The Post-Civil-War Editor of A Small Newspaper in Knoxville, TN, Who Influenced the Founding Father of Modern Journalism

Spring has come again to beautiful Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville, TN. As a Trustee of Old Gray, I have been researching the lives of people buried there and find them fascinating, as history older than one’s memory usually is. One of the more interesting is William Rule (1839-1928), whose spring birthday is soon approaching, May 10. Rule was a beloved two-term mayor of Knoxville and the editor of first the Knoxville Daily Chronicle and later the Knoxville Journal. He is best known for mentoring the young Adolph Ochs who started working for Rule at age 11 and famously bought the New York Times in 1896 at age 38. Because the 60-year relationship between these two men was influential in shaping the greatest, most powerful newspaper in the free world, it is difficult to examine the life of one without considering the other.

An easy assumption today is that the people buried in Old Gray in the early 20th century came from privileged backgrounds, but, for the majority, that is far from the truth. The next generation of Knoxville men and women may have moved into a higher socioeconomic status, but most of their parents worked hard to rise out of poverty. William Rule and Adolph Ochs are examples of the norm. Both Rule and Ochs were descendants of German immigrants, Rule’s great-grandfather having come from Hessen-Darmstadt to Virginia in the late 1700s and Ochs’ father from Fürth, Bavaria, to Kentucky in 1848. Both men were largely self-educated, both inherited their mothers’ love of reading and their fathers’ gentleness and profound respect for fairness and human individuality.

William Rule

William Rule, the eldest of 7 children, was born in a log cabin (the same in which his father Frederick was born) in Stock Creek, about 7 miles south of downtown Knoxville. He helped his father farm until age 19 when he married Lucy Maxey and made an unsuccessful attempt to run a hardware store on Gay Street. At age 21 he went to work on William Brownlow’s polemical newspaper the Knoxville Whig. There, he did everything from writing news and setting type to mailing and delivering papers. When the paper folded at the onset of the Civil War two years later, Rule enlisted in the Union Army infantry. He was quickly promoted to Lieutenant then to adjutant. Throughout the War, he carried three volumes, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Burns’ poems. One of the few comments from Rule about his wartime experience was a humorous remark about a friend who was a Confederate soldier who, after the war, asked if he (Rule) had ever shot at him. Rule told him, “I did not for you were in the cavalry and I couldn’t catch you.”

William and Lucy Maxey Rule and children

For a time after the war, he was a correspondent for papers in Nashville, Memphis, New York, and Cincinnati, then was employed as city editor for three more years on the reinstated Whig. He married Lucy Ann Maxey of Knox County in 1858 and they had six children. For brief periods, Rule was county court clerk, pension agent, and postmaster. In 1870, he founded the Knoxville Daily Chronicle and in 1885 the Knoxville Journal. He was elected Knoxville Mayor twice, in 1873 and 1898.

 

 

Adolph Ochs, age 20

Adolph Ochs was born in 1858 in Cincinnati, the eldest of six children. In 1864, the family moved to Knoxville in search of post-War opportunity. His father, Julius Ochs, one of nine children, had been the son of a prosperous diamond merchant and Talmudic scholar, was college educated and had a talent for languages and music. But when his father died, his older brother became heir and forced Julius to leave school and apprentice himself to a bookbinder.  Discouraged by dull, unpromising work, he chose to immigrate to the US where, like most immigrants then and now, he was forced to take any work he could.  He first became an itinerant peddler, then part-time teacher and drygoods employee, and, after the Civil War (in which he was made drill sergeant), he held various civic positions—alderman, tax assessor, Justice of the Peace, part-time rabbi—but was was never successful or lucky at any of these occupations. Adolph knew early on that he would have to augment the family income. He began his first job as a carrier at the Chronicle in 1869 at age 11. Like his boss, William Rule, had done before him, Ochs accepted any task no matter how menial and quickly impressed his superiors. Over the course of 8 years, the precocious lad moved from sweeping offices and delivering papers to being an office boy and then typesetter.  Being a typesetter required four years of apprenticeship, but he did it in two. He called his years at the newspaper his “high school and university.”

Rule earned many distinctions in his long career. He was a charter member of the Lawson-McGhee Library and secretary of the board for 12 years, a charter member of the board of governors for Knoxville General Hospital, a member of the Republican National Committee from 1876 to 1884, and a delegate to the Republican national convention in 1876. As Mayor, he established the city waterworks and a smallpox hospital. Though not an alumnus of the University of Tennessee, he served 28 years on the board of trustees and was secretary for several years prior to his resignation. Passing the campus one day, he looked at the trees on the slope of the Hill and remarked, “There is one of the few things that reminds me of my age. I was one of the Trustees who authorized that many of those trees should be set out.” The University bestowed on him an honorary Master of Arts degree in 1901.

Rule spoke out against Appalachian stereotypes (which were beginning to take shape after the Civil War), arguing that people from the region had normal levels of intelligence but suffered due to Southern states’ lack of funding for schools. In 1873, wealthy Memphis financier Moses Wicks, angered over a column by Rule which criticized Wicks’ mismanagement of his railroad and banking enterprises, challenged Rule to a duel. Rule refused, saying, “I recognize no heathenish, so-called code of honor…. You might take my life or I might take yours and yet not a single feature of the publication complained of would be changed by the results.” The story was published in the New York Times and subsequently lauded in newspaper editorials across the country. After this incident, public sentiment caused the end of dueling as a means of resolving disputes.

Adolph Ochs

In 1896, Ochs, taking control of the New York Times, mortgaged and risked everything to “conduct a high standard newspaper, clean, dignified and trustworthy.” The Times won the first Pulitzer Prize for Journalism in 1918. Ochs received honorary degrees from six universities and came to be known as the “Titan of Humanity” for his lifelong philanthropy. Probably the most famous of his charitable initiatives is the “Hundred Neediest Cases Fund,” a fund-raising campaign established by the Times in 1912 and which continues today. The Fund’s history is an interesting story in itself, a Christmas story that makes Adolph Ochs the George Bailey of his time. In its 105 years, the Fund has raised $288 million for those struggling in New York. The 2016-17 campaign, which ran from Nov. 13 to Feb. 10, raised $6,177,625 — more than half a million more than the year before. For the first time, it extended its reach globally when the International Rescue Mission, a worldwide aid group based in New York that helps refugees and vulnerable populations, joined the campaign.

Biographers of Adolph Ochs argue that the Times‘s commitment to objectivity may have originated in Ochs’s personal, almost reverent, admiration for William Rule. Like Rule, Ochs viewed his newspaper as a trust, upholding the principals on which the First Amendment is based. He established a code of ethics for the New York Times which he published as an oath in his first issue: “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect or interests involved.”

For a few years in the mid- to late-70s the Chronicle was owned by William ‘Parson’ Brownlow, and Ochs had the opportunity to witness both Brownlow’s and Editor Rule’s strongly differing views about the place of opinion in a newspaper. Writing in the Chattanooga Times in 1879, Ochs stated that his association with the two men influenced him greatly. He called Brownlow “a harsh man; a reliable hater; not particular to be politically consistent, eager to carry any point he set his head or heart on; endowed with a violent temper and a vindictive nature…. We confess no admiration, personal or other, for the dead Governor and Senator. His political methods were especially distasteful…. He was always, to our mind, the same violent, and if trusted with power, dangerous man.” As owner of the Times, Ochs chose to practice an objectivity that reflected the views of his “guide, philosopher, and friend,” William Rule.

Adolph Ochs and daughter Iphigene

In 1884, Ochs married Effie Wise, the daughter of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, who was the leading exponent of Reform Judaism in America and the founder of Hebrew Union College. In 1928 Ochs built the Mizpah Congregation Temple in Chattanooga in memory of his parents, Julius and Bertha Ochs. When Adolph died in 1858, the best and most capable person to take over the Times was Iphigene, his beloved only child, but such an appointment would have been impossible in a patriarchal world–women were still unable to even to vote. Her husband, Arthur Sulzberger, became publisher, and her grandson, Ochs’ great-grandson, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., has been publisher of the New York Times since 1992. One of the longest and most interesting obituaries in the Times is that of Iphigene (“Iffey”) Ochs Sulzberger. Iphigene’s daughter, Ruth Holmberg Sulzberger, who died this month in Chattanooga, was publisher of the Chattanooga Times in Tennessee for nearly three decades.

By his last decade, William Rule was so beloved by his community that civic organizations hosted annual luncheons in his honor. He was esteemed and respected by journalists throughout the country and, at age 89, honored nationally after Time Magazine called him “the oldest active editor in the U.S.” Just weeks before his death, he was still arriving at the office every morning at 8am and leaving at 5:30pm. Ochs attended Rule’s 82d and 89th birthday celebrations. At the latter, Ochs, reading from a letter he had written for the occasion, said, “Captain Rule was a hero to me when I was a lad 10 years of age, and in the 60 years that have elapsed since then, he has not only maintained that eminence in my mind, but has steadily risen higher in my esteem.”

Just two and a half months later, on July 26, 1928, William Rule died in Ft. Sanders Hospital following surgery for a ruptured appendix. Ochs was unable to attend the funeral but sent a telegram, and the July 28 issue of the New York Times included a memorial headed “Tribute by Knoxville to Captain Rule; People of All Walks of Life at Funeral of Dean of American Editors.” The following year Ochs returned to Knoxville to attend a posthumous celebration of Rule’s 90th birthday. During that visit, he asked Henry Collins, the man who taught him how to set type 50 years earlier at the Chronicle, to accompany him to Rule’s grave in Old Gray where he placed a large wreath.

Ochs died suddenly on April 9, 1935 at age 77 while visiting Chattanooga. Even after nearly 40 years of living in New York City, he always called Chattanooga “home.” For decades he planned to be buried there, but in 1933, he purchased a gravesite in Temple Israel Cemetery at Mount Hope in Westchester County, NY. He chose Temple Israel primarily because it would be easier for Iphigene to visit his grave and her husband’s family, the Sulzbergers, who were also interred in Temple Israel.

Archived in the New York Public Library, among 137 boxes of the Adolph S. Ochs papers, is the four-decade-long correspondence between Rule and Ochs. Also included is a scrapbook Ochs assembled during the year following Rule’s death. In it are obituaries and clippings about the career of Captain William Rule, Knoxville, Tennessee.

William Rule family plot in Old Gray Cemetery

The New York Times has been awarded 122 Pulitzer Prizes (three in 2017)—more than any other news organization—and, in these troubling times, continues to uphold Och’s promise to give the American people “the whole story, without fear or favor.” As William Rule’s 178th birthday approaches, Old Gray pays tribute to the man who devoted over sixty years of highly principled editorial service to Knoxville, a contribution which continues to influence journalistic excellence and integrity worldwide today.

Sources: The Kingdom and the Power:  Behind the Scenes at The New York Times: The Institution that Influences the World by Gay Talese; Knoxville News-Sentinel Archives 1922-1990; The McClung Digital Collection of the East Tennessee Historical Center; Findagrave.com; Standard History of Knoxville, ed. William Rule; Metropulse and Knoxville Mercury articles by Jack Neely; and the New York Times digital archives.

 

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Why I Support Public Radio

WUOT, my local public radio affiliate, ends its Spring Fund Drive today. I’ve heard people complaining on Facebook this week about WUOT’s limited news segments and low-interest programs like Weekend Radio. I, too, would like more news; I often complain about the Saturday rehash of old “Car Talks” (I bet there are people out there who don’t know that CT ended production of brand-new episodes in 2012 or that one of the “Tappet” brothers (Tom Magliozzi) died in 2014). Of course, WUOT-2 provides many of those interesting programs, but there are a lot of listeners who don’t have an HD receiver.

This is why I support public radio. I don’t donate just for my personal benefit. I give because it benefits the many in Tennessee who can’t afford to donate, who don’t own computers or HD radios, who don’t read the best newspapers like the New York Times; but who desperately need SOMETHING that might balance FOX News which now has the largest viewership in the Nation. But perhaps my motive is not totally altruistic; helping my state become better informed absolutely benefits me personally.

I used to have a second home in St. Augustine and there listened to WJCT, the Jacksonville affiliate, which had much better programming than WUOT. But you can’t compare a crab apple to a Honeycrisp. It’s important to remember that the top NPR stations, i.e., the ones with the best programming ( Top Ten NPR Stations), are in the more socioeconomically healthy states (States with the Best Economies). WUOT simply doesn’t get the revenue to fund these programs. I’m grateful we get the NPR programming we do and hope, in these disturbing times, that WUOT can at least maintain.

Who listens to NPR? NPR says, based on Nielsen audience profiles (NPR Listener Profiles), that listeners are more likely to be:

  1. The Affluent Business Leader
  2. The Cultured Connoisseur
  3. The Educated Lifelong Learner
  4. The Civic Leader
  5. The Sustainability Champion
  6. The Curious Explorer
  7. The Tech Trendsetter

My hope is that my small donation will enable some disadvantaged person, whether it be due to poverty or discrimination, to become one of these NPR listeners. Because I was one of those disadvantaged by poverty—born in a “holler” in SW VA, grew up in a series of rental houses, could not afford college until my late 20s—but due to luck and maybe an innate curiosity widened my horizons and, at some point, discovered NPR. NPR helped me become one of those faithful listeners, the lifelong learner. For that, I am deeply indebted to those NPR donors who gave when I didn’t.

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Tribute to a Friend — Andie Ray, 1967-2015

Andie in fr of Vagabondia wValentineSometimes, when a large character in the small drama of our lives dies suddenly, unexpectedly, the loss is so shocking events following it seem almost surreal. After all, reality is a sketchy thing given the faulty observational/comprehension skills of us poor mortals. Andie Ray was just such a character; she crafted such an indelible public persona she might have existed on another plane, maybe in another era, another country.

I first met Andie in Maplehurst, that tiny enclave near downtown that, for a time, exemplified to many of us the closest thing to an artists’ colony Knoxville has ever had.  The area had a certain mystique, its artist/writer residents a Bloomsbury aura.  It was late 90s, a party in the Kristopher, a 5-story apartment building with a European feel, an Old World elegance.  I don’t remember much about the party, but I remember Andie’s bedroom, her old iron bed with a white coverlet placed catty-corner between two bare windows overlooking the Tennessee River and strings of tiny white lights like stars overhead. It was magical.

I think Andie found her identity in Maplehurst, first in the paintings of turn-of-the-century women by her friend and neighbor there, Cynthia Markert, and then when she fell in love with a man who lives mostly in 1920s Paris. Together, they created a romantic, literary residence above Andie’s boutique on Market Square, then later built a house in an old design in Old North, a house that perpetuated the myth—French doors, lots of wood, art, books, a fireplace, always a dog and 2 or 3 cats, fresh flowers, a bottle of wine to share with friends.

Vintage bicycle posterYou rarely saw Andie without a hat or wearing anything but long, slim skirts and coats, styles Colette or Zelda Fitzgerald might have worn. Sometimes, riding her pink bicycle across town, skirt and scarf flying, her woven basket full of flowers, a kid would call out, “Mary Poppins!” That, too, was a true comparison, not just a superficial resemblance but one of character–Andie Ray could talk to animals, was bold, smart, firm and persuasive in a showdown, and, if medicine was called for, made it go down easily.

Andie could have succeeded at any number of things.  She had political instincts, a strong civic sense, and was always active in city and community organizations.  Friends say she should have been on City Council, she would have made a great mayor or state representative, or, just as believable, she was meant for the stage. What struck me most was her love of animals. She was always rescuing cats and finding homes for them—one kitten, nearly frozen, she plucked from a snowbank along a mountain road, a few she nabbed from around restaurant garbage bins, several others from the dilapidated structures near the railroad tracks in Old City. She was good at convincing you that a cat was what was missing from your life. When my husband was living in a 3-story, 12,000 square foot building with a gray kitten named Wiggin, Andie coaxed him over to see a new litter. “Wiggin must be lonely all day in that big building,” she said, “why don’t you take two girls home and see which one he likes?” Well, you can imagine how far she would have gone with her recently acquired realtor’s license.

How to process such a loss, a loss that contains other losses, and, yes, our own eventual end? There are no words for something so incomprehensible. Emily Dickinson came close with her floundering dashes:

There is a pain—so utter—

It swallows substance up—

Then covers the Abyss with Trance—

So Memory can step

Around—across—upon it—

As one within a Swoon—

Goes safely—where an open eye–

Would drop Him—Bone by Bone.

No, we say at first, this can’t be; then, Stop all the clocks; and, finally, Come back, come back, even as a shadow, a dream. And that will be our comfort now, because Andie Ray will surely come back in our remembering. For those lucky enough to have known her, there is much to remember. Now, when we walk in Market Square, we will point to the building that is now gray and say, “It was once yellow, with flowers spilling from the window boxes and cat baskets below the display mannequins, a black Lab by the water bowl, an Art-Deco scroll above the front door announcing, Vagabondia, and when you walked inside, you were in another city, another country. It was like Paris in the Twenties.”

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Hearing Virginia Woolf in Buddhism Class

(Italicized text from The Waves by Virginia Woolf)

The young monk sinks easily into the asana, or lotus, position. He is Caucasian, tall and thin with large dark eyes and a friendly smile. I guess him to be in his thirties. Over a plain, long-sleeved cotton shirt, he wears the traditional Tibetan Buddhist robe—a maroon cotton cloth wrapped across the left shoulder and another wrapped around his waist, floor-length. His short black hair is in a tight knot at the center of his crown, sleek as if gelled to control stray curls. Before him, on the tiny puja (prayer table) sits not an ancient scroll in Pali or Sanskrit but a laptop. The glowing Apple on its open cover seems especially incongruous; I wonder if he is ever tempted by all the seductive fruit of the Internet. Continue reading

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Review: Obselidia

Obselidia coverI agree with Virginia Woolf who said that nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy. My favorite films waver between humor and sadness and take my imagination to surprising places. I recently discovered a gem of a small-budget indie film that met those criteria, the 2010 feature debut of writer/director Diane Bell. Obselidia has a quirkiness and strangeness about it, something of Oscar & Lucinda’s compulsion and restraint, chance and divination, and Angels & Insects’ lapse into Victorian Darwinism. It also has a bit of the Renaissance’s cabinet of curiosities. Continue reading

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Review: The Woman with the Five Elephants

The Woman with the Five Elephants
Director, Vadim Jendreyko
Country: Switzerland/German
Released 2010

Die Frau mit de 5 Elefanten

Svetlana Geier, the subject of Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary The Woman with the Five Elephants, is an example of how one’s passion can bring order out of chaos. Geier spent twenty years translating Dostoevsky’s five great novels, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov and The Raw Youth. Geier, until her death in 2010 at age 87, was considered the preeminent translator of Russian literature into German. Those five translations, completed in 2007, the elephants of the title, were the defining achievements of her life. Continue reading

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Library Dispatch – Winter Sanctuaries

It was chilly in Rothrock Used Books yesterday—the checkout desk is just a few feet from the front doors, and the wind gusts were frigid.  Traffic was unusually heavy—I suspect libraries are busier on cold days because it’s a place to get warm without having to spend money or being accused of loitering.  The book shop had a steady drift of customers because this month, January, is bag sale month, a plastic grocery bag full of books for $5.

A tall, thin woman in jeans and a down jacket filled her bag with first readers, thin illustrated paperback books used primarily by first graders.  I assumed she was a teacher supplementing her classroom library, but she said she was buying them for her brother who is a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.  She said she hoped the readers might be useful in his work with a group of visiting Vietnamese monks who do not speak English.

“We were just there after Christmas,” she said.  “Boy, was it cold…the Abbey sits on a rise, and the wind was fierce.”

Her comment made me think of the documentary Into Great Silence filmed at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps and the long harsh winters the Carthusian monks endure.  Kentucky winters are surely mild in comparison…although Thomas Merton, the contemplative mystic and prolific spiritual writer who spent 27 years at Gethsemani, mentions in his journals many zero and below days.

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Photo credit: Lilly Lewin

I asked the woman what work her brother does at the monastery, and she said he works in the mailroom.  “It’s what he does on the outside, too.  He’s worked several years for the Postal Service in between.”  She sensed my unspoken question.  “Oh, he doesn’t know…,” she trailed off, her smile one of helpless affection.  “He comes and goes.”

Tonight, I look out at the empty icy streets, at the frozen mist rising from the river and think about the monks at Gethsemani in their tiny spare cells with the wind whistling outside the walls, about the brother who can’t decide and the sister who tries to be a bridge between his two worlds.  I think about my late husband who spent a weekend retreat at Gethsemani once in search of something:  an answer, a sign. Most of us are probably looking for that in one way or another, all wondering who or where we’re supposed to be, never quite at home in the here and now.

Even Merton, after more than two decades at Gethsemani, still felt alien and exiled among people with whom he had little in common.  The year before he died he spent two retreats at the Redwoods Monastery on the northern coast of California and felt, he said, unutterably happy, as if he had come a very long way to where he really belonged.  He felt an immediate rapport with the European nuns and was enthralled by the giant redwoods.  Upon seeing again the spindly pines and cedars of Kentucky, he said, “I must go back.  It is not right that I should die under lesser trees.”  He didn’t go back, nor did he die in Kentucky but in Bangkok that same year (1968, age 53) where he had gone to participate in an interfaith conference.  He had just come from visits in India with the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist leaders and was looking forward to final stops in Japan to explore Zen.  Merton had studied Eastern religions for several years, and there is speculation that he wished to remain in Asia as a hermit.  Perhaps he got his wish and is still there on some other plane for which there are no maps.

Perhaps there are no answers, at least none that we are capable of discerning.  Maybe we should try to become our own geography, supposing, as Merton said, geography to be necessary at all.  Maybe the signs are so ordinary we discount them, the things we experience every day, the river and the mist, the library where the poor come for Internet service and the homeless to get warm.  Where a woman comes to buy teaching books for her spiritually conflicted brother out of love.  And maybe that is the answer:  the heart the true sanctuary and love the one thing that all the mystics agree is the way to find God within ourselves.

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Elegy for Chilhowee Park, Knoxville, Tennessee

In old photographs they stroll
in Sunday finery on lazy afternoons
before the Wars, like ghosts
in their Victorian summer whites
on dirt paths that curve between
boathouse and mineral spring.
Sometimes they float in wooden canoes
on Lake Ottosee or gather
in front of the cupolaed stone
to hear violin and German bassoon.
That time-shrunken structure
is the only trace of your old allure,
the lake’s algaed depths stirred now
only by ducks and migrating geese,
as placid and timeless as the first leaves
of autumn drifting like silent notes
across the bandstand’s marble floor—
a people, a place, a world no more.

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Discovering the Past in Le Marais, Paris

It does not seem to me, Austerlitz added, that we understand the laws governing the return of the past, but I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision.
W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

I don’t know who said, “The past is always with us,” but nothing could be truer than in the Marais, the historic Jewish Quarter in Paris.  It is one of those Old World locations where the past and the present converge, where one’s sense of self is challenged by being forced to weigh one’s life against the events that made the present possible.  I and two friends rented an apartment in the Marais earlier this year, on Rue Chapon which dates from 1292, a street originally called Street of the Cock, not for the bird but a name of derision given to a synagogue there under the reign of Philip IV, La Maison de la Société des Capons. One of the oldest structures in Paris, in fact, was one street over, the Nicholas Flamel house built in 1407 on Rue Montmorency.  Somewhere beneath Chapon are the bones of Carmelite nuns whose convent was founded there in 1617.

Although the apartment had been thoroughly modernized, it retained the original massive, unpainted ceiling beams.  Many of the buildings in that section date from the seventeenth century and were abandoned by the nobility for the more upscale Faubourg St. Germain area when Louis XIV moved the royal court from the Louvre to Versailles in 1682.  A steady decline continued into the nineteenth century.  The grandest old Marais residences became museums and hotels, the rest were subdivided into apartments like ours on Rue Chapon.  With affordable housing, the Marais soon became a commercial district, attracting artisans and the working poor and, later, waves of immigrant Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and central Europe.

Rue Chapon, Paris

Today, Rue Chapon is primarily known, as it has been known for over two hundred years, for its wholesale purse trade.  In a travel book published in 1842 titled How to Enjoy Paris, the author mentions a M. Langlais-Quignolot, No. 10, Rue Chapon, who “executes orders for London on a most extensive scale for net gloves, purses and reticules….  [and] has lately brought into vogue some most beautiful little purses called Rebecca, being exactly in the form of the pitcher with which she is represented at the well; their appearance is most ornamental, and although very small they distend so as to hold as much as most ladies would like to lose in an evening at cards.”  Today, the street is home to several Chinese purse wholesalers, their small windows displaying vogue designs in colored and natural leathers.

But on this trip, I was not interested in shopping; I was interested in the area’s history, particularly during World War II.  I had just read two books about this period, Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel Sarah’s Key about the Vel d’Hive roundup of Jews in Paris on August 16 and 17, 1942, and The Journal of Hélène Berr, begun at age 21 when she was a student of Russian and English literature at the Sorbonne and ending with her and her parents’ arrest on March 8, 1944.  During my stay on Rue Chapon, I never entered the door at street level and walked up the three flights of worn stairs without trying to imagine the Jewish families who might have lived in the building during that dark period.

ImageMy imagination was fueled, too, by the memorial plaque above our street entrance. 

Photo courtesy of Léa Maillet

The plaque stated, in rough translation, that “on August 14, 1944, a meeting was held in this building between Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, the regional chief of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior), and the French police and the decision made for the entry of the police in the insurrectional struggle for the liberation of Paris.” The FFI was the formal name of the resistance fighters who lead the insurrection five days later which culminated on August 25 with the arrival of American troops.

It’s hard to imagine the City of Light during those six days, to think that tanks flanked the entrance to Notre Dame and that explosives were wired to the Cathedral towers as well as ancient bridges and other major sites such as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc d’Triomphe, and the Louvre.  Hitler had given orders to destroy Paris, but Gen. Choltitz, the commander of the German forces, officially the military governor of Paris, refused to reduce five thousand years of history to rubble.  In a 1964 interview, Choltitz explained, “If for the first time I had disobeyed, it was because I knew that Hitler was insane.”

It is harder still to imagine Paris during the four years of German occupation.  When Berr began her journal in the spring of ‘42, the occupiers, to her, seemed little more than background noise.  Her academic and social patterns continued for a few months unbroken—she attended classes and lectures, met friends in the library and courtyard of the Sorbonne, attended concerts at the Trocadero, accepted and extended invitations to teas, played violin in a small group of talented musicians.  She was falling in love.  But by summer increasingly flagrant acts of oppression made the reality all too clear.  While her friends and their families and members of her own immediate family were fleeing to the free zone in southern France, Berr chose to stay with her parents and grandmother.  Quickly, her world shrunk as more and more liberties were forbidden.

On July 16 and 17, 13,152 Jewish men, women, and children were arrested and taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor winter sports arena, and held there for five days before being deported to internment camps such as Drancy and then on to extermination camps.  On July 15, Berr wrote in her journal, “Something tragic is about to happen.”  On July 18th she wrote: “Some of the children they took had to be dragged along the floor. In Montmartre there were so many arrests that the streets were jammed. Faubourg Saint-Denis has nearly been emptied. Mothers have been separated from their children…. In one neighborhood, a whole family, the father, the mother, and five children, gassed themselves to escape the roundup. One woman threw herself out of a window. Apparently several policemen have been shot for warning people so they could escape. They were threatened with the concentration camp if they failed to obey.”

A Paris publication reported:  “The Vél d’hiv looked like a scene from hell. Eight thousand Jews were camping there, living literally in their excrement, with nothing to eat or drink for three days. Men died. Women gave birth. The clamor raised prevented the neighborhood’s residents from sleeping for three nights.”  There were also suicides.

Berr immediately volunteered with the UGIF (Union Générale des Israélites de France, or General Organization of Jews in France) to help with the children allowed to leave under the protection of the UGIF.  But the UGIF had facilities only large enough to hold 4-500 of the 4,000 children, placing them in homes, monasteries, and orphanages.  Berr and her parents were arrested on March 8, 1944 and deported to Drancy.  On March 27, her 23rd birthday, she was deported to Auschwitz.  In November she was transferred to Bergen- Belsen where she died a year later, just 5 days before the camp was liberated.  Her journal, kept by surviving members of her family after the war, was published in 2008.

I was in Paris the summer of 2004 when the city was celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of its liberation.  A photography exhibit of over 100 enlarged, framed, black and white portraits recounting the Normandy and Provence landings leading up to the liberation, the arrival of American troops in Paris, as well as the reconstruction of France was affixed to the iron fence surrounding the Luxembourg Gardens.  The sidewalk was crowded, the people, many of them old enough to have experienced those historic events, many of them with teary eyes, moved slowly, quietly past that floodtide of giant images.  Those images and those faces brought tears to my own eyes.  I was reminded of something American novelist William Faulkner said:   “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

This July 16, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, a new exhibit opened in Paris’ city hall.  The exhibit, “The Vel d’Hiv Raid: the Police Archives,” is the first public opening of these historic documents.  Berr’s journal, like Anne Frank’s diary, intentionally written to preserve history for future generations, is sure to have been a motivating factor behind this exhibit.

Walking along those winding, ancient streets in the Marais which press upon so many layers of historical sediment, I often felt that I was the ghost, a visitor from the future walking unseen among the dead, trying to learn the lessons they could teach me, especially how to find meaning in everyday experience.  Berr found meaning even while living through horror.  She wrote: “And then there’s the sympathy of people in the street, on the metro.  People look at you with such goodness it fills your heart with inexpressible feeling….  As the misfortunes are heaped up, this connection deepens.  Superficial distinctions of race, religion, social class are no longer the issue—I never thought they were—there is unity against evil, communion in suffering.”   But it came at the expense of so much loss.  And she also wrote, “The only people who can be happy must be those who do not know.”  But if you could choose, would you choose happiness over not knowing?  Sometimes, I think that the only way the dead see the living is when the living feel suffering across time.  In the Marais, you will not come away untouched—by something, by someone—and it will feel like a gift.

Le Marais, Paris, photo by Judy Loest, all rights reserved

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Pink Petals on a Black Bough

Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.
–Georgia O’Keefe

The prevailing question for me at the moment seems to be how to live with moral responsibility to the environment.  Not just the large, cumbersome concept of the environment as a whole, but every day the question narrows to the smallest aspect of my personal life.  It’s the consequence of living in an age of relentless and synapse-clogging information, much of which makes claims on my conscience but is beyond my ability to act upon in a meaningful way.

The most recent object of soul searching is an orchid purchased on impulse at the grocery store in early December, one of those small, common, three-dollar hybrids with a ten-dollar Greek name, Phalaenopsis, which means resembling a moth.  The five-inch plant came with four candy-pink blooms and two tiny buds at the end of the stem.  I’ve never owned an orchid; they always seemed too close to the vanity that resulted in tulip fever and too high-maintenance, something akin to a cashmere sweater or an exotic-breed pet. But the instructions on the little plastic stake made it sound so simple:  indirect light, medium temp, slightly damp moss.  I placed it near a window and on cloudy days, kept it under a lamp. Since its moss seemed a little tired, I gave it a fresh layer pinched from nearby woods.  Every couple of days, I held it under a slow drip from the filtered water spigot until the moss was minimally moist.  About once a week, I gave it a drop or two of diluted plant food.

Soon, the two tiny buds began fattening like rhubarb-colored hearts.  After three weeks, the larger bud formed a white seam along its north-south circumference.  By Christmas morning, the seam had split open and by noon, the white and pink petals had unfurled.  All the shiny, clever gizmos coming out of Silicon Valley could not have compared to that quiet and astonishing gift.  On into evening, it continued to widen.  Now, into the first of March, it has seven blooms and a new bud. The blooming season for orchids is winter to spring; the test will be whether or not I can facilitate a second blooming.

I can’t describe the satisfaction of watching each bloom’s slow fulfillment, like witnessing a mysterious incarnation.  I don’t think even a degree in botany could explain the miracle of plants.  In a culture which seems intent on reminding itself of its impermanence with its thrall to short-lived objects, the thought that orchids date back 76 to 84 million years gives some perspective to human enterprise.  This precise date was discovered only twelve years ago when a chunk of amber was dug out of a mine in the Dominican Republic by a private amber collector.  Scientists found orchid pollen fossilized on the back of a bee encased in the amber.

Still, beauty, mystery, and miracle aside, an orchid in a condo seems perversely out of context—how long can a plant, especially an exotic one, thrive or even survive in such an unnatural setting?   It’s like the question that has nagged as long as I have lived with indoor cats.  Haven’t I diminished their lives, both in span and richness, by keeping them from their natural habitat?  I have no answer for that, only more questions.  What, in today’s overpopulated and mechanized world, is considered a natural habitat for cats?  My cats have all been shelter cats; wouldn’t their urban lives have been much shorter if left to their own devices?  Does the seeming happiness and health of my cats compensate for the genetic potential denied them?

Knowledge can be a paralyzing thing, like having far too many clothes to cram into available closets.  Some days I am drunk and dazed with the immensity and complexity of the world; on others, I feel overwrought by the sheer intelligibility of it all.  I am reminded of my mother, just a generation back, who, as a child and then as young wife and mother in the Thirties and early Forties, did not have access to scientific knowledge.  She lived in the rural Appalachian hollows of southwest Virginia where there was no library, no book mobile, no television, no newspaper delivery, where very few could afford a telephone, a magazine subscription, books, or travel.  She did not know that the vanilla extract she bought from the door-to-door Watkins salesman and used in every cake and cookie she made (her cookbook was a Watkins cookbook) came from an orchid.  She had never seen, nor possibly ever heard of, an orchid.  She could not locate on any map Madagascar, the country in which Watkins claimed its vanilla pods originated.  And, yet, she knew more about nature, about growing cycles and pollination of the plants in her immediate proximity, even if she didn’t have the vocabulary, than I ever will.  She, by necessity, lived close to nature, not distanced, as I am, by endless third parties.  I, with my three-dollar Kroger orchid which probably originated in an automated nursery in Florida, have merely the illusion of living with nature.

Can an orchid, then, for me, ever be more than a token gesture, at best a constant reminder of personal obligation to live smaller and make better lifestyle choices whenever I can?  And can that be enough, given how much I know?  I stare at the orchid, and its phalanx of pink faces seems not without a judicial aspect, their open magenta mouths with palates puffed with golden powder offered up like a gift I can only refuse.  I may coddle it all the ways in which I am capable, but I cannot do the one thing Creation promised, I cannot bring it a bee.

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