Friday, December 27, 2013

My Hunt for Emily Dickinson

(This was originally posted in April of 2010, but a comment about it from Jenny the Pirate arrived just a few days ago and inspired me to re-post the saga below.)

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them.)

There are a few photographs of long-dead celebrities that are so rare, people will pay close to a million dollars for them. If you come across a previously unknown image of, say, Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, John Brown, John Wilkes Booth, Jesse James, to name a few, you have discovered a real treasure.

One of these iconic images would be a new portrait of Emily Dickinson. That’s what a professor at the University of North Carolina, Philip F. Gura, thought he had found on an E-Bay auction that he won on April 12, 2000. It was an albumen photograph (the bottom row above).

Later Gura wrote a delightful description of his torturous six-month search to validate the image. It’s called “How I Met and Dated Miss Emily Dickinson: An Adventure on eBay.”

Read it on

Gura wrote about Emily Dickinson: “Even though she lived when the new invention of photography was changing the ways people thought about themselves, there is only one known photographic likeness of her, taken by William C. North. It was made between December 1846 and March 1847, and shows a thin teenager suffering from what her family took as the first symptoms of tuberculosis.

“A second photograph of Dickinson has long been the Holy Grail of artifacts for scholars in my field…”

Gura paid $481 to win the albumen photograph with “Emily Dickinson” written on the back. As soon as it arrived from the eBay seller, the professor set about trying to validate it. He soon had calls from The New York Times and the New Yorker, who were vying to be the first with the news of his discovery.

Then NPR and many papers around the world were knocking at his door. After much trouble, Gura finally found a forensic anthropologist who was able to measure and compare various anatomical landmarks on the two faces (the original verified dag above left and the new-found albumen photo in the third row). This seems so much quicker and easier on TV shows like CSI and Bones!

Meanwhile two historians of costume analyzed the sitter’s clothing and determined that the albumen photo was a copy of an original daguerreotype taken sometime between 1848 and 1853.

In the one verified image of Emily — the daguerreotype at the upper left-- she is either sixteen or 17 years old. It was taken at Mt. Holyoke and is in the possession of Amherst College.

After all his research, Prof. Gura still doesn’t have a positive "yes" answer. But he believes that it is indeed Emily and quotes one reporter: “Although the forensic analysis of Gura’s photo strongly suggests the woman is ED, no one can say for sure. By the same token, no one apparently can say that the woman is NOT Dickinson.”

Something that was not reported by international media, (but is reported here exclusively on A Rolling Crone), is that I had a very similar experience to Philip Gura’s. But it happened exactly four months earlier. On Jan. 13, 2000, I purchased on eBay a 1/6 plate daguerreotype of a young woman who looked strikingly like Emily Dickinson. The famous verified Emily image is on the left above, on the right is my dag, which I purchased for $127.50 from a seller in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

The eBay auction had the title “Fine Dag – Lovely Woman – Emily Dickinson???”

But the seller was not making any claims that he couldn’t prove: “Purchased some time ago from an estate auctioned [sic] near Amherst, Mass. A fine daguerreotype…an intriguing and attractive young woman. …Some say she is, some say she looks like, Emily Dickinson. And some say not. Draw your own conclusion (there is one surviving dag of this noted Amherst author.) A fine daguerreotype either way.”

I studied the small photo on eBay and tried to compare it to the one verified dag. Like Philip Gura some months later, I waited in suspense for it to arrive. I imagined the excitement, the glory, the press attention if it proved to be an actual second image of the Belle of Amherst.

You must admit, looking at the two dags side by side, that the resemblance is striking. Even the style of dress and hair and the pose itself. (Emily is near a book and holding what I think is a flower in the official dag. In my image the woman has an adorable beaded bag hanging from her arm. They even seem to be wearing the same kind of dark bracelet, which may or may not be a mourning bracelet made of human hair.)

But I didn’t have to consult forensic anthropologists and costume historians to validate my image when it came. I took one look at the actual dag that lay in my hand and I realized she couldn’t be the real Emily, because, judging from the one true photograph, Emily had dark brown eyes and the woman in MY image had pale blue eyes.

I should have known this, because Emily once wrote to an admirer (who asked for a portrait) this description of herself: “I…am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur-and my Eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the guest leaves – would this do just as well?”

So mine is not a priceless iconic image, and the world’s press is not about to come calling — as it did four months later when Professor Gura discovered his image of ED on eBay. But I like ”my” Emily anyway and would never part with her, because this woman was a contemporary, perhaps a neighbor — perhaps even a relative -- of the real Emily. She certainly has a remarkable resemblance to the mysterious and secretive Belle of Amherst, who wore white and refused to come out of her room in the last years of her life, talking to visitors through a closed door.

And then after her death, her sister Lavina discovered the 1800 poems hidden away in her drawer. The first volume was published four years after Emily diedin 1886 at the age of 55.


Robin Paulson said...
Joan, Not that this will rock your world, but I played Lavinia in a biographical play in Hollywood about Emily Dickenson. I wish I could remember the name of it, but I had fun doing a New England accent and researching Emily and Vinnie.
Jenny the Pirate said...
Sorry to be late to the party but a dear friend sent me a link to this post, as she knows The Belle of Amherst is my favorite poet. Amazing story ... now, am I to conclude that the yellowed photo of an older Emily is Mr. Gura's find, and that it is not a verified photo of Emily? Well shut the front door. To me it looks exactly like her, and I love that picture, even have it pictured on my blog with a link to Emily's page on Find A Grave. But the young Emily photo is one I love to stare at and study, and have done many times. Thanks for an intriguing post and a great blog, Joan. I've enjoyed "visiting" with you today.
by Joan Gage said...
Dear Jenny--Yes I think the yellowed photo of an older Emily on this post--which is Mr. Gura's find--is in fact the "real" Emily. Sadly mine is not, because of the difference in eye color (not that any dag is in color--but you can see how pale are the eyes of the woman on the right.)

But I thank you for your kind words about my blog post and hope you'll visit often.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bad Santas Hit New York City

Last Saturday we were in New York, staying down at the bottom of Fifth Avenue, a stone’s throw from Washington Square Arch, which looked magical with its sparkling Christmas tree as snow began to fall.  I went out early for coffee and the papers, and as I approached a Starbucks several blocks to the east, I passed a half dozen young people, three men and three women, all dressed as Santa Claus.  Salvation Army bell ringers? I wondered.  Department store salespeople?

Inside the Starbucks I saw more Santas, but didn’t ask anyone why, because I didn’t want to reveal myself as an out-of-towner.  But when I read the papers it became clear.  Even though I’ve lived for nearly 20 years in the City (a while ago), I knew nothing about SantaCon which happened on Saturday, an event that was causing lots of controversy among New Yorkers.

An op-ed piece by Jason Gilbert in The New York Times last Thursday had the title “Bring Drunken Santas Under Control”.  It began “On Saturday, a festive, besotted mob of 20- and 30-somethings, decked out in various measures of Santa Claus dress and undress, will descend on the bars of lower New York City and rain down Christmas cheer like spoiled eggnog.  This obnoxious event is SantaCon.”

I learned that tens of thousands of people gather in Manhattan every year on SantaCon for a day-long pub crawl to designated bars, many of the Santas eventually ending up in Brooklyn or passed out on a bench somewhere.  They gather about ten a.m. near Tompkins Park on the lower East Side to get their secret instructions on the bar crawl route.  Many bars in Manhattan last Saturday had signs in the window like this one: “Alcohol Soaked Father Christmas themed flash mob not welcome here.  Take your body fluids and public intoxication elsewhere.”   Some signs were more succinct: “No Santas allowed.”

The Long Island Rail Road, Metro North and New Jersey Transit all announced that no alcohol consumption would be allowed on their trains for 24 hours, starting at noon on Saturday.

Aware of the growing dislike of SantaCon, the organizers, who refused to give their names to the press, warned participants by internet to tone down their antics this year and remember that unwanted sexual advances on passing females are wrong: “Dirty ol’ Santa or Ho Ho Ho, just remember No Means No.”

The anonymous organizers of the event pointed out to The New York Times that for every bar that doesn’t want Santas, there are many that do.  Every establishment on the tour has pledged to donate a percentage of the day’s profits to Toys for Tots, and last year the event raised $45,000. (Participants are encouraged to donate $10 each.) They also said that this year there will be many “helper elves’ assigned to guide Santas who stagger off the designated route.

The first recorded SantaCon in the U.S. United States was in San Francisco in 1994, conceived as a subversive expression of anti-commercialism.  Now SantaCon has forgotten about being anti-commercialism. It takes place in more than 300 cities in 44 countries. The biggest gathering is in New York City, which had an estimated 30,000 bad Santas last year.

Around noon I boarded a subway in the East Village to travel to the Upper East Side, because I knew there was little chance of getting a taxi amid the Christmas rush and the snowy weather.  I got out at Union Station to transfer to the Lexington line and stared in wonder at all the Santas around me (most of them headed downtown.)  There were not just Santas, but elves and reindeer.  A group of Santas across the way periodically shouted out “Ho! Ho! Ho!” in unison like cheerleaders, but I didn’t see any signs of misbehavior—perhaps because it was still early in the day.  Along with rotund Santas of the male variety, I saw a number of chic-looking female elves in fetching red and white miniskirts and peaked caps.

Perhaps because I didn’t see the Santas later in the day, when their Christmas spirits had overpowered their good sense, my first encounter with SantaCon has left me less outraged than The New York Times and more inclined to agree with the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, who told the press, “This is an event that we support.  It’s what makes New York New York.”

Friday, December 13, 2013

Confessions of a Christmas Tree Nut

(This is a re-post from the past, but this year I've already got my four trees --described below--  up at home in Massachusetts, thanks entirely to the patience,  talents and assistance of family members.  Right now, I'm in Manhattan, about to take the subway with daughter Eleni and granddaughter Amalia to Rockefeller Center to see the ultimate Christmas tree... then the Radio City Christmas show.  Can't wait!  As to the annual Christmas card and letter--I haven't even started!)

Right now I should be addressing Christmas cards but I'm in the grip of my seasonal craziness which involves decorating...lots...of...trees.

I also decorate doors and chandeliers and kitchen shelves and the grand piano and of course the mantel piece, but what I do most is trees.  Each with a theme.  In every room.  Well, not EVERY room because my husband has started to crack down on that--especially in his office, despite the lovely all white (sprayed snow and icicles and pine cones) tree I did one year.  It shed.

I think this is a genetic thing inherited from my mother.  At Christmas time she decorated so much that you couldn't find a flat surface available to set down your cup of eggnog.

So far I've only put up, um, four.  And I'm going to show them to you now.

On the day after Thanksgiving came the Real Tree, which goes in the living room.  I realize that's much too early and it will soon be very dry, but daughter Eleni and her brand new husband Emilio, with some other elves, insisted on dragging it home and putting on the lights as soon as the turkey was digested and the cranberry sauce was gone.  I usually pick a color scheme, and this year went with silver and white, with the only color coming from some crazy peacock ornaments I got from Pier One (which has great ornaments!  Have you seen the under-the-sea collection?  Squid and fish and lobsters and crayfish and mermaids.  Now there's a theme I haven't tried.)

With the peacocks, I also used lots of white butterflies (from the Dollar Store) and white birds and angel wings, so I guess the theme of the wonderful-smelling Real Tree this year would be wings.

In the dining room I always put a wire tree to show off my antique ornaments.  And I put a wire from the tree to the window latch so that it (hopefully) can't get knocked over.  You can see that we don't have snow yet in Massachusetts, unlike Minnesota, but we will soon.

Some of these ornaments are reproductions, but most are the real thing.  My grandmother had a whole tree decorated with blown-glass birds with those spun glass tails and often a metal clip to hold it on the tree.  I still have a few of hers.  I really love the fragile teapots once sold at every Woolworth's for pennies. They cost a lot more now.  The blown-glass ornaments usually say "West Germany" on the metal cap.  The  glass ornaments that were once screw-in lights were made in Japan between 1930 and 1950 and are a lot less likely to break.

In the library I always put my Shoe Tree, which started when the Metropolitan Museum in New York first started selling ornaments based on shoes in their collections.  

This became a kind of mania and now I can't afford to buy the newest ones from the Museum, but I've added lots of cunning real (baby-sized) shoes, and people keep giving me more.  My favorites on this tree are the Chinese baby shoes that look like cats and the fur-lined baby moccasins and the tiny Adidas sneakers.
On the porch I've put the  Kitchen Tree, or Cookie & Candy Tree.  This was inspired by some friends who live in a tiny apartment and decorate their tree only with cookies and candy and pretzels and candy canes.  Then, when Christmas is over, they put it all outside for the birds and other New York fauna to enjoy.
As you can see, I've cheated quite a bit--adding ornaments that look like kitchen utensils and non-edible gingerbread men and peppermints.  An authentic Kitchen Tree should have chains of real popcorn and cranberries (which we did back when I had children small enough to enjoy stringing them.)

Last year  Trader Joe's sold little gingerbread men with holes already punched in their heads so I could string them on the tree, but this year the gingerbread men are frosted but the holes are missing, so I just  stabbed them with the wire hooks and it worked fine (and any that broke, I ate, of course. They taste better frosted.)
That's four trees so far and counting--I still haven't started decorating the tree in my studio that holds my stash of ornaments from Mexico and India, but that will come soon, and I haven't  shown you my Santa Claus collection and the miniature town in the bay window in the kitchen and the many creches we have from around the world....But let's face it, I have to get back to those Christmas cards.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Amalia Does the Holidays

Amalia traveled from Manhattan to Yiaya and Papou’s home in Massachusetts for Thanksgiving, knowing that she’d have to cram some Christmas into the four-day weekend, because this year she and Mommy and Papi would be spending Christmas and New Year’s in Nicaragua with Abuela and family.

 The first thing Amalia did when she got there was to play with the Santa’s village that Yiayia Nene had set up in the kitchen window. 

The next thing was to bake pies with Yiayia.  Amalia had specified that she wanted to make an orange pie and a pink pie.  Yiayia interpreted that as a Pumpkin pie and a Cheesecake Raspberry Swirl pie.  Amalia decorated with candy corn. 

On Thanksgiving Day Amalia helped make whipped cream and kept a critical eye on the cooking of the bird.  It looked pretty big to her—but this year, unlike last year, she weighed more than the turkey.

When it was time for Thanksgiving dinner, Amalia ate the grapes that garnished the bird as she posed for family photos.

When Papi handed her a drumstick, she attacked it with the gusto of Henry the Eighth, to the surprise of Yiayia Nene.

When she saw how fetching Tia Marina looked wearing the Turkey hat, Amalia elected to try it on herself.

After dinner she was reunited with the Christmas Mouse that sings “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.

She made a new friend—the Elf on the Shelf.  She named him David. 

Later Papi read her the book about the Elf.  First rule is you can’t touch him or he’ll lose his magic.  And if he squeals to Santa about your bad behavior, you may get banished to the naughty list.

Saturday was faux Christmas.  Papi brought home a tree and Mommy and Tia Marina put the lights on. 

Meanwhile Amalia read “The Night Before Christmas” to the Christmas mouse.

And she opened a whole lot of presents.  Here she's asking "What's next?"

That day everybody got a piece of the (faux) New Year’s pita to find who had the lucky coin in their piece --to insure a year of good luck.   It was in Papou’s piece but he gave the coin to Amalia.

That night Amalia made gingerbread cookies with Yiayia for decorating the next day.  Amalia absolutely loves baking and shrieks with joy when the pies or cookies come out of the oven.

The next day, Sunday, Mommy’s friends came over and Amalia got to play and decorate cookies with their daughters, Natasha and Sophie.

She admired the decorated tree with Tia Marina.

Then she said good-bye and got in the car to drive back to her casita in Manhattan.  The traffic was terrible and the trip took five hours.  Amalia said she “wanted to go back to their house where there are people.”  Then she threw up all over her car seat.

She can hardly wait for her Christmas in Nicaragua, where Santa will find her, thanks to Google maps and information from David the Elf.