St. Louis. I’d never been there until my husband’s recent business trip gave me a chance to check it out. Funny I should have missed it over the years, as I attended grad school in journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I remember piling into into a car with classmates to go eat catfish at a tin-ceiling hotel in Booneville, and traveling to Kansas City for barbeque at Arthur Bryant’s, which Calvin Trillin made famous in a 1972 piece for Playboy.
Though I would have driven through St. Louis coming and going to Columbia from the East, I don’t remember stopping in.
This time, I went with a mission in mind. I was looking for traces of Eliza Scidmore. Early in her career, she wrote frequently for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, then one of the most influential papers west of the Mississippi.
“A sense of place.” Like master biographer Robert Caro, I think it’s crucial to understanding the influences that shape an individual.
Scidmore wrote for the paper from Washington. But did she spend much time in St. Louis? That’s what I hoped to find out. Continue reading →
BIO was born around the time I started my book project, and the organization has been a terrific resource for a novice biographer like me. The members, ranging from Pulitzer Prize winners to beginners, offer a wonderfully democratic network of encouragement and support.
The prize is named in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951-2011), born in London, educated in England and Australia, and a long-time resident of the United States.
Hazel Rowley was an enthusiast of BIO from its inception, understanding the need for biographers to help each other.
Before her untimely death, she wrote four distinguished books: Christina Stead: A Biography, a New York Times “Notable Book”; Richard Wright: The Life and Times, a Washington Post “Best Book”; Tȇte-à-Tȇte: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, translated into 12 languages; and Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, an NPR pick.
Japan’s TBS network aired an hour-long program March 18 in its “Mystery Hunter” series in which I discussed Eliza Scidmore’s role in bringing cherry trees to Washington. I was interviewed for the show last month.
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.
I spent several hours with the film crew on the weekend of February 4. What a hard-working bunch they were. They arrived at our house in Falls Church, Va., just a few hours after flying in from Japan–then did four hours of taping, including translations! Our yellow sun room felt cozy. Birds at the feeder outside the picture window made a nice touch in the film.
The group was thrilled I had a first-edition copy of Scidmore’s 1892 book “Jinrikisha Days in Japan.” I found it on eBay a few years ago for fifty bucks, and though it’s fragile and crumbly, it’s wonderful to see in the original form.
For the TV program — a mix of game show and field adventure — I discussed Eliza Scidmore’s vision of creating a “Mukojima on the Potomac,” inspired by a mile-long avenue of cherry trees in Tokyo a century ago. I visited Mukojima in 2013.
Potomac Park in mid-winter was bleak. And the weather was especially cold for Washington. 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 blooming 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!
My husband and I recently watched a powerful film called “The Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It was interesting in light of my biography of Eliza Scidmore.
Her last book was As the Hague Ordains, a novel about POW conditions in Japan in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. “The Railway Man” is based on a true story of Japanese treatment of a British Army officer captured in Singapore during World War II. Together, they present a sharp contrast. Continue reading →
Donald Trump rode a populist wave to the White House vowing to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Earlier, President Ronald Reagan made it a catchphrase of his vow to reduce the federal bureaucracy.
In Eliza Scidmore’s day, residents complained about the “pestilential swamp” along the Potomac riverbank, near the Washington Monument. Everyone called the marshy area the Potomac flats.
It was a tidal wetlands that for many years served as a place of run-off for sewage and refuse carried by the Washington City Canal. The canal, which ran parallel to the northern edge of the National Mall, had been built as a major commercial waterway to carry goods into the city. But it fell into disuse and became an eyesore in the middle of the capital. During the blitz of city improvements under “Boss” Shepherdin the 1870s, the canal was paved over and is now Constitution Avenue.
As a longtime Washington resident, Eliza Scidmore followed the efforts to clean up the flats and fill in the land. The work began in the 1880s and continued beyond the turn of the century.
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)
From website of “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” by Andrea Zimmerman (Pelican, 2011)
Thanks, Andrea Zimmerman, for adding Eliza Scidmore 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. Eventually, she got her way by securing as an ally another gutsy woman of her day: First Lady Helen Taft. The cherry blossoms we enjoy every spring in Washington show how things turned out.
“Eliza and the Emperor.” That’s the title of an Eliza-inspired mixed-media canvas produced last year for the Carlyle Hotel in Washington by artist Anna Rose Soevik.
“Eliza and the Emperor,” mixed media on canvas, by Anna Rose Soevik
Sovevik, who studied painting in London, lives and works near Washington. She likes big canvases and has done art installations at offices, bookshops and galleries around Washington and in several countries. Her work includes a series of portraits of celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Lady Gaga, and Elvis Costello.
Her description of the Eliza piece is as creative as the art.
Eliza Scidmore and her cat sailed over the rainbow to Japan. She fell head over heals in love with Emperor Keita’s cherry trees and spent many many years finding the perfect spot for the trees in America. She brought back seeds and trees in a beautiful Pea Green Boat. Finally the cherry trees took root around the Jefferson memorial. The birds got a new home and the fish jumped for joy. To celebrate a Japanese lantern was lit, and the Cherry Blossom Festival began.
To my knowledge Eliza never had a cat, though she did have a small lapdog late in life that she spoiled rotten.
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 Scidmore. The line runs through Cora Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), the American-born mistress of Downton Abbey.
Julian Fellowes, the show’s writer, has said Cora was meant to represent the many rich American heiresses of the late 19th century who married into the 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. Eliza Scidmore knew Mary Leiter as a young debutante in Washington.
American heiress Mary Leiter, who became Lady Curzon
Eliza Scidmore appears in a new book by Elizabeth Foxwell,an author who has spent much of her career immersed in mystery and crime fiction. Foxwell is 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 at One More Page Books in Arlington, Va. (Photo: Diana 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 is included in the book among half a dozen female 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 Booksin Arlington, Va.
I discovered LibriVox a couple of years ago and am now a big fan. It’s a free online service of audio books recorded from titles in the public domain. The concept is especially wonderful because all the books are recorded by volunteers. 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 on the treadmill. 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). A recent listen was one of my all-time favorite books, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Also have on my download list some works by John Muirand the British travel writer Isabella Bird. Continue reading →
This is Ichiro Fudai. We’ve never met. But Ichiro and I have corresponded online since he learned about my book project on Eliza Scidmore through a TV program that aired during my research trip to Japan in 2013. Ichiro contacted me about a 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. A close friend of Eliza Scidmore late in life, Dr. Inazo Nitobe, hailed from there.
Trained as an agronomist, Dr. Nitobe became a statesman and worked for the League of Nations in Geneva. That’s where Eliza spent her final years. She socialized with Nitobe and his American-born wife, Mary. Continue reading →
[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 …
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 a letter that helped me resolve a question that turned up when I was doing research in Japan.
At the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, with Washington book-writing colleagues, from left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.
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, writing for a Washington newspaper.
Official Catalogue from 1876 International Exhibition
Many people know about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (technically the World Colombian Exhibition), thanks to books like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.
Eliza Scidmore was there too. The Centennial Exhibition in 1876was 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 →
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 in 1928 while living in Geneva, Switzerland, at 31 Quai du Mont Blanc, overlooking Lake Geneva. A young cousin from Madison, Wisconsin, Mary Atwood, was living with her at the time. Eliza fell ill in early October and underwent an emergency appendectomy. She appeared to be recovering, but failed to rally fully and died on Nov. 3. She was 72.
She left instructions saying she wanted no funeral, but a group of friends in Geneva held a small memorial service. 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. That’s where she rests today, in 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.”
My study desk in the Adams Building of the Library of Congress
Bruce and I are now a 100-percent furloughed household. He’s in a “non-essential” federal job and thus on unofficial R&R. And here’s what the government shutdown looks like from my little spot in the universe. It’s my tiny “study desk” room at the Library of Congress, on the fifth floor of the Adams Building.
I’ve spent tons of hours there, often working late into the evening doing research for my biography of Eliza Scidmore.
And now the library is shuttered. The books I’ve had on reserve 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 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 →
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 Avenue and L Street, a block north of Farragut Square [correction made], 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 Europe. (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. (Photo: Diana Parsell)
One morning I went to the Brooklyn Museum with a writing colleague to track down an important document. Another day I took a very long walk — 80 blocks, in fact — from my hotel to W. 122nd Street. My destination was Sakura Park, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Sakura Park in New York (Photo: Diana 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 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. He was one of the founders of the Japan Society in New York, which Eliza Scidmore joined. His elegant Beaux-Arts townhouse at 334 Riverside Dr. garnered attention for its splendid Japanese-style interior. An acquaintance of Eliza Scidmore, Dr. Takamine played a critical role in bringing cherry trees to Washington.
When I started this blog 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 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 Scidmore” on the tombstone is the name of her mother, first buried at the site. (Photo: Diana 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 →
NHK television in Japan featured on its evening news program last Saturday (March 30) a 10-minute segment about my research on Eliza Scidmore. It included scenes at a popular spot in Tokyofor viewing sakura (cherry blossoms).
Among the viewers who responded 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)
He and his wife, Yoshiko, invited me for coffee. When I met them today they presented me with a gift of the black-and-white photo, beautifully mounted in a frame. I look forward to hanging it in my office back home in Washington as a wonderful reminder of my trip to Japan. Continue reading →
In Yokohama to do research for my book on Eliza Scidmore, I took a bus across town Friday morning to attend a ceremonial planting of dogwood trees at Honmoku Sanchou Park. 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 varietiesin 1906, a few years before they were planted in West Potomac Park, to test their growing qualities in an experimental 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 trip here. Scidmore described the Japanese as “necromancers” who coaxed something magical from plants.
On Saturday I literally walked in Eliza Scidmore’s footsteps when I went to Tokyo to see the cherry tree viewing (hanami) at Mukojima. The original mile-long stretch of cherry trees lining the Sumida River was the chief inspiration for Scidmore’s idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington. She envisioned, she wrote many times, a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”
Picnicking and cherry tree viewing at Mukojima in Tokyo, an inspiration for Eliza Scidmore in the late 19th century (Photos: Diana Parsell)
It wasn’t just the blossoms that Scidmore wanted to import. She loved the celebrations when the Japanese turned out in droves to see the trees in 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 hanamiremains 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!
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 and what I’ve learned about Eliza’s life. The show is scheduled to air on March 30, when the trees in Japan should be at peak bloom.
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. I took afternoon walks along mountain ridges and fell asleep to the moaning of coyotes in the arroyos.
Me in Santa Fe 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 dear friends since Bruce and I came to know them a decade ago when we all lived 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!
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.
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.
Hand-colored photo of geishas at a tea ceremony, from the early 1900s, in National Geographic’s Eliza Scidmore collection of photos. The high quality and studio setting suggests the photo may have been by a professional and acquired by Eliza. (Source: National Geographic)
Of all I’ve learned about Eliza Scidmore so far, nothing has excited my imagination so much as her first trip to Alaska, in 1883, on a pioneering voyage to Glacier Bay. She was 26.
Eliza was working at the time as a newspaper correspondent — a “lady writer,” as the press called female society reporters in Washington. She already had several years of experience in journalism, after breaking into the field by covering the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876, now regarded as America’s first world’s fair.
To Eliza, always in search of the next big story, Alaska had the smell of opportunity.
The region had been part of the United States only 16 years. To most Americans it was still a foreign land.
Traveling with a friend, she crossed the continent by train that summer and boarded a steamer in Port Townsend, Wash., for the journey north to Alaska.
Mail steamers offered the only means of transport to the wilderness area. The ships made monthly circuits up and down the Inside Passage, with stops at frontier settlements in southeastern Alaska.
During Eliza’s month-long voyage, the captain of her ship, the Idaho, grew intrigued by reports of magnificent glaciers that had been reported by John Muir, who explored the area by canoe a few years earlier with a group of local Indians.
On a clear day in mid-July, Captain James Carroll sailed off the known course and guided the ship into the upper reaches of the icy waters that had not as yet been charted.
Eliza and her fellow passengers became the first tourists to visit Glacier Bay. She wrote about the experience for newspapers, and after repeating the journey the following summer she turned her dispatches into her first book, Alaska: Its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago (1885).
Other ships soon took up the route as well, laying the seeds of an Alaska cruise industry over the next decade.
I’ve tried to capture the wonder of that historic voyage in the video above, which I made in a recent Technology Tools for Writers class at Johns Hopkins, offered by the M.A. in writing program (from which I’m a graduate). I’m grateful to instructor and multimedia maven Rae Bryant for her assistance.
The steamer “Idaho” at wharf in Juneau in 1887, a few years after Eliza Scidmore’s historic journey aboard the ship when it carried tourists into Glacier Bay for the first time (Source: Alaska State Library)
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 →