Category Archives: D.C. History

My Book Proposal on Eliza Scidmore Wins Biography Prize

In Boston with Gayle Feldman, awards committee chairman, who presented me with BIO’s Hazel Rowley Award for my book proposal for a biography of Eliza Scidmore (Photo: James McGrath Morris)

My book project on Eliza Scidmore was awarded the 2017 Hazel Rowley Prize, given by the International Biographers Organization (BIO) for the best proposal for a first biography. I received the award May 20 at BIO’s conference in Boston.

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.

 

 

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Filed under Biography, Books, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Women's History, Writing: Craft & Community

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

On the weekend of February 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 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.

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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 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.

 

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Eliza Scidmore as Wall Art

“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.

ElizaCarlyleMural_AnnaRoseSoevik_2015

“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.

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Filed under Biography, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan

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 attended the small private planting ceremony as one of only three special guests of First Lady Helen Taft.

Scidmore, who got the ball rolling, said her idea of creating a grove of cherry-blossom trees along the Potomac came to her after she began visiting Japan in 1885. One park that 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 in 2013. 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

ElizMcGovern_LadyGrantham_TabletMag

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 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.

LadyCurzon_MaryLeiter_MagPortrait

American heiress Mary Leiter, who became Lady Curzon

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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 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)

 

 

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Eliza Scidmore, Jokichi Takamine and ‘Homecoming Trees’

Plaque describing the role of Jokichi Takamine and Eliza Scidmore in Japan’s cherry tree gift to Washington (Photo: D. Parsell)

Eliza Scidmore is popping up all over the place here in Japan. Her cameo appears on plaques marking the presence of cherry trees grafted from trees in Potomac Park — scions of the 3,000 trees Japan sent to Washington a hundred years ago. A couple hundred saplings of these “homecoming cherry trees” are being planted around Japan.

It’s one of many U.S.-Japanese projects celebrating last year’s centennial of Washington’s cherry trees. Japan is also planting 3,000 dogwood trees that were a gift from the United States.

On the plaques, Eliza Scidmore is paired with a famous Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine. It recognizes their dual effort in bringing flowering cherry trees to Washington. Eliza had come up with the idea many years earlier but failed to win the support of park supervisors. Dr. Takamine had similarly tried in vain to have cherry trees planted in a park in New York City, where he lived.

Jokichi Takamine

A fortuitous moment came when Eliza encountered Dr. Takamine and his travel companion, the Japanese consul in New York, at social events in Washington in the spring of 1909. When she informed them of Mrs. Taft’s plans to have some flowering cherry trees planted in Potomac Park — a move Mrs. Taft took up at Eliza’s suggestion — Dr. Takamine offered to personally buy a couple thousand trees for the project. Continue reading

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The Eliza Scidmore Society

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

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Cherry Blossom Viewing at ‘Mukojima’ in Tokyo

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 Eliza’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 (Photos: Diana Parsell)

It wasn’t just the blossoms that Eliza 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 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!

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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 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.

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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Eliza Scidmore, the Fairchilds and Their Great Idea

Researchers, authors, students and history buffs gathered here last weekend for the annual D.C. Historical Studies Conference. I was there as a presenter on Friday, in a joint appearance with author Ann McClellan.

This year’s conference, the 39th one, featured among its topics local anniversaries of the sesquicentennial of President Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves in D.C. and the centennial of the cherry trees in Potomac Park. I told the story of Eliza Scidmore, emphasizing some D.C. connections that have come to light in my research. Ann, the author of two books on the Cherry Blossom Festival, described the efforts of a local couple, Marian (“Daisy”) and David Fairchild, whose interest in cherry trees overlapped with Eliza’s.

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Andrew Carnegie, Eliza Scidmore and the D.C. Historical Society

Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square in Washington, now home to the D.C. Historical Society

Last week the Library of Congress held a seminar on Andrew Carnegie’s legacy of establishing public libraries in the United States and several other countries, beginning in the late 19th century. 

About 1,600 were built in the United States. One of them is at Mount Vernon Square in Washington. Today it houses the offices of the D.C. Historical Society and the affiliated Kiplinger Research Library, where I found some very useful information in the early stages of my research on Eliza Scidmore. 

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D.C. Historical Studies Conference

Good news today. Just got the word that I’ll be speaking on Eliza Scidmore at the 39th Annual Conference on D.C. Historical Studies in October.

This year’s conference is focusing on several centennial events in Washington, including the anniversary of the first Japanese cherry trees planted in Potomac Park. Joining me on a panel will be Ann McClellan, the author of a new book from National Geographic on the cherry trees, and John Malott, a former U.S. ambassador who now heads the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C.

We’ll describe our respective research on several people whose critical roles in the planting of the trees has been little known— Eliza Scidmore; USDA botanist David Fairchild and his wife, Daisy; and Japanese chemist Jokichi Takamine.

Almost no one realizes that Eliza Scidmore grew up in Washington, so I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned.

 

 

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Happy Birthday, D.C. Cherry Trees!

Helen Taft in 1908, a year before she became First Lady and planned the cherry tree project in Washington (Source: UDSA)

The cherry trees are blooming, and Washington is now celebrating a special event: the centennial of its first trees donated by Japan. On March 27, 2012, First Lady Helen Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife stood alongside the Tidal Basin  and planted the first of 3,000 flowering cherry trees sent from the mayor of Tokyo. Eliza Scidmore was one of the few people present that day.

Read my article about it on National Geographic’s “News Watch.”

 

 

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Eliza Scidmore Profile in ‘The Washington Post’

The special cherry blossom section in today’s Washington Post had a good article about Eliza Scidmore by staff reporter Michael Ruane. Includes quotes by me based on a phone interview.

Hand-colored photo of cherry trees in Japan, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

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Historic Cherry Tree Art at the Library of Congress

Mothers and children in Tokyo, Helen Hyde, woodcut, 1914 (Source: Library of Congress)

With the 100th anniversary of Washington’s first cherry trees only six weeks away, on March 27, special exhibits and programs on sakura (cherry blossoms) are suddenly cropping up all over town. In late March the Library of Congress will open an exhibition of 54 prints and artworks from its collections that depict different scenes of cherry trees. The selections include watercolor drawings, Japanese woodblock prints, book illustrations, photographs, posters, postcards and editorial cartoons. I’ve posted a few enticing samples. Continue reading

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Washington’s New “It” Girl: Eliza Scidmore

Japanese girl in kimono, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

Ah, the pain of hindsight. If only I’d stumbled upon Eliza Scidmore’s story sooner I might have a book coming off the presses in time for the 100th anniversary of the planting of the first cherry trees in Washington next spring, on March 27. Talk about the perfect book-signing opportunity!

When I began research on Eliza Scidmore it just didn’t hit me at first that the centennial was imminent. A lot had already been written about the cherry trees, and I was focused mainly on Eliza. Once I realized the significance of the date I sent queries late last year to several publications (Smithsonian, The Washington Post Magazine, The Washingtonian) proposing an article on Eliza and the cherry trees, targeted to the anniversary. There were no takers.

Now, with the centennial just a few months away and a huge festival planned, Eliza — after being largely overlooked for a century — is emerging as the new “it” girl in town. Continue reading

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On Serendipity in Research

Serendipity is like the crack cocaine of research. It gives you a wonderful high.

I remember well the first time I came to understand the term. It was in the 1980s, and I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. For my science writing class, I interviewed several researchers on campus who were studying different aspects of cystic fibrosis. It’s an insidious disease in which a faulty gene and its protein product cause the body to produce a thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and impedes proper digestion. A pediatrician was working to improve clinical observations; a pair of biochemists hoped to develop a reliable diagnostic test for the disease; another researcher was studying glandular secretions in a rat model.  Continue reading

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Eliza Scidmore’s American Fan Club

I’m not the only one with a fixation on Eliza Scidmore. After I began researching her I met two other women equally fascinated by her remarkable life. Washington writer Ann McClellan learned a lot about Eliza while writing The Cherry Blossom Festival, published in 2005 as a souvenir book for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Hearing about my project, a colleague in the Women’s History Discussion Group at the Library of Congress put me in touch with Ann, a friend of hers. Then earlier this year I met Andrea Zimmerman, soon after the launch of her children’s book Eliza’s Cherry Trees. We all agreed: Eliza was quite a gal. Continue reading

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