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.
But we must return to the brownstone houses and penetrate from the vestibule (painted in Pompeian red, and frescoed with a frieze of stenciled lotus leaves, taken from Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament) into the carefully guarded interior. What would the New Yorker of the present day say to those interiors, and the lives lived in them? Both would be equally unintelligible to any New Yorker under fifty.
Beyond the vestibule (in the average house) was a narrow drawing room. Its tall windows were hung with three layers of curtains: sash curtains through which no eye from the street could possibly penetrate, and next to these draperies of lace or embroidered tulle, richly beruffled, and looped back under the velvet or damask hangings which were drawn in the evening. This window garniture always seemed to me to symbolize the super-imposed layers of undergarments worn by the ladies of the period — and even, alas, by the little girls. They were in fact almost purely a symbol, for in many windows even the inner sash curtains were looped back far enough to give the secluded dwellers a narrow glimpse of the street.
The brownstone drawing room was likely to be furnished with monumental pieces of modern Dutch marquetry, among which there was almost always a cabinet with glazed doors for the display of “bric-à-brac.” Oh, that bric-à-brac! Our mothers, who prided themselves on the contents of these cabinets, really knew about only two artistic productions — old lace and old painted fans. But as to the other arts a universal ignorance prevailed, and the treasures displayed in the wealthiest houses were no better than those of the average brownstone-dweller.
My mother had a collection of old lace, which was famous among her friends, and a few fragments of it still remain to me, piously pinned up in the indigo-blue paper supposed (I have never known why) to be necessary to the preservation of fine lace. But the yards are few, alas; for true to my conviction that what was made to be used should be used, and not locked up, I have outlived many and many a yard of noble point de Milan, of stately Venetian point, of shadowy Mechlin, and of exquisitely flowered point de Paris, not to speak of the delicate Valenciennes which ruffled the tiny handkerchiefs and incrusted and edged the elaborate lingerie of my youth. Nor do I regret having worn out what was meant to be worn out. I know few sadder sights than museum collections of these Arachne-webs that were designed to borrow life and color from the nearness of young flesh and blood. Museums are cemeteries, as unavoidable, no doubt, as the other kind, but just as unrelated to the living beauty of what we have loved.
From an essay published in the March 1938 issue of Harper’s Magazine, one of many pieces by Wharton the magazine published. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 164-year archive — is available here.