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Women Wearing Hats: Celebrating Margaret Corbin

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Margaret Corbin “womaning” the cannon at the Battle of Fort Washington, November 16, 1776. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A heroine of the American Revolution, Margaret Corbin was the first woman to take a soldier’s part in the fight for independence.  She saw action during the Battle of Fort Washington, and was captured in the crushing American defeat on November 16, 1776.

Margaret Corbin lies in eternal rest at West Point.  Here, Margaret Corbin Day is celebrated each year by the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

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Final resting place and monument of Margaret Cochran Corbin, West Point cemetery.

This year’s gathering celebrated the growing understanding and appreciation for the role of American women in the history of our country. At the Old Cadet Chapel, Brigadier General Maritza Sáenz Ryan US Army, Retired, and a 1982 graduate of West Point, US Military Academy, spoke of the many hats worn by Margaret Corbin and other women Patriots.

Through blazing summers and cruel winters alike, these dedicated women endured the privations of war right alongside the soldiers. -Brigadier General Maritza S. Ryan US Army, Retired

It was women like Margaret, explained General Ryan, who provided key and essential field services for the Continental Army.  Women worked as laundresses, seamtresses and nurses.  As water carriers, they assumed a role that was crucial for providing drinking water for soldiers as well as cooling down artillery pieces after firing.

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Old Cadet Chapel and cemetery, West Point.

Prepared to serve in these functions at Fort Washington, Margaret Cochran arrived in New York with her red hair tucked into a ruffled mob cap.  She had accompanied her husband, John, a private in the Pennsylvania Artillery to the field of battle at the northern tip of Manhattan island.  Here, at the height of the battle, Margaret Corbin switched hats, changing abruptly from field service to artillery service.  Still wearing the mob cap of a colonial American woman, Margaret Corbin sprang into active military duty, taking the place of a wounded soldier who was part of the artillery crew.

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BG Maritza S. Ryan, US Army, Retired, who delivered remarks on Margaret Corbin’s military actions at the Battle of Fort Washington, November 16, 1776.

After her husband fell, mortally wounded, Margaret Corbin continued to man (or more precisely, offered General Ryan, “to woman”) the cannon single-handedly.  It is said that Margaret fought overwhelming British and Hessian forces, swabbing, loading, aiming and firing a 6-pound cannon that was usually handled by four artillerists. Hers was the last American gun at Fort Washington to fall silent as enemy forces overran the American fortifications.

Margaret Corbin was taken prisoner by the British after the American defeat at Fort Washington.  But the Patriot actions during the battle, including the military role of Margaret Corbin, had allowed George Washington to escape capture.  He fled by boat across the Hudson River to Fort Constitution (now Fort Lee) on the New Jersey side of the river.

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DAR Officers assemble on the steps of the Old Cadet chapel before the wreath laying ceremony at the grave site of Margaret Corbin.

Margaret Corbin, now a POW, was sent by horse-drawn cart to the Patriot stronghold in Philadelphia for medical care.  It was a journey of three days before Margaret’s wounds were properly cared for.  Her jaw was shattered.  Grape shot from enemy fire that had likely killed her husband, had injured her neck and rendered her left arm completely useless.

Washington would ultimately return victorious to the battlefield at Yorktown in 1781, gaining independence for our country.  Margaret Corbin was awarded an Army pension.  Changing hats once again, she was assigned to the Corps of Invalids at West Point, assuming the status of wounded veteran.  Here, she spent her happiest hours  as “Captain Corbin” amongst her fellow soldiers.  General Ryan noted:  “She expected, and received, salutes and professional courtesies whenever she came on post.”   The Adjutant at West Point personally saw to Margaret’s welfare as a wounded veteran.

Resolved:  That Margaret Corbin, who was wounded and disabled in the attack on Fort Washington, whilst she heroically filled the post of her husband who was killed by her side serving a piece of artillery, do receive during her natural life, or the continuance of said disability, the one-half of the monthly pay drawn by a soldier in the service of these states. — Journal of the Continental Congress of July 6, 1779

In 1800, at the age of 49, Margaret Corbin was buried without fanfare in the woods near West Point.  Jennifer Voigtschild Minus, current DAR Chairwoman of Margaret Corbin Day, and a 1993 graduate of West Point, US Army (Retired), delivered the narrative of Corbin’s return and burial in the West Point cemetery.  Through the efforts of the DAR, Captain Molly’s remains were located and disinterred, 151 years after her heroic actions on the battlefield at Fort Washington.  She was identified by means of the war wounds she had suffered:  Three grape shot were still embedded in the bones of her shoulder; her shattered jaw bone indicated pain and suffering that were the price of her heroic military actions.  The remains of Margaret Cochran Corbin were re-interred at the West Point cemetery with full military honors on March 16, 1926.

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A plaque in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan honor Margaret Corbin’s heroic actions during the Battle of Fort Washington, November 16, 1776.

Each spring , the DAR has celebrated Margaret Cochran Corbin Day; an occasion designed to honor her actions, her bravery and her contributions to American history.  At this year’s services, General Ryan remarked:  “We remember with deepest gratitude, a woman whose heroism transcends the limitations of her time and place to inspire all of us, men and women alike, to walk, if we dare, in her brave footsteps. ”

This year marked the 90th Margaret Corbin Day.  A church service at the Old Cadet Chapel, remarks and wreath laying and 21-gun salute are usually followed by a luncheon with female cadets at West Point, the United States Military Academy.

In 1976, the year the first women cadets arrived at West Point, the Margaret Corbin Forum, a  cadet club, was founded.  Exactly 200 years after Margaret Corbin’s heroic actions at the Battle of Fort Washington, the Forum provides a voice in support of the commitment to the integration of women in the Corps and in the military.  It is a fitting legacy for Margaret Corbin, the first American woman to take a soldier’s part in the war for liberty.

During Margaret Corbin Day in 1978, for the first time, a woman cadet helped place the wreath at Margaret Corbin’s Grave and monument, to this day, the only monument depicting a woman that has been dedicated here at West Point.–Jennifer Voigtschild Minus, USMA 1993 and current DAR Chairwoman of Margaret Corbin Day

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Photo by West Point – The U.S. Military Academy via Flickr

Margaret Corbin wore many hats:  She was an Army spouse, a widow, a soldier, a wounded POW and a disabled veteran. Today, as women expand their role in the military, the hats keep changing.  During Margaret Corbin Day at West Point, DAR ladies in formal hats mingle with women wearing US Army officer caps and female Cadets wearing the white hats of the US Military Academy.  All come together to honor and celebrate the legacy of Margaret Cochran Corbin and her fight for independence.

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Jane’s Walk: Let’s Get Walking

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Jane Jacobs in 1961. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), writer and activist, published her critique of post-World War II urban planning policy in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.    Jacobs begins her book with a pointed challenge: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.”  For New Yorkers, these urban policies are personified by Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs’ nemesis.  Jacobs held Moses responsible for the decline of many neighborhoods in New York City.  But enough about him….

Next week, the Municipal Arts Society (MAS),and other organizations in cities across the globe, are sponsoring Jane’s Walk, a series of citizen-led walks throughout the five boroughs.  The initiative is designed to get folks to tell stories about their own neighborhood, explore their community and connect with neighbors.  It’s a community-based effort in urban literacy.  Let’s just call it a celebration of the local; in plain sight, but often overlooked and unappreciated.

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The 1961 publication, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.  Photo by pdxcityscape via Flickr.

Jane Jacobs’ work was inspired by her years as a fabulous New York woman living in Greenwich Village, a mix of townhouses and tenements on twisting and narrow streets that did not conform to the city’s grid.  She contrasted life in the Village, a cohesive community, with the grandiose plans of Robert Moses.  His “towers in the park” concept, anathema to Jacobs, was then changing the face of New York City.   But really, enough about him….

The Jane’s Walks tours are listed by location and topic on the MAS web site.  The theme of each walk is up to the volunteer organizer, and all walks are free and open to the public.

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Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church, Kings Highway.  Photo by Wally Gobetz via Flickr.

In Brooklyn, the Go Dutch in Flatlands! Jane’s Walk led by fabulous New York woman Ellen Halliday, is actually a bicycle tour meeting at the Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church, on Kings Highway.  Her tour description reads:  “Let’s dish some history and gossip while we bike around with a side of vinyl replacement windows!”

Fabulous New York woman Anna Araiza will lead Old Croton Aqueduct Walk.   Beginning in the Bronx, the tour will cross the Hudson River via New York City’s oldest bridge and end up in Manhattan at the Highbridge Water Tower and reservoir (now the Highbridge pool).

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An illustration of the High Bridge from Harper’s Weekly magazine, 1860.  Picture via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Says Araiza:  “The summer of 2015 brought the inaugural re-opening of the Highbridge, the only pedestrian bridge connecting the Bronx and Manhattan. With the restoration project now complete, I invite you to explore the Old Croton Aqueduct…”

This year, which would have been Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, the MAS lists from than 200 Jane’s Walk offerings.  There is no advance registration.  Just turn up at the designated meeting site.  What a fabulous 100th birthday present for a fabulous woman.  Let’s Get Walking!

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Photo courtesy Municipal Arts Society.

 

 

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Malli Rembacz: One Hundred Fabulous Years and Counting

 

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Malli Rembacz cutting birthday cake on her 100th birthday.

It’s a story that spans one century, three continents and one life.  The story of Malli Rembacz begins on April 4, 1916 in Cologne, Germany.  The latest chapter takes place on April 4, 2017 in apartment 4L of Cabrini Terrace.  Here, in Hudson Heights, Malli shared cake and memories with her neighbors in celebration of her one hundredth birthday.  Here’s to you, Malli Rembacz: centenarian, fantastic potter, wonderful neighbor and fabulous New York woman.

 

The view from apartment 4L overlooks the schoolyard of PS/IS 187. It’s the perfect view for Malli, who trained as a kindergarten teacher in her native Germany.  The term, meaning “garden for children” was coined by  German Friedrich Fröbel.  He envisioned kindergarten as a place for playing, singing, practical activities such as drawing, and social interaction as part of the transition for children from home to school.  Hitler’s Germany was not the place where Malli could teach and children could enjoy this education.  Malli, who describes herself as “an idealist” dreamt of a place where she could live in safety and practice her profession.

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Malli accepts a Citation from Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell, Jr.’s office congratulating her on her 100th birthday.

 

Malli booked passage aboard a boat to take her to Palestine.  Just as she sailed from Germany, war broke out.  Her ship took her to England where she was given refuge and work as a kindergarten teacher in Birmingham, an industrial city in the north of England.  Explains Malli:  “England was at war and the women had to work.  The government opened schools to care for the children, and I was given a job for the next four years.”  While working as a teacher, Malli perfected her English and began to save money for a new ticket to Palestine.  At the end of the war, she boarded a ship from England to the Holy Land.

Malli chose to live in a kibbutz, a collective community.  Located in the Judean Hills between Jerusalem and Hebron, Kibbutz Kfar Etzion was surrounded by Arab villages and in a vulnerable position.  Palestine was under British rule, and the Jews had no ammunition with which to defend themselves.   It was decided that the mothers of the children and Malli, the kibbutz kindergarten teacher, would take the youngsters to Jerusalem where they would be safe.

When the kibbutz was attacked by Arab forces on May 14, 1949, the inhabitants had no choice but to raise the white flag of surrender.  In the Kfar Etzion massacre, 157 Jewish inhabitants of of the kibbutz, men and women, young and old, were murdered.  Malli’s action had saved the lives of the children of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion.

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Malli pictured with her kindergarten class from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, Israel, 1948.

Malli continued to work as a kindergarten teacher in Tel Aviv before deciding to join her brother in the United States.  In New York, she quickly found work as a kindergarten teacher in a Jewish school in Queens.  “I spoke both English and Hebrew,” she explains.  “They wanted the children to learn both languages.  I taught kindergarten in Queens for many years.”

Malli moved to Washington Heights, enjoying the area and its parks.  Most of all, she loved making pottery, which she counted as her true vocation.   “I really have been involved emotionally with clay.  It’s the most wonderful medium.” explains the centenarian.

Asked to elaborate, Malli offers:  “I fell in love with clay.  You really can impress your own feeling with clay.  Clay has got something which goes into emotions,” she says, gesturing towards her heart.

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A glazed plate by Malli Rembacz, aka The Pottery Lady.

After studying at Alfred University, a leading New York Design College, Malli devoted her time to pottery.  “I worked 24 hours a day at my pottery,” say Malli.  She bought a wheel and installed it in her apartment in Cabrini Terrace.  “I had a wheel in my bedroom; it got so messy that I had to give it up.”  But word had spread, and neighbors were quick to purchase the beautifully glazed pottery Malli made by throwing on the wheel and by handbuilding.

 

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On her 100th birthday, Malli Rembacz, aka The Pottery Lady, holds a cup and saucer that she made on her wheel.

Malli’s skill and dedication became legendary.  She  became known as “The Pottery Lady.”  In 1990, she made an appearance on the David Letterman Show.  She was introduced as a lady who could “turn a lowly lump of clay into a work of art.”  Malli and David both centered clay on matching pottery wheels and she instructed him on how to throw a pot.  She also managed to engage in a spirited water fight with the TV host.  She won.

Says Malli:  “I love the wheel.  But you can’t really separate throwing and handbuilding.  You have to do both to get what you want.”  As for her beautiful glazes, Malli explains that she first had to learn the chemistry behind the colors.   “When you have something nice, you can make it nicer with glazing.”

 

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A beautifully-glazed bowl from the hands of The Pottery Lady, Malli Rembacz.

Asked to show examples of her favorite pieces, she admits:  “I have nothing left.  I gave it all away.”   This reporter suggests the absence of pottery in the home of a potter known as The Pottery Lady, is the sign of a generous heart, a creative spirit, a lifetime of working with clay and a fabulous New York woman.  Congratulations to you on your 100th birthday, Malli Rembacz, The Pottery Lady.

 

 

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Ronda M. Brands, Garden Designer, Horticulturist, Fabulous New York Woman

A trout lily makes an early spring appearance.

A trout lily makes an early spring appearance.

THE WASTELAND by T.S. Eliot

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain

 

 

Ronda Brands, Garden Designer and Horticulturist, might argue that T.S. Eliot wasn’t much of a gardener.  Her April garden tour in Fort Tryon Park attracted a crowd of New Yorkers eager to share the first signs of spring.

Ronda Brands leads a tour in the Heather Garden during early spring.

Ronda Brands leads a tour in the Heather Garden during early spring.

Ronda’s tour focused on the three acres of Fort Tryon Park known as the Heather Garden. This swathe of garden is planted over 500 varieties of trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs, including dozens of varieties of heaths and heathers that combine to form a sweep of changing colors and textures in each season.  During early spring, the blooming heaths are a signature plant of the Heather Garden.  They put on a show of waves of pink and white in partnership with the vivid purples and yellows of early spring bulbs.  It’s a signal that a happy change has arrived to bring New Yorkers out of both their apartments and the winter doldrums, and into New York City’s most beautiful park.

Heaths (Erica species and cultivars), usually flower from mid-winter to early spring.  These are followed by heathers (Calluna vulgaris cultivars), which take over in mid-summer. Working over the years with the  Northeast Heather Society, the gardeners and designers have carefully selected plants have been planted to provide year-round interest of blooms and foliage color in the garden.  Both heaths and heathers are evergreens, with foliage of green, yellow and red that might turn silver, copper, red or even chocolate during winter months.  The seasonal change is a particular joy for Ronda, who was called to the Garden by the Fort Tryon Trust in 2009 as design partner to Lynden B. Miller, New York City’s icon of public garden design, to reinvigorate the Garden and develop a plan for sustaining it for the long term.

The shrub Andromeda (Pieris Japonica) has foliage that changes color throughout the year. In early spring, the dark green foliage appears with long, dangling clusters or white flowers.

The shrub Andromeda (Pieris Japonica) has foliage that changes color throughout the year. In early spring, the dark green foliage appears with long, dangling clusters of white flowers.

Lynden Miller and Ronda Brands, fabulous New York women, created a fabulous design for a fabulous garden.  They decided to edit the garden carefully to preserve the spirit of the original plan by the Olmsted Brothers, whose father was the designer of Central Park. They also decided to capitalize on its romantic and rustic feel, taking full advantage of the sloped, rocky topography.  Their design features an overarching feel with carefully selected vignettes of plants punctuating the cohesive rivers of perennials.

An outcropping of rocks adds dramatic interest to the Heather Garden.

An outcropping of rocks adds dramatic interest to the Heather Garden.

 

 

The park is located on a ridge near the highest point on Manhattan.  The area was known as Chquaesgeck by the local Lenape tribe, and was called Lange Bergh (Long Hill) by Dutch settlers.  Visitors enjoy sweeping views of the Hudson River.  These stretches of water are repeated in the rivers of plants that give the garden both unity and movement.   Plants, foliage, structures and shape move the eye through space.

Twitter called the park “The Happiest Spot in Manhattan,”  yet it remains one of Manhattan’s best kept secrets.  At 67 acres,  Fort Tryon Park offers tranquility and calm in a tapestry of plants and flowers over 200 feet above the Hudson River.  It is the city’s largest public garden and is a city, state and national landmark.  Local resident Gabe Kirchheimer has photographed every flower in the park and produced Fort Tryon Park Flowers his own independent and amazing web site of what he calls “The Flower Capital of Manhattan. ” The photographer organizes the flowers by season using over 1,000 photographs.

The garden requires a significant amount of skilled maintenance, provided by Parks Department gardeners.  Each week, a legion of fabulous New York women (and men!) from the neighborhood come together to work as volunteers in the garden.  Speaking of the long flower beds, Ronda says (with great admiration and affection):  The volunteers weed, and weed, and weed from one end of the bed to the other.  When they reach the end, they return to the beginning and start weeding again.”  Fabulous New York women (and men)!

Fort Tryon Park Trust offers free tours of the Heather Garden on the first Sunday of every month.  The Trust raises endowment to help support the park and its year-round horticultural maintenance and offers more than 300 free programs annually, including environmental education programs for children.

 

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Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel

Portrait of Audrey Munson by Arnold Genthe, Library of Congress.  Photo in the public domain via wikimedia.org.

Portrait of Audrey Munson by photographer Arnold Genthe, Library of Congress. Photo in the public domain via wikimedia.org.

She adorns the city in bronze, gold and stone.  You’ve walked by her in the streets, but never knew her name.  Meet Audrey Munson, fabulous New York woman – with a decidedly unfabulous end.  The Curse of Beauty, an investigative biography of Munson’s life by James Bone, former New York bureau chief for The Times of London newspaper, documents this New York woman’s spectacular rise and tragic demise in the City of Dreams.

Spirit of Commerce crowns the Municipal Building in Manhattan, 1 Centre Street.

Civic Fame, Adolph Weinman’s 1913 statue, crowns the Municipal Building in Manhattan.  Photo via commons.wikimedia.org.

Audrey Munson was America’s first supermodel; the personification of the nation’s ideals and dreams.   Gilded Age sculptors carved her form for the city’s institutions and monuments.  Bone writes:  “This book is a biography of a naked woman, once the most famous nude in America.” The dust jacket of The Curse of Beauty unwraps to reveal a Map of Manhattan showing the locations of Audrey’s image throughout the borough.  And yes, Mr. Bone, she’s often naked, but just as often, she is decorously draped in Classical garb or appearing with the addition of angelic wings or ancient headdresses.

Downtown, Audrey Munson stands 25 feet fall on top of the Manhattan Municipal Building, constructed as an administrative site for New York’s consolidated boroughs.  As Civic Fame, a splendidly gilded figure in Classical dress by Adolph Weinman, Audrey holds aloft a crown with five towers, representing the five boroughs.  Here, she is Manhattan Island’s tallest statue, second in New York only to the Statue of Liberty offshore.

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Monument to the U.S.S. Maine at the entrance to Central Park, Columbus Circle.

 

Midtown, Audrey is depicted in the buff and in granite as the personification of Beauty by Frederick MacMonnies, a Brooklyn sculptor.  In this form, her voluptuous figure decorates the facade of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street.

Across town at Columbus Circle, Audrey is a stern and  heavily garbed figure.  Here, she serves as the model for Attilio Piccirilli‘s gilded centerpiece for the U.S.S. Maine Monument atop the pylon of Merchants’ Gate at the entrance to Central Park.

Uptown, at Broadway and 106th Street, a bronze Audrey stretches languidly as a water nymph overlooking a small fountain.  Here, she represents Memory in Henry Augustus Lukeman’s sculpture at the Isidor & Ida Straus Memorial.  The statue and pocket park are dedicated to the memory of the one-time U.S. Congressman and co-owner of Macy’s department store.  Straus and his wife, Ida, perished on the maiden voyage of R.M.S. Titanic.  The Straus’ lived on Broadway one block south of the park.  The couple perished when Ida refused to board a lifeboat without her husband.  The choice of a water nymph belies their watery end.

Augustus Lukeman's 1913 sculpture, Memory, at Strauss Park, Broadway and 106th Street.

Henry Augustus Lukeman’s 1913 sculpture, Memory, at Straus Park, Broadway and 106th Street.  Photo courtesy Straus Historical Society.

Ten blocks uptown, Audrey, at her most staid.  She is the centerpiece of the Columbia University campus, a bronze statue in the form of Athena by sculptor Arthur Chester French.  Grandly representing Alma Mater, Audrey sits on the steps of Low Library.  Each incoming class is tasked with finding the owl in the voluminous folds of her robes.  Columbia tradition has it that the student who finds the owl first will graduate as class valedictorian.

Columbia University's Alma Mater by Daniel Chester French, 1915, on the steps before Low Library.

Columbia University’s Alma Mater by Daniel Chester French, 1915, on the steps before Low Library.  Photo via commons.wikimedia. org.

Audrey Munson worked her way up the artistic food chain from a model for photographers, to posing for illustrators, then painters, and finally posing for sculptors. As a model who also painted, Audrey considered herself to be an artist, listing herself as such in the 1916 New York City directory when she was living at 288 West 70th Street.  At this time, Cubism, Futurism and Impressionism were all making their mark on artistic production.  Audrey described these artists as “just crazy persons, capitalizing on their insanities.”

Too bad for Audrey, her own mental capacities were about to be tested – and the result would be tragic.  A woman whose body was the source of her own and others’ inspiration and creativity, scandals followed her and caused her mental breakdown.  At the age of 39, Audrey Munson was committed to a an institution for the insane in upstate New York.  Here, she died, 65 years later, at the age of 104 – still a fabulous New York woman, and now the subject of a fabulous new book.

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Audrey Munson and Thomas A. Curran in the movie, Inspiration (1915), Audrey’s film debut.  Photo via en.wikipedia.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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See You in the Streets: Unsung American Heroines

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After seeing young women die in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Frances Perkins fought to improve the lives of American workers. Photo via wikipedia.org.

Frances Perkins served as U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945.  Perkins was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet and served longest in that position.  She worked with FDR throughout his entire presidency to improve conditions for American workers.

Perkin’s passion and dedication for her work were linked directly with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.  This tragedy left 146 women dead in a work accident in downtown New York City on March 25, 1911.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located just off Washington Square, was a garment factory producing shirtwaists,a type of elegant button-down blouse with rows of tiny and elaborate tucks.  The shirtwaist was favored by New York women as a symbol of the chic modernity.  But the silhouette of fashionable ladies came at a price paid by their downtrodden sisters, immigrant women living in the city’s tenements.  These newest New York women worked long hours for low wages in the city’s notorious sweatshops.

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The fashionable New York woman was dressed in a sweeping skirt and shirtwaist. Picture via wikipedia.org.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one such garment factory producing shirtwaists. Workers at Triangle were considered fortunate as the factory was better than the brutal tenement sweatshops.  Such a large and successful company was not likely to lay off workers during slow periods.  Located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building (now owned by NYU and known as the Brown Building), the women worked long hours for low wages seated behind cramped rows of sewing machines and surrounded by baskets of fabric, oil soaked machinery, flying thread and cotton scraps.

On March 25th, with the promise of spring and renewal in the air, tragedy struck.  A fire broke out, quickly consuming the factory in flames and killing 146 workers, mostly Italian and Jewish women living in tenements in downtown New York.

 

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Forthcoming June 2016, University of Iowa Press.

In a bid to save their lives, some of the women fled to the factory’s single fire escape.  The structure collapsed under their weight, spilling the women to the sidewalk below.  When the fire company arrived, their ladders only reached the 6th story.  In a desperate bid to save their lives, women jumped, hoping to grasp the ladders below.  As the flames grew higher, groups of women, often family members, joined hands and leapt to the deaths, ending their lives on the sidewalks below.  Spectators who had been out enjoying the afternoon in Washington Square Park watched in horror as the women jumped, fell and crumpled on the pavement.  Frances Perkins was among the reluctant audience members to the spectacle that day.  She vowed to work to ensure such a performance was never repeated.

 

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Image courtesy Kheel Center for Labor Management, Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library.

The deaths of those 146 New York women galvanized a movement for social and economic justice.  Led by Frances Perkins, American workers  achieved standards that become a model for the world. But today’s laborers continue to battle dire working conditions.  The question now:  How can we bring the lessons of the Triangle fire back into practice today?

Those sidewalks near Washington Square Park, where the bodies of women lay broken, provided the answer for New York artist, Ruth Sergel, who grew up near the site of the Triangle Fire.  For Sergel, the answer to renewing the lessons of those 146 deaths has been to fuse art, activism, and collective memory to create a large-scale public commemoration.   See You in the Streets, Sergel’s forthcoming coming book,  documents her efforts to devise memorials for the Triangle Fire that invite broad participation and incite civic engagement.

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Alexandra Wang chalks Maria Tortorelli of Thompson Street, March 25, 2015. Photo by Kim Dramer

Sergel’s public art intervention, Chalk, extends an invitation to all New Yorkers to remember the 146 victims of the fire by inscribing their names and ages in chalk in front of their former homes each March 25th. Using the sidewalks of New York as their medium, Chalk celebrates the lives of these New York women rather than their deaths in what Sergel calls a “community intervention.”  For one day each year, the lives of these New York women, their hopes and dreams, come alive once again, linking their lives with our own.

Chalk is an informal network of participants that has grown through word of mouth, press coverage or simply those who seeing the project in the streets have sought out more information.  Sergel sums up the yearly efforts:  “The chalk will wash away but the following year we return, insisting on the memory of these lost young workers.”

To participate in Chalk, go to Ruth Sergel’s web site streetart.org.

 

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New York’s Most Naturally Sexy Women Do it Again

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Courtesy Amazon.com

 Actually, by “it” we don’t mean what you might be thinking.  We’re talking about Leslie Day writing on natural life in New York City, which, admittedly, includes plenty of “it.”  Last week, the birds and bees stuff dwelled mainly on birds. Leslie was at the New Leaf Restaurant in Fort Tryon Park signing her third and latest book, Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City.

Leslie was accompanied by two other fabulous New York women:  Trudy Smoke, who provided the book’s wonderful illustrations, and Beth Bergman, whose fabulous photos are a joy. They pooled their talents for a field guide that runs from Double-crested cormorants to Woodpeckers, revealing the richness of diversity in the natural life of our urban world.

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Male and female Northern cardinal. Picture courtesy of Trudy Smoke. Leslie Day’s first birding love and heartbreak. She was dumped by a cardinal who found a mate, but fell in love with the entire species.

Where Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City differs from other books is that Dr. Day and her collaborators have chosen to devote their efforts to information about birds in the five boroughs only.  New York City offers some of the best birding sites in the northeastern United States.  These three fabulous New York women have been to every park in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx, seeking out their feathered material.  Offers Dr. Day:   “There are so many birds in New York because of where we sit geographically.  We are nestled between the Atlantic Ocean, Hudson River and Long Island Sound.  As they pass over the city, birds see an abundance of parks and coastline.”

Some of the species are New Yorkers with their own coterie of admirers.  New York City Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), include the famous Pale Male, the Fifth Avenue Hawk, who even has his own web page.   But city living can be dangerous.  Pale Male is raising young with his fifth mate, after the previous four died from rat poisoning after ingesting poisoned pigeons and rats.  Other birds die during migrations from wintering to breeding grounds and back, crashing into windows or confused by the city skyline that lights up the night sky, they fly in circles eventually dropping from fatigue.

Each bird entry in the book includes city-specific information on Where and When to Find, Behavior, Nest & Eggs, and Ecological Role.  And these birds certainly do seem to have a New York City Frame of Mind, or least a New York City Attitude.  For example, Dr. Day writes:

House Sparrow:  One hundred house sparrows were introduced from Europe into Brooklyn, Manhattan and Chicago in the early 1850s, and the species expanded throughout North America.  It is the most commonly seen bird throughout the five boroughs and lives here year-round. Nest and Eggs:  I have seen them emerge from places that are surprising, like the nostrils of Teddy Roosevelt’s bronze horse on Central Park West in front of the American Museum of Natural History.”

Double crested cormorants:  … use sticks and material like “rope, old balloons, fishing net and plastic, which they weave into the flat nest.  U Thant Island, which lies in the East River across from the United Nations, has many cormorant nests.”

The back of the guide includes New York birding organizations and resources for New York City birders such as a list of Birdwatching Organizations and Rehabilitators for hurt, orphaned and sick wildlife.  There is also a detailed list of Birding Hotspots by borough and a surprisingly long list of Photographers’ Blogs that Dr. Day describes as “a great gift to our city.”  Concludes Dr. Day:  “Once you start to notice birds, New York city will never look the same.”

The New Leaf Restaurant, a fieldstone cottage designed by the Olmsted Brothers as a park administration building, hosted Dr. Day’s book signing.  Fabulous New York woman, Bette Midler, restored the cottage as part of the work of the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), a non-profit that works to restore New York’s parks and community gardens. Fort Tryon Park is known as Manhattan’s most tranquil spot.