the double filter of a child’s eyes and the adult writer’s subsequent sophistication, these recollections of old New York first appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1938, a year after the author’s death. For the modern reader it serves as an intimate record of a New York as different from the contemporary metropolis as King Arthur’s Camelot or Plato’s Athens.

In those days the little “brownstone” houses ... marched up Fifth Avenue . . . in an almost unbroken procession from Washington Square to the Central Park. Between them there passed up and down, in a leisurely double line, every variety of horse-drawn vehicle, from Mrs. Belmont’s or Mrs. Astor’s C-spring barouche to a shabby little covered cart drawn by a discouraged old horse and labeled in large letters: “Universal Exterminator”—which suggested collecting souls for the Dies Irae, but in reality designated a patent appliance for ridding kitchens of cockroaches.

The little brownstone houses, all with Dutch “stoops” (the five or six steps leading to the front door), and all not more than three stories high, marched Parkward in an orderly procession, like a young ladies’ boarding school taking its daily exercise. The façades varied in width from twenty to thirty feet, and here and there, but rarely, the line was broken by a brick house with brownstone trimmings; but otherwise they were all so much alike that one could understand how easy it would be for a dinner guest to go to the wrong house—as once befell a timid young girl of eighteen, to whom a vulgar nouveau-riche hostess revealed her mistake, turning her out carriageless into the snow—a horrid adventure which was always used to point the rule that one must never allow a guest, even totally unknown, to discover such a mistake, but must immediately include him or her in the party. Imagine the danger of entertaining gangsters to which such social rules would expose the modern hostess! But I am probably the last person to remember that Arcadian code of hospitality.

Those were the days—à propos of Fifth Avenue—when my mother used to say: “Society is completely changed nowadays. When I was first married we knew everyone who kept a carriage.”

And this tempts me to another digression, sending me forward to my seventeenth year, when there suddenly appeared in Fifth Avenue a very small canary-yellow brougham with dark trimmings, drawn by a big high-stepping bay and driven by a coachman who matched the brougham in size and the high-stepper in style. In this discreet yet brilliant equipage one just caught a glimpse of a lady whom I faintly remember as dark-haired, quietly dressed, and enchantingly pale, with a hatbrim lined with cherry color, which shed a lovely glow on her checks. It was an apparition surpassing in elegance and mystery any that Fifth Avenue had ever seen; but when our dark-blue brougham encountered the yellow one, and I cried: “Oh, Mamma, look—what a smart carriage! Do you know the lady?” I was hurriedly drawn back with the stern order not to stare at strange people and to remember that whenever our carriage passed the yellow one I was to turn my head away and look out of the other window.

For the lady in the canary-colored carriage was New York’s first fashionable hetaera. Her name and history were known in all the clubs, and the name of her proud proprietor was no secret in New York drawing-rooms. I may add that, being an obedient daughter, I always did look out of the other window when the forbidden brougham passed; but that one and only glimpse of the loveliness within it peopled my imagination with images of enchantment from Broceliande and Shalott (we were all deep in the “Idylls of the Mug”), and from the Cornwall of Yseult. She was, in short, sweet unsuspecting creature, my first doorway to romance, destined to become for me successively Guinevere and Francesca da Rimini, Beatrix Esmond and the Dame aux Camélias. And in the impoverished emotional atmosphere of old New York such a glimpse was like the mirage of palm trees in the desert.

I have often sighed, in looking back at my childhood, to think how pitiful a provision was made for the life of the imagination behind those uniform brownstone façades, and then have concluded that since, for reasons which escape us, the creative mind thrives best on a reduced diet, I probably had the fare best suited to me. But this is not to say that the average well-to-do New Yorker of my childhood was not starved for a sight of the high gods. Beauty, passion, and danger were automatically excluded from his life (for the men were almost as starved as the women); and the average human being deprived of air from the heights is likely to produce other lives equally starved—which was what happened in old New York, where the tepid sameness of the moral atmosphere resulted in a prolonged immaturity of mind....

I have said that the little brown houses now and then gave way to a more important façade, sometimes of their own chocolate hue, but with occasional pleasing alternatives in brick. Many successive Fifth Avenues have since been erected on the site of the one I first knew, and it is hard to remember that none of the “new” millionaire houses which, ten or fifteen years later were to invade that restless thoroughfare (and all of which long ago joined the earlier layers of ruins), had been dreamed of by the boldest innovator. Even the old families, who were subsequently to join the newcomers in transforming Fifth Avenue into a street of would-be palaces, were still content with plain wide-fronted houses, mostly built in the Forties or Fifties. In those simple days one could count on one’s two hands the New York houses with ballrooms; to the best of my recollection, only the Goelets, Astors, Butler Duncans, Belmonts, Schermerhorns, and Mason Joneses possessed these frivolous appendages; though a few years later, by the time I made my first curtsy at the “Assemblies,” several rich couples, the Mortons, Waterburys, Coleman Draytons, and Francklyns among them, had added ballrooms to their smart establishments....

In the smaller houses a heavy linen called “crash,” laid on the floors of two adjoining drawing-rooms, and gilt chairs hired from “old Brown” (the Grace Church sexton, who so oddly combined ecclesiastical and worldly duties) created temporary ballrooms for small dances; but the big balls of the season (from January to Lent) were held at Delmonico’s, then, if I am not mistaken, at the corner of Twenty-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue.

The Assemblies were the most important of these big balls—if the word “big” as now understood could be applied to any social event in our old New York! There were, I think, three Assemblies in the winter, presided over by a committee of ladies who delegated three of their number to receive the guests at the ballroom door. The evening always opened with a quadrille, in which the ladies of the committee and others designated by them took part; and there followed other square dances, waltzes and polkas, which went on until the announcement of supper. A succulent repast of canvasback ducks, terrapin, foie gras, and the best champagnes was served at small tables below stairs, in what was then New York’s only fashionable restaurant; after which we reascended to the ballroom (in a shaky little lift) to begin the complicated maneuvers of the cotillion.

The “Thursday Evening Dances,” much smaller and more exclusive, were managed by a committee of the younger married women—and how many young and pretty ones there were in our little society! I cannot, oddly enough, remember where these dances were held—and who is left, I wonder, to refresh my memory? There was no Sherry’s restaurant as yet, and no Waldorf-Astoria, or any kind of modem hotel with a suite for entertaining, yet I am fairly sure we did not meet at “Del’s” for the “Thursday Evenings.”

The most conspicuous architectural break in the brownstone procession occurred where its march ended, at the awkwardly shaped entrance to the Central Park. Two of my father’s cousins, Mrs. Mason Jones and Mrs. Colford Jones, bought up the last two blocks on the east side of Fifth Avenue, facing the so-called “Plaza” at the Park gates, and built thereon their houses and their children’s houses; a bold move which surprised and scandalized society. Fifty-seventh Street was then a desert, and ball-goers anxiously wondered whether even the ubiquitous “Brown coupés” destined to carry home belated dancers would risk themselves so far afield. But old Mrs. Mason Jones and her submissive cousin laughed at such apprehensions, and presently there rose before our astonished eyes a block of pale-greenish limestone houses (almost uglier than the brownstone ones) for the Colford Jones cousins, adjoining which our audacious Aunt Mary, who had known life at the Court of the Tuileries, erected her own white marble residence and a row of smaller dwellings of the same marble to lodge her progeny. The Jones blocks were so revolutionary that I doubt whether any subsequent architectural upheavals along that historic thoroughfare have produced a greater impression. In our little provincial town (without electricity, telephones, taxis, or cab-stands) it had seemed inconceivable that houses or habits should ever change; whereas by the time the new millionaires arrived with their palaces in their pockets Fifth Avenue had become cosmopolitan, and was prepared for anything....

The lives led behind the brownstone fronts were, with few exceptions, as monotonous as their architecture. European travel was growing more frequent, though the annual holiday abroad did not become general until I grew up. In the brownstone era, when one crossed the Atlantic it was for a longer stay; and the returned traveler arrived with a train of luggage too often heavy with works of art and “antiques.” Our mothers, not always aware of their aesthetic limitations, seldom restricted their purchases to lace and fans; it was almost a point of honor to bring back an “Old Master” or two and a few monsters in the way of modern Venetian furniture. For the traveler of moderate means, who could not soar to Salvator Rosa, Paul Potter, or Carlo Dolci (prime favorites of the day), facsimiles were turned out by the million by the industrious copyists of Florence, Rome, or Amsterdam; and seldom did the well-to-do New Yorker land from a European tour unaccompanied by a Mary Magdalen cloaked in carefully waved hair, or a swarthy group of plumed and gaitered gamblers doing a young innocent out of his last sequin. One of these “awful warnings,” a Domenichino, I think, darkencd the walls of our dining room, and Mary Magdalen, minutely reproduced on copper, graced the drawing-room table (which was of Louis Philippe buhl, with ornate brass heads at the angles)....

Most of the little brownstone houses in which the Salvator Rosas and Domenichinos gloomed so incongruously on friendly drawing-room walls still possessed the surviving fragments of “a gentleman’s library”—that is, the collection of good books, well written, well printed, well bound, with which the aboriginal New Yorkers had beguiled their long and dimly lit leisure. In a world of little music and no painting, there was time to read; and I grieve to think of the fate of the treasures to be found in the “libraries” of my childhood—which still belonged to gentlemen, though no longer, as a rule, to readers. Where have they gone, I wonder, all those good books, so inevitably scattered in a country without entail or primogeniture? The rarest, no doubt, have long since been captured by dealers and resold, at soaring prices, to the bibliophiles of two continents, and unexpurgated Hogarths splendidly bound in crushed Levant are no longer outspread on the nursery floor on rainy days, as they used to be for the delectation of my little Rhinelander cousins and myself. (I may add that, though Hogarth was accessible to infants, Leaves of Grass, then just beginning to circulate among the most advanced intellectuals, was kept under lock and key, and brought out, like tobacco, only in the absence of “the ladies,” to whom the name of Walt Whitman was unmentionable, if not utterly unknown.)

In our New York house, a full-blown specimen of Second Empire decoration, the creation of the fashionable French upholsterer, Marcotte, the books were easily accommodated in a small room on the ground floor which my father used as his study. This room was lined with low bookcases where, behind glass doors, languished the younger son’s meager portion of a fine old family library. The walls were hung with a handsome wallpaper imitating the green damask of the curtains, and as the Walter Scott tradition still lingered, and there was felt to be some obscure (perhaps Faustian) relation between the Middle Ages and culture, this sixteen-foot-square room in a New York house was furnished with a huge oak mantelpiece sustained by vizored knights, who repeated themselves at the angles of a monumental writing table, where I imagine little writing was done except the desperate calculations over which I seem to see my poor father always bent, in the vain effort to squeeze my mother’s expenditure into his narrowing income....

We had returned when I was ten years old from a long sojourn in Europe, so that the New York from which I received my most vivid impressions was only that tiny fraction of a big city which came within the survey of a much governessed and guarded little girl—hardly less of a little girl when she “came out” (at seventeen) than when she first arrived on the scene, at ten.

Perhaps the best way of recapturing the atmosphere of my little corner of the metropolis is to try to remember what our principle interests were—I say “our” because, being virtually an only child, since my big brothers had long since gone forth into the world, I shared either directly or indirectly in most of the household goings-on.

My father and mother entertained a great deal and dined out a great deal; but in these diversions I shared only to the extent of hanging over the stair-rail to see the guests sweeping up to our drawing-room or, conversely, my mother sweeping down to her carriage, resplendent in train, aigrette, and opera cloak. But though my parents were much invited, and extremely hospitable, the tempo of New York society was so moderate that not infrequently they remained at home in the evening. After-dinner visits were still customary, and on these occasions old family friends would drop in, ceremoniously arrayed in white gloves and white tie, with a tall hat, always carried up to the drawing-room and placed on the floor beside the chair of the caller—who, in due course, was regaled with the ten o’clock cup of tea which followed heavy repast at seven-thirty. On these occasions the lonely little girl that I was remained in the drawing-room later than her usual bedtime, and the kindly whiskered gentlemen encouraged her to join in the mild talk. It was all very simple and friendly, and the conversation ranged safely from Langdons, Van Rensselaers, and Lydigs to Riveses, Duers, and Schermerhorns, with an occasional allusion to the Opera (which there was some talk of transplanting from the old Academy of Music to a “real” Opera House, like Convent Garden or the Scala), or to Mrs. Scott-Siddons’s readings from Shakespeare, or Aunt Mary Jones’s evening receptions, or my Uncle Fred Rhinelander’s ambitious dream of a Museum of Art in the Central Park, or cousin John King’s difficulty in housing in the exiguous quarters of the New York Historical Society a rather burdensome collection of pictures bequeathed to it by an eccentric young man whose family one did not wish to offend—a collection which Berenson, visiting it many years later, found to be replete with treasures, both French and Italian.

But the events in which I took an active part were going to church—and going to the theater. I venture to group them together because, looking back across the blurred expanse of a long life, I see them standing up side by side, like summits catching the light when all else is in shadow. Going to church on Sunday mornings was, I fear, no more than an unescapable family duty; but in the afternoon my father and I used to return alone together to the second service. Calvary Church, at the corner of Gramercy Park, was our parish church, and probably even in that day of hideous religious edifices, few less aesthetically pleasing could have been found. The service was “low,” the music indifferent, and the fuliginous chancel window of the Crucifixion a horror to alienate any imaginative mind from all Episcopal forms of ritual; but the Rector, the Reverend Dr. Washburn, was a man of great learning, and possessed of a singularly beautiful voice—and I fear it was chiefly to hear Dr. Washburn read the Evening Lessons that my father and I were so regular in our devotions. Certainly it is to Dr. Washburn that I owe the discovery of the matchless beauty of English seventeenth-century prose; and the organ-roll of Isaiah, Job, and above all, of the lament of David over the dead Absalom, always come back to me in the accents of that voice, of which I can only say that it was worthy to interpret the English Bible.

The other great emotion of my childhood was connected with a theater.... Most of the acting I saw in those early days in New York was really much better than any I have seen since. The principal theaters were, in fact, still in possession of good English companies, of whom the elders had played together for years, and preserved and handed on the great tradition of well-trained repertory companies, versus the evil “star” system which was so soon to crowd them out of business.

At Wallack’s Theatre, still ruled by the deeply dyed and undoubtedly absurd Lester Wallack, there were such first-rate actors as old Mrs. Ponisi, Beckett, Harry Montague, and Ada Dyas; and when they deserted the classic repertory (Sheridan, Goldsmith, etc.) for the current drama, the average play they gave was about as good as the same type of play now acted by one or more out-of-focus stars with a fringe of obscure satellites.

But our most exciting evenings came when what the Germans call “guest-players” arrived from London, Berlin, or Rome with good repertory companies. Theater-going, for me, was in fact largely a matter of listening to voices, and never shall I forget the rapture of first hearing

And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

in George Rignold’s vibrant barytone, when he brought Henry V to New York. Again and again my father took me to see (or, I might better say, to hear) Rignold in Henry V; and it is through listening to him that I discovered the inexhaustible flexibility, the endless metrical resources, of English blank verse. To hear the great Agincourt speech, where the clarion call of mighty names—

Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,

is succeeded by the impetuous sweep of

Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered,

and that in turn by the low still music of

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers—

was to be initiated once for all into some of the divinest possibilities of English prosody....

In the way of other spectacles New York did not as yet provide much. There was in fact only the old Academy of Music, where Campanini, in his prime, warbled to an audience still innocently following the eighteenth-century tradition that the Opera was a social occasion, invented to stimulate conversation; but my recollection of those performances is not clear, for, by the time I was judged old enough to be taken to them, the new Opera House was inaugurated, and with it came Wagner, and with Wagner a cultivated and highly musical German audience in the stalls, which made short work of the chatter in the boxes. I well remember the astonishment with which we learned that it was “bad form” to talk during the acts, and the almost immediate compliance of the box audience with this new rule of politeness, which thereafter was broken only by two or three thick-skinned newcomers in the social world.

Apart from the Opera, the only popular entertainments I can recall were Barnum’s three-ring circus (a sort of modern ocean liner before the letter—and Moody and Sankey’s revivalist meetings. I group the two in no spirit of disrespect to the latter, but because both were new and sensational, and both took place in the old Madison Square Garden, at that time New York’s only large auditorium, where prize fights and circuses placidly alternated with religious revivals, without any sign of public disapproval. But I must add that, sincere as no doubt the protagonists were, there was a theatrical element in their call to religion which, in those pre-Eddyan days, deeply offended the taste of many people, and certainly, among the throngs frequenting their meetings many avowedly went for the sake of Sankey’s singing rather than of his companion’s familiar chats with the Almighty. Though America has always been the chosen field of sensational religious performances, the New York of my childhood was still averse to any sort of pious exhibitionism; but as I was never allowed to assist at the Moody and Sankey meetings, my impression of them is gathered entirely from the comments of my father’s friends, from whom I fear Saint Francis of Assisi and Savonarola would have received small encouragement. My mother, at any rate, gave none to the revivalists; and my father and I had to content ourselves with the decorous beauty of Evening Prayer at Calvary Church.

From all this it will be seen that the New York of those days was a place in which external events were few and unexciting, and little girls had mostly to

“be happy and building at home.”

“Yet” (as Stevenson’s poem continues)

Yet as I saw it, I see it again,
The kirk and the palace, the ships and the men,
And as long as I live, and where’er I may be,
I’ll always remember my town by the sea—

a town full indeed for me of palaces and ships, though the palaces came out of the “Tempest,” “Endymion,” and “Kubla Khan,” and the ships were anchored on the schoolroom floor, ready to spread their dream-sails to all the winds of my imagination.

Reprinted by permission of the author and the Watkins/Loomis Agency.

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