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“‘Four score and seven years ago…’”
I looked up from the script. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Tyler. That’s the Gettysburg Address. You’re meant to be reciting the Emancipation Proclamation.”
“Am I?” Louise exhaled fretfully. “Oh dear.”
“‘That on the first day of January…,’” I prompted.
“‘… first day of January…’” Remembering the rest of her line, she rattled off, “‘In the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three…’”
“‘All persons held as slaves…’”
“‘… shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.’”
“‘Forever free,’” Louise echoed, and removed her stovepipe hat. “What does thenceforward mean?”
“From now on, I suppose.”
“Well, why didn’t Lincoln just say so?”
As a lady’s maid, it wasn’t for me to defend the stylistic choices of the martyred sixteenth president. But while Lincoln had been eloquent in the face of civil war, congressional opposition, and the pistol of John Wilkes Booth, he had probably never faced a salon of society ladies, as Louise was preparing to do. In fact, he rarely visited the city, which had twice refused to vote for a Republican seen as insensitive to the commercial benefits of the slave trade.
However, it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and New York had embraced its commemoration with gusto. Which was how Louise found herself balancing a makeshift stovepipe as she struggled to recite Mr. Lincoln’s great speech.
Bored by the traditional dinner parties, the city’s great ladies were keen to display their artistry in different ways. Tableaux vivants and amateur theatrics were the rage. One might enjoy Mrs. Halsey’s Brutus on Monday, Mrs. Foster Jenkins’s selections from Die Fledermaus Tuesday, and on Wednesday, Mrs. Fortesque’s torrid attempts at Apache dance. And so, led by Dolly Rutherford of Rutherford’s department store—the newest and most ostentatious of the ladies’ shopping paradises, which billed itself as the place “Where every American Beauty blooms!”—my employer Louise Tyler and others were to perform “Stirring Scenes of the Emancipation” in a week’s time.
Being tall and willowy, Louise had been chosen to play the Great Emancipator himself. This was an honor that one might have thought due the hostess. But Mrs. Rutherford was round of figure and short of stature. At one point, it was suggested she play Harriet Tubman, but in the end, she had accepted the almost equally, if not more, important role of Mary Todd Lincoln. (The part of Harriet Tubman went to Mrs. Edith Van Dormer. Having died earlier that month, Mrs. Tubman would be spared that performance.)
Now Louise sank into an armchair and gazed out the window at the mid-March morning. The calendar might say spring, but the chill air and dull skies showed that winter had not yet loosened its grip. A fire burned nicely, and the remains of Louise’s breakfast tea sat on the table beside her. The townhouse in the East Twenties was quiet, as William Tyler, her husband of eight months, was in Washington with Louise’s father, Mr. Benchley. There were rumors that Woodrow Wilson was working on a new sort of revenue system, a tax on actual income. The more one earned, the more one paid. Some considered this a monstrous assault, including Mr. Benchley, who had many friends in Washington and had gone to urge them to fight the president’s plan. He had taken his son-in-law and newly minted attorney with him, leaving Louise on her own and at the mercy of Dolly Rutherford.
I blamed myself for Dolly Rutherford. William Tyler’s mother and I had, between us, successfully shepherded Louise through her first six months as a New York matron. The senior Mrs. Tyler had introduced the junior Mrs. Tyler to the ladies she ought to know, warned her off those she should not, while I had polished her appearance and bolstered her confidence. When the elder Mrs. Tyler went to visit her daughter Beatrice, now husband hunting in Boston, she said to me, “I leave Louise in your capable hands, Jane.”
Mrs. Tyler had been gone but a day when I came down with gastric flu. With her mother-in-law away and me indisposed, Louise had fallen into the clutches of one of the city’s most limber and exhausting social climbers. Dolly Rutherford let it be known that she refused, just refused, to be idle. “To be idle is to be bored and to be bored is to die.” Her passion was the transcendent, especially in the arts. If it hung in a gallery or danced, sang, or declaimed upon the stage, Dolly Rutherford would lure it into her salon and display it, “flayed, dressed, and pickled,” as one critic put it. She might have been ridiculous except for two assets: a will worthy of Genghis Khan and her husband’s fortune. Stronger women than Louise Tyler had been pulled into Dolly’s orbit. I felt guilty nonetheless.
As the clock on the mantelpiece chimed nine, I hoped Louise would remember what today was before I had to remind her. But she noticed my glance at the clock and said, “Oh, it’s time, isn’t it?” Rising, she held out her hand. “What will I do without you?”
“You can reach me at the refuge anytime.”
“It’s your holiday, Jane—why don’t you go somewhere nice?”
“I want to see my uncle. And I have other plans as well.”
“Oh, and what are these plans?”
“I’m afraid some of them are shocking.”
“Jane!” Smiling, Louise put a hand to her chest. “Well, all right. Go and do your shocking things. But I’ll miss you at French lessons. And rehearsals. If Dolly Rutherford shouts at that poor seamstress from her husband’s store one more time, I’ll have fits. Still, I suppose it’s something to do.”
With a small sigh, she looked around the sitting room as if hoping distraction would present itself. Or her husband: I knew she was missing William. That much could be said for the Rutherford Pageant: it was a diversion.
With as much speed as was polite, I went upstairs to change. When William and Louise had moved to their new home, I had been given a spacious room on the top floor.
Taking off my daily outfit of plain skirt and shirtwaist, I pulled on a high-necked blouse and a dark skirt of jersey wool I’d made myself. Then I added a long navy jacket that had been left behind by Charlotte when she went to Europe. Then I put on my new hat, black felt, turned up at the front with a dark red rose at the side and a handsome velvet band. Finally, I put on my new coat, a present from the Tylers this past Christmas. It was also dark wool, but the cut was exquisite, with a hobble skirt, large baggy pockets, a wraparound bodice that buttoned daringly at the bosom, and a high collar. Looking in the mirror, I decided that while I was not quite Lillian Gish, I needn’t be ashamed to be seen in her company should she turn up at the International Exhibition of Modern Art.
For that’s where I was going, to mark the start of my vacation, the scandalous art exhibit known as the Armory Show. The exhibition of twelve hundred works by three hundred American and European artists had descended on New York in a blaze of sensation. It was the talk of the city, so popular that people went again and again, just to be seen. On one day, you might see Caruso sketching in a corner. On another, former president Roosevelt. Cartoonists depicted landmarks from the Statue of Liberty to the Brooklyn Bridge in the shocking new style dubbed Cubism. The artists had been lampooned as “nuttists,” “dope-ists,” “topsy-turvists,” and “toodle-doodlists.” Even official critics were uncertain as to the Cubists’ merits, asking, “Is their work a conspicuous milestone in the progress of art? Or is it junk?”
I was fairly sure I wouldn’t be able to decide either. But that wasn’t important. All that mattered to me on that cold March day was that the Armory Show was the most fashionable place to be in New York City and that I, Jane Prescott, would be there.
In service to absolutely no one but myself.
* * *
The 69th Regiment Armory was only a few blocks from the Tyler home in the East Twenties. Designed along elegant, modern lines with curved arches and a French mansard roof of limestone, the Armory welcomed visitors with a banner hung above the entrance: INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITION OF MODERN ART. Limousines were already lining up outside, creating traffic jams as they disgorged their stylish passengers. As I joined the line to get in, I heard a man ask, “How does a minister’s niece come to be at this tawdry spectacle?”
I turned and saw Michael Behan. I had not seen him for several months, and an art exhibit was not where I expected to find him. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“I am paid to be here,” said the reporter. “Which is the only way you’d get me near the place. Are you going in?”
“Well, let the Herald pay your fare. Come on, I’ll give you the guided tour.”
As we sailed inside and past the guards, who seemed to know him well, I said, “Don’t tell me you’re now an art critic.”
He shook his head. “There are only so many ways to say bunk, garbage, con, and hooey, Miss Prescott. These fellows make P. T. Barnum look like an honest man. No, I’m here to cover the local color angle. Reactions of the average man and woman, with a bit of gossip about the famous who wander through.”
He handed our coats off at the coat check, then turned to me. “Now then, average woman. What would you like to see first?”
I gazed at the bustling, well-dressed crowd. I had dreamed of this for weeks, and now I was actually here. Thrilled to feel both free and in exactly the right place, I said, “I want to see every last bit of it, Mr. Behan.”
“Shall we start at the Chamber of Horrors?” This was the nickname for Gallery I, where the Cubists were displayed.
I had last seen Michael Behan at the time of William and Louise’s wedding. It had been an uncertain time for me. I had not been sure of my place with the Benchleys, and just before the wedding, a young woman I knew had been murdered. The sudden end of her life had made me look at my own in a different light.
In such a mood, seeing Michael Behan, who was both good-looking and married, had been complicated. I realized now, I had let myself get caught up in all sorts of stupid ideas, taking letters he had written to me for something beyond what they were. Thankfully, I hadn’t made a fool of myself, and I could now be in his company without a trace of confusion. Yes, I was pleased to be seen in smart new clothes. But if women couldn’t take pleasure in having their attractions noted, a lady’s maid’s career would not thrive.
Gallery I was by far the most crowded. Craning to see over shoulders, I asked, “Where is Nude Descending a Staircase?” The painting by a Frenchman named Marcel Duchamp was said to be the most shocking of the entire show, and I was in a mood to be shocked.
“Right over here,” said Behan. “And I’ll give you a dollar if you can see anything remotely resembling a human being.”
The painting was mobbed, and it was a while before I could get even a glimpse of it. I confess, my first thought was Mud.
“Stunning, isn’t it?” said Behan. “Puts me in mind of a dropped book.”
I peered at the canvas, determined to see that nude. There was a briefest flash of comprehension—Oh, it’s like that, isn’t that astonishing?—before a beefy man elbowed me to one side and I was back to seeing muddy trees.
The reorientation of my eyes held enough that when we moved on to a sculpted head that looked made up of triangles and rectangles, I said truthfully, “That’s beautiful.” But I felt my face go red when we approached a black-and-white image of a nude woman. The strokes were rough and unlovely. She was well fleshed, her belly sloping, legs open. Avoiding Mr. Behan’s eye, I went on to Woman with Mustard Pot.
Here, you could see the person clearly: a woman sitting, rather bored, her head leaning on her hand. Her face was all angles, slashing cuts of black, orange, gray, and yellow. I wasn’t sure I liked it; it felt almost cruel to take a face apart like this. But it was also mesmerizing. Nearby a matronly woman declared that if her child ever made art like this, she would smack it.
We wandered through to another room, where Mr. Behan admired a painting of boxers—all muscle and epic struggle—and we both smiled in recognition of a painting of three young women drying their hair on the roof of a city building.
Then I heard a high, excited voice call my name. I turned to see Louise’s young sister-in-law Emily Tyler weaving her way through the crowd, catching the eye of several gentlemen. This was not surprising; she was tall and lively, with the reddish-brown hair of the Tylers and mischievous brown eyes all her own. What was surprising was her presence in the city. She was supposed to be at Vassar College.
As she reached us, she said, “Is Louise here, or are you on your own?”
“On my own,” I informed her. “It’s my holiday.”
“Me as well,” said Emily happily. “Not officially, but yesterday, I just decided that if I had to read or write one more word, my head would burst. So—here I am.”
Notebook at the ready, Behan inquired, “And what do you make of the exhibition, Miss Tyler?”
“Well, there are an awful lot of naked people,” she said, dimpling.
“I like it,” I announced. “It’s a new way to see things.”
Behan took this down; I knew how he’d write it. My views would be given due respect. But Emily would have the last word.
“Do you cover the arts, Mr. Behan?” Emily asked.
“Just the life of the city, Miss Tyler. Art, crime, the human drama…”
“Oh, well, you should talk to Jane. Her uncle runs a home for prostitutes on the East Side. That’s just full of human drama.”
Copyright © 2020 by Mariah Fredericks