Thursday, April 29, 2010

My Grandmother Gladys James, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Gladys James isn't actually my Grandmother. Do you capitalize that? Anyway, who's got time to explain the intricacies of my family tree? She was my actual Grandmother's best friend. When I first moved to Brooklyn (circa 1980) I lived in the garden-level apartment in her other best friend's house--a woman named Annie Mary Bailey--on the corner of Willow and Cranberry. The three of them, apparently, were thick as thieves. And Gladys' daughter, Sandra, married my father's brother, Nick. Are you following this? And she was an influential, albeit scary, figure in my Wonderbread Years. So close enough.

Plus she bought me a bike that I still remember. A shiny black Schwinn Typhoon to be used riding around Bay Head and Mantoloking, where she kept some of her other houses.

I have vivid memories of being taken, by Big Jim the chauffeur (what is this--Huck Finn?), to visit her at her house on Columbia Heights. If you find yourself in Brooklyn Heights, it's the huge townhouse at the bottom of Montague Street. Designed, if I'm not mistaken, by Stanford White (what is this--The Great Gatsby?). Now it's a co-op, I suppose. Then, it was something to behold.

Mostly I remember the living room, with windows looking out on New York harbor and the biggest fish tank I had ever seen outside a public aquarium. The light level and generally hushed ambiance were similar to Michael Corleone's house on Lake Tahoe.

Gladys is said to have been one of a small group of powerful Brooklynites that convinced Robert Moses to run the BQE under the Heights rather than through it. This may just be old family lore, but I've seen enough passing mentions of it that I'm accepting it as the truth. But her passion was Prospect Park. For those of you not completely in the know, Prospect Park is Brooklyn's version of Central Park. Designed by the same guys--Ohmsted and Vaux. Really, it's a doozy of a park.

Quick aside: She also liked the Brooklyn Museum. Her mom, who isn't actually my Great-grandmother, donated this brace of Monets:

For the record, if I had a brace of Monets, I'd keep 'em. But that's just me.

Anyway, fast-forward to last night, where I found myself tending bar at a party sponsored by the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. I suppose part of the purpose of the party was to pry money out of the high-net-worth souls in attendance. Which makes perfect sense. And so, at some point relatively late in the proceedings, riding the wave of good vibes engendered by my Claremont Prep experience, I button-holed one of the key people and offered to donate a painting.

The look on her face makes me smile even as I type. Hmmm, she seemed to be thinking, the bartender is giving us a painting. These are moments, dear reader, to be savored.

Me? I understand that the BBG is not the same thing as the Park. But close enough, and I like the idea of making old Gladys posthumously proud (Although, for the record, she took my brother to Gstaad. All I got was a Schwinn Typhoon). And I like the idea of using my gift to help fund a worthy cause. And, with a little bit of luck, if the painting makes enough money for them (the question remains as to whether they will even take me up on the offer, but hey--I'm sanguine), they'll give me a little card that lets me get into the Garden for free.

Possibly with my mountain bike.

Although I'm guessing no on that last bit.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi! Just found this story online while doing some family tree hunting--I am G. James great granddaughter and have been trying to figure out where those paintings were donated to so that I could visit them! Sounds like you have some great memories of her--all I get is the scandalous family lore!

9:10 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home