From the Archive — From the December 2014 issue

A Little Girl’s New York

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In my seventeenth year, there suddenly appeared in Fifth Avenue a very small canary-yellow brougham with dark trimmings, drawn by a big, high-stepping bay and driven by a coachman who matched the brougham in size and the high-stepper in style. In this discreet yet brilliant equipage, one just caught a glimpse of a lady whom I faintly remember as dark-haired, quietly dressed, and enchantingly pale, with a hat brim lined with cherry color, which shed a lovely glow on her cheeks. It was an apparition surpassing in elegance and mystery any that Fifth Avenue had ever seen; but when our dark-blue brougham encountered the yellow one, and I cried: “Oh, Mamma, look — what a smart carriage! Do you know the lady?” I was hurriedly drawn back with the stern order not to stare at strange people and to remember that whenever our carriage passed the yellow one I was to turn my head away and look out of the other window.

For the lady in the canary-colored carriage was New York’s first fashionable hetaera. Her name and history were known in all the clubs, and the name of her proud proprietor was no secret in New York drawing rooms. I may add that, being an obedient daughter, I always thereafter did look out of the other window when the forbidden brougham passed; but that one and only glimpse of the loveliness within it peopled my imagination with images of enchantment from Brocéliande and Shalott (we were all deep in the Idylls of the King), and from the Cornwall of Yseult. She was, in short, a sweet unsuspecting creature, my first doorway to romance, destined to become for me successively Guinevere and Francesca da Rimini, Beatrix Esmond, and La Dame aux Camélias. And in the impoverished emotional atmosphere of old New York such a glimpse was like the mirage of palm trees in the desert.

I have often sighed, in looking back at my childhood, to think how pitiful a provision was made for the life of the imagination behind those uniform brownstone facades, and then have concluded that since, for reasons which escape us, the creative mind thrives best on a reduced diet, I probably had the fare best suited to me. But this is not to say that the average well-to-do New Yorker of my childhood was not starved for a sight of the high gods. Beauty, passion, and danger were automatically excluded from his life (for the men were almost as starved as the women); and the average human being deprived of air from the heights is likely to produce other lives equally starved — which was what happened in old New York, where the tepid sameness of the moral atmosphere resulted in a prolonged immaturity of mind.

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More from Edith Wharton:

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The letter

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