Yeah, you know … my boyfriend.
The guy I referred to, on this blog, as “my historical freebie”. I should be put into Geek Jail for that comment.
He was hanging out ALL OVER the New York Historical Society.
I don’t know what it is about Hamilton. He scares me at times – I can see why people hated and feared some of his ideas, at other times I am blown away by how far ahead he could see, at other times I honestly don’t know what drove this man. Ambition? Hunger for power? What? If I might get a bit new-agey froo-froo here, it seems as though he knew he would die young. He crammed in enough living (and enough WRITING, Jesus) for three lifetimes. The speed and facility of his pen never ceases to amaze me.
Bill and I met on the front steps of the New York Historical Society (I was half an hour late due to NO UPTOWN TRAINS … grrrrr). Across the street, we could see Christo’s orange-flagged creation. Now I will not put the cart before the horse. My pretentious review will come later … but still, let me just say this: It is really something to see them in person. To everyone all pissed off and grumpy about it, I have no idea what bug is up your ass. I laughed out loud when I saw the Gates. They seem so whimsical, and also – well, it’s just that THERE ARE SO MANY of them. I guess I didn’t really realize how enormous the project is until I SAW it. I took a cab from 59th Street to 77th Street – and the Gates covered the park for that entire time. Over hills and dales, up and down .. it’s kind of extraordinary.
But I will get to them later.
NOW. I need to talk about my bad-boy Revolutionary boyfriend.
It was so terrific to go see the exhibit with Bill, another history buff (we laughed at one point about something, there was a pause, and then Bill murmured, “We are such geeks.”) Heh. Exactly. I could not go to see that exhibit with someone who didn’t “get it”. It just wouldn’t be satisfying. Bill and I walked around, in our geeky splendour, talking about Hamilton, discussing everything (the Navy, the various feuds, the battle of Yorktown, the Passaic Falls) … We even answered a question a random elderly woman had, as she hovered over one of the exhibit pieces. I don’t know why she asked us if he had ever gone to prison for financial crimes (basically insider trading) … but there she was, asking us. We gave a detailed geeky answer.
The exhibit itself is beautifully done, I thought. The walls are painted a deep dark blue, and all of the lights are very low. Many of the glass cases contain scraps of writing – stuff which is already faded – so there is a very hushed feeling to the whole thing. Which I appreciate.
There are rounded-out niches in the walls – with gleaming marble busts – of Hamilton, one of Jefferson, a couple other founding gents. There are quotations (from Hamilton, from others about Hamilton) painted on the walls – they’re everywhere. Some were long, verbose – some were short, like Hamilton writing, “I wish there was a war.” There’s one long corridor with the “Timeline”. You wander along it, following his life – there are little artifacts and woodcuts and stuff on the wall – old maps of New York (Bill and I were amazed by that … only Battery Park populated, the rest just farmland), Hamilton’s Order of the Cincinnati medal, a small miniature of Hamilton when he must have been 12 or 13 … the letter he wrote to his father describing the Hurricane that hit the islands – this letter pretty much launched him. Or at least got him to America. He wrote a descriptive letter describing the devastation of the hurricane, he was a teenager when he wrote it – 15 years old or something like that – (it is an incredible piece of writing – you feel like you experience the hurricane yourself when you read it) – and somehow someone else read it, and said, “This boy needs to go to college. You need to send him to the colonies to get an education.” And that, of course, is what ended up happening.
There is a room filled with portraits. I was in HEAVEN. DO YOU HEAR ME SCREAMING AT YOU?? HEAVEN!
Trumbull, Peale, all the great portrait guys … we’ve got Washington, and Martha, and John Jay, and that Duane guy, and Madison, and an incredible one of Thomas Jefferson that I don’t think I had seen before. It’s of Jefferson as an older man – and it has the breath of life in it. I don’t know how else to describe it. It is obviously a painting, but it has the feel of flesh and blood. You can feel him thinking. There were also portraits that I recognized – the one on the cover of David McCullough’s John Adams biography, for example. These portraits, lit very subtly, cover the dark blue walls, all the old faces, the familiar faces clamoring for our attention.
But my favorite room was a long quiet blue room (well, it was quiet for a while, then the MOBS showed up). One whole wall was glassed-in, and there were set-up exhibits in each one, from different sections of Hamilton’s life. His time as the “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar” – There were examples of his notekeeping when he worked as a clerk, there were models of ships … Then on to America. We saw a REALLY COOL musket. I wanted to touch it. Bill, of course, explained to me the different parts of the gun, and how the bayonet-part had been put on the wrong way (only because the glassed-in area was not tall enough to fit the entire gun if the bayonet was attached). Cannon balls. Also, examples of the paper money. There was the printed version of the Declaration of Independence. And also a printed version of George Washington’s Farewell Address (ghost-written by Hamilton, of course). There was a ton of other stuff. Bill and I moved along, reading all the little descriptions, stopping to discuss, peering in at things …
They had the pages of the newspaper with Federalist # 1 printed. So – it’s like your regular old op-ed column, surrounded by Want Ads, For Sale notices (some notices for slaves for sale, as well as horses and property) … and there in the middle of all of that, a 2 column piece written by some mysterious personage named Publius.
I am so feckin’ into the Federalist Papers that I felt like I might have a nervous breakdown seeing the actual newspaper where it first appeared. I have a problem at museums too. I want to TOUCH things. I wanted to feel that newspaper in my hands. Obviously they knew I was coming, because they hid it behind glass.
There were other things in free-standing glass cases throughout that long dark blue room … Bill and I moved from one to the other to the other. There was a bound copy of the Federalist Papers. There were his hand-written notes to his blistering piece “on the character of John Adams”, or whatever it was called. There were also his hand-written notes for his confession of adultery, right after the financial scandal (he was basically blackmailed by Maria Reynolds). There were his notes for the immediate confession when he came clean. There was a printed version of the Constitution. A lot of other things, too – literally SCRAPS of paper, with his familiar slanted flourish-y handwriting.
His handwriting was as bold and ostentatious as his personality.
I have left the best thing in that room for last.
It was the first thing you saw when you walked in.
His writing desk.
It was behind a rope, but there was no glass surrounding it, and my fingers literally itched. Bill and I both laughed at how much we wanted to reach out and touch that desk. The second I saw it, I was covered in goosebumps. I know that sounds goofy, but whatever, I’m a goof. It was a gleaming wooden desk, with all those little pigeon holes, and drawers, and it could be folded back up into itself. And there he sat, firing out pamphlet after pamphlet, article after article … he wrote the Federalist Papers at that desk. It was Publius’ desk. Oh God. It was a beautiful piece of furniture. I love to see the real thing. The actual thing. I read so much about these guys that they feel familiar to me, but to see their actual writing – in their actual books – and stuff like that – it’s so satisfying, and exciting.
But the desire to reach out and touch the desk was too strong. Bill and I basically had to walk away. We didn’t trust ourselves.
Oh, and there’s a show done, at intervals, too, at the theatre in the Historical Society. The place was standing room only. I felt my heart puff up with pride, looking around at the crowds, everyone there, piling in … Like: people still give a shit. Our history has not been forgotten.
After the show (a 2-person thing, using only the words of all the main characters involved), I admitted to Bill that I “feared that it would be cheesy” – but heaven and saints be praised the show wasn’t cheesy at ALL. If I have any New Yorkers reading this, and are thinking of going in the next week, I highly recommend you attend the “show”. It is well well worth it. Not a BIT of cheese to be found.
The play is performed by a man and a woman. There are screens behind them, where other images are projected, and other people … but there are only two live performers. He plays Alexander Hamilton, and she plays three different roles (Hamilton’s mother, Hamilton’s wife, and the extortionist floozy Maria Reynolds). The actress playing the part wore the same gown and wig throughout – but when she played Hamilton’s wife, she rolled the sleeves down – and when she played Reynolds, she had a fan. (The subtlety of these transformations was lost on a sweet little old man who sat in front of us. After the show, as Bill and I made our way out, we heard the woman he was with, a tiny old woman, say, “No, she changed roles.” ha ha He didn’t get the fan/sleeve thing … So he must have been BAFFLED when the person who WAS Alexander Hamilton’s mother suddenly was in a wild passionate embrace with her own son!!! But still, even with “she changed roles”, he didn’t get it. Bill and I were making our way out, and we KEPT hearing this little old-lady voice saying, repeating, “No … no … she changed roles!”)
But Bill and I really liked the show – it’s about 40 minutes long, and it’s all taken from writing that is “out there”, it exists, it’s from the archive, a matter of public record, it’s not some playwright’s “interpretation” or anything like that. It’s from Hamilton’s letters, his writings, and also the writings of Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, George Washington … I liked that.
The “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar” quote made an appearance. Good old John Adams. Too bad he never said what he thought, huh? He was so shy with his opinions, so reticent.
I LOVED it. I loved the way they did it – it was subtle, it was humble, it wasn’t bull-shit bad British accent posturing cheese-ball flunkie-actor acting that is 2 steps away from a Renaissance Fair. It was good substantial stuff. I was really into it.
And then it ended. On the Weehawken plain. Shooting up into the air, while Burr shot straight ahead.
I feel like I’ve just been feasting on a huge meal or something like that. It was most definitely a feast. Well worth it, well worth it indeed.