Institutions: the New York Society Library
My Manhattan: Where the Third ‘R’ Stands for Repose
By David Halberstam
FOR YEARS I would walk past it on 79th Street without even knowing that it was a library. It seemed, I suppose, just another elegant Upper East Side brownstone on an unusually handsome block between Madison and Park Avenues, perhaps a little grander than most. Then one day someone told me about it, this old-fashioned, private but egalitarian library. I went in and joined that day, and I’ve used it faithfully ever since. If anything, because I find myself increasingly ill at ease these days with the computerized nature of most larger libraries, I now use it more than ever. Truman Capote, who went there a great deal as a young man newly arrived in New York, thought of it as a place where he could take shelter; Wendy Wasserstein, who wrote significant parts of two of her plays there, uses the word heaven. I, in much the same way, think of the New York Society Library as more of a sanctuary than a library.
A few facts: the Society Library is the oldest library in New York City, dating back to 1754, although changing locations on occasion, but 60 years now at the present residence on 79th Street. It is, given the resources it affords readers, one of the best bargains in town: $135 for an annual family membership, $90 for students and faculty from the city’s schools. Its history is not only rich, but its records tidy and complete as well. We not only know the names of those who joined up before us, but for much of its history (at least through 1908, when the use of a ledger was replaced by the use of cards), we also know exactly what they read.
Herman Melville and Willa Cather were members, and Melville did some of his most important research there. We know, for instance, that in the year before he published “Moby-Dick,” Melville came in and borrowed the Society Library’s copy of William Scoresby’s “Journal of a Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery” (Constable, 1823) in 1850, keeping it out for 13 months before returning it.
I like knowing that, and in my mind I see Melville working away at the Society Library 147 years ago, going into the stacks that day, anxiously looking for his copy of Scoresby, worried that someone else might have gotten to it before him. I also like to imagine colleagues coming up to him at the desk where he sometimes works, and asking him, as colleagues are wont to do, what he’s working on these days. Melville tells them he is trying to write a book about an elusive whale. His contemporaries go away shaking their heads; poor Herman, he’s really lost it this time, imagine a book about a whale that gets away.
Sometimes I mutate the scene to a contemporary setting: When the book is finally done, Melville comes back to the Society Library to check a few facts, but in the late afternoon, tired of his research and anxious about the reception the book may get, he takes a break to call his agent on the pay phone. The agent is excited, telling him that Hollywood is hot for the book, and that the Disney people in particular love it. In fact, they are talking big numbers, seven figures this time, but they want to change the ending just a little bit to make it more upbeat: “Herman, I know writers are sometimes sensitive about little things like this, but I told them it’s something I thought we could both live with. What if Ahab gets the whale at the end?”
But the story of Melville doing research is fitting: the past really does pervade the Society Library. Members have included, on the political side, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and DeWitt Clinton, and on the artistic side, John James Audubon, Edward Steichen, Samuel Barber and Lillian Hellman. Visitors have included Charles Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper, Winston Churchill and William Makepeace Thackeray.
Willa Cather simply appeared there one day, in the words of Marion King, then the librarian, “a rather short, stocky lady in an apple-green coat and a short porkpie hat.”
“I’d like to subscribe here if I may,” she said. “My name is Cather. I’m by way of being a writer.”
There is a wonderful story that Capote liked to tell about himself and Cather. In his version, Capote, 18 and new to New York City, discovered this interesting-looking woman, some 50 years older than he was, at the Society Library and finally struck up a conversation. He was very taken with her looks, “her eyes especially: blue, the pale, brilliant, cloudless blue of prairie skies.”
One day they went out for a drink. They immediately started talking about books. At one point, he quite innocently told her how much he liked Willa Cather’s books and asked her if she had ever read “My Mortal Enemy.” “Actually I wrote it,” she answered. It’s a wonderful story told often by Capote, and I don’t believe it (or at least I don’t believe all of it) for a minute. Capote was an immensely talented man, and he was, among other things, the absolute master of the apocryphal story.
This is how much I believe: I believe that Cather and Capote actually met. In fact, I can readily visualize Capote going up to Cather and finding a way to start a conversation with her. And I believe they went out for a drink, and I am also willing to believe that Capote managed in some way or another to mention to this older woman how much he liked Cather’s books. But the idea that Capote, as bright and crafty and hungry as he was for literary connection when he first came to New York, did not know who Cather was the first minute he set eyes on her strains credulity.Serious Writers at Work
The New York Society Library, it should be said, is not, on today’s somewhat demented scale of fame, a major celebrity hangout. But it is a place where a significant number of serious writers go to work or to peruse books.
I often saw Walter Lord there when I first started to use it. The first time I met Louis Auchincloss was at the library, and that struck me as being entirely appropriate, meeting a landmark writer whose work I had greatly admired in a landmark building that might well have been the setting for one of his novels.
I met Barbara Tuchman there for the first time as well. When I was first making the transition from daily journalism to writing books, she had been one of my role models. I approached her cautiously at first; there was a certain austerity to her. But she was very gracious with me; we went out for coffee, as I recall, but I did not, unlike the young Capote, pretend that I did not know who she was.
It is a handsome building. “Italianate brownstone,” the library’s own promotional brochure says. The stairs are handsome and marble. “The literary equivalent of the Frick Collection,” the writer Christopher Hawtree called it. Karl Kirchwey, the poet, once wrote, “It is the city’s best-kept democratic secret disguised as an aristocratic institution.”
It feels and somehow smells like an old-fashioned library, with old-fashioned lighting and a wonderful, rich reading room, filled as it is by Audubon sketches. The elevator is old and, it seems to me, a bit stubborn, with a purpose and schedule of its own; it generates more of a feeling of nostalgia than reliability.
In these days of the Internet and a daily overload of digital, undigested information—information that always arrives with a purpose and a function, but all too often, it seems to me, without context, and therefore without meaning—there is something comforting about a library where the pace is slow and where the exact purpose of so many people using it is uncertain. The Society Library is elegant as edifice, and yet oddly old-fashioned and almost stodgy in ambiance, a perfect combination.
Melville’s legwork aside, it is not a research library in the sense that the main New York Public Library and the city’s great academic libraries are. It is a reader’s library, mostly for ordinary New Yorkers looking for books in a comfortable habitat and on occasion lingering to read them because the setting is so pleasant. The people who work for the Society Library are uniformly pleasant and, it seems to me, unfailingly tolerant. They seem eager to help readers, and they never seem to be in very much of a rush. No one treats anyone with the briskness so elemental to most New York transactions.
Though the members represent a broad cross section of the city and a lot of students are often there, the library nonetheless strikes me as something of a base camp for an older New York, now largely gone, citizens of what might be called Auchincloss country. There is some evidence that they feel the same way, too.
Recently, after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Mr. Auchincloss was accosted by an older woman, who took him aside and told him: “Oh, I know I can talk to you about this terrible tragedy. I know you and I both feel for the poor dear Queen and all the trouble she’s going through because of the death of that dreadful young woman.”
I go there for a variety of reasons. I think that the principal reason is that for a few hours a day when I am there, the library slows the pace and deflects the pressure of the city. That, after all, is what sanctuaries are for.
There are many wonderful qualities to being a writer in New York, but if there is a down side, it is the sense of urgency that is pervasive in this city, a conviction that you are always slightly behind in your work, and therefore not a moment can be wasted. So from time to time I consciously try to break the normal rhythm of the city by going there for a few hours. In addition, I like, if possible, to make the 30-minute walk it takes to get there from my apartment on the Upper West Side.
My colleagues go there for different reasons. Mr. Auchincloss enjoys being able to enter the stacks and move around on his own; unlike a lot of other libraries, this one still allows you to go to the shelves yourself. I agree: I appreciate the serendipity of the stacks, looking for one book, but on occasion finding another, better one, which I did not even know existed.
I suspect that like a lot of writers, I enjoy going there because I am alone without entirely being alone. When I set out across the park for the library, more often than not I have just finished five hours of writing, a hard and demanding time when I’m absolutely alone. So there is something pleasant about being in a relaxed place with other people around. I don’t necessarily talk to them and they don’t necessarily talk to me, but for the moment I feel a little less alone. David Mamet told me recently that he liked working there for much the same reason, the ability to be by himself without entirely being by himself.
He had, even back in his younger days in Chicago, enjoyed doing some of his writing in public places, particularly libraries, and when he came to New York, he immediately liked the feeling of the Society Library. One of his formative reading experiences, he said, took place there.
He was in the reading room one morning about 10 o’clock, and he happened to pick up a book lying on an end table, ready to be returned to the stacks. It was a copy of Lord Chesterfield’s “Letters to His Son,” the collected letters of a distiguished 19th-century British diplomat to a son he had spent altogether too little time with. Mr. Mamet was caught up in it immediately and stayed there, transfixed by the letters, until it was 6 P.M. and closing time. It became one of the great reading experiences of his life, just another reason for him to think of this as a special place where special things could happen.
The Old Neighborhood
Mr. Mamet did a good deal of his writing there in the time he lived in New York. Mark Piel, the librarian, once asked him what he liked best about the library. “The pay phone, of course,” Mr. Mamet answered, meaning that when he had been alone too long with his own work and his own imagination, he could always flee the oppression of his loneliness by calling up friends to talk.
Wendy Wasserstein feels much the same way. She grew up in an apartment a few blocks from the Society Library, and it reminds her, in effect, of the old neighborhood. Grateful to get out of her own apartment and away from the distraction of the phone, she wrote large parts of both “The Heidi Chronicles” and “The Sisters Rosenzweig” there, using one of the small rooms that are available to writers for short periods of time.
On occasion, her allotted tour of the writing rooms having expired, she used the larger Whitridge Room to write in, a setting for which she has great fondness: “A perfect place to work. It’s so old fashioned, indeed dowdy, that it reminds me of a Smith College date parlor from the 50’s.” The Society Library is, she says, an almost perfect place to work: it is pleasant, it is quiet, it has a surprising number of books you may want, and it is genteel. Besides, the neighborhood is filled with a number of good places for a late lunch, and there is usually someone else writing in a room near you, working the same shift and fighting the same demons, and equally desperate to go out for lunch.
Ms. Wasserstein is nothing if not generous, and as such I am able for the first time to pass on her annotated recommendations for light midday dining in the area: the Nectar Coffee Shop (“they boil the turkey so it’s never too dry”); the Viand Coffee Shop (“newly redecorated, but it hasn’t made them act grander or more snobbish”); the Better Baker (“it used to be called the Honest Baker, but apparently there was already an Honest Baker somewhere downtown; you go there on those days when regrettably you’re thinking low fat”); San Ambrose (“very Euro; more than a little expensive, but you can get a good, quick cappuccino”), and of course Eli Zabar’s E.A.T. (“when you feel you’re entitled to, or you badly need, a $20 sandwich”).
What all of us, writers and readers alike, enjoy about the Society Library is the civility and tolerance with which it’s run. It is a forgiving place, and for someone like me, on occasion a little late in returning books that are important to my work, that element is not unimportant. While I was writing this, I questioned Mr. Piel about Melville’s use of the Scoresby book. “He kept it out for a full 13 months,” I said.
“That’s right,” Mr. Piel said. “We’re very proud of that here.”
I loved hearing that—13 months—and I told him I would remember it the next time I had a book out that was long overdue.
Originally published in The New York Times, 1997.