Perhaps you’ve seen me in Central Park, a tall, white-haired woman in an emerald green polo shirt with a rectangular logo and the kind of khaki shorts made popular during the Raj.
My official uniform and photo ID confirm my skill as a volunteer tour guide. I greet visitors from around the world. Most are darlings I’d happily befriend if I was allowed to drop my role and become a momentary civilian but just as Charles de Gaulle was France, I am the park while on duty.
Others on my tours don’t bother to listen. I’m used to people who reject my knowledge and I forgive them despite the glorious history I’m avid to share, a history which begins well before Henry Hudson sailed up his eponymous river.
Among the things I know:
In 1857, Frederick Law Olmsted, a failed farmer and journalist joined with Calvert Vaux, a shy, brilliant if undersized English architect, to win the competition to design what was then called The Central Park.
Olmsted had lost his mother when he was a boy. Vaux had lost his father. Bereft from childhood, labeled depressives, both found solace in the great outdoors believing, as many did, that the hand of God revealed Itself in pristine nature. In contrast, the chaotic nature of cities drove the men mad. As a corrective, they established Gardens of Eden in our metropolis by planting two forests in the park that perfectly replicated the raw American landscape Europeans first saw after they crossed the Atlantic. To this day, you can glimpse the Holy Creator among the multi-toned Sycamores.
Fifteen acres were set aside for a military parade ground. The threat of a Civil War destroyed the desire for drums and fifes. Instead, we have the Sheep Meadow. On opening day, male lions entered the rolling plain through a narrow gate. Shepherds drove an equal number of lambs toward them. The lions lay next to the lambs in Godly friendship. Invisible angels stroked their haunches. Photographers, confined to the periphery, hoisted heavy wooden cameras onto their shoulders and recorded the event. None of their images survive.
An eight-foot-tall bronze angel was brought to the park from Munich in 1873.
The angel stands atop the Bethesda fountain with her wings spread and a phalanx of pigeons poised to protect her. Her face is a lesson in compassion. Her feet are positioned to stir the waters below, transforming them into a healing elixir.
Sculpted by Emma Stebbins, the first woman to receive a public commission in New York City, the angel is the product of failed hopes, yet she engenders an unearthly joy in those who pass.
Emma Stebbins was born in Manhattan on September 1, 1815. The daughter of a wealthy banker, she grew up wearing enormous hooped skirts that prevented anyone from coming close. Considered artistic, she stayed in her house and painted small, detailed landscapes of scenes she invented. As befit her amateur status, she gave this work away. At forty, she was sheltered, virginal and self-effacing. Her expression was one of perpetual dread. A year later, her brother sent her to the Eternal City of Love to learn to carve from marble.
New York’s grayness pressed in on its citizens. Rome was light-struck, fragrant and sensuous to the degree that sculptures of naked men adorned the facades of its churches.
Imagine a terracotta villa built into the side of a Roman hill, with tens of lavishly appointed rooms each opening into another equally dazzling space, or onto a terrace heavily shaded by flowering vines.
Eight women lived there. Almost all were independently wealthy and engaged in the arts. Charlotte Cushman, the most celebrated actress in the western world, had drawn them to her. Equally able to portray man and woman, her demeanor said, “By participating in all there is to participate in, I have vanquished my weaknesses.”
The group tore through the villa, their arms out, their fingers beckoning as they paired off in ever-changing configurations.
Emma Stebbins was the ninth to move in. Her gentle bird of a heart burst at the sight of Charlotte Cushman, who, thoroughly charmed, would have voiced its cry if she hadn’t injured her vocal cords when, as an opera singer, she’d been forced to reach high C’s.
One shy, the other commanding, they traveled south to wade into the Sea of Naples with their trousers rolled up. There, among stunned bathers, they swore eternal love.
Ever the nomad, Charlotte Cushman crossed the Atlantic in a ship propelled by steam and sails to woo a pretty eighteen-year-old. She returned home alone and was immediately forgiven.
Her right breast swelled. It thickened, became hot to the touch. A purplish rash spread across her dimpling skin. Emma Stebbins applied cold compresses to the once lovely organ where nightly she had rested her cheek.
A wife through desire, if not a certificate, their ceremony performed by Poseidon in warm, rushing waters, she accompanied her beloved to London. Although they had booked the best compartment, a troupe of defeatists pushed their way into the cabin and could not be expelled.
Charlotte Cushman’s disease spread to her bones. The surgeon did what little he could.
Manhattan, with its nearly impenetrable bedrock, had shallow wells. Much of the city burnt during a massive fire in 1835. Human waste polluted the rivers. Cholera spread. To save what was left of New York, the Croton River was dammed, and an aqueduct system built. By 1842, citizens were able to drink from the faucet and bathe on a regular basis.
Emma Stebbins’ brother, the chairman of Central Park’s Committee on Statuary, Fountains and Architectural Structure, arranged for his sister to commemorate this feat.
Ablaze with the news, Emma Stebbins embraced her ailing Romeo/Juliet.
A scene from the Gospel of John had entered her mind—invalids at the edge of the Bethesda pool in Jerusalem, watching an angel lend the waters healing properties.
Charlotte Cushman would pose as the angel, embodying her as fully as she had embodied the characters she had portrayed on stage. Become her completely, and she could destroy cancerous cells.
To recreate the irreplaceable being who had liberated her from her forty-year childhood, Emma Stebbins layered great amounts of clay onto the enormous armature. Eventually, the curves were so familiar, she could have completed the piece blindfolded while saying, “I kissed her here and here and here.”
She did not want the colossal statue to leave her studio. An arm might crack, or a wing or foot during the arduous journey to Munich, where it would be cast in bronze. She clung to the angel while packers swaddled it in hay.
The angel’s face is narrower than the actress’, but her body is as strong as Charlotte’s was when she and Emma Stebbins met. The giant lily she holds symbolizes purity. The woman who posed day after day despite her pain was too sybaritic to want this trait.
Charlotte Cushman died three years after the angel was installed. Bereft, depleted, her lungs destroyed by marble dust, Emma Stebbins used what was left of her life to clothe herself in memories of her amorata and describe them in a biography.
The Angel of the Waters has an exquisite backdrop: fifty feet of engineered lake, and behind it, on high ground, a planted primeval forest. Calvert Vaux noted that through a trick of the eye, the breadth of this water appears to be three times wider than it is. Overhead, the sky remains untouched.
Charlotte Cushman died at the age of fifty-nine and was buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Five years later, Emma Stebbins was interred nearly two hundred miles away.
The bodiless soul is free of restrictions. Distances, however vast, can be easily traveled. Their souls merged, yet not completely. Even in death they relish individuality; instead they are indivisible, in the way that a string of paper dolls is connected by hands and feet.
At different periods in his life, Emma’s brother George was president of the Stock Exchange, president of the Atlantic and Great Western Railway, commander of a regiment, a member of congress, and the Commissioner of the Department of Public Parks. Still, his most important role was that of an unlikely cupid to an unlikely pair.
I’ve been chastised for not sticking to the authorized script, a bare bones narrative that ignores both the divine and the hearts of those it references. I’m loath to lose the position that gives my life value, yet I will not promote a superficial, atheistic version of the park’s history.
The tour ends. It’s as if a curtain has dropped, and I’m alone onstage while my audience hurries to their next event, taking my gaiety with them. Burdened by empty hours, I visit the angel, pressing past the crush of people who snap their own pictures as though they, not she, are the masterwork.
Water lilies float in the fountain’s lower basin. Above it, on a small pedestal, four cherubs who represent purity, temperance, health, and peace, face the four directions. She stands higher still, a hand reaching toward those who seek her blessings. I bow my head as I pray to this manifestation of Emma’s sublime devotion that someday, despite my advanced age, I too will experience the love that Emma Stebbins and Charlotte Cushman shared.
Linda Heller received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, had an honor story in The Best American Short Stories 1991, was nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, won a Literal Latte Fiction Award and has had stories published in many literary magazines including Boulevard, The Alaska Quarterly Journal, Midway Journal, The Write Launch and Typishly. She has also written and illustrated fourteen children’s books. The Castle on Hester Street has become a classic and is part of the nationwide third grade curriculum.