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History New York Style : GRAMERCY PARK An American Bloomsbury by Carole Klein (Houghton Mifflin: $19.95; 310 pp., illustrated)

December 20, 1987|Artelia Court | Court is a writer and artist who lives on Gramercy Park. and

It is a standard boast of Eastern Seaboard chauvinists that they have a better sense of history than other Americans. New Yorkers claim a particular awareness, nourished by their city's role in national development, its immigrant populations, and its correspondingly close ties to other places and older cultures. Yet, there is nothing more characteristic of workaday New York than the demands it makes in the name of the future--and its intolerance of people and things that inconvenience future plans.

The sense of history that flourishes in New York combines admiration for the past with a narrow, commercially focused vision of the past's uses. And this is a perspective shared by Carole Klein's entertaining book about the goings-on in the New York City neighborhood known as Gramercy Park, from about 1830 through 1940.

Gramercy Park proper--the little square that is the nominal center of the area--was created in 1833 by Samuel Ruggles, one of those rare (now flightless) birds: a land developer keen on public good as well as personal profit. Ruggles reasoned that neighborhood parks would exhale the fresh air needed to help curb the booming city's cholera epidemics and, at the same time, make attractive sites for the houses of wealthy private citizens, contributing to the city's long-term economic worth. A man who "could throw off more brilliant and pregnant ideas in a given moment" than most of his contemporaries, Ruggles was also a man who knew how to implement such ideas. So Gramercy Park remains unique in New York to this day: an iron-framed rectangle of tall trees and flower beds, a monument to idealized urbanity and Ruggles' far-sighted planning.

What Ruggles could not have foreseen, but what he himself prefigured, was the exceptional human community to whom the neighborhood would be either host or home in the coming century. Stability and architectural charm continued to attract wealth. But Gramercy Park did not become a sterile enclave of Manhattan's rich. It drew to itself a steady stream of talented individuals from many parts of the country--individuals who were to make critical contributions to the development of American technology, business, arts and letters. The list of these regular visitors and neighbors is too long to tell, but a sample would include Henry Adams, Henry James, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bessie Smith, Sarah Bernhardt, William Cullen Bryant, S. J. Perlman, Eugene O'Neill, Georgia O'Keeffe and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

"Gramercy Park: An American Bloomsbury" is, in essence, a series of biographical sketches of a score of these neighborhood luminaries, set against the even more briefly outlined backdrop of the changing city. The author's comparison with London's Bloomsbury is inept, since she has discovered not one but various New York social cliques as well as many unconnected individuals who just happened to live nearby. Still, she musters here a remarkable convocation of subjects.

The first section of the book is occupied by Ruggles' own civic and business-minded social set, which included the inventor and proponent of free education, Peter Cooper; the inventor and telegrapher, Samuel Morse; and the promoter of the first transatlantic cable, Cyrus Field. Later sections center on the writers, performers and artists who, from the 1860s through the 1930s, made the area a hotbed of aesthetic controversy--such as the great actor Edwin Booth (who, along with his difficult brother John Wilkes, inherited alcoholism and melancholia), flamboyant architect Stanford White who created a new standard of opulence in American design, painter George Bellows and story-writer O. Henry, who injected new elements of realism and sentimentality into American arts, and editor Paul Rosenfeld whose magazine "The Dial" published such '20s avant-gardists as Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore and E.E. Cummings.

The book concludes with an account of the career of the neighborhood's "builder of bridges into posterity," public-relations magnate Ben Sonnenberg, whose park-side mansion (once renovated by Stanford White) may have been the laboratory that first concocted the concept of celebrity.

The most impressive thing about this book is Klein's ability to knit together a great diversity of biographical anecdotes and social reportage into an almost seamless narrative that is sprightly, and often informative.

What is dismaying here is the author's narrowness of focus and shallowness of insight with respect to the past--traits symptomatic of that special New York sense of history I mentioned earlier.

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