“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” says the old joke. “Practice.” Unless you are an elephant, in which case the process is different. In 1934, an elephant took the stage at Carnegie Hall. Exactly what he did once there is not recorded, but his arrival was celebrated in print, before and after. An article of August 6, 1934 in the The New York Times said: “Circus at Carnegie Hall … Elephants, ponies, dogs and other family-friendly tanbark attractions will be seen at Carnegie Hall this season, with a real indoor circus performing there.”
The circus, he said, was “offered in cooperation with the United Parents Associations of Greater New York.” Which means that, under the formidable will of the New York fathers, an elephant went through Manhattan, up Seventh Avenue, and (went up the stairs? Through the artists’ door in the back?) Into a of the most famous concert halls in the world.
The last time I went to Carnegie Hall, a few years ago, it had snowed so hard that the sidewalks had turned into narrow avenues, sloping on either side with piles of shovels reaching up to my waist. It had fallen the night before, so it hadn’t turned gray as a rat yet, and everyone was still delighted with it. The whole theater, with its red velvet chairs and luxurious gold, smelled of dry snow, a kind of illustrious wet dog smell. People carried newspapers with pictures of the Statue of Liberty, her dress and her flame and the openwork of her crown covered with a white cape.
He was in America because he had written a play, based on the last days in the trenches of the First World War of the writer Saki (HH Munro), and had moved to the tiny Fourth Street Theater. Some nights were a success: a woman laughed so hard she choked and they had to bring a paper cup of water; another left a small urine stain on her seat.
Other nights they weren’t, the audience was so quiet and unimpressed they could have eaten the atmosphere of icy nonchalance with a spoon, a kind of invigorating experience. It was on that trip that I began researching my most recent children’s novel, The Good Thieves, which takes place in New York in the 1920s. It was then that I read about the circus and went to see the great ceiling, more than 25 meters high, under which the elephant would once have bowed its head.
The Good Thieves is a robbery: a girl named Vita, faced with a notorious con man who has ruined her grandfather, decides to steal his property. She gathers a team of crack kids to help her: a pickpocket, an aerialist, an animal whisperer. The last two ride in the circus that has just arrived, with elephants in tow, to Carnegie Hall.
I write slowly, partly because I make so many scratches and mistakes, and partly because I have always loved investigating. When I’m not writing children’s books, I work on English Renaissance poetry at All Souls College, Oxford, and I love the cumulative, building-block, brick-and-mortar feel of the research process. I have always wanted to write books full of wild adventures, improbable but simply possible, reinforced by a world of precise detail; I wanted Vita’s New York to be as real as possible and full of the places I love the most.
One of those places is the New York Public Library, on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, and I went to work there during that snowy week. The two lions that have flanked the library stairs since 1911 wore hats and snow jackets. They are called Patience and Strength; They both looked haughty and short-tempered, but stone lions always do: it has to do with eyebrows.
The library is one of the most fantastically beautiful in the United States: the ceiling mural is of a cloudy sky, and chandeliers hang low over bronze-screen desks. He wanted to plan a scene in which the four children break into the library at night, looking for papers stored there in the archive, and are chased by the night porter. I consulted the librarians on the exact layout of the building in 1924; I read a book about the tunnels under the city, which were used during prohibition to store illegal alcohol – a possible escape route for my children. (The library, with all its glorious high-bay charm, was included in the book, but the chase scene was not. I showed my mother a draft. My mother: “So: you need to read some of the papers from the library, and then they come in at night, through the basement? ‘”Me:“ Exactly that. ”My mother, infinitely patient:“ The thing about libraries, honey, is that if you want to read something, just … question . “)
The children in the book run through Manhattan: from the Plaza Hotel, where women lower their voices and raise their eyebrows, to the Bowery, where a hundred years ago a man named Dick ran Dick’s Bar and Grill, a speakeasy that served livers of tortoise. (a detail I stole), in the Dakota Building (where Lauren Bacall once lived) and beyond the Central Park Zoo. I went, in the middle of the snow. The Central Park Zoo remains open even in snowstorms, unless they reach more than 26 inches in 24 hours. I went to see the seals that jumped into the water with white specks and the snow leopards, which have hot rocks to lie on. The macaques have hot tubs heated to 40 ° C. I was worried about the lemurs.
Most of all, though, I kept thinking about the elephants. New York has seen many in its day. Houdini performed at the Hippodrome in 1918, and each night an elephant named Jennie would magically disappear. No one knows how he made the illusion. It was a difficult life for her, although he fed her sugar to convince her to cooperate and boasted that he did not spank her. Jennie survived him at least two decades and would have paraded through the streets more than once.
It is a thought that makes you tremble: the skyscrapers, which spread out like the calligraphy of a particularly flamboyant god, and that walk beneath them, among the cars, the children and the stray cats, the elephants. In 1955, the New Yorker published a poem by Rosemary Thomas entitled The Elephants Pass Carnegie Hall.
There, waiting for a taxi by the sidewalk, we hear:
like whisper of taffeta (but reaching toward us)
The amazing quash-squash, barefoot quash-squash
animal feet, huge square-toed mastodon feet
shuffling down the street like it’s
the most familiar forest road …
… A ton of elephants, ten tons of elephant
funneling down West 57th Street
• The Good Thieves (Bloomsbury) is available for £ 11.30 at the guardian’s library
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