Category Archives: Biography

Japanese Treatment of POWs and Eliza Scidmore’s Last Book

Bruce and I watched a powerful film last weekend called “The Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It’s a dark but ultimately redemptive tale, based on a true story of Japanese treatment of a British Army officer captured in Singapore during World War II.

The film was interesting in light of a section I’m now working on for my biography of Eliza Scidmore. The chapter looks at her last book, As the Hague Ordains,  a novel about POW conditions in Japan in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. It was her only work of fiction.

Eliza was in the Far East on a reporting trip when the war broke out. She got permission from the Japanese War Ministry to visit sites around the country where Russian prisoners were being held, in temples, schools and community centers. One of the four places she visited was Matsuyama, on the island of Shikoku along the Inland Sea. That’s where the book is set.

The topic of POWs interested Eliza because the First International Peace Conference, held at The Hague in 1899, had produced accords governing humane treatment of war captives. One provision called specifically for belligerent countries to treat prisoners of war “as regards food,  quarters and clothing, on the same footing as the troops of the Government which has captured them.” Eliza was curious to see how they were being carried out.

Photograph of prisoner-of-war camp in Japan, from “As the Hague Ordains” (Henry Holt and Co., 1907)

At all the POW camps she visited in Japan, Eliza found the treatment of Russian prisoners exemplary. Even local residents acted sympathetically to the captives, plying them with cigarettes, plums and fans when they arrived on the island.

Because the POW issue was complicated to report in a magazine article, Eliza said, she wrote a novel instead. “I didn’t think people were likely to read a serious article about prisoners of war,” she told a reporter, “but they might do so if the issue were presented in lighter form.” The book purports to be the journal of  a Russian officer’s wife who goes to the bedside of her wounded husband in Japan.

“The Railway Man” shows a very different picture 40 years later, when brutality at many POW camps made war a living hell even off the battlefield.

The main character in “The Railway Man,” Eric Lomax, is one of thousands of Allied prisoners of war sent to help build the Thai/Burma railway under hellhole conditions. He cobbles together a secret radio to bring news and hope to his colleagues. When it’s discovered, he’s accused of being a spy and brutally tortured.

Back home in Scotland, the experience has left him traumatized, threatening a late-in-life marriage that offers a chance at happiness. After learning that the young Japanese officer who tormented him is still alive—giving tours of the old torture camp, no less—Eric sets out to confront him.

Not an easy movie to watch, but one of great human drama, historical insight and good acting.

Order of the Sacred Crown medal (also known as Order of the Precious Crown)

As the Hague Ordains was first published anonymously—reflecting perhaps Eliza’s nervousness at trying her hand at fiction, or to preserve her integrity as a journalist.

Soon after she was revealed as the author in 1908, the Emperor of Japan awarded her the country’s Order of the Sacred Crown. “She wore it,” one friend recalled years later, “when the appropriateness of the occasion overcame her modest inclination to parade her honor.”

 

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‘On the Hunt’ for Cherry Blossoms With a Film Crew from Japan

On the weekend of March 4, I spent several hours with a film crew from Japan, explaining the origin of Washington’s cherry blossoms and Eliza Scidmore’s role in helping to bring them to America. They’re producing a documentary for the TBS network, to air on March 18, 2017, as part of its “Mystery Hunter” series.

From left, reporter Nakada Asumi, assistant director Hoshuyama Aki, me, production coordinator Keiji Jinn Nishimura (in glasses, center), director Suzuki Yohei, audio man Sakuma Toshimi and camera man Fukumoto Noriyuki.

What a hard-working group they were.  They visited me at home for an interview on Friday afternoon — just hours after arriving on a long flight from Tokyo!

We regrouped on Sunday in West Potomac Park, at the site where the first cherry trees from Japan  were planted in March 1912. Fortunately, as production coordinator Keiji “Jinn” Nishimura (back center) told me, they also filmed the cherry trees in bloom last spring, so they have footage of the peak season.

It was a joy to meet and work with such talented professionals.

After leaving me at mid-afternoon on Sunday, they headed off across town to film … the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl!

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Before ‘Drain the Swamp,’ Washington Filled It In. Now We Have Potomac Park.

Incoming president Donald Trump rode a populist wave to the White House vowing to “drain the swamp” of political insiders in Washington. Earlier, President Ronald Reagan made it a catchphrase of his efforts to reduce the federal bureaucracy.

Eliza Scidmore, the subject of my book in progress, was working as a young newspaper correspondent in the 1880s when she reported on a literal swamp clean-up in Washington.

In this 1863 photo, the stump of the Washington Monument in the far distance is surrounded by the swampy Potomac flats, which were filled in beginning in 1882. (Photo by Titan Peale, U. of Rochester Rare Books Collection)

The “swamp” was actually an area of marshy tidal wetlands. Today we know that part of Washington as Potomac Park—home of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Tidal Basin and the city’s famous Japanese cherry trees. Continue reading

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‘She Persisted.’ A Century Ago.

From website of “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” by Andrea Zimmerman (Pelican, 2011)

Thanks, Andrea Zimmerman, for adding Eliza Scidmire to the Internet meme of “women who persisted.”

On the floor of Congress this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren opposed Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination as U.S. attorney by attempting to read a letter written by the late widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell cut off Warren, saying:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

“She persisted” quickly became a bumper-sticker slogan on social media, prompting references to trailblazing women of the past.

Women like Eliza Scidmore.

Andrea Zimmerman, in Washington for a book reading

In a Facebook posting, Andrea Zimmerman, author of the children’s book “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” added Scidmore to the list of history’s defiantly successful women. As Andrea noted, it took Eliza 24 years to win support for her idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in the Potomac Park.

Eliza Scidmore was a young woman with a crazy idea, and the male park supervisors she approached with her suggestion brushed her off. Several times.

But she persisted, and eventually found an ally in First Lady Helen Taft. The cherry blossoms we enjoy every spring in Washington show how things turned out.

 

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The Tokyo Park Behind D.C.’s Cherry Trees

Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

“No other flower in all the world is so beloved, so exalted, so worshipped, as sakura-no-hana, the cherry-blossom of Japan.”
— Eliza Scidmore, The Century Magazine, May 1910

It’s blooming time in D.C. That means cherry tree fever along the Tidal Basin. Bruce and I made our annual pilgrimage early Saturday morning, under a clear but chilly sky.

Today is the trees’ official birthday. The first ones donated by Japan were planted in Washington on March 27, 1912.  Eliza Scidmore was one of only three special guests of First Lady Helen Taft on hand to witness the small private ceremony.

Eliza, who was the first person to suggest planting flowering cherry trees along the Potomac, said she got the idea while visiting Japan in the 1880s. One cherry-tree park in particular inspired her: Mukojima, a mile-long avenue of trees along the Sumida River in Tokyo.

I had a chance to visit Mukojima during a research trip to Japan. It looks very different today, but the spirit of fellowship and good will that so inspired Eliza is still evident today in the ancient ritual of hanami — cherry-blossom viewing.

Eliza wrote that she wanted to create a “Mukojima on the Potomac.” Here are some historic photos of what Mukojima looked like around the time Eliza went there.

Ramble under the cherry trees, around the time when Eliza Scidmore traveled in Japan (Takashima, 1897)

Ramble under the trees at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

 

Hand-colored postard of Mukojima

Hand-colored postcard of Mukojima

 

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s Mukojima, from Frank Brinkley's 10-volume “Japan”

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s 10-volume illustrated book “Japan”

 

 

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‘Downton Abbey,’ An American Heiress and Eliza Scidmore

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Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Grantham in “Downton Abbey”

OK, fellow “Downtown Abbey” addicts, I managed to find a connection between the TV series and the subject of my biography in progress, the 19th-century American travel writer Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore. The line runs through Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), the American-born mistress of Downton Abbey.

Julian Fellowes, the show’s writer, has said that Cora was meant to represent the many rich American heiresses of the late 19th century who married into the often-impoverished British aristocracy. The press dubbed them “dollar princesses.”

The most famous of them was Mary Leiter, who led a glamorous life as Lady Curzon. Her father was a wealthy dry goods merchant from Chicago who made a fortune in partnership with the department store mogul Marshall Field.

Fellowes stressed that he didn’t model Cora specifically on Mary Leiter. But there are many parallels in their lives. And Eliza Scidmore’s world intersected with that of Mary Leiter.

LadyCurzon_MaryLeiter_MagPortrait

American heiress Mary Leiter, who became Lady Curzon

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Eliza Scidmore and Other Women in WWI

Elizabeth Foxwell has spent much of her career immersed in mystery and crime fiction. She’s a scholar of the genre, has won an Agatha Award for her stories, reviews mysteries for Publisher’s Weekly, and is managing editor of Clues: A Journal of Detection.

Elizabeth Foxwell reads from her book at One More Page Books in Arlington, Va. (Photo: D. Parsell)

Elizabeth Foxwell reads at One More Page Books in Arlington, Va. (Photo: D. Parsell)

She took a very different turn in her latest project: an anthology of writings by American women who served in World War I. Titled In Their Own Words , it uses letters, journal entries, and articles to present a cross-section of women’s experiences in the war.

Eliza Scidmore appears in the book, among half a dozen female war correspondents.

Eliza was in Japan in the summer of 1914 when Japan declared war on Germany. She published an article in The Outlook magazine describing Japan’s entry into the war as an ally of France and Russia. Foxwell read an excerpt from it during an author’s talk last night at One More Page Bookstore in Arlington, Va.

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LibriVox Features Eliza Scidmore, on Alaska

Eliza Scidmore has made her debut appearance on LibriVox.

I discoverNGcovered LibriVox a couple of years ago and am now a big fan. It’s free online service of audiobooks recorded from titles in the public domain. The concept is especially wonderful because all the books are recorded by volunteers. And the readers are people from around the world. A big, beautiful universe of book lovers.

LibriVox is great for easing my resistance to gym workouts. I’ve found it’s also a nice, soothing way to “read” in bed on a winter night before falling asleep.

I’ve been working my way through some of the classics I missed. So far: Middlemarch (tough to absorb in audio of mixed narrators, so I followed along in a paperback), several Edith Wharton novels and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the reader was brilliant, quite theatrical in his reading). My latest listen is one of my all-time favorite books, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Also have on my download list some works by John Muir and the British travel writer Isabella Bird. Continue reading

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My ‘Pen Pal’ Research Partner in Japan

This is Ichiro Fudai. We’ve never met — in person.

Ichiro Fudai at home in Hanamaki, Japan

Ichiro Fudai at home in Hanamaki, Japan

But Ichiro has become a research collaborator in Japan, after he found out about my book project on Eliza Scidmore and discovered an important connection in his hometown of Hanamaki.

Ichiro, who has visited the United States and has excellent command of English, lives in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture. That’s the home region of a man who became a close friend of Eliza Scidmore late in life, Dr. Inazo Nitobe.

Trained as an agronomist, Dr. Nitobe became a statesman and, like Eliza Scidmore, an advocate for international peace. Late in life he worked for the League of Nations in Geneva, where Eliza spent her final years. She socialized often with Dr. Nitobe and his American-born wife, Mary.

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Robert Caro and a Sense of Place in Biography

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Robert Caro at 2011 BIO conference in Washington

I’m grateful to Steve Weinberg, a journalist and biographer (and one of my former journalism school profs at the U. of Missouri), for flagging this article in The Daily Beast. It describes the evolution of legendary biographer Robert Caro’s first book: ‘The Power Broker’ Turns 40: How Robert Caro Wrote a Masterpiece.

The book is huge—1,200 pages. Intimidating. But based on this article, I’m inspired to track it down and study Caro’s style.

Caro’s keynote speech on the craft of biography impressed me three years ago at a Biographers International Organization conference in Washington. He talked about the importance of place and setting.

[I]f the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character  …

The message resonated with me because I’ve focused a lot on conveying a sense of place in the first two draft chapters of my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

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In Boston, Biographers and a Lost Letter by Eliza Scidmore

Whether novice or experienced, biographers have a great resource in Biographers International Organization. It was founded five years ago by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris and others to provide collegiality and support.

I’ve attended three of BIO’s annual conferences. This year’s, held in Boston in May, was the best yet. Three colleagues from my book-writing group were also there. And on a research jaunt to the Boston Public Library I found—buried in an archive—a very important letter by Eliza Scidmore. (Read more below.)

Happy campers at the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, all of us members of a book-writing group in Washington. From left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

At the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, with Washington book-writing colleagues, from left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

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At America’s First World’s Fair, Eliza Scidmore and … Irish Oatmeal!

When you’re working on a book involving U.S. history, you see connections everywhere.

The latest for me is steel-cut oats, which I love for their chewy nuttiness. Oatmeal really fuels you to start the day, without the hunger pangs I usually get around 11:00 when I have my other standard breakfast: Greek yogurt with berries and meusli. The only drawback is that old-fashioned oatmeal takes 30 minutes to cook.

While waiting for the pot to boil a few days ago, I noticed an intriguing link to a chapter I’m working on for my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

The steel-cut oats I bought are imported from Ireland under the company name “John McCann.” The arty label — if it’s not just a fake marketing ploy — features a “Certificate of Award” for the product from the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia. That was America’s first World’s Fair, held for the 100th anniversary of U.S. independence.

The exposition is where Eliza Scidmore made her reporting debut, at the age of 19. She covered the fair for the National Republican newspaper in Washington.

http://www.lcpimages.org/centennial/img/Am1876UniStaCen-52009-O-6.jpg

Official Catalogue from 1876 International Exhibition

Many people know about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (technically the World Columbian Exhibition), thanks to books like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. Eliza was at that event too. But the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 was the first big event of its kind in the United States, and most Americans had never seen anything like it. During the six-month run, from May to November 1876, it drew about 9 million visitors. The admission fee was 50 cents.  Continue reading

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Marking the Anniversary of Eliza Scidmore’s Death

November 3 was the anniversary of Eliza Scidmore‘s death. Today I received photos from Mina Ozawa and Kaoro Onji, who paid a visit to Eliza’s gravesite in Yokohama. I met both woman last spring during a research trip to Japan. Together they work to keep the memory of  Eliza Scidmore alive through an annual memorial ceremony at her gravesite during cherry tree season in Japan. I found the somber tone of this autumn photo touching compared with the cemetery as I saw it in April, when the overhanging cherry tree was in glorious bloom.      

Eliza Scidmore’s gravesite in Yokohama on the Nov. 3 anniversary of her death (Photo: Mina Ozawa)

Eliza Scidmore died while living in Geneva, Switzerland, in an apartment she rented at 31 Quai du Mont-Blanc. A young cousin from Madison, Wisconsin, Mary Atwood, was living with her at the time. They were planning a winter trip to Italy when Eliza fell ill in early October and underwent an emergency appendectomy.

She was presumably recovering, but failed to rally fully and died on Nov. 3, at 2:30 in the morning. Her death certificate, as reported by the American Consulate, indicates that she died of “congestion of the lungs and heart failure.” She was 72.

Eliza had left instructions that she wanted to be cremated and her ashes to be disposed of properly. She also indicated that she wanted no funeral. But a group of American and Japanese friends disregarded her wishes and held a memorial service at the American Church in Geneva on Nov. 7.

Some of them appealed to the family to have her ashes returned to Japan so she could be laid to rest with her mother and brother. A year after her death a Japanese official carried her ashes to Japan. Several American and Japanese dignitaries were present at the interment in September 1929 at the Foreign General Cemetery in Yokohama.

One U.S. newspaper that reported Eliza’s death wrote:

“It is probable, and indeed it has been conceded in Europe and this country, that no American woman had a more cosmopolitan assembly of friends or more varied interests of work than Miss Scidmore has enjoyed.”   

     

 

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Shut Out From the Library of Congress

My study desk in the Adams Building of the Library of Congress

Bruce and I are now a 100-percent furloughed household. He’s officially in a “non-essential” job and thus on unofficial R&R. And here’s what the government shutdown today looks like from my little spot in the universe.

It’s my “study desk” at the Library of Congress, a tiny room down a long, dimly lit corridor. From the single narrow window, there on the fifth floor, I can gaze across the rooftops on Capitol Hill and see the faint blue-grey ribbon of the Potomac River on the horizon. I’ve spent tons of hours there, sometimes working late into the evening.

And now it’s shuttered.

The 50 or so books I have in reserve on a bookshelf are off limits for the time being. No online advance ordering of any more books, either, since the library’s Website has also gone dark. 

A lot of people today seem to think you can do all the research you need to online. But I’ve found the resources of the Library of Congress  indispensable to my project. Continue reading

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Eliza Scidmore Slept Here …

In the course of research I’ve been finding addresses of various places where Eliza Scidmore lived or stayed over the years. Since she was such a vagabond, there were many! Here’s a photographic chronology of a few of them.

David Atwood House, Madison, Wisconsin.
David Atwood, editor and publisher of “The State Journal,” married the sister of Eliza’s mother. As a young woman Eliza was close to her cousin Mary Atwood. Eliza stayed here with the Atwoods during visits back to Madison, where she spent her early childhood years. (Source: Wisconsin State Historical Society)

Georgetown Visitation.
Eliza attended this Catholic boarding school in Washington from 1862-63, when she was around 6 to 7 years old. It opened in 1799 and is still operating today. (Source: Library of Congress)

 

“Idaho,” Juneau, 1887.
Eliza slept in a cabin aboard this steamer in the summer of 1883 when she made her first trip to Alaska via the Inside Passage. The wharf shown here was named for the ship’s captain, James Carroll, who became an early promoter of Alaska tourism. (Source: Alaska State Library)

 

Club Hotel, Yokohama.
Eliza and her mother stayed here on their first trip to Japan in the summer of 1885. The hotel, next to a popular men’s club, overlooked the harbor on an avenue known as the Bund. Later, Eliza and her mother lived next door, at No. 6 Bund, while Eliza’s brother George was a consular official in Japan. Today the site is occupied by the Hotel Monterrey. (Source: MeijiShowa)

 

Brunswick Hotel, Boston.
A lot of Washington residents fled the muggy city in the summer for fashionable spas or cooler places in New England. Eliza and her mother stayed at times at this popular hotel in Boston. (Source: Library of Congress)

 

Shoreham Hotel, Washington.
Built in 1887, this apartment hotel at H and 15th Streets, N.W., became a popular residence for members of Congress. Eliza was staying here in the fall of 1895 when she wrote to John Muir describing her recent “circumnavigation” of the Far East. It included a trip to Java she wrote about in one of her books. The hotel was razed in 1974 for an office building. (Source: unknown)

1837 M St., N.W., Washington.
Eliza resided in this house in the Dupont Circle neighborhood from around 1910 to 1912 [view is seen from around the corner, on 19th Street]. So she was probably living here when she attended the planting of the first Japanese cherry trees in Potomac Park on March 27, 1912, as a guest of First Lady Helen Taft. The American writer John Dos Passos later lived here for a time. (Source: Library of Congress)

Stoneleigh Courts, Washington.
By 1920 Eliza lived in No. 510 at this luxury apartment building that had as its major investors the former Secretary of State John Hay. Located at Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues, now Dupont Circle, [Correction: located on Connecticut Avenue, just north of Farragut Square], it was built in an innovative horseshoe layout, with a central courtyard that allowed light to interior apartments. Eliza’s neighbors included many eminent people. (Source: Library of Congress)

31 Quai du Mont Blanc, Geneva, Switzerland.
This shows the site of the apartment building facing Lake Geneva where Eliza was living in at the time of her death in 1928. She had moved permanently to Geneva in part to follow developments at the League of Nations. She found the weather dreary much of the year, so she vacationed regularly with family and friends in southern Italy and France. (Photo: Jacques Lasserre)

 

Foreign General Cemetery, Yokohama.
Eliza’s final place of sleep is in a cemetery in Yokohama, where her ashes were laid with those of her mother and brother. Her inscription on the gravestone is beneath the cross. The overhanging cherry tree in bloom  was planted by Japanese who pay tribute to her every spring. It was propagated from one of the trees Japan gave to Washington in 1912. A plaque by the grave reads: “A lady who loved cherry blossoms rests here in peace.” (Photo: D.L. Parsell)

 

 

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New York’s Sakura Park, and a Hop Over to Brooklyn

I went to New York recently for the annual Biographers International Organization conference. It gave me a chance to follow a couple of research leads for my biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore.

One morning I headed off with a writing colleague to chase down an important document at the Brooklyn Museum. I also took an unexpectedly long walk — more than 80 blocks, as it turned out, from my hotel at E. 45th Street to W. 122nd Street. My destination was Sakura Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Sakura Park in New York, with a stone torii from Japan (Photos: D. Parsell)

We hear a lot about the cherry trees Japan donated to Washington in 1912. But few people know a similar shipment of trees was planted in New York around the same time. It was the project of a group that called themselves the Committee of Japanese Residents of New York. They arranged to donate a couple thousand cherry trees in 1909 for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, marking the centennial of Robert Fulton’s demonstration of a steam-powered boat on the Hudson River and the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river.

The committee of Japanese residents included Jokichi Takamine. Early in the 20th century he was one of the founders of the Japan Society in New York, which Eliza Scidmore joined. He  lived in an elegant Beaux-Arts townhouse at 334 Riverside Dr. (between 105 and 106th Streets) that became famous for its splendid interior featuring Japanese design and furnishings. A longtime acquaintance of Eliza Scidmore, Dr. Takamine also played a critical role in bringing cherry trees to Washington. 

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The Eliza Scidmore Society

When I started this blog more than a year ago, my first post was a photo of Eliza Scidmore’s grave site in Yokohama, sent to me by a Japanese friend. I knew at the time I would eventually have to travel to Japan to do research for my book on Eliza—and to see her grave site.

Today I joined members of the Eliza Scidmore Cherry Blossom Society (Sakura-no-Kai) at an annual memorial service at her grave.

Kaoru Onji places flowers at Eliza Scidmore’s grave in Yokohama. “Eliza Catherine” on the tombstone is the name of her mother, first buried at the site. (Photo: D. Parsell)

Kaoru Onji, a retired professor of organic chemistry, coordinates the activities of the Eliza Scidmore Society. Assisting her is Mina Ozawa, director of the Yamate Museum. This year about three dozen members of the Society and other guests gathered amid fierce winds for the brief ceremony, then enjoyed a buffet luncheon.

The society grew from a group of people who shared an interest in Eliza Scidmore‘s story after her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan was translated into Japanese. In 1987 they visited her grave during cherry-blossom season to pay tribute. The ritual has continued. Today the group has about 50 members. Continue reading

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A Gift of ‘Sakura’

On its evening news program last Saturday (March 30), NHK television in Japan aired a 10-minute segment about my research on Eliza Scidmore. It included scenes at a popular spot in Tokyo for viewing sakura (cherry blossoms).

Among the viewers who responded to the program was Akira Yamamoto. His chief hobby is photography, and he thought I might like having a photo he took that captured the meaning of sakura in Japan—the spirit of goodwill associated with cherry-blossom viewing.

With Akira Yamamoto and his photo of “sakura” (Photo by Yoshiko Yamamoto)

Today he and his wife, Yoshiko, invited me for coffee and presented me with a gift of the B&W photo, beautifully mounted in a frame. I look forward to hanging it in my home office in the States as a wonderful reminder of my trip to Japan. Continue reading

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Yokohama Nursery Company

Trademark coat (Photo: D. Parsell)

That coat. I knew it at first glance.

On Friday morning I took a bus across town to attend a ceremonial planting of dogwood trees at Honmoku Sanchou Park in Yokohama. They were part of a consignment of 3,000 dogwood trees that America gave to Japan last year in exchange for Japan’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to Washington 100 years ago.

The mayor of Yokohama and the U.S. ambassador to Japan were on hand for the event. But what caught my eye was the back of the Japanese gentleman who took the seat in front of me. He was wearing an indigo-blue cotton coat emblazoned with the words “The Yokohama Nursery Co.” Turns out he was the company’s executive vice president, Kazua Ariyoshi.

Gardener at Yokohama Nursery, 1901 (Photo: David Fairchild, “The World Was My Garden”)

I remembered seeing  a photo of that coat—or one very much like it—in David Fairchild’s memoir The World Was My Garden.

Fairchild was a botanist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who traveled the world seeking different kinds of edible and ornamental plants to import to the United States. During a plant-prospecting trip to Japan in 1902 he learned about the country’s flowering cherry trees and their beautiful blooms. Fairchild imported several varieties in 1906, a few years before they were planted in West Potomac Park, to test their growing qualities in a test garden he established at his country home just outside Washington, D.C.

Fairchild described visiting the Yokohama Nursery Co. and the friendship he developed with one of the owners, Uhei Suzuki.

Color plate from seed and bulb catalog of the Yokohama Nursery Company, 1909-10

The nursery, founded by a coalition of gardeners in 1893, did a booming business shipping plants to buyers in the West. It had branch offices in New York and London. The company’s most popular export was lily bulbs, but it also provided many other plants, including shrubs, ferns and trees.

Eliza Scidmore visited the nursery during her frequent travels to Japan. She wrote a lot about the Japanese passion for flowers and gardens—a trait I’ve seen in the past two weeks during my first trip here.  Scidmore described the Japanese as “necromancers” who coaxed something magical from plants.

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Cherry Blossom Viewing at ‘Mukojima’ in Tokyo

Picnicking and cherry tree viewing at Mukojima in Tokyo (Photos: D. Parsell)

On Saturday I literally walked in Eliza Scidmores footsteps when I went to Tokyo to see the cherry tree viewing (hanami) at a place called Mukojima. A mile-long stretch of cherry trees lining the Sumida River, it was the chief inspiration for Eliza’s idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington. She envisioned, she wrote many times, a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”

It wasn’t just the trees that Eliza wanted to import. She found herself captivated by the spirit of cherry tree viewing, and it was that experience she wanted to see re-created in Washington. She described, in the late 19th century, the Japanese turning out in many parks to see the trees at peak bloom.

The most festive place was Mukojima. It was like the “people’s park,” where Japanese from all walks of life mingled in a carnival atmosphere. There were jugglers, acrobats, orators and vendors. And lots of saké drinking and picnicking. The place is much changed today, of course. Most of the original trees were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and had to be replanted. The Sumida River today is wider. Tall buildings tower above one side of the riverbank, and the other has a raised freeway running parallel to a stretch of cherry trees. But the display is still glorious, and the spirit of hanami remains the same.

It was a joy to be there and experience it. The trees bloomed about two weeks earlier than expected here in Japan, so my timing was perfect!  Continue reading

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Off to Japan, in Eliza Scidmore’s Footsteps

By the Tidal Basin in Washington with reporter Miki Ebara, in front of the first two cherry trees from Japan planted on March 27, 1912, and a 300-year-old lantern from Japan (Source: NHK TV)

A busy Saturday. I just spent five hours with a film crew from the New York bureau of Japan’s NHK television, talking about my research on Eliza Scidmore.

Miki Ebara, the chief correspondent in New York,  first contacted me a year ago not long after I launched this blog. She covers disasters as part of her duties and was familiar with Eliza Scidmore’s reporting on the great tsunami on the northeast coast of Japan in 1896. 

Miki and I reconnected several weeks ago when I started thinking about making a trip to Japan for some necessary research. Cherry blossom season seemed the best time to go, so things have moved along very quickly. I’m off early next week. First trip to Japan.

Because she shares my fascination with Eliza, Miki decided to do a news feature on the cherry trees in Washington with a segment on my research, especially details I’ve uncovered about Eliza’s early life. The show is scheduled to air on March 30, when the trees in Japan should be at peak bloom.

Eliza has become increasingly well known in Japan because of her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan and her role in bringing cherry trees to Washington, so there’s much curiosity about her. There’s even an information sign about her posted outside one of Yokohama’s metro stations, near the cemetery where she’s buried. Continue reading

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A Home in Santa Fe

“My” casita in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Time was my Valentine this year. Long blocks of uninterrupted time.

I’m just back from three blissful weeks of solitude and seclusion in a cozy casita in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside Santa Fe, where I worked on my book about Eliza Scidmore.

Amid the desolation of winter in the East I came home recharged. And with some new ideas and answers to many questions I’d had about the daunting endeavor of writing a biography for the first time.

After a dinner party where I read an excerpt from my book for a select group of Santa Fe’s literati, Jamie offered good feedback.

I’m grateful to the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris and his wife, Patty, for sponsoring the residency through a Mayborn Fellowship in Biography.

Over dinner and stimulating conversation every evening, I discovered they’re both exceptional people—warm, generous, nurturing and neighborly. I like and admire them both a lot. I also learned Jamie is a terrific cook! (Can’t wait to make his yummy spinach-feta pie recipe.)

My desk in the casita faced a picture window that opened onto the landscape. During long stretches of writing, revision and cogitation, I watched fresh snowfall and a freakish hailstorm. Listened to the comical stomping of ravens across the roof. Built robust fires in my kiva fireplace. Took afternoon walks along mountain ridges and fell asleep to the moaning of coyotes in the arroyos.

Me on Canyon Road (Photo: Tom Stephens)

I also made regular forays into town, where I hung out with Tom and Carol Stephens. They’ve been wonderful friends since Bruce and I came to know them a decade ago when we were all living in Jakarta. They recently retired in Santa Fe after spending 34 years overseas with USAID.

Santa Fe is celebrated for its many great restaurants, and I enjoyed a few with Tom and Carol. We also visited some museums and did a lot of walking.

I didn’t know Santa Fe, and it came as quite a surprise to me to discover what a vibrant literary town it is. It has scores of writers—and 16 independent bookstores!

 

 

 

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Giving the Gift of Biography

What better gift is there than books? With Christmas shopping at hand, I have a few biographies and memoirs in mind for people on my list.

John James Audubon: The Making of an American (2006). Don’t know how I missed this when it was first released in 2oo4 since Audubon is a figure who’s long fascinated me and my husband and I are both fans of big biographies. After I heard the author Richard Rhodes speak last summer at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, I rushed out to buy this for someone special on my Christmas list (which means I’ll get to read it when he’s done). Born in 1785 in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) as the bastard son of a French naval officer and a chambermaid, Audubon went to America as a young man to escape military conscription. Fascinated by birds, he spent 35 years wandering the American wilderness to paint them, resulting in his famous multi-volume Birds of America. Amusing observation in Jonathan Rosen’s New York Times review: “His birds are weirdly anthropomorphic (his white pelican looks as if it might consult a pocket watch before flying) and yet they are preternaturally realistic. They look like people who have been turned into birds and might turn back at any enchanted moment, but they have the simultaneous effect of returning their viewers to the wilderness.”

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Mayborn Fellowship in Biography

An exciting development to report: Last month at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Texas I was awarded this year’s Mayborn Fellowship in Biography. It provides an “emerging biographer” with writing time during a short-term residency in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, north of Santa Fe, N.M. I’ll be working on my biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore.

James McGrath Morris (Photo: Michael Mudd)

What excites me most is that the fellowship includes mentoring by the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris. Besides this fellowship he inaugurated a program at Mayborn to coach high schools students in the skills of writing biography. Read Jamie’s delightful account of how, for his monumental biography on the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, he tracked down a long-lost diary of Pulitzer’s brother, Albert, then flew off to Paris to meet with Albert’s 85-year-old granddaughter Muriel,  a sculptor with a rooftop atelier at Saint-Sulpice church.

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Guest Blog Post on Eliza Scidmore

Ken Ackerman, the author of books on J. Edgar Hoover, “Boss” Tweed and other larger-than-life characters, writes a blog on people, politics and the world, Viral History. He offered me space today to write about Eliza Scidmore while the cherry trees are in bloom. Visit his blog and check out my post.

Geishas at a tea ceremony, hand-colored photo by Eliza Scidmore, from the early 1900s (Source: National Geographic)

 

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Writing Women’s History

Detail from Great Hall at Library of Congress (Photo: Diana Parsell)

Today is the first Thursday of the month. That calls for packing my lunch so I can join the Women’s History Discussion Group at the Library of Congress.

We all crowd into a small conference room and sit around sharing ideas about research avenues for the various projects we’re working on. The moderators — Barbara Natanson (Prints and Photographs Division), Janice Ruth (Manuscript Division) and Kristi Conkle (Humanities and Social Sciences Division) — offer the kind of tips that could take outsiders years to figure out on their own. Continue reading

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