March 20, 1924
New York, New York
I hadn’t expected to find a waterfall in the middle of Central Park. Even there, so far away from home and the scene of the tragedy, the rushing water that pounded on the rocks made me shudder. The waterfalls in Ithaca and in Hamilton had been powerful, beautiful forces of nature, but I’d grown to hate them.
“Jenny, certainly this early-spring scenery is going to inspire you to use some color,” Minx said, as we set up our easels.
A dozen of us from Professor Robert Pannell’s class at the Art Students League of New York had scattered around the pond, preparing to spend the afternoon painting en plein air in the tradition of the impressionists. We’d walked from the school on West Fifty-seventh Street north into the park and then continued along manicured pathways into this untamed, romantic area.
“Your assignment is not to paint what you see but what you feel. Paint the atmosphere,” Professor Pannell instructed. He always pushed us to go beyond convention.
After a half hour, I was still struggling to get something worthwhile down on my canvas. The ceaseless noise of the water falling distracted me and made me anxious.
“So you’re not going to use even a little bit of color?” Minx coaxed me. Christened “Millicent,” she’d come by her nickname honestly. She had been a hellion growing up—bold, flirtatious, and cunning, much to her parents’ chagrin—but she was just beguiling enough to get away with it.
I forced a small smile but didn’t proffer an actual answer. I didn’t need to. She hadn’t really been asking for one but was rather expressing her never-ending surprise at how uninspired I was by the things that moved her so much.
“I know you are fascinated by the shapes of the trees and the negative spaces and patterns they create, but there are colors out there, Jenny. Look at the colors. Winter evergreens and spring’s very first buds.”
Minx had been questioning my reluctance to use color for months and knew that nothing—not spring or fall or flowers or fabrics—would inspire me. Despite my unchanging black, white, and gray palette, she believed she could help and refused to give up trying. I loved her for that and for her generosity.
She was the daughter of the Deerings, a wealthy shipping scion and a socialite whose fabled family had helped found the Bank of New York. Her parents, Eli and Emily, had spoiled her, and in return, Minx spoiled her friends. All her life, she’d witnessed her father showing his love and his remorse with gifts; for her, then, expressing love meant showering people with her largesse. And as her best friend and flatmate, I was often on the receiving end of her generosity.
Minx’s family was wealthy and worldly. She’d grown up in a mansion on Sixty-second Street and Madison Avenue in New York City. The first time she took me home with her for dinner, I’d been awed. Yes, I’d seen opulence in museums, theaters, and government buildings but never in a home where people lived.
The Deerings were also serious art collectors with eclectic tastes. The walls of their mansion were crowded with Renoirs, Manets, Monets, Rem
brandts, Titians, and Renaissance drawings. There was even a Leonardo da Vinci sketch done in sepia chalk. Marble stands showcased seventeenth- and eighteenth-century bronzes. Mantels were crowded with bejeweled bibelots from Fabergé, Cartier, and Tiffany. Plants were potted only in majolica. Sofas and chairs upholstered only in silk and damask. There was not a corner that didn’t hold a treasure, not a wall that didn’t showcase a masterpiece.
“Miss Deering, are you painting your canvas or Miss Bell’s?” Professor Pannell called out.
Minx rolled her eyes at me, and as she returned to her own canvas, she picked a sprig of holly and tucked it behind her ear. In the sun, the leaves gleamed like jade.
Even there in the park in painting clothes, Minx was distracting. She never walked into a room without eyes turning. Everything about her gleamed, from her bobbed helmet of blond hair to her couture clothes in the palest shades of beige, pink, champagne, topaz, and citrine.
Like Minx, my hair was bobbed. But unlike hers, mine never agreed to lie flat and exploded in a profusion of curls that fell over my forehead. It made me look bohemian and mussed, whereas her smooth helmet of gold made her look chic and coiffed.
When Minx moved, the silks and satins glowed like liquid candlelight. Her deep brown-red lipstick blazed. Even her perfume shimmered: Ombré Rose from the House of L’Etoile in France. It contained minuscule flecks of gold, and sometimes you’d catch a glimmer where she’d applied the spicy, rich scent.
Despite all her dressing up and embellishments, I always saw the frantic light behind Minx’s electric green eyes, her longing for something she couldn’t name and didn’t know how to satisfy. Gifted as both painter and sculptor, she was trying to find that something in art. And when she wasn’t in the studio, she was trying to find it in too many glasses of champagne or in bed with men she never knew well enough. Like so many of our generation, even if we hadn’t been at the front, we were shell-shocked in the aftermath of the war, and someone like Minx tried to chase away the sadness and
loss with whatever it took—drink, drugs, frivolous theater, literature, music, forced gaiety, or a lot of sex.
After another half hour, I glanced over at Minx’s canvas. She’d captured the charm and romance of the glen perfectly. We were in a section of the park called the Rambles, a particularly lush area that Frederick Law Olmsted had created to resemble natural woods. After the waterfall rushed over the rocks, it spilled into a pond surrounded by bushes and trees in configurations that didn’t look man-made but indeed were.
During the three-hour period we were in the park, Professor Pannell strolled among us, examining our work, critiquing in his notoriously staccato sentences, and gesturing ferociously with his arms. He always carried his own paintbrush, which he often dipped into our palettes—without apology—to correct mistakes on our canvases.
He approached Minx and studied her work in progress.
“Lazy, lazy. You can do better. You are better. But this—” He broke off and threw up his arms.
He was tougher on her than the rest of us because—as he often repeated—she had more promise than most. And he made sure he said it loudly so we could all hear him. He believed in playing us against one another, a habit that didn’t endear him to many students. Yet he was one of the most popular teachers at the League, because once you got over the shock of his methods, you could learn so much from the brushstrokes he applied to your canvas.
“More depth, Miss Deering,” he said, as he dabbed his brush into the white oil paint and, with just two or three strokes, created the illusion of deeper space on the two-dimensional surface of her painting.
Leaving Minx, he stopped beside Edward Wren. Though not tall, Edward vibrated with energy. He had chestnut hair, a high forehead, and hooded hazel eyes. He had been at the League longer than Minx or I had. And while he’d taken several classes with Minx before, this was the first time the three of us were in a class together. As of late, I’d noticed Edward and Minx exchanging glances, and at home she mentioned him often. This surprised me. With his working-class aspect, Edward had neither the grace of the high-society gentlemen Minx had grown up with nor the aesthetic of the bohemian artists
we spent time with. Yes, many were rebels devoted to their art, but few had scars on their cheeks or knuckles. Yet Edward did. At thirty-one, he was older and gruffer and not as polite as the other men in our set. At times, he could seem aloof or distant, as if something were preying on his mind. I knew virtually nothing about him except what I saw in his paintings—a powerful and raw talent often ruined by his impatience to invest the necessary time in finishing them. Even so, his canvases always exuded an exciting crudeness that made everyone take notice. Perhaps that rawness was why he reminded me of boys I had grown up with in Hamilton, Ontario. The sons of steel-factory workers and railroad men. The boys my mother had taught, hoping she might discover a budding artist in their midst.
Having finished critiquing Edward, Professor Pannell came to stand behind me. He hadn’t yet been satisfied with anything I’d done in his class, and judging from his groan as he examined my interpretation of the pond, nothing had changed.
“Miss Bell, is that how you feel looking at the scenery?”
“Then, Miss Bell, look harder. Examine Miss Deering’s work. Note the colors she’s used. Even with the lack of dimension in her rocks, pay attention to the feelings she’s expressed. Don’t you realize that your determination to stick to your colorless palette restricts you? Why are you handicapping your efforts?”
I looked from my best friend’s canvas back to my own. We’d both painted the same scene, but where she saw spring greening the copse to life, I saw a forest out of a Grimms’ fairy tale. Woods no little girl would want to enter willingly, a foreboding waterfall from which to flee.
“Miss Bell,” Professor Pannell instructed, “look at this scene, this day, this sunshine and spring. Paint how this makes you feel.” He then proceeded to inspect the next student’s work.
I glanced from my painting to the waterfall, pond, trees, and grass. Back to the painting. Back to the rushing water. Back to the painting. Back to the rushing water. Of course, I could see the colors, but they weren’t my focus. They were a distraction from my subject. I used a monochromatic palette
because I wanted to capture light, to show how it illuminated the water and shadowed the trees. I wanted to master chiaroscuro. DaVinci, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio all knew that what we see is a result of light falling against it. It’s the light that matters. Without it, there would be no subject. But light was so elusive. If I could just capture that simple bit of—
Suddenly, I saw a flash of blue tumbling over the edge of the waterfall. It was clothing. Child-size.
Then a woman’s high-pitched voice called out: “Jeffrey!”
“It’s a child in the falls!” I cried, as I dropped my brush and my palette and ran. The water was so powerful. A child who fell in would be caught in the current of the rushing cascade. His little body would be thrown against the rocks. Unless someone reached him quickly, he might drown.
I reached the edge of the pond. I didn’t know how deep the water was, but that didn’t matter. If a child was in danger, if there was a life to save, I had to attempt it.
“Jeffrey, you bad boy. Look at that, your jacket is all wet!”
The voice expressed exasperation, but no panic.
I circled around to see a woman tugging a well-groomed Maltese on a light green leather leash. She approached the edge of the pond and looked down at the errant piece of clothing.
“Jeffrey!” she called. “Come out here and see what you did!”
With that, a little boy, about seven or eight, emerged from the woods. He stood beside her, scuffing his shoe in the dirt and looking sheepishly from the floating jacket to his mother. And then he leaned over and started to reach toward the jacket.
“No, Jeffrey! Don’t. You could fall, and then you’d be all wet, too. Let’s find a stick and drag it in.” Before she moved away, she looked at me. “Thank you,” she said.
I nodded at her and took a deep breath. Although the boy was clearly fine, my heart continued racing as I returned to my easel. I’d seen the jacket and jumped to the conclusion that a child was drowning. My vision was warped, you see. Damaged by what I had endured as a girl. By now, at age
twenty-four, I had long viewed the world through one particular lens, taking in what was there and pulling out the color so I could focus on the light and how it fell and created highlights. How shadows created depth. And in the process, I never failed to notice the potential for catastrophe and heartache.
I couldn’t help it any more than Minx, who looked at the world through her own starry eyes—and saw only beauty.