Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Lady is Cold: reader response and a call for assistance

Keeping up an [almost] daily website page has become a habit -- yet I'm never quite sure I'm not veering off into areas that interest few people besides myself.

It all started with hawks, and I know that many readers have a special interest in birds of prey. During the hawk nest-removal crisis, and during the time Pale Male Jr. and Charlotte's nest at the Trump-Parc Hotel was active, I was aware of deep excitement about the hawk story. The regular contributions of John Blakeman were adored. Donna Browne's minute-by-minute coverage of activities at the Fifth Avenue nest site and at the one on Central Park South had many ardent fans. But moths? Milkweed beetles? Grackle roosts?

I especially wondered about the level of excitement my website was achieving in recent days when I began to receive letters saying, in one form or another: "Checking your website is the last thing I do every night before I go to sleep." Hmmm. Before or after or instead of the Ambien, I felt like answering.

I was particularly uneasy when I posted a poem by E.B. White a few days ago as an addendum to several previous reports about grackles roosting in the plaza outside the Plaza Hotel. Did anybody in the world besides me care whether the trees the birds spent the night in were Sycamores, as the poem claims or Lindens, as my Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast assures me? I could almost hear the exasperated mutterings: This is the last straw. Stick to Pale Male and Lola, girl.

Oh me of little faith. The response to the Sycamore-Linden mystery has been animated and great, with many suggestions for the discrepency. The greatest number suggested that the poet called the trees Sycamores instead of Lindens because the extra syllable fit into his metrical scheme.

I cannot buy that theory. Every good writer cares enormously about getting facts right, little or big ones. Syllables, shmillables, I know E.B. White would never have turned a Linden into a Sycamore just for the sake of scansion.

Here's something I just found out. A simple Google search did the trick . The poem is included in E.B. White's first book. It was published not in the 40's or 50's as I guessed in an earlier posting, but in 1929! Here's the citation, from

The Lady Is Cold. A collection of verses treating the daily routine of city life. The poems present some of the dominating themes in White's work, namely, his love of New York City, simplicity, and liberty.

White published his first pieces in the New Yorker in 1925, and joined the magazine's staff in 1927, so the chances are that the poem was originally published there. This means that the facts in the poem were checked by the New Yorker's famed fact-checking department. [Yes, I happen to know as a fact that the New Yorker's fact-checkers also check facts in poems.] That's another strike against the theory that the author of Charlotte's Web, an American classic, casually changed a sycamore into a linden for metrical reasons.

But 1929 was more than 75 years ago. A sapling can grow into a big tree in many fewer years than that. So I'm still betting that the present-day lindens replaced a stand of old sycamores at some point in the past.

How do I find out if and when this might have happened? Chris Karatnytski, a website correspondent who is Scripts Librarian of the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, has written in with some great suggestions:
Marie: [I'd like to] suggest two resources that might be able to help you resolve the linden-sycamore mystery. The New York Public Library has a US History, Local History and Genealogy Division that might be able to help you, with info here:

Room 121
The New York Public Library
Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street
New York, NY 10018-2788
(212) 930-0828

And there is The Museum of the City of New York:

1220 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY 10029 212.534.1672

Good luck. I'm curious to know this history.


Anybody want to become an unpaid researcher for a writer who should be writing her book, not having fun with her website?

The Internet might solve the mystery. But if by any chance you want to go to the Library or Museum in person to do this research, check with me first. It wouldn't do to have a bunch of people suddenly showing up at the Library or Museum asking about sycamores and lindens in the Grand Army Plaza.

If nobody responds during the next few days, guess what? I'll do it myself! Procrastination is the name of the game.