Friday, January 13, 2012

Hoofing it in New York City

I had the most wonderful adventure in New York City this past week. I was invited to Brooklyn, one of New York's five boroughs, by Elliot, Ivan, and Debra Schwartz, partners in StudioEIS (pronounced "ice"), which specializes in bronze sculptures.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City has commissioned a new statue of Theodore Roosevelt. EIS Studio is producing the work, and I was hired to model for the project. The statue will be of TR the outdoorsman, seated on a bench. With an outfit modeled on TR’s at Yosemite in 1903, we tried variously having a book, field glasses, and a felt cowboy hat as props in my hands and on the bench. Using many photos of the real TR, the artist and museum will use the hundreds of photos and poses that we shot for determining some of the architecture of the statue.

If I have it right, the statue and bench will be located on the first floor of the museum’s Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, the huge public lobby just inside the museum’s West Central Park entrance. The museum staff believes many families and children will want their picture taken with TR on the bench. I look forward to sitting on the bench with TR someday. The museum plans new exhibits of some of the artifacts from TR’s life, including some of his early taxidermy.

The trip to New York gave me a chance to do some exploring and to emulate TR’s strenuous living in the doing of it. I arrived at LaGuardia in Queens late on Saturday afternoon and took the M60 bus to Broadway and 106th on the Upper West Side. Using Gerry Frank’s Where to Find it, Buy it, Eat it in New York, given to me by the fascinatingly eclectic author, I set out for an adventure. I must have stopped to read a couple dozen plaques and monuments, as I made way southeast down Broadway, through Times Square and to the front porch of TR’s Birthplace at 28 East 20th Street, just a block west of Gramercy Park. The birthplace has been a point of pilgrimage and a place for my TR to perform. Administered by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site, the place is one of my favorites and normally displays an amazing collection of TR material. The birthplace museum is undergoing renovation now.

After a couple hours relaxing on the front steps, reading and enjoying listening to the late Saturday night conversations walking by, I picked up and kept on my walk. I visited Zuccotti Park, site of the famed Occupy Wall Street protests. The park was empty at 2:00 AM on Sunday, a lone bronze statue of a seated businessman at lunch with his open briefcase the last and most permanent occupier. I began an early morning walk around Trinity Wall Street, a visit to the grave of Alexander Hamilton there and a stroll past George Washington at Federal Hall, another NPS historic site, where Washington took the first presidential inaugural oath and where Congress adopted the Bill of Rights.

Gerry Frank writes that one of the quintessential New York experiences is to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, especially at dawn. My 5:00 AM walk across the bridge was a little too early for sunrise, but my spirits rose in the early hours of the day. The views are spectacular. David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback and Pathway Between the Seas are very important for me as TR sources. McCullough’s Brooklyn Bridge has been equally important for me in regards to New York history. I stopped to read the name of Robert B. Roosevelt, Teddy’s uncle, listed with the other commissioners who saw the work of John, Johanna and Washington Roebling through to its completion. There seems to be a wonderful local tradition of lovers or loved ones visiting the walkway and then attaching small padlocks, engraved with dates and love messages, memories and anniversaries. The locks are everywhere, testimony to the fact that couples probably regularly occupy the handsome and empty benches I passed along the way.

Once over the bridge, I walked up to Brooklyn Heights, hoping to find some of the history of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (think America’s first great mega-preacher and Beecher’s Bibles, the Sharp's rifle used by anti-slavery forces in Kansas). Instead, I found the Theodore Roosevelt Federal Courthouse and some fine statuary of Columbus and Robert F. Kennedy. I kept on my way, eventually arriving at 8:00 AM at the 5th Avenue and 25th Street Gothic gates of the Green-Wood Cemetery. Once in the cemetery, I wandered up the Battle Path, and there a bronze Minerva gazes across the harbor at Lady Liberty, the former a purposeful reminder of the war won rights of the Declaration of Independence and the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn, a loss for the Revolutionaries. My quest was the Roosevelt family gravesite, mentioned by McCullough and perhaps by TR biographer Edmund Morris. It was McCullough, I think, who pointed out the irony that TR’s mother-in-law, Martha Stewart Elliott Bulloch, a Georgian and devoted Southernor, was buried among the iconic Yankees and countless abolitionists here, she going to her grave with the sadness of Confederate defeat freshly on her heart.

TR is not buried here, nor is Edith or any of the children. Teddy and Edith are in Oyster Bay among the trees of Young’s Cemetery. Here at Green-Wood lay the remains of TR’s mother and father, Theodore Roosevelt and Martha “Mittie” Bulloch Roosevelt. Teddy’s first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt, is here. Surely you know that TR's mother and wife died on the same day, February 14, 1884, when TR was just 25 years old. The east facing headstones of these three, TR, Sr., Mittie and Alice, taking more weather and sun, are nearly devoid of legible markings, but the death date of the ladies can be made out, as can portions of their respective birth dates. Very little, if anything at all, can be made out on TR’s father’s headstone, and this for a man for whom it was written the entire city of New York was in mourning at his too early departure at the age of 46. TR’s paternal grandparents are here, as is Uncle Robert and his wife and several cousins. There are twenty-two headstones in all. I found the family circle like a needle in a haystack among the 561,000 plus who rest in peace at Green-Wood. The Roosevelts are at the southeast corner of Grape and Locust amongst streets and pathways with arboreal names. I hope to help the family restore some of the headstones. Surely, history should know what was chosen to be written here in the way of verse or memorial. I hope to write with something in the way of good news on this idea sometime down the trail.

I share these two observations, indicative of the kinds of treasured insights which I think await if the others are restored. The first and smallest of the tablets is simply labeled INFANT SON of LAURA D’OREMIEULX and J. WEST ROOSEVELT born Nov. 2, 1895, for an un-named son, loved and mourned. This West Roosevelt is mentioned often as a frequent companion of his cousin, our Theodore. J. West is buried nearby in the circle, b. July 2, 1858 – d. April 10, 1896. Son of Mary West and S. Weir Roosevelt – father’s brother – J. West Roosevelt was born the year TR was born and died at 38. I’m reminded that throughout his lifetime, TR was saying goodbye to loved ones who died way too early, not only by our modern long-lived standards, but even by the standards of the turn of the century when disease and illness fought man on so many fronts.

On the opposite side of the circle was GLADYS ROOSEVELT wife of Fairman Rogers Dick, born March 10, 1889 (and) KILLED IN THE HUNTING FIELD NOVEMBER 2, 1926 – A GALLANT LIFE AND A GALLANT DEATH. This one made me wonder at the stock of the Roosevelt women and renews my commitment to get and read the book of the same name (The Roosevelt Women) by Betty Boyd Caroli.

My four miles of wandering through the cemetery made for 20 miles of hiking, backpack on my shoulders and valise in hand since the previous night. My bus ride to my Brooklyn hotel and the subsequent hot bath were a welcome indulgence after a night and morning spent breathing in the stuff of life.

How I hope that 2012 has me hiking in your neck of the woods.