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.

I learned today a Washington Post reporter is writing about Eliza Scidmore for a special section on the cherry tree centennial. (He found me through an online article I wrote about Eliza; see the link below.) The National Geographic Society is including Eliza in an upcoming exhibit in its Explorers Hall, since she was a writer, editor and photographer for the magazine in its early years. The Society is also publishing a picture book on the history of the cherry trees, by Ann McClellan, which will mention Eliza. And Andrea Zimmerman will probably be in town again promoting her children’s book, Eliza’s Cherry Trees. (I wrote about Ann and Andrea in an earlier post.)

I’m grateful to David Braun, news editor of National Geographic’s website, for giving me space on his blog last spring to write about Eliza Scidmore during the annual blooming of the cherry trees in Washington. I worked with David a few years ago when I was a contract writer and editor for the news site. He knew about my book project and requested the piece. The timing of it happened to overlap with another major event: the Japanese tsunami on March 11. In an eerie coincidence, Eliza reported on the aftermath of a devastating 1896 tsunami in Japan for National Geographic. (Click here for a copy of her article in the September 1896 issue of the magazine.)

Most biographers and writers of other long works must experience, at some point, the frustration of knowing your project just isn’t ready in time to take advantage of great marketing and promotion opportunities. When I’m beating up on myself for blowing the timing, I have to stop and remind myself that there’s no formula for how to go about a complex project (though admittedly you can learn ways of being more efficient and productive). As the legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn once told John McPhee: “It takes as long as it takes.” (Read Peter Hessler’s interview with McPhee in The Paris Review.) So I’ll keep slogging away, and work at trying to write the best book I can.

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

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