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Thursday, October 01, 2015

Maybe the best reason to spread word of Nancy Reagan's first home is that she doesn't seem to like people knowing

Justin's caption: "Though this modest 2-story frame house with yellow siding at 149-14 Roosevelt Avenue, between 149th Street and 149th Place, remains unmarked by a plaque or medallion of any kind, this is the home where former First Lady Nancy Reagan spent the first two years of her life."

by Ken

The other day I promised to return to what sounds like a fairly routine question: Where was Nancy Reagan born? What makes the question rather more interesting is that it seems to be a touchy subject for Mrs. Reagan, and suggests in turn that Mrs. R has a relationship to reality reminiscent of that of her late husband, the sainted Ronnie, whose most enduring legacy to the country seems to me the lesson, now totally absorbed by the Right, that reality is whatever you want it to be -- or, to put it another way, whatever makes you feel best.

Now of course "feeling best" doesn't necessarily mean "feeling contented." For right-wingers, in fact, it often means what seems like the opposite: feeling mad as hell. We just need to remember that one of the things they like best in life is feeling outraged, aggrieved, betrayed, and so on. And of course the people who treat the unwashed rubes like brainless puppets know this better than anyone, and know how much return there is to be gotten from getting the pathetic, otherwsie-useless, doody-kicking legions of right-wing saps hopping mad at the usual targets. Thus the ease of spreading psychotic delusions about, say, Hillary Clinton, or Planned Parenthood, or indeed anyone with a working brain and an ounce of decency or humanity.


You would find in Wikipedia, for example:
She was born in New York City. After her parents separated, she grew up in Maryland, living with an aunt and uncle for some years.
And that first sentence, "She was born in New York City," is true -- as far as it goes. But it's also a little odd. For most people, "New York City" is a peculiarly nonspecific designation for a birthplace. Here, for example, are the relevant bits from Wikipedia bios of some other New York City natives, in alphabetical order:
soprano Maria Callas': "According to her birth certificate Maria Callas was born Sophia Cecelia Kalos at Flower Hospital (now the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center), at 1249 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan . . . ."

novelist E. L. Doctorow: "Doctorow was born in The Bronx . . . ."

actress-comedienne Fran Drescher: "Drescher was born in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, New York . . . ."

Nixon aide Jeb Magruder: "Jeb Stuart Magruder was born and grew up on Staten Island, New York . . . ."

 Vermont Sen. (and presidential candidate) Bernie Sanders: "Sanders was born in Brooklyn, New York . . . ."
Do you see the difference? Nancy Reagan, however, or born Anne Frances Robbins, as she was named at birth, was born in "New York City."

In fact, that pretty house pictured up top, at 149-14 Roosevelt Avenue, between 149th Street and 149th Place, is in the historic north-central Queens neighborhood of Flushing -- or Vlissingen, as it was called by the Dutch, after the Dutch town of that name (its origin pronounced "unclear" by Wikipedia). Our Vlissingen was thus one of the earlier European settlements in North America. It became Flushing when the English took over the colony of New Netherlands, because, well, you know how the English deal with those funny foreign names. To the English, after all, pretty much anything that isn't English is funny. In fact, they were already referring to the original Dutch town as Flushing.


Who knows? Maybe because it's such a funny name? Maybe because it's an "outer borough"?

In fact, though, Flushing truly is a historic place -- the birthplace, for one thing, of the concept of religious freedom and tolerance in North America, dating back to the Dutch colonial period and the governorship of Peter Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant himself could hardly have been less tolerant when it came to religion, tolerating a grand total of one religion, what we know as the Dutch Reformed Church. But when Flushing resident John Bowne fell victim to the governor's religious persecution in 1662 and was banished to Amsterdam (even though his heritage was English, and he had no Dutch connections). As long as he was there, Bowne appealed to Stuyvesant's masters, the Dutch West India Company, who in 1663 sent him back to New Netherlands armed with a letter to the governor instructing him, essentially, to accept the terms of the Flushing Remonstrance, the appeal that had been delivered to him in 1657 by a group of 30 English residents of "Vlishing," which concluded:
The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage. And because our Saviour sayeth it is impossible but that offences will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Saviour sayeth this is the law and the prophets.

Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man. And this is according to the patent and charter of our Towne, given unto us in the name of the States General, which we are not willing to infringe, and violate, but shall houlde to our patent and shall remaine, your humble subjects, the inhabitants of Vlishing.
Stuyvesant had responded to the Remonstrance by doing whatever he had to, on up to cases of brutal imprisonment, to "persuade" the signers to recant. It's hard not to think of the Flushing Remonstrance as one of the foundational documents of our American republic.

The heretics who especially drove Peter Stuyvesant crazy, by the way, were Quakers, who had a thriving community in Flushing. Although none of the signers of the Remonstrance themselves were apparently Friends themselves, they all had to ties to them. John Bowne's wife, for example, was a Quaker, and one of the ways he got himself in hot water with the governor was by offering his family's home for worship services.

In 1694 a Friends' Meeting House would be built, and significantly expanded in 1716-19. It's the second-oldest Friends' meeting house, and with its 300-plus years it is reckoned to be the oldest house of worship in continuous use in New York State. It was one of our stops on Saturday's tour, and I had once again found it one of the most simply beautiful and inspiring places I know of in the city. (I had first visited it during last year's self-guided Flushing Historic House Tour, and while some of the stops left me grumbly, not so this very special place. (This year's 28th Annual Holiday Historic House Tour is scheduled for Sunday, December 6. You can keep an eye on the Queens Historical Society's Public Programs page for updates.)

A lot of people would be proud to hail from a place as historic as Flushing. Not our Nancy, though. Of course she also has her own view of the date as well as the place of her birth. There doesn't seem to be much doubt that the actual year was 1917. Our Nancy, however, has always preferred the year 1921.


It so happens that a group of us had the good fortune  last Saturday to do a six-hour marathon Wolfe Walkers tour of "Offbeat Flushing Landmarks" led by that peerless NYC tour leader Justin Ferate. In the tour prospectus Justin had promised us, as a "final stop," the first home of former First Lady Nancy Reagan, noting: "While Nancy Reagan rarely (if ever) acknowledged her Queens roots, she was decidedly a daughter of Flushing. The house is one of the few frame dwellings remaining on Roosevelt Avenue." In fact, it was to be a mere walk-by following out last real stop, at the Volcker-Orth Museum, Bird Sanctuary, and Victorian Garden, where we were finally able to relax and eat the lunches we'd been instructed to bring in the aforementioned Victorian garden in addition to enjoying a tour of the place. (The Voelker Orth is remarkable first and foremost, Justin noted, simply as a carefully preserved specimen of a middle-class house of the period.)

We wound up missing it. We walked the block from 38th Avenue to Roosevelt Avenue, from where we began the walk down Roosevelt Avenue back to the Main Street Flushing terminus of the No. 7 train. But as Justin explained, we should have looked for the house right away on Roosevelt Avenue (it's on the same block as the Voelker Orth, between 149th Street and 149th Place), but he remembered it being closer to the subway, and by the time he realized the error, he "thought everyone would be too tired to backtrack," as he put it in a follow-up e-mail.

As you learn when you do tours with Justin, they aren't necessarily over until they're over, and this one brought that follow-up e-mail, on the subject of Nancy Reagan's house. Some of us had actually seen it, Justin pointed out. We had in our group another inveterate NYC walking-tour-taker, with whom I've done probably a million walks, who was born and raised in Flushing. When our itinerary took us past the Flushing Free Synagogue, at the corner of Kissena Boulevard and Sanford Avenue, Mike noted it as the site of his bar mitzvah "not quite 50 years ago," with an accent on the "not quite." When we reached Roosevelt Avenue on that final leg of the walk, Justin pointed out, Mike had described the group of houses that includes 149-14 "as being what he remembered of 'old' Flushing."

In addition to reestablishing the basic facts of the site, Justin added this capsule history:
Officially, Ann Frances Robbins was born on July 6, 1921 at Sloane Hospital for Women in NYC to Kenneth Seymour Robbins and actress Edith Luckett. (In years past, Nancy Reagan’s birth date was always posted as July 6, 1917. After the White House website posted a “younger” birth date, the 1921 birth date has become  accepted as “official.” One can only intimate that one of the privileges of being First Lady is the right to shave at least four years off your age.)

Kenneth Seymour Robbins and Edith Luckett divorced in 1928. When Edith married neurosurgeon Dr. Loyal Davis, 14-year old Ann “Nancy” took on his last name. The family moved to Chicago and Nancy Davis later attended Smith College in Massachusetts. She was bitten by the acting bug and made it to Broadway before embarking on a succession of B-films in the 1940s and 1950s, including “Hellcats of the Navy” with husband Ronald Reagan.

Nancy Davis met Ronald Reagan because, in 1949, her name appeared on the Hollywood blacklist of suspected Communist sympathizers. As it turned out, the “Nancy Davis” on the list was another actress with the same name.  To clear her reputation, the later First Lady enlisted the assistance of the then-president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan. The two hit it off and were married until Reagan’s death in 2004.

Nancy Reagan now lives in retirement in California.

Nancy Robbins Davis Reagan as a young
girl with her mother Edith (Luckett) Davis.


At the moment we're two events into the eight-event Fall 2015 Wolfe Walkers tour schedule. So far, in addition to Flushing, we've visited the contiguous Brooklyn neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. I've always had a difficult time keeping them sorted, and thanks to Justin I finally understand why: They are in fact historically a single neighborhood, known in the day simply as "The Hill." The separation came, oddly, when are residents prepared a formal application to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission for a new historic district, which the LPC wound up cutting more or less in half, designating a Fort Greene Historic District in September 1978 (the Designation Report is here; there's also a small historic district around the Brooklyn Academy of Music); a portion of the originally proposed district was then designated in November 1981 as the Clinton Hill Historic District (the Designation Report is here).

Here's the rest of the schedule:
E. L. Doctorow in the Bronx
Walking tour with Jean Arrington
Saturday, October 10, 1:30pm to about 3:30/4pm

A Journey to Historic and Revitalized Harlem
Saturday, October 17, 1pm to about 4pm

Snug Harbor, Chinese Scholar's Garden + National Lighthouse Museum (Staten Island)
Saturday, October 31, 9:45am to about 3/3:30pm

The Roebling Museum and the Village of Roebling, NJ (bus and walking tour)
Saturday, November 7, 8am to about 6:30pm

Old and New Pennsylvania Station + the Houdini Museum
Saturday, November 14, 1:15pm to about 3:45pm

Wolfe Walker Brunch + "The Ziegfeld Club" with Laurie Sanderson
Saturday, December 12, 12n to 3pm
My general principle with regard to tours that Justin schedules is: If he thinks there's something worth seeing there (wherever!), I'm going, barring schedule conflicts. Unfortunately, I'm conflicted out of the Harlem, Staten Island, and Penn Station tours, but I'm looking forward to the others.

I'm especially pleased, having missed the Municipal Art Society version of the Bronx tour that Jean Arrington has put together around sites included by Bronx native E. L. Doctorow in his 1985 novel World's Fair, so I'm delighted to have a second crack at it. For MAS Jean often does tours of select groups from among the originally 150 or so NYC public schools built by the legendary C.B.J. Snyder (1860-1945) during his time (1891-1923) as the NYC Board of Education's superintendent of school buildings.

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