Lovely But Sterile?

Statue of Athena, goddess of Philosophy and War, in the Vatican Museum. Like so much of traditional academic philosophy: elegant, cold, impersonal, the purview of the wealthy, and white…

W.E.B. DuBois once wrote that academic philosophy is the ‘lovely but sterile land of philosophical speculation.’ He decides to turn his attention to history and the social sciences so he can offer more concrete answers and practical help to his beleaguered fellow black citizens.

I’ve been inclined to agree with DuBois now and again, out of irritation, out of impatience, out of out of distaste for the obscurantist language and arch tone philosophy is sometimes delivered in, and no doubt, out of my own inability to comprehend. While I often find academic philosophy enthralling, elegant, interesting, and beautiful, I sometimes think, well yes, this is interesting, this is clever, this is fun, but in the end, what does it do? What is it for, and who is it for? Why care about those fine points, technical details, and subtle nuances that academics and scholars go on about that are seemingly unrelated to practical matters of general human wellbeing? Are they just entertaining and impressing themselves and occasionally each other?

I’ve heard people make a similar critique of the arts as DuBois makes of philosophy. ‘Real art’ shouldn’t be primarily about pleasure, about beauty for beauty’s sake, though it can be beautiful too. Its primary purpose should be to transform, inspire, even disturb and shock the viewer so as to make them an agent of change.

Here’s the thing: as much as I love history, ethical theory, civil rights movements, the arts as described in the previous sentence, and so on, I also love human artifacts which have no apparent reason to exist other than their interest and beauty. This is sometimes portrayed as frivolous: why please ourselves with ‘useless’ things which don’t do any work, which don’t inspire action? But I counter: why does everything have to be useful to us, to do work for us? Putting aside the practical value of philosophy (which I and so many other lovers of philosophy contend is quite high) and the arts, is there no place for sheer beauty, sheer interest? Is there no value in just pleasing our senses, from our most basic and instinctual to our most highly refined? Are the deep desires for intellectual exercise and beauty any less central to the human psyche than the needs for love and liberty and life itself? I know sustaining life and expanding liberty is valuable not only because they help us to survive but because they give us access to those things which make life beautiful.

I also know, for myself, that the beauty and interest I find everywhere in the world, be they in products of nature or of human creativity, impact my heart directly and immediately. I enjoy them without wondering why they exist, if they have a right to exist, or if they are useful to me or others. With human artifacts, it’s only after that first impact that I wonder about the personality and motives of the artist, think about what they’re trying to convey, and find inspiration, whether it be to further refine of my sense of beauty or to change the world or myself in other ways.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, posted from Paris on May 12, 1780. From the Massachusetts Historical Society collections

I think of something John Adams once wrote to his wife Abigail: ‘The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.’ For Adams, the purpose of work to change the world for the better is in order that beauty can exist in the world more plentifully, to be promoted and protected for its own sake, and in order that everyone would ultimately have an equal right to access and enjoy in that beauty. Just so for art, for philosophy, for the natural world and for human society alike.

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

I think DuBois agrees, actually. He clearly loves philosophy for its own sake and thinks it beautiful; after all, he describes it as ‘lovely’ instead of merely dismissing it as useless. But he feels his own talents are best directed at making the world more just for himself and for others who are still routinely denied access to academic philosophy, the high arts, and any other realm of thought and creativity they might want to engage in. Some don’t have the leisure time or disposable income; some are deprived of the right to education or access to the funds needed to pay for it; some live in war-torn places unable to support or protect educational and arts institutions. Like Adams, Dubois feels it his duty and his calling to be an agent of change in his time. And like Adams, DuBois lives a life of philosophy-in-action, his work driven by his convictions about justice and the good life. This demonstrates that for him as it is for countless others, philosophy is fertile indeed.

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Steinbeck Retreat, Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley Region of California, March 4th – 9th, 2017

Bust of John Steinbeck and sculptures of the local people who inspired Cannery Row, Monterey, CA

For several days this last week, I’ve been on a literary retreat hosted by Clay Jenkinson, Becky Cawley, and Russ Eagle. You may remember Clay and Becky from the account of my last retreat with them at Lochsa Lodge in the Bitterroot Mountains in January. Clay is a humanities scholar who has been very influential in my own study and thought for the last few years, Becky has worked with Clay for many more years than that co-creating historical, cultural, and literary tours throughout the United States, and Russ Eagle has made Steinbeck a special study for many years as well. At Lochsa Lodge this winter, we read and discussed Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau’s concept of living deliberately, as well the history of the Native Americans of the Great Plains and the wars of the United States’ expansion into their territories through the 1800’s, and the echoes of those wars and that expansion in the DAPL fight today.

This tour took us to Monterey, Pacific Grove, the Salinas Valley, and the mountains and coastline of this beautiful region of California following the life and work of the great American writer John Steinbeck. It was a special joy for me that this retreat was all about history, literature, and gorgeous scenery from my home state of California. I had read and loved Steinbeck’s novels especially when I was in my late teens to mid-twenties but it had been far too long since I revisited his work. I re-read some of his novels for this occasion, and some were new to me. I found a rich source of beauty and wisdom much more revealing to me with the added benefit of a decade and more of life-years.

Interior of Rocinante, the customized camper truck from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley

We read Travels with Charley, Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and The Pearl; selections from The Red Pony, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and East of Eden (though most of us read the latter in full since it’s a general favorite); and read and discussed most in depth what Clay, myself, and many others consider his greatest work, The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath, as you may know, is the story of the epic journey of the Joad family as they flee the loss of their crops and their family home in the Dust Bowl disaster in Depression Era America. The Joads are a fictional family but their struggles are closely based on the struggles of actual immigrants as they face the life of much-maligned, much-neglected, and much-abused refugees from drought and debt in their own nation. Some members of the clan die in the course of their journey, some strike out on their own, a family friend who accompanied them is murdered by a vigilante trying to break up the worker’s rights movement that he had joined, and one becomes a fugitive after he kills his friend’s assassin. Throughout the novel, Ma Joad is transformed from mother to matriarch as she holds the family together through the terrible hardships they suffer in search of work and a new home. She’s one of my favorite female characters in all fiction in her strength, courage, integrity, wisdom, generosity, and great heart. Others in the family are ennobled and transformed as well: the ex-convict, fugitive son Tom joins the worker’s rights movement after his friend is martyred; the disillusioned, tortured loner and binge drinker Uncle John works until he nearly drops to help save the family from a flood and sends a stillborn infant downstream in a crate, Moses-on-the-Nile fashion, to alert others of the migrant’s wrongs; and narcissistic, immature daughter Rose of Sharon … well, I won’t spoil the powerful, disturbing, beautiful ending in case you haven’t read it yet.

Bust of Ed Ricketts memorializing the spot where he died in Monterey, CA

Over the course of several days, we toured Monterey and the settings of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, centered around the character of Doc, modeled on his great friend the charismatic biologist Ed Ricketts, and visited one of Steinbeck’s homes in neighboring Pacific Grove, only several blocks away. We visited the aquarium, housing so much of the marine wildlife which fascinated Steinbeck and Ricketts; walked beautiful Point Lobos, well-loved by Steinbeck and where his family held a memorial service for him and spread some of his ashes; hiked in Pinnacles National Park, not directly associated with Steinbeck but linked to the Gabilan Mountain range which Steinbeck describes in such glowing terms in East of Eden; and, on perhaps my favorite outing of all, we climbed Fremont Peak, as Steinbeck did when on a visit to his old home town in Travels With Charley. Fremont Peak itself is beautiful, its chapparal terrain glowing green from the prolonged rains that rescued California from severe drought this winter and spring, scattered with cloud-gray rocks of the perfect size and grippy roughness to scramble around on, and the view from it is just spectacular: sprawling agricultural fields on one side, Monterey Bay on the other.

The rest of the retreat group spent their last day in Salinas at the Steinbeck Center, the Steinbeck House, and the Garden of Memories where Steinbeck and many of his family members are buried. I didn’t make it to Salinas with the group, having to return to work for the day, but I did visit the Steinbeck Center and House earlier on the first day of the trip since I was free. Unfortunately, I ran out of time to make it to the Garden of Memories before I was due to join the retreat.

I didn’t take many pictures during the trip; I was in retreat mode and in the mood to mostly leave my electronics put away so as to lose myself in the beauty and spirit of these places, unfiltered, unmediated. But I did chronicle my own visit to the Steinbeck Center and the Steinbeck House in Salinas and our day touring Monterey and Pacific Grove. Here are a few photos, below, in addition to the ones above.

It was such a lovely week, and I’m still enjoying the afterglow. Thank you, older, newish, and brand-new Odyssey Tour friends! ‘Til we meet again…

* See my profile of Julia Ward Howe, whose Battle Hymn of the Republic provided the title of The Grapes of Wrath, and which is printed in the opening pages of the novel

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Main Street, Salinas, CA. According to a sign out front, John Steinbeck ate at Sang’s Cafe, in the white building with the blue trim just to the left of Maya Cinemas

Rocinante, the customized camper truck from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. As you may remember, Rocinante was the name of Don Quixote’s horse. At the Steinbeck Center in Monterey, CA.

Steinbeck House, Salinas, CA, where John Steinbeck was born

Ed Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Laboritories, Monterey, CA. Ricketts was an important figure in Steinbeck’s life and work. Steinbeck also studied marine biology at Stanford, but did not receive a degree there. But not for lack of interest in marine biology or learning in general…

Interior of the downstairs lab area of Ed Rickett’s Pacific Biological Laboratories.

Discussion with Susan Shillinglaw, Steinbeck scholar and writer of books about him and others central to his life and work, upstairs in the Pacific Biological Laboratories, with Clay Jenkinson and Russ Eagle

John Steinbeck’s home and garden at 147 11th Street in Pacific Grove, CA

Monterey and its beautiful Bay with its rich tidepools

Me on Fremont Peak. Thanks for the photo, Larry!

O.P. Recommends: The Great Arab-American Painter, Poet, and Philosopher Kahlil Gibran on Why Artists Make Art, by Maria Popova

Khalil Gibran, Autorretrato Con Musa, 1911, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Khalil Gibran, Autorretrato Con Musa, 1911, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As happens so often, I’ve just discovered another wonderful thing because of the great Maria Popova of Brain Pickings. If there is only one website or blog you follow, I recommend that one be Brain Pickings. Literature, history, philosophy, art, poetry, children’s books, all of these and more are topics of discussion there, and the writing is beautiful.

This time, the discovery is the artist, writer, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran, and his take on a question I and I’m sure all other artists and writers ask ourselves from time the time: why we constantly feel the driving need to create things.

Popova writes:

The questions of why we humans create — why we paint caves and canvases, why we write novels and symphonies, why we make art at all — is so perennial that it might indeed fall within the scope of what Hannah Arendt considered the “unanswerable questions” central to the human experience. And yet some memorable answers have been given — answers like Pablo Neruda’s stirring childhood allegory of the hand through the fence.

Another exquisite answer comes from the great Arab-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) in Beloved Prophet (public library) — the collection of his almost unbearably beautiful love letters to and from Mary Haskell…

Read the article in full at Brain Pickings

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 2

79 and 71 W. 12th Street, New York City. 77 woy

79 and 71 W. 12th Street, New York City. There’s no longer a building with that address; the person in the blue shirt is passing by where it would have been. A NYC city atlas from the era seems to show that it was a residential building.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016, continued

The next site I seek is right across the street from the New School on W. 12th St near 6th Ave. The address was number 77, but as you can see, there’s no building with that number here anymore. According to Robin Pokorski of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Sanger made her first public appearance here on January 6th, 1916 after returning from her self-imposed exile in Europe to escape obscenity charges. She eventually decided to return and face them, however: her husband had already done so on behalf of her cause the month before, and her chances in court were better now since birth control had become a much more regular topic in the press. I find no record of her talk nor a history of a public venue here. I do find a listing for 77 W 12th St in the Catalogue of the First Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, Volume 1, published in 1917. It’s the address of Caroline Speare, who has two pieces of art pictured in the catalogue. Looking through it for more about Speare, which I don’t find, I stumble across an early charcoal work by Georgia O’Keeffe, which is a delightful find. Perhaps talks were held at Speare’s place as well as displays of her art, but I can find no evidence of this at this time.

Margaret Higgins Sanger, Jan 1916 by Bain News Service, public domain via LOC

Margaret Higgins Sanger, Jan 1916 by Bain News Service, public domain via LOC

I do find a form letter which Sanger had written the previous day, on Jan. 5th, 1916, to send out to friends. In it, she writes about the indictments against her over her distribution the year before of her magazine The Woman Rebel and its so-called obscene subject matters: the sexual liberty of women and birth control.

She also shared the news in the letter, briefly, of the death of her ‘little daughter’ from pneumonia two months before. Five-year-old Peggy’s death was very hard on Sanger, and the brevity of her announcement in this letter betrays her feelings. She mourned her daughter for the rest of her life, sometimes in the shape of panicked dreams that her little girl needed her help but couldn’t be found, sometimes by looking into systems of spirituality that might put Sanger in touch with little Peggy somehow, be it Rosicrucianism or spiritualism. Sanger likely felt some degree of guilt that she left her daughter behind for so long, though Peggy was well cared for by family and friends. Her young son Grant also blamed Peggy’s illness on Sanger’s being away. This was a sore spot in their relationship for years to come, as were Sanger’s frequent and long absences from the lives of her children generally.

246 W. 14th Street, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

246 W. 14th Street, New York City, is on the right-hand side of the building with the chevron-patterned facade, where Up & Down and Stash night clubs are now. It used to be one nightclub called Nell’s, then Darby’s.

I head two blocks north on 6th Ave and turn left (west) on W 14th to number 246. Sanger lived here in December of 1916. The building I find here now, with a nightclub with a marquee and theater style doors painted a deep glossy black on its ground floor, is numbered 244, and the beer and burger shop next door is numbered 248. It appears 246 and 248 W. 14th St. used to be one address not too long ago before it split into two smaller spaces. There are apartments above the burger shop. It’s a five-story building with a store on the ground floor as a contemporary atlas indicates was there, but if it is original to Sanger’s time, it’s hard to tell given the changes to the exterior over the years.

Gotham shoot on 15th St in NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Gotham shoot on W. 15th St in NYC

Then I turn back east, then north, towards 46 W. 15th St. between 5th and 6th Aves. This stretch of 15th turns out to be the set for a scene from Gotham, as a sign taped to a lamppost says, which is presumably the TV show of that name. I’m allowed to pass by quickly but not stop at my destination until the scene is shot. So I watch the action while I wait. There’s a man of middle age, handsome, wearing slicked-back gray hair, a long black coat, and a serious expression, who stoops to attend to something near the rear driver’s side tire of a black car as the cameras record. Then, next take, he’s behind the wheel, parked, and he ‘flings’ a man aside who’s just leaned into the driver’s side window by shoving open the door, then leaps out and ‘punches’ another man who runs at him from the rear of the car. As I wait, the actors take breaks while they ready the car for another take. I find myself standing next to the actor who plays the protagonist of the scene. He looks on, bored, but smiles pleasantly when he catches my eye.

 42 and 50 15th St, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Numbers 42 and 50, 15th St, Manhattan, NYC. They’re taping scenes from Gotham on this street. Number 46 would have been about where the glassy building next to the tile company is now

I return to take my photos in a pause between takes when they allow people to pass by. Again, the address I seek no longer belongs to any building. The tile company numbered 42 is next to a large, sleek, glassy building numbered 50. The Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau opened its third, expanded location here at 46 W. 15th Street in early 1929. (Pokorski gives the year of the move as 1930, but this photo and other evidence I find place it in the year before.) I find an image of the BCCRB, but it’s owned by Getty Images. The licensing fee is expensive so I won’t use it to illustrate this account, but you can see it online. In the background of that photo, you can see a W. 15th St address printed on an awning, so we know what’s happening in the foreground was at this location: the police raid of the BCCRB on April 15th, 1929.

Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau raid 4-15-1929, photo of photo in Chesler's Sanger biography, 2016 Amy Cools

Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau raid at 46 W. 15th St, April 15th 1929, photo of photo in Chesler’s biography of Sanger

An undercover policewoman, Ann McNamara, posing as a patient, gave her medical history, received a pelvic exam, and was fitted with a diaphragm at the BCCRB. She reported the details of her visit to Mary Sullivan, administrator of the New York Police Department Women’s Bureau who led the raid, on the assumption that the clinic’s practices which McNamara observed were illegal. The police officers rounded up the clinic’s medical director Dr. Hannah Stone, assistant medical director Dr. Elizabeth Pissort, and nurses Antoinette Field, Marcella Sideri, and Sigrid H. Brestwell. The raid ended up garnering a lot of support for the BCCRB and for the birth control cause in general. As it turned out, the clinic was operating in accordance with state laws since it was run by physicians, and the police had overstepped their legal bounds by improperly seizing and reading confidential medical records. Physicians all over the United States and beyond were outraged at this violation of doctor-patient confidentiality and public support flooded in. The case was dropped, the five women were vindicated, and detective Sullivan was demoted.

It looks like they’re about to film another action scene here: the car is rigged with cameras and a machine nearby is dramatically pumping out steam. I have too many places to go today to stay and see what happens. But if you’re watching Gotham one day and see a woman in the background wandering with a red-covered tablet and a brightly printed Thai cotton shirt, that’s me. I wasn’t exactly good about staying put the whole time.

104 Fifth Ave, the first location of the American Birth Control League and the BCCRB, photo 2016 Amy Cools

104 Fifth Ave, the first location of the American Birth Control League, first opened here in 1921, and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, which opened across the fall from the ABCL on Jan 1st, 1923.

Stuyvesant Building, 100 Fifth Ave, at East 15th Street ca. 1910, photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Stuyvesant Building, 100 Fifth Ave, at East 15th Street ca. 1910, photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

I walk just around the corner and a little ways north on Fifth Ave to number 104 between 16th and 15th Streets. 104 Fifth Ave was added to the already existing Stuyvesant Building at 100 Fifth Ave, built in 1906, in a style to match.

This was the first home of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, founded here on January 1st, 1923 across the hall from the first offices of the American Birth Control League. The ABCL, as you may remember, was conceived of in Juliet Rublee’s home in 1921, then instituted here later that same year. The American Birth Control League would join forces, or in a sense, reunite, with the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and become Planned Parenthood in 1942. More on Planned Parenthood to follow in an upcoming account.

And just around the corner from 104 park Ave, north and then left at W. 16th St, at number 17 between 5th and 6th Aves, is the Margaret Sanger Clinic House. The actor’s trailers and equipment trucks from the Gotham shoot I just passed through a block over on W 15th are parked along this street, and one is so placed that it blocks a clear shot of the front of the building. So I take some closeup photos and one at a sharp angle which shows its location next to the Center for Jewish History. This seems fitting, since Sanger’s early work as a nurse in the Lower East Side and her birth control clinics served so many Jewish immigrant women struggling to make a new start in the United States.

Margaret Sanger Clinic House at 17 W. 16th St next to the Center for Jewish Studies, 2016 Amy Cools

Margaret Sanger Clinic House at 17 W. 16th St, next to the Center for Jewish History

Margaret Sanger Clinic House at 17 W 16th St, New York City, photo 2016 Amy Cools

Margaret Sanger Clinic House at 17 W 16th St, Manhattan, New York City

The Margaret Sanger Clinic House at 17 W. 16th St, originally the second home of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, was the first legal birth control clinic to open in the United States. That’s because, as discussed above, Sanger took care to run this one within the parameters of the law by placing it under the direction of physicians. Sanger was ambivalent about legally limiting all birth control services to physician-run clinics. For one thing, physicians were not yet in general agreement about the medical and moral effectiveness and desirability of birth control, for many reasons. Many physicians opposed it on religious grounds, others on positive eugenics grounds. And many more simply recognized that there was far too little known as yet about the processes of reproduction and how to control it.

Sanger knew the latter all too well, so often frustrated by her inability to help women control their fertility as much as she would like too. Most birth control methods had a fairly high failure rate even when used correctly, but using them correctly was time-consuming and awkward, especially, of course, in times of passion, so the failure rates overall were very high. Many of the best contraceptive devices were expensive and many other women, the very ones who needed birth control the most, could not afford doctor’s visits. And because the supply of artificial contraception was driven into the black market, all manner of dubious, ridiculous, and even outright dangerous methods proliferated. Sanger and the BCCRB staff knew this all too well and kept a curio cabinet full of these junk devices and potions at the clinic as examples of what not to use (which the police seized in the raid as well, in their ignorance). However dangerous, however dubious, women still continued to use them, as they were often safer than the other alternatives: self-inflicted or illegal abortions, or carrying a pregnancy to term. Maternal and infant mortality rates were very high at the time, especially among the poor.

Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York, photo via the Margaret Sanger Papers, no known restrictions on use

Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York, photo via the Margaret Sanger Papers

But Sanger’s more pressing doubts about restricting birth control services to physicians sprung from her feminist concerns over women’s right to control their own bodies and destinies. Many physicians believed that women should have as many babies as their bodies conceived, whether or not their patients believed this too. This subordinated women’s decisions about sex, reproduction, and family planning to those of their doctors, whose opinions on the matter often had nothing to do with medical concerns. And even more concerning since the ramifications were wider, much of the ignorance about reproduction stemmed from the indifference or squeamishness of the male-dominated medical and research science professions. Most were simply unwilling to risk their reputations and professional careers in the search for knowledge about human reproduction, still considered a distasteful, messy side of humanity best kept under a discreet veil of sentimentality and ignorance.

Nurse's uniform, ca. 1905, of Lilian Wald visiting service to the Lower East Side tenements of NYC

Nurse’s uniform, ca. 1905, of Lilian Wald visiting service to the Lower East Side tenements of NYC. Sanger likely wore a uniform very like this.

I take the subway north and return to the New York City Public Library. First, I consult Ellen Chesler’s excellent Sanger biography for more details of discoveries I’ve made and to refresh my memory on some other things. As I read page 62 of Woman of Valor, I’m reminded that Sanger worked for awhile as a nurse with Lilian Wald’s Visiting Nurses Association. I first learned about Lilian Wald’s nursing service at the Henry Street Settlement House site when I visited the Lower East Side for my Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton series in 2014. It was right around the corner from the former site of Rose’s 1836 home at 484 Grand Street and the nearby Bialystoker Synagogue.henry-street-settlement-and-lilian-wald-display-activist-new-york-exhibit-2014-amy-cools


Henry Street Settlement and Playhouse, Lilian Wald Site, New York City, 2014 Amy Cools

Henry Street Settlement and Playhouse, Lilian Wald Site, New York City

Selfie in the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library, 2016 Amy Cools

Selfie in the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library

Coincidentally, I’m reminded of Ernestine Rose here in the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library. I love this library. I read and make notes, my feet grateful for the rest, then I head down to the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, Room 117, where I confirm the location of some sites that are no longer there. Some of the maps are original paper ones, and you’ll find photos of these throughout this series. Others are scanned into the online system, and the librarian helps familiarize me with the website’s digital collection.

Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, Room 117 of the New York Public Library, 2016 Amy Cools

Another gorgeous room in the NYPL: Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, Room 117

69 West 46th Street, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

69 West 46th Street, NYC. The Gamut Club would have been about where the Dress Barn is now

Women seated at tables in the dining room at the Gamut Club at 69 West 46th Street ca. 1914, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Women seated at tables in the dining room at the Gamut Club at 69 West 46th Street ca. 1914, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

I walk north on 5th Ave then turn left at 46th, to 69 W. 46th St, just east of 6th Ave near Times Square. Again, there is no longer a building with that address here, but in the 1920’s it was the site of the Gamut Club, founded by feminist actress Mary Shaw in 1913. She thought other women’s clubs she belonged to had become little more than sessions of ‘tea table tattle, bridge, and banalities’. Her Gamut Club would devote itself instead to intelligent discussion and the support of socially conscious arts. The club hosted dinner discussions, guest speakers, and feminist-themed plays. There are two occasions which lead me to follow Sanger here. On January 21st, 1920, as recorded in the February edition of The Birth Control Review of that year, Sanger was a speaker at one of the weekly Tuesday dinner meetings. As the Review tells it, these women-only events were intimate enough to allow the attendees to discuss the issues much more fully and freely than they might have in mixed company. And on March 26, 1924, she lectured with Dr. Dorothy Bocker on the topic ‘Should All Women be Mothers?’ As of the time I write this, I find no record of the lecture, but my guess is that their answer to that questions was ‘no’.

Hotel Astor behind row of lighted billboards on Times Square, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Hotel Astor behind row of lighted billboards on Times Square, NYC

The Capital Times, Thu Oct 3, 1929, ABCL National Convention clipping, from

Clipping from The Capital Times of Oct 3, 1929 announcing ABCL’s National Birth Control Convention. Click to read in full.

Then I head to Hotel Astor at One Astor Plaza at the intersection of 44th St and 7th Ave. The Astor faces onto Times Square. It’s a weekday rush hour and the throng is thick. I take a deep breath and plunge in.

According to Robin Pokorski’s Mapping Margaret Sanger, ‘The Hotel Astor was the site of the National Birth Control Conference of November 19 and 20, 1929. The conference was sponsored by the American Birth Control League.’ I find few contemporary references online to the talks and attendees of this conference other than a few remarks in some contemporary newspapers and a brief excerpt from Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, Volumes 3-4, 1930, published by the American Eugenics Society. An article from The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, outlines some of the topics of discussion, such as the Comstock laws and the current science of reproduction, and lists some of the headliners of the conference, which included ‘famous educators, doctors, and pastors.’

I see there’s a copy of the American Eugenics Society journal in the collections of the University of California. This now gives me two topics to research there for this series. I’ll return to fill in the details of this story as soon as I can.

The Town Hall Building, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

The Town Hall Building, New York City

The Town Hall Building historical plaque, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

The Town Hall Building historical plaque

The last Sanger site I visit for the day is at 123 W. 43rd St between 6th and 7th Aves. It’s now early evening but I have just enough light left to photograph the Town Hall Building. It’s an attractive red brick building in a federal revival style, with modest decorations in pale stone and its name and humanitarian purposes carved into a huge pale stone placed horizontally and prominently along its façade. It was built in 1921, earlier in the same year of the event that brings me here.

On, Nov 13, 1921, a meeting was scheduled here to close the First American Birth Control Conference which saw the public launch of the American Birth Control League, which, in turn, was to become Planned Parenthood. Sanger’s friend Harold Cox was to deliver a speech called ‘The Morality of Birth Control‘, which Sanger authored. He was scheduled to speak after Mary Shaw, founder of the aforementioned Gamut Club. However, to their surprise (though perhaps not total surprise) a squadron of police officers blocked their entrance at the door.  After some wrangling, Sanger, Cox, and attendees managed to make their way inside. The police, however, would not allow Cox to speak, dragging him from the stage.

As it turns out, the police claimed to be there at the request of Archbishop Patrick Hayes. They carried Cox and Sanger off to the station followed by a crowd of protesting attendees. As a generator of publicity for her cause, Sanger couldn’t have planned it better. She had long opposed the Catholic church as backward, unscientific, and oppressive of women’s rights, and this debacle, in the eyes of many, proved her point. The American Civil Liberties Union, prominent New Yorkers, and newspapers from all over roundly criticized this trespass on free speech rights. While Hayes was ultimately never found officially responsible, we’ll likely never know for certain whether he did request police intervention. Who knows, it may have been a simple case of ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ except, of course, the other way around. Hayes’ friends and sympathizers may have just wanted to help him out by putting a stop to this turbulent woman, at least in his city.

But Sanger triumphed in public opinion in this case not once, but twice. On Jan 15th, 1937, Sanger was presented here at the Town Hall with the Award of Honor by the Town Hall Club in honor of her bravery and contributions to society.

Thus ends another fascinating day’s journey in the footsteps of Margaret Sanger. Stay tuned for my adventures on Day Three!

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~ Special thanks to the Museum of the City of New York, a wonderful institution with an extensive collection of photographs and documents which tell the story of New York City and its people


Sources and Inspiration:

100 Fifth Avenue‘, from 42Floors website

About Sanger: Biographical Sketch‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies‘. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Oct 01, 1999. From the Center for Disease Control website

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 32 and Plate 37. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Catalogue of the First Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, Volume 1, published 1917

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992

Diversity of the Desirable‘, The Evening Journal, Nov 21, 1929 page 6, Wilmington, Delaware

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

Garrett, Y. ‘Jan. 2, 1923 First Legal Birth Control Clinic Opens in U.S.‘ From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Johnson, Ben. ‘Thomas Becket.’ Historic UK: The History and Heritage Accomodation Guide

Krich Chinoy, Helen and Linda Walsh Jenkins. Women in American Theatre, 1981, 1987, 2006. New York: Theatre Communications Group

Lepore, Jill. ‘Birthright: What’s Next for Planned Parenthood?‘, Nov 14, 2011. The New Yorker – American Chronicles

Margaret Sanger Is Dead at 82; Led Campaign for Birth Control‘. The New York Times: On This Day, Obituary Sep 7, 1966

Miller, Tom. ‘The 1847 “Margaret Sanger Clinic” House – 17 West 16th Street‘, Sep 18, 2010, Daytonian in Manhattan blog

National Birth Control Parley Nov 18 in N.Y.The Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, Oct 3, 1929

Nell’s‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Raid Sanger Clinic on Birth Control‘. New York Times Apr 16, 1929

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Birth-Control Raid‘, May 1, 1929, The New Republic, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret (ed.) The Birth Control Review, Volumes 1-3, 1917,  Volume 2; Volumes 4-5, 1920, and Vol 5, 1921

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Birth Control: Then and Now,’ 1944. Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Form Letter to Friend(s)‘, from Samples from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project for the Model Editions Partnership

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Morality of Birth Control,’ Nov 18, 1921. Published Speech. Source: The Morality of Birth Control, (New York, 1921)The Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

The Town Hall Raid‘, Newsletter #27 (Spring 2001) of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Troublemakers!‘ Nov 28, 2012. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Goodbye, Dear Leonard Cohen!


‘I’ve been listening
To all the dissension
I’ve been listening
To all the pain
And I feel that no matter
What I do for you
It’s going to come back again
But I think that I can heal it
But I think that I can heal it
I’m a fool, but I think I can heal it
With this song’

– Leonard Cohen, ‘Minute Prologue’ from Live Songs, 1973

I heard of Leonard Cohen’s death when I returned home from work yesterday evening. Thursdays are my long day at the doctor’s office, and by the time I left, we had cared for about sixty patients, and I had just enough time on my short break to do a little reading and quickly tuck a little lunch away. No time for social media or news and no interest in them either, weary from election coverage and its aftermath.

So I learned of his death not from the cold glow of a screen but from the living face of my husband Bryan, who is also one of my oldest friends. We’ve sung Cohen’s songs together countless times over the years as he played guitar, or a capella while driving, which I especially love to do. Bryan had his guitar out, in fact, likely expecting I would want to sing his songs together at that moment. But after feeling stunned and for some reason …well, what I can best describe as wounded, after a few moments I felt the urgent need to go out to a place where people gather. I felt that being in the presence of warm, vibrant life might prevent me from sinking backing into the glum pessimism that had overshadowed the last two days, a mood so at odds with Cohen’s own life and spirit. We went to Cato’s, a favorite gastropub on Piedmont Ave in Oakland, where the lights glow warmly, the food and beer are very good, the wooden tables are deeply carved with graffiti, there’s often live music, and always the pervasive sense of neighborly camaraderie.

Just one friend, it turned out, was free to meet with us on such short notice, and we passed a happy evening, talking about the arts (mostly music and film), politics, and work. And we talked about Cohen, his wisdom and his humor and his life and his poetry, about what his music meant to us and did for us, and we swapped favorite songs, my own which I’ll share with you below. And we talked about how we came to know his work.

For me, it was from a guy whose name, I think, is Brad. Certainly begins with a ‘B’. I worked with him a very long time ago at a vintage clothing store; I think I was eighteen or nineteen at the time. He usually wore rather close-fitting plain tee shirts with plaid shorts from the 1960’s and early 1970’s, of madras cotton, wool blend, or polyester, and had little round glasses. I loved his style. He was tall, blond, had good taste in everything, and was a linguistics major. ‘Brad’ put on 1975’s The Best of Leonard Cohen, a collection for which Cohen picked the songs, wrote liner notes, and designed the packaging. I was stunned at what I heard, and very soon afterward bought several of his albums on tape. I wore them out, especially in the little boombox I kept with me; it served as my car stereo from the backseat of my little hatchback. In Southern California, you can’t get much of anywhere without driving, especially then, so I spent a lot of time in that car listening to music, especially Cohen’s at that time, sometimes rapt in attention, sometimes singing along.

Sometime in 1996 or ’97, I learned that Cohen was living at Mount Baldy’s Zen Center and that he would often visit the Village, the artsy little town center of nearby Claremont. So, being the ardent fangirl that I was, I began to hang out in the Village even more often than I had been, hoping I would find an opportunity to meet him. With its Folk Music Center (founded by Ben Harper’s grandparents), Rhino Records (one of the very best music stores ever), funky little stores, coffee shops, live music, and nearby drum circles at one of Claremont’s many colleges (I’ve forgotten which one), the Village was already one of this then-hippie-girl’s regular haunts. But, alas, that meeting was never to occur, not even a sighting from afar.

My Leonard Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan

My well-played, yellowed copy of the Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan

I’m quite sure I purchased my copy of I’m Your Fan at Rhino Records. This 1991 Cohen tribute album features prominently in Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of the history and evolution of one of Cohen’s masterpieces, the majestic Hallelujah, in a recent Revisionist History podcast episode. I must admit, I experienced a moment of music-nerd smug self-congratulation when Gladwell speaks of being one of the enlightened few who bought this album. Anyway, it has some good covers on it. Geoffrey Oryema does a lovely performance of Suzanne; the Pixies rock I Can’t Forget; R.E.M. and David McComb with Adam Peters are true to the urban-decay spirit of First We Take Manhattan and the self-deprecating, odd creepiness of Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On, respectively; Dead Famous People do a sweetly pop-py take on True Love Leaves No Traces; and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds recast the reflective Tower of Song into a raucous tour of musical styles. (‘I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice’ remains one of the sneakiest, funniest witticisms I’ve ever heard.) But best of all, John Cale does a glorious version of Hallelujah. I very much recommend you listen to Gladwell’s telling of the story of how Cale came to create the definitive version of Hallelujah which, in turn, became one of the most-covered and most-loved songs in popular music. And, you’ll likely learn some other nice little music history tidbits you didn’t know, too. Thanks, Malcolm Gladwell!

My Leonard Cohen concert ticket from Apr 13, 2009.

My Leonard Cohen concert ticket from Apr 13, 2009. It’s pictured on the notebook that became my concert diary, which records every concert I’ve gone to which issues tickets that I could keep and was a gift from my first love, who broke up with me to prepare for the priesthood though he ultimately decided to remain a layperson. I feel this little anecdote fits in with this story, though I’m not sure how.

I did, finally, get to see Leonard Cohen in the flesh, in concert at Oakland’s Paramount Theater on Monday, April 13th, 2009. How lucky I felt that I would get to see him perform at one of my favorite theaters, a gorgeous Art Deco temple to the arts, its gold-and-green interior replete with sleekly ornate stylized figures of animals and humans, real, mythological, and archetypal. He sang, danced, told stories, kneeled then stood then kneeled again very like we used to do at Mass, and gesticulated for two and a half hours. I marveled at his vigor while I was transported by his beautiful performance, and I thrilled and smiled throughout, here and there weeping just a little.

If you’ve read this, thank you for allowing me to share this story with you, and if you’ve read this all the way here, you likely love Leonard Cohen too. I would love for you to share your stories and favorite Leonard Cohen songs, poems, and other things too.

Here’s to you, Leonard Cohen!

Sincerely, A. Cools

Listen the podcast version of this story here, on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Here are some of my favorite songs and works from Leonard Cohen, those which first spring to mind that I must share with you. This list is by no means definitive and I will add to it over time, freely, as I am inspired to.

Please enjoy, and let Cohen transport, arouse, entertain, amuse, and enlighten you as he helps you find a little redemption here and there, as he has me.

God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot‘, poem from Beautiful Losers, 1966 reading by Leonard Cohen. When I read it to myself, it sounds more like a chant, with a study drumbeat behind it

The description of a dream feast in Beautiful Losers, where Kateri Tekakwitha spills a glass of wine which spreads everywhere. I discovered it’s missing from my bookshelf, I loaned it out and never got it back, and Google Books doesn’t include that chapter. I’ll borrow it from the library.

My illustration of Leonard Cohen's Lady Midnight, from about 1997 - 1998

My illustration of Leonard Cohen’s Lady Midnight, from about 1997 – 1998 according to my best guess; I was about 20 or 21

Suzanne, 1967

Sisters of Mercy, 1967

So Long Marianne, 1967

Bird on the Wire, 1969

Story of Isaac, 1969. The story of Abraham and Isaac has long fascinated and repelled me.

Lady Midnight, 1969. Has long delighted my romantic heart, this cry to the arch, cruel, enchanting, ageless, mythical woman who’s capured his heart, Cohen’s Helen

Famous Blue Raincoat, 1971

Joan of Arc, 1971. Like Mark Twain and Cohen, I’ve long been fascinated by Joan of Arc. My portrait of her hangs in my dad’s living room.

Minute Prologue, 1972.

Passing Through, 1972. Written by Richard Blakeslee, I love Cohen’s performance

Nancy, 1972. Originally titled Seems So Long Ago, Nancy in 1969’s Songs from a Room. I love this version best.

At the Chelsea Hotel in July of 2011, before they kicked everyone out to remodel

At the Chelsea Hotel in July of 2011, before they kicked everyone out to remodel it

Chelsea Hotel #2, 1974.

Why Don’t You Try, 1974. A feminist song

Take This Longing, 1974. Melts me every time

A Singer Must Die, 1974.

Leaving Green Sleeves, 1974. Only Cohen would think to write about a breakup with Henry VIII’s love interest

Paper Thin Hotel, 1977. The first song to make me empathize with a sex-starved voyeur. The next and last one to do so was Randy Newman with his You Can Leave Your Hat OnThe Telegraph listed Death of a Ladies’ Man as one of Cohen’s least-good albums, but I don’t agree. It’s wonderful, though it’s true it’s very weird.

The Window, 1979.

The Traitor, 1979.

Night Comes On, 1984.

Hallelujah, 1984.

The Captain, 1984. The production’s odd and rather cheesy, but I still love it

If It Be Your Will, 1984. Oh, the beauty!

First We Take Manhattan, 1988.

Everybody Knows, 1988.

Take This Waltz, 1988. …And only Cohen is brilliant enough to realize that Federico García Lorca’s great poem had be to set to music

Tower of Song, 1988.

… to be continued…..

Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Delaware Artist Inspired by Philosophy and Music to Make Beautiful Artwork, by Brian Drouin

Moment in a Forest of Words, image credit Michael Krausz, used by permission

Moment in a Forest of Words, image credit Michael Krausz, used by permission

I just came across this great story about Michael Krausz, a professor of philosophy and an

‘..artist [who] weaves music, art, and philosophy together as one.

Swiss born Michael Krausz was destined for a life of music, the son of professional musicians, he later discovered philosophy and in a moment that changed his life he discovered his love of painting…’

Read Krausz’s story and watch the video by Brian Drouin. I think you’ll love what you see and hear.

You can learn more about Krautz at his Bryn Mawr faculty page as well.


Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!