The Turtle Bay Immortalized by E. B. WhiteBy STEVE DOUGHERTY
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
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.
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
Shades of South Beach
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
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 —
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.