College Walk

  Mark Steele
Red Leather Days

First, she did the New York Times crossword puzzle. The paper was delivered every morning to her condo on the golf course in Pompano Beach, Florida. After the paper, she would watch the palm trees sway and wait for the arrival of her aide. A few afternoons a week she played bridge. Evenings she stayed home. At 90, she was 10 or 15 years older than the others in her bridge group. Her husband, Nat, in his mid-90s, was fading. She missed her friends, who had either died or suffered from Alzheimer’s. All told, Florence Wolfson Howitt ’36GSAS was leading what she called “a boring life.”

Then, one Sunday morning in 2005, the phone rang. Florence picked up and heard a young woman’s hesitant voice say, “Florence?” “Yes,” Florence said, and then listened in astonishment as the woman explained that she had found, in a discarded steamer trunk in a Dumpster on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, Florence’s long-forgotten teenage diary. There was also a telegram addressed to Florence Wolfson that read: “I love you. Nat.”

Now the woman was saying that she wanted to write Florence’s story.

“Oh, my God,” said Florence.

The caller was Lily Koppel ’03BC, a 22-year-old writer for the New York Times. Koppel had kept Florence’s crumbling diary in a plastic Zabar’s bag for three years in hopes of finding its writer. Now, thanks to the work of a private investigator, Koppel was afforded the strange pleasure of being able to read Florence a passage: “Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven. I feel like a ripe apricot.”

Asked later about that ecstatic fragment, Florence said, with wonder and a little embarrassment, “What 14-year-old girl feels like a ripe apricot?”

Florence would soon become reacquainted with that passionate, precocious, privileged girl. In interviews on Sunday mornings over bagels and lox, Koppel used tidbits of diary entries to trigger Florence’s memory of the years 1929 to 1934, between her 14th and 19th birthdays, when she faithfully wrote a few lines every night about her whirlwind life in New York, her quarreling Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, her intellectual adventures, and her loves, both male and female.
During summers in the Catskills, Florence met Nat Howitt — “as handsome as a Greek god” — whose parents owned the hotel at which she stayed. They met when she was 13, first kissed (duly recorded in the diary) when she was 16, eloped when she was 24, and stayed married for 67 years until he died a year ago at the age of 97.

Because the Depression kept her from going away to school, Florence applied to Barnard. Dressed in a tuxedo jacket, a skirt, and one of her father’s black ties, she was rejected for being, as she would later recall, “too brilliant and original.” After graduating from Hunter at 19, Florence went on to get her master’s degree in English at Columbia, where she studied with Mark Van Doren ’21GSAS.

The result of Koppel and Florence’s careful reconstruction of Florence’s life in 1930s New York is The Red Leather Diary, a book written by Koppel and published in April to a flurry of publicity.

“I’m not invisible anymore,” Florence said by phone recently as she rested in bed for her upcoming appearance on NBC’s Today Show. “Now people listen to me.” Vibrant and stylish, her still-beautiful face punctuated by black-framed, violet-tinted eyeglasses, she’d already charmed audiences at three packed book talks and held court at a party in a trendy West Village gallery. “Lily resurrected me,” she said. “It’s because of her that this whole fairy tale happened.”

On the set of the Today Show, she settled into her chair and “never even thought of the people watching.” Afterward, she waved to the crowd on the sidewalk.  “I think I’m a real performer. I’m finding that I’m comfortable in myself, which is a good thing to know.”

Rereading the diary and reliving a colorful life that included a literary salon in her parents’ West Side apartment — poets John Berryman ’36CC and Delmore Schwartz were frequent guests — led her to wonder wistfully in interviews, “Where did all of that creativity go?”

In Florence's case, it went to Connecticut.

After writing briefly for women’s magazines, Florence settled into the discreet bounds of domesticity and moved to Westport, Connecticut.  There, she “played tennis, bridge, and the stock market” and developed “a country club mentality.” But she doesn’t think it was motherhood and the suburbs that dampened her literary ambitions.  “I tried to sell two books (one called Are Husbands Necessary?), and no one was interested. It was reality, not the suburbs.”
When asked what she thought of the younger Florence, who frankly recorded her sexual encounters as well as her fashion experiments and literary dreams, she said,  “I thought she was admirable. A free soul.  Later I became pretty settled and conventional.”

Now 93, Florence is flourishing in the limelight that eluded her in her youth. She gets letters telling her how wonderful she is. At book signings, people are amazed by her vitality and quick wit. She has hooked up a laptop computer (not as glamorous as the purple and lavender Remington typewriter with French accents she used as a student) and is thinking of writing the story of her reclaimed life. She might even dye her hair blond again.

Asked about the best thing to come of this gift from the Dumpster, her voice softens: “The telegram Lily found from Nat. I didn’t think he was ever so romantic. After 67 years, it’s nice to know.”

— Geraldine Youcha

  Mark Steele


It was July 2007, and Meghan McCain had a decision to make. She’d just graduated from Columbia with a degree in art history, and had a résumé boasting internship gigs at Saturday Night Live and Newsweek. With her credentials, her genial personality, and her command of fashion and pop culture, she could have gotten her designer-boot-clad foot in any door in New York.

On the other hand, her father, Senator John McCain of Arizona, was running for president, and a seat awaited her on the Straight Talk Express, McCain’s campaign tour bus.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” the younger, blonder McCain said recently.

A precedent had already been set for presidential children. Jenna and Barbara Bush glad-handed during their father’s second White House run, and Chelsea Clinton was set to stump for her mother’s policies. But McCain, though a loyal daughter, was not a natural campaigner, and tended to shy away from the spotlight.

“As much as I admire Chelsea Clinton, I could never do what she does. If I did, I’d embarrass my family,” McCain says wryly. Then, in a more earnest, self-conscious tone, she quickly adds, “I get very nervous speaking in public. I didn’t inherit that from my dad.”

And so she did what other 20-somethings do when they want to share their thoughts and enthusiasms but remain on the sidelines: She started a blog.

Launched in October 2007, McCain Bloggette provides a behind-the-scenes look at John McCain’s bid for the presidency. Meghan, along with two friends who also run the blog and fund it independently of the campaign, writes entries and posts dozens of photos of her father’s every rally, interview, and speech, from Seattle to Memphis to Jersey City. The idea came to her when her brother Jimmy was deployed to Iraq that summer. “It was very emotional,” says McCain. “All these things were running through my head, like ‘My brother could die,’ and ‘Why are we doing this?’ I thought, ‘OK, I can’t control this situation, but I can control how people see my family and give them a more intimate look.’”

This slice-of-life approach suits McCain perfectly. Although she has come to agree with most of the Republican platform, she was previously registered as an Independent and remained outside Columbia’s political life in college. Accordingly, the blog focuses on the campaign’s quotidian details and shows the human side to her family, mostly in candid shots with captions that poke fun in a wholesome, good-natured way. There’s John McCain on the bus, collar unbuttoned, smiling, his staff laughing in return (“My father’s always cracking jokes”). There’s Cindy McCain, her mother, visiting a nursery school in Cambodia (“Mom always seems to find a baby to cuddle”). Then there’s Meghan herself, dressed in black, boarding a plane (“Could my sunglasses be any bigger?”).

She also shares lists of what she calls her passion and her obsession: the music on her iPod, which ranges from the latest in alternative rock and hip-hop (The New Pornographers, Kanye West) to older stuff like Tom Waits and Blondie (or really old, like Rachmaninoff). She recently added a country music playlist, inspired by a trip to Nashville and her country-loving roommate at Columbia.

It’s all part of an effort to make the campaign process approachable to people beyond New York Times readers, and McCain says she has received the biggest response from women and young girls. “I love it when young women come up and say to me, ‘I love talking about clothes and makeup, but I’m glad we can also talk about the environment and the election.’”
Despite her reluctance to talk policy, McCain has gradually become more comfortable publicizing support for specific initiatives of her father’s, such as combating climate change, promoting stem-cell research, and declaring a commitment to stay in Iraq. Still, she steers clear of in-depth discussion of these issues. “No one wants to read policy from me,” she says. “It’s not my style.” That style — part ingénue, part sass, part Valley Girl hipster, with a disarming mix of sincerity and self-effacement — is hardly the stuff of a hard-core political blogger.

For the moment, she’s continuing her role as chronicler of her father’s personal side, publishing a children’s book about him in September, My Dad, John McCain. Win or lose for her father, she also muses about producing a book about the election, from a candidate’s daughter’s point of view. “I would love to have seen Reagan’s children’s or JFK’s children’s perspectives,” she says.

Yet there is a glimmer that McCain has indeed been bitten by the politics bug. Talking about one of her father’s upcoming town-hall meetings, where local citizens interrogate candidates face-to-face, her voice rises with excitement. “The politician has to answer questions face-to-face. He’s standing there, and if someone’s angry, he’s going to see it. It’s the truest form of democracy, going back to Lincoln.”

McCain may never stump policy, but she’s proved herself to be a quick study in another ingredient in getting a candidate elected: making him look electable.

— Emily Brennan ’03BC


Back to Black

Ad Reinhardt called them the “quietest” paintings, and even amid the din of a crowded opening, each one of the five all-black paintings on view in the new tower galleries of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum held viewers in thrall. Balance, subtlety, symmetry, a suggestion of the infinite: gripping. People stopped abruptly. They stood and stared, and took their time doing it. Perhaps transcendence is in, again.

One of the few American artists who began his career as an abstract painter, Reinhardt ’35CC is best known for the black paintings. His blacks are nearly identical in value, but in hue they range among greens, blues, and violets, and they become distinguishable only with time and contemplation. They are as close as he could come to absolute purity. “Art can only be defined as exclusive, negative, absolute, and timeless,” he wrote. “It is not practical, useful, related, applicable, or subservient to anything else.”

Yet the paintings currently on view at the Guggenheim are precisely in the service of the practical. Imageless: The Scientific Study and Experimental Treatment of an Ad Reinhardt Black Painting (up through September 14) is a show about art conservation as it relates to some of the most fragile paintings ever made: monochromatic, minimalist, smooth-surfaced works that can be ruined by a careless art lover’s lightest touch. For those unfamiliar with the stately pace of step-by-step scientific restoration, it is almost as fascinating as the paintings themselves.

“We hope to give people a better idea of what conservators do,” says Carol Stringari, Guggenheim’s chief of conservation. “It’s like solving a mystery.”

Born in Buffalo in 1915, Ad (short for Adolph, but he was, well, adamant that he be called only by the first syllable) studied aesthetics and art history at Columbia with Meyer Schapiro ’24CC, ’35GSAS, ’75HON, was on the wrestling team, and contributed cartoons, cover art, and writing to Jester, Columbia’s undergraduate humor magazine, where he was editor in chief his senior year. He was known for his wry wit. One of his Jester covers, cubist-inspired, depicts a muscular basketball player in a Columbia team jersey — in shades of pink. He became good friends with Robert Lax ’38CC and Thomas Merton ’38CC, ’39GSAS, and remained in touch with them after college. Merton became a Trappist monk and writer; Lax was a poet who retreated to the Greek island of Patmos for most of his life. All three were drawn toward spare simplicity in their work.

In the case of Reinhardt, who died in 1967, that simplicity made his paintings exquisitely fragile. The sixth painting in the Guggenheim show is Black Painting, 1960–66, and it’s not a pretty sight. For the past five years, under Stringari’s guidance, it has been subjected to scanning electron microscopy, backscatter electron X-radiology, krypton-fluoride lasers, and even traditional solvent techniques, which caused an eruption resulting in craquelure. A film in the exhibit documents the progress; we see Black Painting, 1960–66 being stabilized in a movable metal frame while a laser is applied, and various labels: “Pulse duration: 34 nanoseconds,” and “Spot size: 3.8 cm x 0.04 cm.”

It would be interesting to know what Reinhardt, who wrote dogmatically and sometimes abstractly about art, would think of the fate that befell Black Painting, 1960–66. Christiane Fischer, president and CEO of AXA Art Insurance Corporation, tells the tale: A private American collector lent the painting to a museum, and it was returned with “surface impact damage.” Several experts declared it a total loss. After the owner was compensated, the painting became the property of AXA, which decided to donate it to a “study collection” at a museum, where it would be used exclusively for research. AXA’s board also agreed to fund a position for a conservator to study the Reinhardt.

Beyond the surface impact, Black Painting, 1960–66 looked wrong to Stringari from the get-go. “It was shiny,” she says, whereas Reinhardt’s technique produced a soft matte surface. Scanning electron microscopy confirmed her worst fears: The painting had been “restored” before – with 11 layers over Reinhardt’s original nine. The later paint was acrylic (Reinhardt worked in oil) and sprayed on (he used brushes), and topped with a shmear of Rhoplex. Removing just the top layer from a 20-by-20-inch section with a laser took 24 hours. “The point is not to get there fast, but safely,” Stringari says. In the end, a non-Reinhardt layer will likely be allowed to remain, because the surface beneath it is considered highly unstable.

Another work, which Stringari casually refers to as “Frankenstein,” on the opposite wall, looks like a Reinhardt that’s been lacerated, lasered, and left in shreds, with numbered bits of tape sticking to it. Scary.

It turns out that Frankenstein is a creation of Stringari’s, but done according to Reinhardt’s strenuous, exacting technique, in which oil paint is shaken up in a jar with solvent and then left to settle. When the liquid is poured off, the pigment, soft and somewhat brittle from lack of binder, is then taken from the bottom and brushed by hand, layer after layer, in what Reinhardt called “brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork.”

Though the work is not a Reinhardt, Stringari believes it is a window into the artist’s process.

“We ask people to accept a potential compromise,” Stringari says. “All conservation is compromise. The goal is for the viewer to get closer to the experience of a Reinhardt. That’s what matters.”

— Margaret Moorman


The Ballad of Gabriel Conroy

“I think he died for me,” she said,
Less to the man beside her bed
Than to the boy inside her head,
And left her living love for dead.

Yes, Distant Music’s long-lost score
Was all she heard (or listened for),
A tune she’d echoed years before,
And yet an air she breathed no more.

Her husband smelt the fuming gas,
Felt through his boots the damping grass
Round his wife’s lover, saw his lass

Burn with old fury, loss newfound,
And, in blank stillness, watched the sound
Of cold snow falling on hard ground.

—Keith O’Shaughnessy ’94CC

O’Shaughnessy teaches literature and
creative writing in New Jersey