Category Archives: New York Women

NYC’S FABULOUS WOMEN UNDER GROUND

Part of my fascination with New York City lies in what is not usually encountered and most often missing from our cityscape.  By this, I mean evidence of the contributions that New York’s fabulous women have made to the five boroughs.  Over the centuries, women have accounted for roughly half of New York City’s population.  But historical documents and histories of the city are invariably lacking in information about New York women.  For that information, you need to go underground.

Enter Amanda Sutphin, an urban archaeologist working for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Sutphin might be called the city’s quintessential underground woman.  She spends her days in the city’s underground, climate-controlled archaeological repository.  Here, she works with with artifacts that often spent centuries underground before resurfacing in New York City during archaeological excavations.

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Urban archaeologist, Amanda Sutphin,in the Nan A. Rothschild Research Center of the New York City Archaeological Repository.  The underground facility houses over a million objects collected from excavations throughout the five boroughs.  Located in the Durst Organization Building on Corporate Row, the facility places artifacts associated with New York women of the past, once again, at the very heart of New York City.

When bulldozers dig the foundations of a new building, excavate a new subway tunnel or refurbish a ferry landing, they destroy the archaeological record of the city.  Construction projects that take place on city land are required to complete an archaeological survey before the earth–and important evidence of the past–is disturbed.  In this way, the destruction of the city’s past also turns up artifacts that once belonged to long gone of New Yorkers.  Once these objects resurface on city land, ownership then transfers to the current generation of New Yorkers.

Artifacts that enter the city’s archaeological repository are used by Sutphin and her colleagues to reconstruct the past for the benefit of contemporary New Yorkers.  “These object were found on public land,” explains Ms. Sutphin.  “The collection has been catalogued and studied with public money.  The public should benefit from these efforts, and we hope to help them do so.”

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Dr. Nan Rothschild, Adjunct professor of Anthropology, Columbia University, at the Stadt Huys excavation at the southern tip of Manhattan.  She holds the bowl of a pipe from Dutch New Amsterdam, recovered at the site.  Photo courtesy Stadt Huys Excavation Project.

Asked to provide the earliest example of objects associated with fabulous New York women of the past, Ms. Sutphin points to the city’s prehistory and Native American culture.  Archaeological sites from this early period are most associated with exploiting the land for seasonal food sources such as coastal spring fishing camps, fall open air hunting camps and shellfish collecting stations.  Native American women in sites such as the one now at College Point, Queens, worked at collecting and processing food.  Artifacts from this site include shells that were discarded after processing and a stone weight used to sink fishing nets.

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Whelk, scallop and oyster shells unearthed at the College Point, Queens, prehistoric site.  A stone net weight is at left.  This site indicates the rich coastal food resources available to the earliest New York women.  Photo courtesy New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“The archaeological record of urban New York actually begins in 17th century New Amsterdam,” explains Ms. Sutphin.   The Stadt Huys or City Hall, a site in lower Manhattan located at today’s 85 Broad Street was the site of an archaeological excavation.  The Stadt Huys was built by William Kieft, a lesser-known director of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam before Peter Stuyvesant and his peg leg arrived in town.

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Louis Oram, View of Stadthuys, watercolor.  Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The site originally served as a place where officials and guests of the Director were lodged and fed.  And drank.  A lot.

The archaeological record of The Stadt Huys is rich in bottles and pitchers that held the liquor seemingly necessary for official business of the Dutch city.  Locally-made pottery and imported glass bottles were found in abundance at the site.

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Found at the Stadt Huys site, a redware pitcher and a glass bottle that were likely hefted by New Amsterdam serving maids, the original New York City waitresses.  The locally-made pottery pitcher, modeled on Dutch prototypes, held locally-brewed ale or cider.  The glass decanter, an elite object imported from Europe, held imported wine.  It was likely used by New Amsterdam’s political elite when attending to official business.  Kitchen work and serving were two of the limited options of work for New Amsterdam women.

In 1664, Dutch New Amsterdam became English New York.  Artifacts from colonial era New York were discovered during an excavation over an 18th century “ice-box” room on the grounds of what is now the Tweed Courthouse at 52 Chambers Street in lower Manhattan.  The 18th century English custom of tea drinking was adopted by colonial New York ladies and was a feature of New York loyalist families (which was most of them.)  The evidence of tea drinking squarely places the colony in the middle of the political crisis that loomed when that commodity was taxed by the British.  And we all know what happened next….(though New York City remained staunchly loyal to the Crown.)

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A green glazed teapot spout from the 18th century might have broken during a tea party hosted by loyalist New York women.  The beloved and oft-told (but likely apocryphal) tale of Mrs. Murray and her daughters describes such a party.  After the American defeat at the Battle of Brooklyn, the Murray ladies, secret patriots, hosted a tea party for British officers.  Their aim was to distract them while American troops escaped pursuing red coats.  New York legend says that a maid kept watch at an upstairs window and signaled her mistress once the troops had made their way to safety.  The unsuspecting Mr. Murray, a loyalist, provided the tea for the entertainment which took place in today’s Murray Hill section of Manhattan.

Tea was an expensive commodity, usually kept in a box that was kept locked by the lady of the house.  And the accoutrements for serving tea were imported elite items including teapots, teaspoons, teacups and saucers.

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Jean-Étienne Liotard (Swiss, 1702 – 1789), Still Life: Tea Set, about 1781 – 1783, Oil on canvas mounted on board. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Speaking about New York women of the 19th century, Ms. Sutphin pointed to three different bottles designed to hold manufactured goods.  These artifacts signaled that  like today, New York women of the past were responsible for the majority of purchases in the city’s households–thus a driving economic force in the city.  A variety of 19th century bottles were excavated from root cellars in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx when it morphed from a private home to a public park.

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L. Miller’s Hair Invigorator was part of the manufacturing boom in 19th century New York.  The product was marketed as a product for mother’s who wished to see their babies grow a lush head of hair (and their balding husbands.)

 

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Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Mother Combing Her Child’s Hair, Pastel on Gray Paper, Behest of Mary T. Cockcroft, Courtesy The Brooklyn Museum.

At the southern tip of Manhattan, the renovation of the Battery Park subway tunnel yielded a mid-20th century toy belonging to a New York child.  A play teacup made of Depression era glass was likely lost by a little girl playing in what was then a park.

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The child’s replica of her mother’s tea set was manufactured in Akron, Ohio during the Depression.  Ms. Sutphin points to modern New York City girls of the 20th century being given a set of expectations that seem to differ little from those of little ladies in colonial era New York.

“Assigning gender to artifacts is often difficult,” warns Ms. Sutphin.  “But it is also true that the increasing presence of female archaeologists in New York City has meant that attention is often given to objects that can offer clues to the lives of past New York women.”

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Play-Time Glass Dish Set in its original box.  Akro Company produced a wonderful collection of dishes for little girls.  Perhaps best known for their marbles, Akro Agate Company was founded in Akron, Ohio, in 1911 and moved to Clarksburg, West Virginia, in 1914.

And the influence of New York women who work as archaeologists is overwhelmingly evident in the formation of the city’s archaeological archives.  The Nan A. Rothschild Research Center of the New York City Archaeological Repository is named for the Barnard College archaeologist who trained Ms. Sutphin as an undergraduate student. Professor Rothschild persuaded her cousin, Helena Durst, to donate space in the basement of the Durst Organization building, located on Corporate Row on West 47th Street, to house the collection.  Three fabulous New York women at work in the city!

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Professor Rothschild has conducted extensive research into the lower Manhattan neighborhoods that comprised New Amsterdam and New York.  Photo courtesy of amazon.com.

The ghosts of New York women past are among us.  They may be underground instead of featured in history books and archives, but they account for half of the actors in our city’s great history.  And today’s New York women archaeologists are working to preserve their past, record their lives and tell the stories of their contributions to the city we know:  the good, the bad, the fabulous.

The excavations or digs from which objects enter the collection of the New York City Landmarks and Preservation Commission are situated throughout the 5 boroughs.  New York City is the first city in the nation to allow access to its archaeological records through a website.  The website lets you browse current and past digs in several ways:  using a map, through a list of excavations, or via thematic collections. The themed collections include:  Food and Drink in Colonial New York,  Historic Toys and Animals Among Us.  This final collection includes some of the oldest objects in the archives, and helps us reconstruct the natural environment of New York and its abundant natural resources.

In an effort to bring education about archaeology into New York classrooms, lesson plans for teachers and fun quizzes for kids are also available.  If you catch the bug for unearthing Gotham (or other places) and want to study archaeology, the web site offers a list of institutions in the city with formal programs as well as field schools–a way to literally get your hands dirty while learning about digging up the past.

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Hunter College & the Next Generation of Fabulous New York Women

On Thursday, June 2nd, the Theater at Madison Square Garden was the place to find fabulous New York Women of all stripes and colors.  But the color to watch for was purple, as in the violet-colored robes of Hunter College graduates. What a fantastic bunch they are.

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Hunter College President, Jennifer Raab

Hunter College is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system.  These are the schools where New York City’s best and brightest traditionally come for an education that is both affordable and excellent. The stories of this year’s graduates shared by Hunter College President Raab show that the tradition is alive and well.  She spoke of courage, perseverance and determination to triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds.  It was a day to celebrate.

This year marked Hunter College’s 213th commencement exercises.  Founded by Thomas Hunter in 1870, Hunter began as a school that educated women.  An Irish immigrant, Hunter led the school as president for 37 years.

President Raab is a New York girl, originally from Washington Heights.  She made the schlep to the Upper East Side to attend Hunter High School during her public school days as the first step to becoming Hunter’s President. A fabulous New York woman who helps other fabulous New York women – lots of them.

Today, Hunter’s roster of students includes women (and men since 1964) who hail from 150 countries.  Many of their families traveled from other continents to mark the celebrations with their graduates.  Hunter College is also the only college in America that has two female Nobel Prize winners on its roster of alumnae.  And the roster gains more fabulous New York women each year.

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Hunter graduates celebrate their achievements.

This year, Hunter’s keynote speaker and President’s Medal Recipient was the media mogul, Arianna Huffington, who co-founded The Huffington Post.  Arianna was born in Greece.  But today, she’s an American citizen and fabulous New York woman with an office in Soho.  Here, she works as Editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post.  She has also written 15 books.  Huffington was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine and is on the Forbes Most Powerful Women list.  In short, she fit right into the spirit, the vision and the accomplishments of Hunter College women.

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Arianna Huffington, Hunter President’s Medal recipient and media mogul

What made me particularly happy about seeing Arianna Huffington on the stage at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, was that my daughter, Alexandra Wang, was one of the four Hunter BA recipients who presented her with the President’s Medal.  I couldn’t be more proud.Like Hunter President, Jennifer Raab, Alex is from Washington Heights and attended New York City public schools.  She will stay at Hunter to begin graduate studies at the School of Education.  Her own future will be dedicated to fighting for the rights of people with disabilities.

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Two generations of Hunter women: Klara Silverstein and Alex Wang

Also on stage at Hunter College was another fabulous New York woman, Klara Silverstein, now Dr. Silverstein.  She received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.  A fabulous New York woman originally from Brooklyn, this was Dr. Silverstein’s third degree from Hunter College.  She also holds a BA in social sciences (’54) and an MS in special education (’56) from Hunter College.  She married New Yorker, Larry Silverstein, 60 years ago.  Together, they have supported education, medical research and organizations that meet humanitarian needs. Fabulous New Yorkers.

In her Charge to the Graduates, President Jennifer Raab urged the students to remember the Hunter College motto:  Mihi Cura Futuri, the care of the future is mine.  With such a dazzling array of talent, determination and education, I have never been more confident in the future contributions of Fabulous New York Women to our great city.  And I have never been more proud.  Congratulations, Alex!

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Mihi Cura Futuri

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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.