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
“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
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
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
As Rubin likes to say: “Oxford
created her; Columbia made her famous.”
— Paul Hond
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
Now, once again, the blond, telegenic
McCaughey is a central figure in the culture war over American health-care
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
“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
— Elizabeth Manus