New York City: Work, Play, and Inspiration

I just spent five days in New York and returned to what seems like quiet Alexandria. I managed to pack in a lot of history, writing, and general creative inspiration, along with many thousands of steps recorded on my Apple watch.

Stacy Schiff and Judith Thurman talked with New Yorker Editor David Remnick to open the BIO conference.

Stacy Schiff and Judith Thurman talked with New Yorker Editor David Remnick to open the BIO conference.

The main reason for the trip at this time was the 10th annual Biographers International Organization (BIO) conference, held at the Leon Levy Center for Biography on Fifth Avenue. (First historic jolt: it occupies the space that was once B. Altman department store, which I remember from the 1960s.) The day included panels of top biographers—Stacy Schiff, Judith Thurman, Caroline Fraser, David Blight, and others. They described how they balanced back-story and their subjects, revised drafts many times, worked with uneven amounts of primary materials, and more. In other words, they struggle like the rest of us. Nuts-and-bolts sessions on working in archives and promoting your book gave me a bunch of to-do items. One I used immediately—getting the ScannerPro app on my phone to take PDFs at archives, rather than taking photos as I have always done.

Another tip I have already done—check and edit as necessary the Wikipedia entry of your subject. Indeed, the original, now edited, listed Julia Wilbur as a nurse and stopped with her time in Rochester. I added to the listing and, not incidentally, included my book as one of many additional sources.

I skipped the closing reception to meet my son and his fiancee in Brooklyn Heights for dinner and the play Crazy for You, performed by a community group in Brooklyn Heights. (Zack works with the guy who played Bobby.) First time for me in “the Heights,” where a wave of wealthy New Yorkers moved in the mid-1800s to escape the city but take a quick ferry to work. It’s also where Henry Ward Beecher became the reverend at Plymouth Church.


Sunday morning we took a three-hour walking tour of Lower Manhattan, starting out on Wall Street where George Washington took the oath of office, to the World Trade Center area, City Hall and environs, Chinatown, Little Italy, and Soho. Layers of the past intersect, from before European incursions to WTC plans. Our guide was particularly fixed on the competition to build the tallest building in the city, pre-Empire State Building, and we learned about the inch-by-inch competition between the Woolworth and Chrysler buildings.

Sunday I decamped from Brooklyn and an air mattress to the Mayfair, a hotel on W. 49th Street next to where the Book of Mormon is playing. The hotel was adequate—i.e., semi-reasonable price but also small and old—and not exactly the kind of room one would like to spend lots of time. Which, I realize, is why the restaurants and bars of New York are so crowded, since that’s the kind of place where most people live. Much of Broadway was dark, but I could see the Blue Man Group AND, more to the point, see the Astor Place Theatre and Cooper Union. (The theatre building was once part of the residence of the Astor family; Cooper Union was where Abraham Lincoln gave a pivotal speech in summer 1860 that made people realize he could actually become president.) I also accidentally passed by a building where the Triangle Shirt factory stood, now an NYU building.

Monday and Tuesday I spent at the New York Public Library, third floor Brooke Astor Manuscript room and Berg Collection. As always, I was most enamored with the experience of it all—hushed room, old papers, fellow researchers who all seem totally immersed in their various arcane subjects. ScannerPro (see above) worked—although its ease meant that I took way more images than I might have otherwise, and must still sort through them. Each room has its own processes. In the Berg Collection, I had to fill out a separate call slip for every single item within a box. That meant—for example—29 call slips for 29 letters. I was the only person in the room besides the librarian.

About a year ago, Dean Karayanis interviewed me for his podcast History Author Show. I knew him to be a lover of New York history so asked if he was around for a beer. To no surprise, he suggested meeting at McSorley’s, New York’s oldest continually operating saloon. I got the grand tour of its various legends and artifacts.

So—sights, sounds, smells, sensory overload, but all worth it. Now to process all the notes and scans before I forget what they all are.

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