‘The Women Who Made New York’: Icons, Trailblazers and Visionaries

Maureen O'Connor in The New York Times:

BookI started reading “The Women Who Made New York” in October, around the time the presidential race got ugly — and extra New York-y. Speaking at a Trump rally in Ocala, Fla., former Mayor Rudy Giuliani ridiculed Hillary Clinton’s work to rebuild New York after Sept. 11. “I was there that day,” Giuliani said. “I don’t remember seeing Hillary Clinton.” Newspapers published those quotes — accompanied by pictures of Giuliani and Clinton standing shoulder to shoulder at ground zero on Sept. 12, when elected officials were first permitted onto the site. “I made a mistake,” Giuliani later admitted. He had forgotten the woman was also there. Forgetting — and belatedly remembering — women is a historiographical tradition as old as history itself. “The Women Who Made New York” positions itself as an antidote to that process. Written by Julie Scelfo and illustrated by Hallie Heald, the volume features 126 female artists, activists, politicians, criminals and tycoons. Legends like Brooke Astor, Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Anna Wintour and Debbie Harry receive authoritative write-ups that also pay tribute to the lesser-known women who cleared the path for them. You’ve heard of Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz singer whose haunting performance of “Strange Fruit” described lynching in agonizing, unforgettable language. But what about Ethel Waters, the daughter of a young rape victim who rose out of poverty to become one of the first Harlem musicians to make it big on Broadway? Six years before Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” Waters began performing “Supper Time,” a song about a woman discovering her husband has been lynched. “A number so moving it routinely stopped the show,” Scelfo writes, bringing contemporary social commentary to the Great White Way.

Equally enriching is Scelfo’s treatment of women usually relegated to “wife of” status. A chapter called “The Builders” opens with a paean to Emily Warren Roebling, who completed the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when her engineer husband fell ill. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis appears in “The Preservationists,” in an entry that focuses on her work to preserve historical buildings. The famous men in Jackie’s life appear only in asides — or when their presence serves a greater purpose, like the time Jackie choreographed a kiss on the steps of City Hall while campaigning to save a Park Avenue landmark. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Jackie O profile so resolutely focused on substance instead of style — to the point that I felt a little bit deprived, until I turned the page and saw Heald’s dreamy watercolor portrait of the windswept first lady in a sumptuous roll-neck sweater. At last, I thought, a book that indulges my superficiality without wasting any words on it.

More here.