Thursday, May 3, 2012

Book Review: Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Louis Comfort Tiffany is known as the creator of the famous Tiffany lamps which we all hope that Antiques Roadshow will tell us that leaded glass lamp in the living room really is. He aspired his whole life to supersede his father's success with Tiffany & Co., but he failed. Despite numerous accolades, awards, and thousands in sales, his expenses always outstripped his income and his father always had to supplement the expenses of Tiffany Glassworks. Tiffany experimented with opalescent glass and enameling and frequently shifted his focus, leaving past projects behind, except for his enormous leaded glass windows, which he thought would be his legacy. Ironically, his legacy has proven to be those lovely lamps, which weren't designed by him at all but by Clara Driscoll, the head of his women's department, who also may have come up with the idea in the first place.

Tiffany was progressive in even having a women's department, which other glassworks certainly did not at the time. But he was a man of his times, and he only allowed single women to work there, so Clara had had to leave when she got married. However when we meet her, her husband has died leaving his money to a child she didn't know about from a previous relationship, and leaving her broke, so she returned to Tiffany who immediately rehired her. She had an idea for a lampshade that used a floral motif, instead of the simple geometric designs the men's department specialized in, and Tiffany let her do it. She designed dozens and dozens of lamps, experimenting with shapes and bases and how the lead lines were worked into the designs. Along the way, we see how Clara's staff of very young girls (some only 15) from a wide variety of backgrounds get along, even occasionally going to their homes when they had problems Clara needed to deal with directly, which gives us a glimpse into the poverty of the recent immigrants 100 years ago. We also see their plight through Clara's fiancee who works with recent immigrants, helping them get jobs and housing and other help. Clara experiences all the late 1800s, early 1900s New York has to offer, including bicycles, the subway, and skyscrapers. Through it all, her loyalty to Tiffany is tested, her artistic bounds are stretched, and she has to figure out who she really is and what's truly important to her in her life.

Ms. Vreeland is known for her research and it certainly shows here, perhaps a tad too much. She describes everything in intricate detail, from the kind of headlamp Clara's bicycle uses to the steps for making a leaded glass window to the squalor of the Lower East Side. Some of these details, such as regards the glasswork, were certainly needed if a little confusing, but some were a bit much, as when a gentleman, taking Clara and a friend to his apartment in the Tenderloin to deal with a potentially dangerous situation, momentarily pauses to note his favorite Ragtime song coming out of a nearby window. In addition, a couple were actually wrong regarding the Flatiron Building (where I used to work).  It is 22 stories but you cannot take the elevators to the 22nd floor - you can take them to the 21st floor and there is a separate elevator (or take the stairs) to the topmost floor. And when you get there, you can't look down on look down on rooftops, as the top floor is half the size of the other floors and you would be looking at the roof of the 21st floor, and a balustrade of very fat newel posts that completely obstruct the view.  You can see rooftops, but at a very shallow angle, so they'd be a couple of blocks away and would be unlikely to make anyone dizzy, even if you were unused to being up that high.  If you went down a floor, you could more easily see down, but still not straight down, even with the windows open, as the ornamentation of the facade blocks a straight-down view everywhere in the building (as far as I know). Also, it was not called the Flatiron building when it was built.  It was the Fuller Building (which is still engraved on the front of the building) and the nickname of "Flatiron" did come quickly, but not immediately. Not to mention the true origin of the phrase "twenty-three skidoo" is unknown and the theory that it has to do with winds whipping up women's skirts at 23rd street and Broad way is just a theory. Ms. Vreeland mentions in the afterword in a discussion with her editor that in her one trip to New York for research, she did not make it to the Flatiron building, and I sorely wish she had.

I also wish she had left it out entirely. I wish I could read a book set in turn-of-the-last-century New York, and have them not mention the Flatiron building. Speaking as a former resident of the city, I didn't go everywhere and do everything. I didn't ever go up the World Trade Center (yes, I regret) and I didn't go to the UN and I didn't go to Ellis Island. People who live there don't do those touristy things. Not to mention Clara likely was stretching her budget to go to the Jersey shore so frequently. But she seemed to bump into famous people (or her friends did) and go to famous (or not-yet-famous) landmarks and try the latest technologies. I also didn't like how she and her friends referred to themselves as Victorian - did Victorians know they were "Victorians" at the time? I feel like period designations usually come after the fact. And it was distracting to have her going to lunch with a couple of girls in the office and to tell them that a man they were passing was poor and wrote stories and his name was O. Henry. How would she know that? He wasn't successful yet - how on earth would she have recognized him? 

I liked the story a lot, I loved the details of how the Tiffany studios worked, the difficulties in the era with women not being allowed in the unions and the men competing with the women for jobs within the studio, and so on. But there was too much showing off of the research done and too many "Forrest Gump" moments in my opinion. The book would have been stronger if she had edited her details more assiduously.

I bought this book at Park Road Books.


Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

I had this marked to read early in its publication because of the author...but lost interest...not sure if I need to think about it again.

Anonymous said...

I started to read "Clara and Mr. Tiffany" and just couldn't get into it although I was very interested in Clara Wolcott/Driscoll's life. There's another book on her that was recommended and I LOVED it! Really got a flavor of turn-of-the-century life and relationships and what it was like to be a single woman who was a self-supporting artist.

Anonymous said...

Oops! Forgot to give name of other book!

NOON at TIFFANY's by Echo Heron.

Heron's research appears seamless and her characters lively!

Anonymous said...

How funny! our bk. club just finished reading NOON AT TIFFANY'S and loved it!! (BTW, Heron does mention the Flatiron Bldg lol!) Our club wanted to get another author's perspective on this fascinating woman's life as the main Tiffany designer. Heron's version is wonderfully detailed, engrossing and cohesive! We loved it!

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right - author seems to be showing off her knowledge/research and it could remind you of "Forrest Gump" in the passing interaction with famous people & events. I also found the details about glassmaking and working at Tiffany's (as well as quite a bit about Mr. Tiffany's personal life) too much. The book lost a lot of momentum in the second half, because other than the almost-strike nothing really new is happening. Well-written but overwritten.