September 22, 2011

The Jennie McGraw Rag.


Ithaca is all I could ever want in a college town. In addition to the hopping bar scene and excellent cheap eats on College Ave, the surrounding area is home to some of the most creative local restaurants in the country. The campus includes the requisite quads and clock towers, but also gorges and waterfalls. For a study break, a little afield of Ithaca’s college haunts, are amazing running paths and, yes, wineries!  This college town has a little of everything, and I will have much to explore.

"Hemlock Gorge" I kid you not.

It all began sweetly enough, the "Romance of the Cornell Chimes." Jennie was the only child of a wealthy lumber baron from Dryden, John McGraw, who had funded McGraw Hall, the university's first building. When Jennie asked White, Cornell co-founder and its first president, what might be a nice gift from her to the soon-to-open university, he suggested chimes. So, in 1868, she gave the university a nine-bell chime set -which became the first to peal over any American campus.
The Jennie McGraw Rag  (don’t cry Ms. Edna)

In 1877 Jennie, 37 and still unmarried, inherited her father's vast fortune and became "a hot property."  Though stricken with tuberculosis, Jennie soon sailed off to Europe to purchase furnishings for the mansion she was building.  Soon after her departure, bachelor Fiske -professor of north European languages, librarian, director of the University Press, unofficial director of public information and a boyhood friend of White's -took a leave of absence to go to Europe as well. Fiske at age 48 made his way to Rome in April 1880 to join Jennie, then age 40-an "invalid with her doom evident," wrote Morris Bishop in his seminal history of the university. Engaged in May and married in July, the couple honeymooned on a barge from Cairo, floating up the Nile with a crew of 17.  Less than a year later, though, the newlyweds learned that Jennie was dying. Her last wish, Bishop wrote, was to die in Ithaca. The couple returned from Europe in early September 1881, and Jennie died several weeks later.

What followed was a complex tale, which the press followed closely, of the university at odds with Fiske over Jennie McGraw's estate. Said Haine: "The fight was brutal as well as being a public relations nightmare for the university. And public relations hadn't yet been invented, but its invention was not far-off, and, of course, it was up to a Cornellian to invent it!"

More than seven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Fiske's favor. Henry Sage, John McGraw's business partner and a major Cornell funder, was furious that Fiske got the money that he believed Jennie had intended for the university. Sage funded and endowed the University Library, which he said McGraw's endowment was originally slated for, and lovingly built the tower to hold Jennie's chimes. But he vented his anger for posterity in the bronze plaque at the library's entrance, which undergraduates have wondered about for more than 100 years.  

The good she tried to do shall stand as if 'twere done.
GOD finishes the work by noble souls begun.
In loving memory of JENNIE MCGRAW FISKE whose purpose to
found a great library for Cornell University has been defeated
this house is built and endowed by her friend. HENRY W. SAGE.

In the end, however, the university got it all anyway, as a bequest from Fiske, who died in 1904.
Fury not forgotten; love stories linger…

September 13, 2011


“… everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?  Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

I am sending you a postcard... 
…We’re not tourists, we’re travelers.  A tourist is someone who thinks about going home the moment they arrive.  Whereas a traveler might not come back at all…” 
~Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

September 2, 2011

Parting Shot

“I wanted a perfect ending.
Now I’ve learned,
the hard way,
that some poems
don’t rhyme,
and some stories
don’t have a clear
beginning, middle, and end.
Life is about not knowing,
having to change,
taking the moment
and making the best of it,
without knowing
what’s going to happen next.
Delicious ambiguity.”
-Gilda Radner