Gilded Age New York was a veritable playground for men both bachelor and married alike. From the Lobster Palace restaurants to the Bohemian enclaves of Greenwich Village to the theaters dotting Broadway, there were a variety of entertainments–and women–available for gentlemen to partake. The quintessential man-about-town of the period was the famed, wealthy, and handsome (by the standards of the day) architect Stanford White.
White and his partners McKim and Mead were–along with Richard Morris Hunt–the men who defined the architecture of the Gilded Age. White designed many of New York’s most celebrated buildings and edifices, from the Arch at Washington Square and Madison Square Garden II to the “cottages” on Newport (Rosecliffe) to the mansions on Long Island’s Gold Coast and down the Atlantic seaboard.
In between his designing and decorating, White managed to squeeze in a few hours chasing after teenage girls and gallivanting through New York’s burgeoning nightlife. Of course, as we know, these two hobbies ultimately caused his doom, but ten years before the “Trial of the Century” Stanford White was dragged into another scandal involving his predilection for very young women. This event became known as the “Pie Girl Dinner.”
Stanford White had collected a bevy of like-minded friends by the 1890s, from society photographers, to artists, to Wall Street bankers, and the like. James L. Breese, the aforementioned society photographer, had a reputation just as naughty as White, stemming from his notorious all-male midnight salons. These late-night suppers were equally sumptuous and scandalous, where the main course were the pretty young women hired as waitresses.
It was only natural that someone devised the idea to make a pretty young woman the actual main course.
The occasion: A friend’s tenth wedding anniversary
The idea: a girl inside of a pie
The place: Breese’s photography studio
The girl: sixteen year old Susie Johnson
The 1890s were already becoming notorious for lavish stunts pulled by bored, wealthy “400” socialites, but there was still something a bit shocking about this dinner. Somehow, months later, Joseph Pulitzer’s tabloid newspaper The New York World managed to get a scoop on this dinner, and suddenly, Stanford White’s lurid, seedy doings were splashed on the front pages of the metropolis’s most notorious newspaper.
The paper described the dinner in excruciating detail, from the scantily clad young waitresses to the names of the dinner guests to the naked girl–Susie Johnson–who sprang out of a large pie. Johnson later disappeared (newspapers reported her death a little over a decade later: the wages of sin), and Stanford White’s personal reputation acquired a slight stench. Though he was not fully ostracized, when he was murdered by Harry Thaw in 1906 out of jealousy and madness over deflowering his young wife, Evelyn Nesbit, many were not surprised or sympathetic. Some news reports went so far as to call White a pervert.
New York as a bachelor’s playground did not disappear, of course, but the specter of Stanford White was a warning to all men who dared to skirt the edges of respectability.
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Based on the 1994 novel by Caleb Carr, The Alienist is a psychological thriller set in 1896 about the hunt for a serial killer responsible for the gruesome murders of boy prostitutes that have gripped New York City.
The Alienist starring Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning premieres Monday, January 22 at 9 PM
Writing is always a risk. People say to “write what you know,” which is safe advice to be sure, but fiction will inevitably push these boundaries. For me, the history is what I know, so the history is where I start. But sometimes plot bunnies lead me down dangerous plot burrows.
A few years ago, I was trying to find an American source to describe the entrance into Manila Bay via steamer ship. One of the best I found was written by a traveler named Annabelle Kent:
…we were hardly outside the harbor before it became very rough, the flying spray beat against the saloon windows, and it was necessary for our chairs to be lashed to the rail. I am never sea-sick, but once ensconced in my steamer chair, it seemed best to stay there, and it really was a delight to sit there snugly wrapped up from the flying spray and watch the huge waves thundering around our little boat, which rode them like a bird….Before [landing] I had gone down to the cabin to do the repacking for my sick roommate and myself. This was no joke; with the trunks sliding around with every movement of the ship, I had to dodge the one while I held on to the other and crammed things into it.…
Wow, now that’s evocative writing. Why was Ms. Kent so impervious to seasickness, I wondered? I went back to the beginning of the book to read this: “I would like to show others, as well as my deaf brethren and sisters, how much pleasure and profit one can get through travel not only in Europe, but the Orient. I am not merely hard of hearing, but entirely deaf.”
What is the connection between deafness and intrepid water travel? Apparently, those with a damaged vestibular system are far less likely to be seasick:
The US Navy ran an experiment in the 1960′s where they put a few Deaf men…in a window-less galley of a ship in the middle of a horrendous storm off of Newfoundland. As the ship tossed, the Deaf men sat at a table and played cards. Meanwhile, every Naval scientist became seasick.
There is a nice sort of justice there. As I read more of Ms. Kent’s book, I learned how she circumnavigated the globe—part of the time with friends, but mostly with complete strangers, all without a sign language interpreter. One of the most adventurous women of her era, Ms. Kent was perfect material for a romance heroine!
But, wait. Hold on. What do I know about deafness and Deaf Culture? Watching movies doesn’t count because they are so often written by the hearing. As blogger Charlie Swinbourne wrote about deafness in the movies:
On one hand, it’s exciting to see characters like yourself represented on screen. On the other hand, you get the FEAR.
Fear of what? Well, of the deaf character being hard to understand (especially if they’re being played by an inexperienced signer), or of their presence in the story being insubstantial and throwaway.
Worst of all, you get the fear of their appearance on screen being unrealistic, making it hard to believe in, and enjoy the story.
Swinbourne proceeds to list the top ten errors from real films. Some of the errors are obvious: a person cannot lipread when he or she is turned away from the speaker, or while sitting in the dark, or at night, and so on. And, yet, these things happen in movies all the time. If I have managed to avoid any of these pitfalls (eh…I did okay, but not perfectly), it was because of Mr. Swinbourne’s blog, The Limping Chicken, and other sources. (Also, see his own films here.)
Could a deaf writer have written my character, Della Berget, better than me? Yes, no doubt. Are there better books out there about Deaf Culture? Uh, like every one written by someone hard of hearing. But the story of Hotel Oriente, the opening novella of the Sugar Sun series, was grounded in history, and that is my comparative advantage. I decided to take a risk and write Della as best I could. Of course, this meant research.
I found out some interesting aspects of deaf education at the beginning of the 20th century:
The federally-chartered university for the hard of hearing, Gallaudet, known today for proudly teaching in two languages (American Sign Language and spoken English) was forced by Congress to teach only the “Oral Method” of communication throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. “Oralism” meant lipreading/speechreading paired with speaking. So, if you were wondering why my heroine Della does not use ASL, it is because the “experts” of her age felt it was the duty of those hard of hearing to assimilate to the hearing world, rather than acknowledging the value of their own vibrant culture. An 1880 conference of these “experts” in Milan even tried to ban “manualism,” or sign language! Though that law was not binding, it guided Congress. Even prominent hearing folks like Alexander Graham Bell got involved. (He wanted Gallaudet to stop hiring deaf teachers, whom he felt would emphasize sign language.)
The emphasis on lipreading began with an incredibly patronizing idea: that all Deaf secretly wish to hear. This is not true. Limping Chicken blogger Toby Burton puts it best: “If you were to offer me a pill that would grant me [hearing], I’d be offended. Would you say to a woman,‘Take a pill and become a man, you might have more opportunities’? Of course not.” A story from Annabelle Kent’s 1911 book shows the time-tested nature of this truth: “…there happened to be a young man in the party who was totally blind. I was full of sympathy for him, but he, instead of feeling regret, thought the sympathy should be bestowed on me since I was deaf instead of blind.” You know the adage about making assumptions.
Gallaudet began accepting women in 1887, but they were not treated equally. In fact, the school newspaper describes a harrowing welcome for some of them: “all the [male] students would line up in rows and thus compel them to run a daily gauntlet of masculine curiosity.” Gee, that’s fun. And because women could not attend clubs and society meetings without a chaperone, they could never assume the highest positions of leadership. For example, even though women were influential in starting the school newspaper, the Buff and Blue, a young man would always be chosen for editor-in-chief because he could make the meetings without fail. This inequity is one of the reasons why my heroine, Della, an aspiring journalist, will leave college early to accompany her congressman grandfather to the Philippines: she is hoping to find fresh opportunities on the new American frontier.
And yet Gallaudet may have been more expensive back then. The 1900 tuition was $250, which in terms of 2016 commodity value is $19500—not so far off the current tuition of $19,852 for an undergraduate student, including a health insurance fee. But, when you consider the value of $250 as a proportion of someone’s income in 2016, it is the equivalent of $52,800—more than twice the current fee. (All inflation calculations are courtesy of Measuring Worth.)
Since there are no other deaf people that Della knows in her corner of Manila, there is no real treatment of Deaf Culture and its rewards, nor would I be the best person to translate these ideas to the page. Still, I would consider Hotel Oriente a form of cross-cultural romance, like my other books. ‘Cause that’s my jam.