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Alice in Columbialand

5 February 1932 


Dear Dr. Murray Butler, Alice typed. Thank you very much for your most kind letter. I am looking forward with great pleasure to my visit to New York in May.

Alice paused to think of it: New York! The idea of all those tall buildings pleased her very much. Like so many giant chessmen. She resumed typing.

I am extremely honoured by your intimation, which I shall of course treat as confidential —

“Oh,” Alice thought, “intimation does sound a good deal like invitation, but it has a different meaning entirely. Two meanings: a suggestion, and a formal announcement. Though,” she considered, “it is an invitation, too, after all.”

She mailed her response to Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, with a promise to keep the true purpose of her visit a secret.

A short time later, it was announced that Alice would be coming to Columbia University, to join in a literary celebration marking the centenary of the birth of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll.

That’s when a queer thing began to happen. Bundles upon bundles of letters began to arrive at Cuffnells, the tree-filled estate where Alice had lived for more than 50 years. The letters were from children all over America, begging Alice to sign their books.

“That would be impossible, of course,” thought Alice, who had lived quietly and privately for a very long time, and wasn’t used to such attention. “Why, if I’m 79 years old,” which she was, “and there are 100,000 autographs to sign, and each signature takes 10 seconds, more or less —” No, it was quite impossible. As she couldn’t oblige everyone, Alice hoped her young admirers would listen to her on the radio during the festivities in New York so that she could greet them. She didn’t want them to think her rude.

Her thoughts then turned to her own book, the one that Mr. Dodgson had made especially for her, and that bore her name, and contained Dodgson’s own drawings; the book that, after the death of her husband six years earlier, she had been induced to sell at auction. Oh, people did make a fuss, protesting that so important a relic of English literature should be required to stay in England.  But Alice had stood her ground. The book was purchased by a Mr. Rosenbach of Philadelphia for $75,000 — the most money ever paid for an English manuscript.

On April 29, 1932, Alice sailed to New York with her son Caryl (her two other sons had died in the Great War) and her sister Rhoda, aboard the Berengaria. As the steamer crossed the Atlantic, Alice, between naps and card games, reflected on those lovely lines of Murray Butler’s that still stirred her heart: It gives me great pleasure to advise you, in entire confidence, that the Trustees of Columbia University have voted to confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, in recognition of the place which your name occupies in English literature and of the remarkable contributions to that literature by Lewis Carroll to which your personality gave rise.

Alice had kept the confidence, and now that she was entering the New York harbor, with the marvelous skyline gleaming in the afternoon sun, she felt the pangs of her natural shyness. Not that appearing at Columbia was too out of the ordinary; when you are the daughter of Henry Liddell, the famous Greek scholar and dean of Christ Church, Oxford, you are accustomed to academic settings. But an honoris causa! That was something else entirely. In Alice’s day, English women weren’t permitted to take a degree — why, Oxford didn’t begin granting degrees to women until 1920. Columbia’s gesture moved her greatly.

Of course, she would never presume to take any credit for

Mr. Dodgson’s books. But she had to admit (with some embarrassment, for she was a modest person) that if it were not for her having made a perfect nuisance of herself by pestering poor Mr. Dodgson to write his story down, instead of simply speaking it, there wouldn’t be any Alice or White Rabbit or Mad Hatter or Cheshire Cat or any Wonderland at all!

As the ship hove into port, Alice, ever the Victorian lady, took tea on the sundeck. She wore a black

fur coat over a silk gown with blue polka dots, a black hat with a feather, and a bunch of orchids fastened to her lapel. A swarm of reporters and press photographers appeared (Alice hadn’t had her picture snapped so earnestly since she was a young girl, posing for Mr. Dodgson), as well as two gentlemen from the University: J. Enrique Zanetti, a chemistry professor and chairman of the Lewis Carroll Centennial Committee, and Roger Howson, the University librarian.

With the aid of two walking sticks, Alice disembarked, and was driven to her lodgings at the Waldorf-Astoria, where she had the rather Wonderlandish experience of rising in an elevator to the 39th floor. (“When I was young,” she told her son afterward, “I had to grow my neck long in order to get up to these heights. I think this is a much easier way.”)

On Wednesday, May 4, Alice arrived at Morningside Heights. In the Low Rotunda, which was still a reading room, a throne had been erected so that “Queen” Alice, she of Through the Looking Glass, could have her photo taken with Dr. Murray Butler, though somehow when the flashbulbs went off it was Butler who was ensconced in the chair. The tribute continued inside the University gymnasium, where some 2000 people were assembled, including the British Consul General. A large decorative panel had been constructed, featuring a menagerie of Carrollian characters, with Alice in the middle, holding a flamingo. The all-women glee clubs of Hunter College and Barnard College, accompanied by the 70-piece Columbia Orchestra, performed selections from the suite Alice in Wonderland by Edgar Stillman Kelley, under the baton of Lowell Beveridge of the music department.  The English professor Harry Morgan Ayres stood to praise Alice for “awaking with her girlhood’s charm the ingenious fancy of a mathematician familiar with imaginary quantities, stirring him to reveal his complete understanding of the heart of a child as well as the mind of man.” He concluded his kind remarks with the words, “you as the moving cause of this truly noteworthy contribution to English literature, I gladly admit to the degree of Doctor of Letters in this University.”

To Alice, it was a most wondrous and meaningful birthday. She was 80 years old. 

Alice Pleasance Hargreaves (née Liddell) ’32HON died two years later, but the celebration of her legacy has never ended. This summer, her great-great-niece, Cathy Rubin, a children’s book author, could be found on the sixth floor of Butler Library, researching material in the University Archive for a documentary titled The Real Alice in Wonderland. The film will examine, among other aspects of Alice’s curious life, her dramatic coming-out party at Columbia. Rubin is hoping to release the picture in early 2010, to coincide with Tim Burton’s much-awaited Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp and Anne Hathaway.

Soman Chainani ’08SOA is a consultant on Rubin’s project. “I’ve always been a huge Alice in Wonderland fan,” says Chainani, who was a recipient of the MFA Film Program’s top prize, the FMI Fellowship for writing and directing. “I’ve seen every film version, and am very steeped in the whole Lewis Carroll legend. I love stories that begin in the real world and then have doors that open into a fantasyland.” As for Alice herself, Chainani is excited to help bring her story to a new generation — and to highlight her Columbia connection.

As Rubin likes to say: “Oxford created her; Columbia made her famous.” 

— Paul Hond 

 
 

Care Tactics

Unlike many of those engaged in policy debates, Betsy McCaughey ’76GSAS loves to fluff the pillows and curl up with a good piece of legislation. The densest draft bills are treated like high literature in her Park Avenue apartment.

On a mid-August morning, a particularly well-known (if widely unread) legislative War and Peace, a bill that runs to 1017 pages, sits in a binder on McCaughey’s dining room table, surrounded by 18th-century clocks, maritime paintings, and a picture of McCaughey with Margaret Thatcher.

Fifteen years ago, McCaughey’s reading habits led her to pen a series of articles warning Americans that the Clinton health-care plan would empower bureaucrats to override decisions made between doctor and patient. Her 4500-word piece, “No Exit,” in The New Republic won a National Magazine Award for excellence in the public interest. Credited with derailing Clinton Care, McCaughey rode conservative goodwill into politics, coming out of nowhere to become Republican lieutenant governor of New York under Governor George Pataki.

Now, once again, the blond, telegenic McCaughey is a central figure in the culture war over American health-care reform.

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece in July, McCaughey concluded that Democratic reforms “will reduce access to care, pressure the elderly to end their lives prematurely, and doom baby boomers to painful later years.”

Her frightening scenarios helped stoke a conservative backlash that turned a relatively civil national discussion over health-care reform into a full-blown spectacle that has included wild rhetoric, gun-packing protesters, and defensive political maneuvering by the White House.

By the time of the congressional recess in August, McCaughey’s contentions had quickly morphed into Sarah Palin’s “death panel” of bureaucrats who would, as one Republican senator memorably put it, “pull the plug on grandma.” Suddenly, it was health reform that was on life support.

Sitting in her living room, wearing pearls and a dark, pin-striped skirt suit, McCaughey, now 60, sighs deeply.

“I wish infection prevention was getting this much attention because that’s really my major passion in life,” she says. “Unfortunately, I’ve been made the center of attention simply because I’m an avid reader and researcher.”

Not that she’s been ducking the cameras. Though McCaughey (pronounced McCoy) says she did not anticipate being a vocal critic of health-care reform this time around —  only that she would read the draft legislation and translate obtuse legislative language into plain English — she views her media appearances as a kind of public service. In her effort to make “the legislative proposals accessible to people,” she includes the page numbers of the bills she refers to in her articles, a device that lends an added authority to her claims.

McCaughey came from modest means to earn a fellowship to Vassar College and a PhD in constitutional history from Columbia, where she deepened a predilection for primary sources. After her time in politics, which included a run as Democratic nominee for New York governor in 1998, she became a health-care advocate and founded the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths. Having worked on reducing hospital-acquired infections, she says she has come to understand that hospital patients, most of whom are elderly, are unlikely to resist a doctor’s recommendations. And in her mind, such medical advice would be tainted if it were to be prescribed by a government more interested in saving money than in saving lives.

“When someone in a white coat who is an authority figure walks into a hospital room to discuss end-of-life options with you, the patient does not say, ‘I’m not interested, I don’t have time,’” she says. “Patients don’t even speak up to say, ‘Would you please wash your hands?’ They are meek, compliant, and receptive. That’s what patients are. They don’t say no.”

When a visitor suggests that providing Medicare coverage for counseling that is already pro forma at many hospitals is not the same thing as promoting cost-cutting euthanasia, McCaughey quickly turns to her primary source on her dining room table.

“I think before we continue this conversation we should go ahead and read those pages,” she says.

She strides past her picture with Ronald Reagan, opens the three-ring binder containing the initial draft of the House Democrats’ health-care bill, and flips to the section on how the government will reimburse health-care providers for counseling patients on end-of-life care (page 424).

McCaughey believes that this system of payment would create a fiasco in which anonymous health-care providers (not a doctor with whom the family has a relationship), reading from a state-sanctioned script, will make vulnerable seniors feel that they are a burden to their families and to society, and should just go quietly (and cheaply) into that dark night.

The pages don’t say that. McCaughey’s reading of the bill’s language, it turns out, is highly interpretative.

But for McCaughey, the problems are spelled out clear as day: If you doubt it, she’ll give you the page number and you can look it up yourself. 

— Jeremy Smerd ’03JRN
 

 
 

Signs of the Times

If the path to enlightenment begins with the mapping of the stars, as the ancient astronomers taught, students standing in the vestibule of Low Library for the first time are well-positioned — although they might not notice it.

To be fair, one would expect a celestial representation to be displayed high up, perhaps on the ceiling. But in the atrium of Low, one must look downward to see the heavens. There, in the floor, encircling the fluted pedestal of Athena like a hammered belt of light, and partly obscured by rubber mats, lies a familiar-looking configuration: the signs of the zodiac, artfully rendered in eight panels in a marble mosaic. 

To the modern observer, these brass bas-reliefs, worn flat by a century of foot traffic, might spark thoughts of The Secret Language of Birthdays or tabloid advice about whose letters to burn. But students entering the library on the first day of classes in early October 1897 knew just what the signs embodied. “The zodiac represents the cosmos,” says Barry Bergdoll, professor of architectural history at Columbia and the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, “and the quest to encompass in a single building the sum total of knowledge.”

What the students would not likely have known — and what few know today — was how much attention had been devoted to bringing the zodiac to the library. 

Seth Low himself, his wife Annie Curtis Low, the University’s Beaux-Arts architect Charles McKim, ironmaster John Williams, a marble worker named E. B. Tompkins, and members of a Special Committee all collaborated, by way of letters, meetings, resolutions, and votes, to situate the reliefs in the building.

What was really occurring was a relocation, because the signs had been created for McKim’s New York State Building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They were cast by Williams, a Manhattan smithy whose shop was renowned for its hand-forged work, and one possible destination after the World’s Fair was McKim’s Boston Public Library. Instead, Williams helped steer them to the center of the newly named Columbia University.

In a September 1896 letter to Low, a very pleased McKim wrote that Williams and his friend Tompkins, “knowing my desire to secure this pavement for the Library,” had offered to donate, set, and present it gratis to the University. “The octagonal frame . . . as by a miracle, exactly fits the space between the steps of approach leading to the President’s room on one side and the Trustees on the other,” he wrote.

McKim’s interests extended much further than the line between these two rooms, according to Bergdoll. The architect’s expertise referred to the French academic tradition of the late 18th and 19th centuries and a history of thinking about ways to unify a processional axis with iconography of knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge.

“The zodiac is traditional in libraries in general and in Beaux-Arts libraries in particular,” Bergdoll says. “Low Library is the center of the campus universe, and the zodiac is in the center of the vestibule, as kind of prelude to the dome. You come into the building, walk over the zodiac — over the celestial sphere — through the marble columns, and are drawn to the light in the rotunda. The dome is painted blue. Originally there was hanging from the dome a glass sphere, and the dome was painted with stars. This celestial theme runs through the iconography of the building, enhanced for many years by the sundial placed on an axis with the library on the other side of 116th Street — College Walk — a link between the two halves of the campus.”

In the 1890s, visitors to Low would have grasped the reference. “Educated people understood what these things symbolized,” says Andrew Dolkart, the James Marston Fitch Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “People knew how to look. It was part of society. You were trained to be well versed in classical knowledge.”

In other words, nobody on “the Acropolis of America,” as Morningside Heights was known, had to explain the zodiac or point out that Athena was the goddess of wisdom.

Yet even though the zodiac circle and the bust of Athena signaled Low’s (or perhaps only McKim’s) allegiance to Periclean Athens, Columbia had recently abandoned Greek as an admission requirement. True, freshmen were still required to take Greek and Latin, and rhetoric was still a required course for freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, but the new way in pointed to a new way out — a different kind of literacy, epitomized by the expansion of the college into a university. 

“Being versed in classicism is the old idea that a perfect education was a classical education,” Dolkart says. “We have a much broader notion of what education is today. We have a broader, more open view of what an educated individual is.”

— Elizabeth Manus

 
 
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