Saturday, October 17, 2015

A walk in the city: Trinity Church & the 9/11 neighborhood

The winglike World Trade Tower Transportation Hub and the Freedom Tower 
Our 28th floor apartment window faces south. In the distance we see a shimmering presence in the night, alight but often ghostly, the Freedom Tower. It stands on the site of the World Trade Center and bears the address of one of the original towers, now fallen, World Trade Center 1.

Eliza Hamilton's vault, Alexander's obelisk
Last Sunday we took the train downtown to visit the graveyard of Trinity Church, which is in the same neighborhood. I’ve been reading and occasionally blogging from the diaries of George Templeton Strong, who saw the Episcopal cathedral being built (its third incarnation) between 1839 and 1846. He recorded its rise in the diary.

Strong is apparently in a vault with someone else’s name on it, but where? We couldn’t find it. Nor could we find the grave of John Peter Zenger, champion of a free press in the 18th century, learning only through a deeper Google search that his grave is unmarked.

We did find the graves of Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza. These have become a minor tourist attraction since the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, a brilliant Broadway musical based on an innovative but relatively faithful historical interpretation. Fortunately Hamilton’s grave has not been overrun like Jim Morrison’s in Pere Lachaise in Paris, but flowers, stones and notes had been left there.

The cemetery is worth visiting even without the celebrity factor. It is well kept, and some of the stones have withstood the elements for centuries. The words on them hint at such human stories. 

The graves of Hannah Welsh and her 9-year-old daughter Elisabeth Rose
The oldest grave belongs to Richard Churcher, son of William, who died at 5 years old in 1681. Side-by-side stones mark the graves of Hannah Welsh, died at 40 years, 10 months, 12 days, on Oct. 15, 1795, and Elisabeth Rose Welsh, her 9-year-old daughter, gone 23 days later. How did James Welsh, the husband and father, cope with such a loss?

Steve Tobin's Sycamore sculpture
Beside the cathedral near the entrance to the south side of the cemetery stands a symbol of another kind. During the 9/11 attacks, the blast from the collapsing towers felled a sycamore tree in the yard of St. Paul’s Chapel, several blocks from Trinity. The tree helped protect the chapel from damage.

Steve Tobin, of Bucks County, Pa., created a bronze sculpture of the sycamore’s stump and roots. In 2005, while making it, he told The New York Times that he intended it not as a memorial but as a work of art “to show the power of the unseen.” People now walk between the roots and have their pictures taken before the sculpture.

It is in some ways a jarring experience to walk around the neighborhood of the church. This is the site of the great catastrophe of 9/11. It is still being transformed into a grand cityscape of memorial, resilience and resolve. It has also become a tourist attraction.

On this bright sunny Sunday, hawkers sold booklets to help visitors orient themselves to what used to be and to see how the damaged buildings in the neighborhood looked right after the attack Excited people in open-topped double-deck buses gazed and pointed upward.

This is the beginning of the inevitable transition from memory to history. Some people walking the streets were not even born when the towers fell, and many were young children. They are the first wave of visitors with no memory of 9/11. Many decades hence, every tourist will see the World Trade Center neighborhood as they now look upon a Civil War battlefield. It will be a place where terrible slaughter occurred, but the tragedy will be folded into history.

And yet after having spent the last two anniversaries of the attacks in the city, I found it disorienting to be in that neighborhood on a bright, pleasant fall Sunday. From close by, the Freedom Tower looks majestic. So does the great white birdlike World Trade Center Transportation Hub. The streets are alive. But the place also seemed removed from the way 9/11 touched – and still touches – so many people who live in and around the city.

New York City Hall
Freedom Tower rises above neighboring buildings.
From Robert Fulton grave, Trinity cemetery

Gravestones, Trinity cemetery

Alexander Hamilton's epitaph, Trinity Church Cemetery
The Woolworth Building, built in 1913, now a luxury condominium building.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Fire! George T. Strong describes 'an igneous night'

New York's Great Fire of 1835, as seen from Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
George Templeton Strong, the 19th century New York City diarist, loved to chase fires. He lived in a place and time place rich in fire hazard. Many a night the alarm bells, the smell of smoke or the lurid flame-painted sky called him to some ravaging conflagration.

Strong began keeping his diary at the age of 15 in 1835. That December, the Great New York Fire destroyed 17 blocks and an estimate 600 buildings. Strong made only passing mention of this fire in his diary. He missed another famous fire in 1865 when Phineas T. Barnum’s American Museum at Broadway and Ann Street burned.

The P.T. Barnum museum fire in 1865
On many another day or night, Strong rushed to the scene of a fire. Here is a typically vivid account of a busy night:

Jan. 27, 1840 – This has been an igneous evening. When I left the office at half-past seven, there was a fire in Broad Street, or rather in Water near Broad. . . . I didn’t stay to see the end of the combustion, for there were so many “soap locks” and “round rimmers” and other amiable persons there congregated, and so much hustling and swearing and rowdying going on, that I concluded to clear out – and walked out for a ramble uptown.

Got a little way up when I saw that another fire which had broken out an hour or so before in South Street was making quite a show and the temptation was irresistible so I made for the scene of action, the corner of Dover Street. I couldn’t get in front of the fire and was unable to make out whether two or three stores were burning, but it was quite a showy affair: the fire reflected on the snow and lighted up the masts and rigging of the ships, the groups of firemen on the docks with their engine and lamps, the crowd and bustle in front of the buildings, the raging fire, and just above it the cupola of Thomas H. Smith’s big store blazing away and half-hidden by the eddying smoke – altogether made quite a  display. Thomas H.’s store I think must have been saved; I didn’t stay to see the finale, being rather tired of wet feet and obstreperous rowdies. . . .

At three o’clock [this morning] I was waked by a furious alarm of fire which seemed so near and so terrible that I roused the old gentleman and we bundled on our clothes and made streaks. On reaching Wall Street we saw it wasn’t there, but the cinders were showering down like a snow-storm in Pandemonium or a “sulphur shower” in Padalon, and the fire shown as brightly on top of the Exchange and other elevated buildings as if it were only one block off.

It was the Thomas H. Smith store, probably the finest and largest, twice over, in the city, and I never saw such a scene as Peck Slip presented: the store extending from South to Front Streets was burning like a volcano, one body of fire from top to bottom. It was crammed with hemp, cotton, and tea, and the fire was so intense it was impossible to come near it.

There were only two engines and perhaps a couple of hundred men. Several other stores had caught and were burning fiercely; in fact the whole block was on fire from Smith’s store to Dover Street, but everything else sank into insignificance before the big store. It seemed as if the whole area, where the roof had been, 50 feet by 200, wasn’t wide enough for the flames to get out.

Jan. 28, 1840 – The loss last night is estimated at $1,500,000. Everything from Smith’s store to Dover Street on South and Front Streets has gone in fumo. Went down to the scene of action with George Anthon; they were demolishing walls, etc., and I noticed in pulling down a five-story brick front, entirely supported by side-walls, that a rope passed in at the fourth story window and out at the third so as to form a noose, when pulled through the wall shook and tottered and cracked in every direction, actually tore through the wall intermediate the windows, as if it had been made of wet paper, bringing out just bricks enough to come through – a pretty specimen certainly of modern masonry.

Smith’s store still burning fiercely. Two whole cargoes of tea in it just in from Canton, and I noticed the melted lead of the chests streaming down from the piles of ignited matter that are piled within the ruins. It is most fortunate that there was no wind when the fire took place. Had there been any, half the city might have been used up, as the firemen were exhausted and totally inefficient. As it is, the shipping seems to have escaped by miracle; they were mostly frozen in and couldn’t be hauled out of the docks.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Winant's war, FDR's choice, a sad demise

This is the second of a two-part post on John G. Winant, U.S. ambassador to Great Britain during World War II. Part one is here. The series was written at the time of the publication of Lynne Olson’s book Citizens of London, which tells Winant’s wartime history. A campaign is underway now to erect a statue of Winant on the lawn of the State Library in Concord, N.H., his hometown.

John G. Winant gave his all for the war effort, raising is profile in the eyes of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

‘One of the great what-ifs of American history’

Never was more demanded of the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain than during World War II. And no one could have defined the job more broadly than John Winant, the Concord man who held it throughout his country’s nearly four years at war.

Anything Winant might do to hasten victory, he did. He served as Franklin Roosevelt's chief liaison with Winston Churchill. He presented the caring face of the United States to the people of England. When Americans crowded into Britain to bomb and invade the continent, he became Dwight Eisenhower’s unofficial deputy in seeing to the needs of the GIs. As the war neared its end, his thoughts turned to the future of Europe.

Roosevelt came to appreciate Winant so much that he wanted him for a running mate in 1944. If Roosevelt had had his way, Winant would have been president.

Winant is seated left, talking with FDR before the Yalta conference in 1944.
Lynne Olson tells Winant’s story in Citizens of London, her book about the architects of the U.S.-British World War II alliance.

One measure of the lengths Winant went to as ambassador began with his reunion with Tommy Hitchcock, who had studied American history under Winant at St. Paul’s School during the teens. Their joint campaign saved the lives of many American fliers.

Hitchcock was an investment banker who had been known during the 1920s as the Babe Ruth of polo. Although polo was not exactly America’s game, Hitchcock became such a celebrity that F. Scott Fitzgerald based characters on him in two novels.

At St. Paul’s, Hitchcock admired his history teacher for his stories about Abraham Lincoln and other great Americans and for his progressive social views. Just 17, Hitchcock, like Winant, left school to join the military as an aviator during World War I.

During World War II, the Germans shot down American bombers with stunning frequency. By war’s end, 26,000 bomber crew members would be killed and many more captured or wounded.

Winant and Hitchcock shared a conviction about reducing this carnage. Once the bombers crossed the English Channel, they headed inland without fighter escorts. Winant and Hitchcock believed they needed them, and Hitchcock identified just the plane for the job. He even flew it.

The plane was the P-51 Mustang, built in California for the Royal Air Force. In speed and maneuverability, it more than matched the German fighters. All it needed was more power. A Rolls Royce Merlin engine produced in Britain could remedy that. If ever a military alliance seemed suited to fix a problem, this was it.

Tommy Hitchcock, Winant's former student and
fellow World War I aviator.
The only obstacle was official obstinacy. The Air Force brass opposed the idea, and Winant and Hitchcock lobbied for months to change minds. By one account, Winant “pushed the very daylights” out of those he thought could help.

Eventually the two men won the debate, but the brass failed to make production of the Mustangs a priority. It wasn't until early 1944, just before D-Day, that the fighters arrived in sufficient quantity to protect the bombers and, eventually, give the Allies control of the skies.

By then, a personal nightmare had compounded Winant’s many official worries. On Oct. 10, 1943, 22-year-old John Winant Jr.’s B-17 was shot down on a raid to Munster.

The fate of the ambassador’s son was unknown for weeks. Even when Winant learned that John Jr. was alive, his concern did not end. As a VIP prisoner of war, John Jr. might become a bargaining chip for the Germans or even be executed in revenge.

“For the rest of the war, Winant worried that because he was the ambassador, his son might be killed,” Olson said in a recent telephone interview.

The alliance

Winant could not allow this personal blow to slow the pace of his work.

He now had to deal with friction between the hordes of brash young Americans quartered in Britain and the Britons they had come to save. To bridge the cultural gap, Winant traveled widely to teach the British about American ways. He started a BBC radio program called Let's Get Acquainted. When he spoke with Americans, which was often, he always gave the same advice: Get to know the British.

Frequently Winant took to the streets of London to ask GIs how things were going. He lent them money, asked them to write him if they ran into problems and sometimes allowed those who couldn’t find rooms to sleep on the floor of his flat.

Ike with the Winants. John G. had married Constant Rivington Russell in
1919. Her father, a New York financier and philanthropist, died shortly before
 the wedding, leaving her a large inheritance.
Although their personalities differed, Eisenhower and Winant worked closely together. For both men, “the holy grail was that this alliance succeed,” Olson said.

Among the issues on which Eisenhower welcomed the ambassador's help was race. Generally reserved and polite, African-American soldiers tended to be more like their English hosts than like white GIs, Olson writes. The English were relatively color-blind, the Americans mired in the Jim Crow era. Racial strife among the soldiers was rampant.

Winant recruited both Janet Murrow, the wife of radio newsman Edward R. Murrow, and Roland Hayes, a famed black tenor, to travel around England and gather information about the treatment of African-American soldiers. Although Winant could not solve the race problem, he made certain a detailed report on racism in the ranks reached Eleanor Roosevelt and higher-ups in the administration.

Second fiddle

Along with the soldiers, scores of officials from U.S. government agencies invaded London. Coordinating their work fell to Winant. He seemed ill-equipped to succeed at this task. For years, observers rolled their eyes over his absent-minded blundering as an administrator. He once forgot Churchill was coming for dinner, and when the prime minister arrived, there was no food in the house.

But by one contemporary account, Winant brought harmony to the diverse work of the federal agencies in London. A reporter who wrote about the U.S. government operation was surprised at how favorably “the Winant system” compared with the bureaucratic “feuding grounds” in Washington.

As the U.S. buildup accelerated, Winant also tended to Churchill’s bruised pride. Although the prime minister had long for U.S. entry into the war, it lowered his status. Once the last great symbol of Western Europe’s defiance of German aggression, he was now the junior partner in a vast military alliance. Winant was present at the Tehran conference in 1943, where Roosevelt snubbed and even mocked Churchill while trying in vain to woo Stalin.

About this time Winant was appointed to an Allied commission to plan for the occupation of Germany. His prewar experience in Geneva and his posting in London, where several European leaders waited in exile, gave him a good grasp of the players and the possibilities. He was keenly interested in postwar planning – far more so than the Roosevelt administration, which ignored and even undermined his mission.

For these and other slights Winant blamed Roosevelt's advisers, not Roosevelt himself. “He was loyal to FDR no matter what,” Olson said.

Running mate?

Roosevelt respected Winant, too. Although the president was more pragmatic than Winant and sometimes poked fun at Winant's idealism, he also knew that Winant, a Republican, had sacrificed his political career for the New Deal at home and served the country faithfully abroad. When FDR decided to seek a fourth term as president, he floated Winant’s name as a possible running mate.

In an interview, Olson speculated that the idea occurred to Roosevelt simply because he believed Winant would make a good president. He had been loyal, hard-working, inspirational and effective. In New Hampshire, he had been popular with voters and had succeeded in several initiatives that cut against his state’s conservative grain.

The historian Allan Nevins
Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College, also shed light on the matter. Years ago, in the papers of the historian Allan Nevins at Columbia, Birkner found Nevins’s notes from a 1957 interview with Ed Pauley, the California oilman who ran the 1944 Democratic convention.

Pauley told Nevins he and other leading Democrats believed Roosevelt would die in office and found Vice President Henry Wallace too flaky to be president. Several alternatives were considered, but Pauley identified Winant as Roosevelt's first choice.

Because Winant was not a Democrat, Pauley found this “preposterous.” When Roosevelt brought Winant’s name up, Pauley attacked, saying Winant had shown no organizational skills in London and had “no ability to speak.”

Roosevelt backed down, and Pauley pushed through his crony, Sen. Harry Truman.

It is interesting to consider how different history might have been had Winant been chosen. With Truman as his running mate, FDR won a comfortable victory over Thomas Dewey. When Roosevelt died three months after the inauguration, Truman became president.

“Quite fascinating, isn’t it, that America’s greatest vote-getter of the 20th century wasn’t allowed to choose his own running mate in 1944?” Birkner said. “As for Winant, one of the great what-ifs of American history without a doubt.”
A little more than a month before FDR's death, Winant sent him this letter about a belated Christmas
gift he had found for the president.

Winant’s dream

Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, hit Winant hard.

“He had devoted his whole political life to Roosevelt,” Olson said. “He loved him. He thought FDR had saved the world.”

The loss also threatened Winant's future. Without Roosevelt, he was suddenly cast adrift. “Once FDR was gone, there was nothing left for him,” Olson said. “It was like something of himself died when Roosevelt died.”

Winant’s postwar dream was to become the first leader of the United Nations. Olson found evidence that Roosevelt considered this possibility, but the choice of the United States as the U.N.’s home base ended any chance that its leader would be an American.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1946 photo
Winant left England in March 1946, five years after he had arrived. He was a beloved figure, and the sendoff was huge. “I shall always feel that I am a Londoner,” he said.

Later that year, he was chosen as the lone eulogist when the U.S. House of Representatives paid formal tribute to Roosevelt. The president’s widow, Eleanor, who adored Winant, wrote him: “No one could do it better.”

Before an audience that included President Truman, Winant summed up Roosevelt's life in simple, ringing phrases. “There was never a time in the dark years of the Depression, or the black years of the war, when he lost hope,” Winant said.

A desperate man

It was Winant who was losing hope now. “He desperately wanted to help restructure the world after the war,” Olson said, “and nobody had a role for him.” He did not know Truman. His Washington contacts dried up. As the cold war replaced the hot one, his ideals about building a peaceful, cooperative world seemed na├»ve.

Winant’s personal life was a shambles. He was drained, depressed and desperate. He returned to London to renew his relationship with Sarah Churchill, who was now divorced. “He wanted to be with her, but she didn’t want to be with him,” Olson said.

A one-time prohibitionist, Winant had become a heavy drinker, according to a 1969 column by longtime Concord Monitor political editor Andy Anderson. To reduce his personal debt, which his first biographer estimated at a staggering $750,000, Winant signed a contract for a three-volume memoir. He found writing a tedious chore.

“He apparently had nothing in his life to make him want to live,” Olson said.

In 1947, Winant returned to his home on the site of the current Unitarian Church in Concord. His loneliness and fatigue shocked those who saw him. On Nov. 3, in an upstairs room, he knelt on the floor and shot himself in the head. He died half an hour later. He was 58 years old.

Winant was mourned on both sides of the Atlantic. “It is a terrible thing to consider about our postwar world that John Gilbert Winant could not bear to live in it,” wrote the Manchester Guardian in England. A New York Herald Tribune editorialist summed up Winant's legacy with these words: “He did more than people will ever know to maintain the solidarity of the two great democracies in their hour of desperate need.”

Sixty-three years after the Herald Tribune expressed this concern, Lynne Olson has at last given Winant his due.

John G. Winant's grave in St. Paul's School cemetery in Concord, NH. The reverse bears this inscription
from a speech by Winant:

"Doing the day's work day by day, doing a little, adding a little, broadening our bases, wanting not only for ourselves but for others also a fairer chance for all people everywhere. Forever moving forward, always remembering that it is the things of the spirit that in the end prevail. That caring counts and that where there is no vision the people perish. That hope and faith count and that without charity, there can be nothing good. That having dared to live dangerously, and in believing in the inherent goodness of man, we can stride forward into the unknown with growing confidence."