The New York Times The New York Times Arts December 13, 2002  

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The New York Times - Travel - Royal Treatment

The Turtle Bay Immortalized by E. B. White


Few longtime residents of Turtle Bay mourn the passing of the Third Avenue El, which once cast the neighborhood in sootfall and shadow. "It was creepy, murky, dark and dirty," recalls Peggy McEvoy as we walk among the flora and fauna of Turtle Bay Gardens, the private enclave on East 48th Street where she grew up. "Yet here in the Gardens, it was magical, like another world."

An urban oasis, verdant with plant life in spring and summer and enclosed by 10 150-year-old brownstones on East 48th Street and a matching row on 49th, the Gardens have been home to succeeding generations of artists, writers and other creative folk.

Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, Leopold Stokowski and Gloria Vanderbilt, Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, Mary Martin, Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Thompson and Hemingway's editor Maxwell Perkins maintained apartments here. Katharine Hepburn and Stephen Sondheim are the best-known current residents. Kurt Vonnegut lives across the street.

I have come here not to ogle celebrities, but in search of a willow tree that was once celebrated by another former resident, the essayist and author E. B. White. In the closing paragraph of his classic 1948 ode to Manhattan, "Here Is New York," White cast "a battered tree, long suffering and much climbed, held together by strands of wire," as a symbol of hope. "In a way, it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete and the steady reaching for the sun."

More than a year ago, when I was displaced from my home in Battery Park City in the aftermath of the terror attack, I reread White's essay, knowing I would find salve for the trauma in the music of his writing and in the glow of his humor. White as always delivered, filling every page with his seemingly off-hand, perfectly cobbled sentences. "The Lafayette Hotel mentioned in passing," he noted in a foreword to the 1949 hardcover edition, "has passed despite the mention."

But much as there was to marvel, the essay offered scant solace. In previous readings I had missed — or since forgotten — the piece's mournful tone and jarring notes. When White composed the essay in 1948 — the same summer I was born — military jets had only recently begun to course in the skies above Manhattan, and they cast a "cold shadow" over the author, who spoke a dire prophecy: "A single flight of planes . . . can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges."

All New Yorkers, he warned, must "live with the stubborn fact of annihilation."

This was not the comfort food for thought I had hoped to find. After my September lesson in stubborn fact, I was looking for reasons to stay in the city when to flee seemed the reasonable thing. White himself was not here in New York when he wrote the essay, but in Maine, where he remained, with intermittent stays at his duplex in Turtle Bay Gardens, until his death, at age 86, in 1985.

But White did seem to end his elegy for the city he loved — but left — on an uplifting note. He found promise, he wrote, in the United Nations building then rising on the "razed slaughterhouses of Turtle Bay." He compared the new "Parliament of Man" to a lofty urban renewal project that would "clear the slum called war."

White's hope that the United Nations might usher in a lasting epoch of peace has not panned out: President Bush was urging the General Assembly back to the slum on the day I visited Ms. McEvoy in her garden.

Symbol of Hope

As for White's beloved willow tree, already ancient and decrepit when he wrote about it 54 years ago, its days of enjoying sap rise must have long passed. Even so, I set out recently, in the numbing sadness that lingered after the Sept. 11 anniversary observances, to learn its fate. I wanted to know if the tree survived as a symbol of hope, or if, in its demise, it bore out the woeful fear of White's final sentence: "If it were to go, all would go — this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death."

I had another reason for visiting White's Turtle Bay neighborhood. My grandmother lived on that same lovely block on East 48th Street when I was a kid. It was there that as a boy from the provinces — Rochester, in western New York State, qualifies — my dreams of one day living in the city were kindled during summer vacations and holiday visits.

Although I've lived in the city since 1985, it had been years since I last visited the block my grandmother quit in 1969. She had moved there in the early 1950's, paying $250 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in a sunless building across the street from the Gardens. When the El came down soon after, it was transformed into a desirable address.

A Time of Transformation

Much else has changed in the intervening years, of course. In place of the mom and pop corner deli and pharmacy that magically delivered sandwiches and groceries and sundry necessities — such wonders never occurred in Rochester — loomed an enormous office tower.

The building that housed my favorite diner when I was a kid still stands, but the restaurant that served the "World's Most Educated Hamburger" has been replaced by the Bunny Deli & Salad Bar, purveyors of "Hot Food, Frozen Yogurt" and other well-schooled fare. The burlesquely named Boom Boom Room, a store front clip joint across Third Avenue from Manny Wolf's Steak House (now Smith & Wollensky), where at 15 I first beheld a nearly naked woman I was not related to, has gone the way of all flesh, nearly naked or otherwise.

The tower on the southeast corner of Third Avenue occupies territory that had once belonged to the west wing of my grandmother's building, which had been cleaved in half to make way for the high-rise. My grandmother's apartment on the fourth floor of the east wing was spared in the cleaving.

Shades of South Beach

Similar sun-blocking towers now stand sentry at both ends of the block, hemming in smaller buildings many years their senior. And yet the heart of the block looks much as it did when my grandmother — and White — lived there. Halfway down the south side of 48th Street is a slender town house given a wry, knowing personality by a stone cherub that perches on the cornice above the entranceway, winged and wearing a bemused smile, its chubby legs crossed at the knee.

Directly across the street from my grandmother's building stands a celebrated architectural landmark. Its designer, William Lescaze, must have been dreaming about South Miami Beach when he built his glass-brick and stucco Art Deco dream house and studio at 211 East 48th Street in 1933. Architect of the first fully air-conditioned skyscraper, Lescaze was a true modernist whose soon-to-be septuagenarian town house puts the much more recent buildings nearby to shame. Unfortunately, the official landmark designation of Lescaze's masterpiece hasn't prevented a real estate company from slapping a garish, two-story-high "For Rent" sign on its graceful facade, braying at passers-by to "Live, Work & Play in a Classic." (Asking price: $20,000 a month.)

Ending the Search

To the east of the Lescaze building are the 10 south-facing Turtle Bay Gardens brownstones, each with a black iron gate and basement entrance. Add carriages and gas lamps and you would think you had arrived at Mayfair during Victoria's reign. Step into the Gardens themselves — accessible through private residences; entrance by invitation only — and you're transported to an ancient evening on the Mediterranean.

"On summer nights I used to hear him playing the piano," Ms. McEvoy says of White, who lived next door when she was a child, as she leads me on a guided tour of the Gardens.

The daughter of the writer J. P. McEvoy, Ms. McEvoy is a public health consultant who recently returned to the United States after years spent abroad working for the United Nations. "It was a wonderful place to be a kid," she says, walking along a flagstone path that runs the length of the courtyard, a garden wild with ferns and spreading shade trees. "We used to love going to the bar on the corner because you could fish in the basement. You'd lift the manhole cover and drop a line in the underground river that runs from the pond in Central Park to the East River. To this day, we have to pump out our basements every spring when it floods."

Recalling a Sketch

Pausing in our walk, Ms. McEvoy points out a stone fountain, a replica of the one found at the entrance to the Villa Medici in Rome, which serves as the Gardens' centerpiece. "The stream feeds and nourishes the plant life in the garden," she says. "That's why the willow tree has lived so long."

It takes me a moment to realize that the dark limb arching over the fountain before us is White's own battered willow. Crooked and bald of leaf, the trunk twists and turns as gracefully as a ballerina's arm as it rises from the garden walkway, reaching for the sun. Fed by the underground stream, the willow has stood there for well over a century, predating the 1919 conversion of the matching rows of tenement brownstones to the Gardens and even the brownstones themselves.

A pen-and-ink sketch of the tree found in a 1949 hardcover version of White's essay (it was originally written for the literary travel magazine Holiday) depicts the willow with three off-shoot branches nearly as tall and stout as the main trunk. "The secondary branches had to be cut away to save the tree," Ms. McEvoy says with a smile, pleased to have kept me in suspense until the moment we were actually standing beneath the tree she had allowed me to assume no longer existed. "We planted a seedling just in case. It was Stephen Sondheim's idea. In case the main trunk dies, we have its offspring — its child."

And so the tree had truly achieved immortality. It had outlived my grandmother and the poet it inspired, and the willow or its sapling will outlive me.

Even in the cold shadow of the planes and the ash of the burned towers, the willow, and the city it symbolizes, lives on.

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