Kill your darlings

The two rooms in the Renwick Gallery are dimly lit and packed with people, mostly my age and younger, scurrying from one window to the next to shine flashlights through the pane of glass separating these viewers from the gruesome scene on view. The scenes are miniatures, dioramas of unexplained death created more than 60 years ago by Frances Glessner Lee, the founder of forensic science. They’re on display in an art gallery, and in press clippings the curators have tried to emphasize that these are artworks made by a woman using a feminine craft to subvert gender norms (women don’t solve crimes), but as far as I can tell, the visitors huddled around the dioramas are really only interested in solving the mysteries before them.

I do my best to wait patiently as groups of twos and threes block the view of a diorama for five or six minutes so they can point the flashlight at likely clues. They sweep over the meticulous detail in the handmade tiny rocking chair and the mini reproductions of actual newspapers from the 1940s; they flash the light across scaled-down, hand-knit blankets in favor of fake blood. As museum attendees they disregard the whole point of this exhibition—Frances Glessner Lee changed the way people evaluate crime scenes by teaching gumshoes to observe each of these dioramas for 90 minutes at a time, and each of these tiny scenes is carefully constructed, at a cost comparable to building a house at the time—and they focus on finding a solution.

I want to elbow my way past the amateur sleuths and station myself in front of each diorama and drink in all the details with the kind of serious reverence France Glessner Lee deserves. This is because I’m a snob: I generally hate art museums because they never give enough (I think) context for the art on display, and I have cultivated an interest in Frances Glessner Lee’s legacy since I interned almost a decade ago at the house-museum in Chicago where she grew up. The minute I glimpsed her childhood portrait, the dare-you-to-hold-me-back smirk on her face, I was hooked. I finally wrote about her for Lady Science in September, a few weeks before this exhibition opened.

As we climbed the step up to the Renwick, I was struck with a feeling I’ve had only a handful of times before. Last year, when I visited the Morgan Library’s exhibition on Charlotte Bronte, I wandered a gallery of Bronte’s juvenilia, early drafts of Jane Eyre, her writing desk, her dress, in a state of shock that made me grateful I was encountering my literary icon, the guardian angel of my writing life, alone. And several years before that, we saw a production of “The Music Man” at the Kennedy Center over Thanksgiving weekend, with Shirley Jones in a different role than the one she played in the film version. Afterwards, we stood in line for her autograph and I was so star-struck by this person who embodied Marion the Librarian, the woman I’d always aspired to be, that I said literally nothing to her as she autographed the CD I purchased for her to sign, so that she kept glancing at Jen, who stood at a distance to capture the landmark, extremely awkward, moment on camera. My failure to express myself to Shirley Jones haunted me when we met Lydia Davis a few years later, when I mustered a few token sentences as well as the unspoken gratitude that so many of my heroes are dead.

But here’s what I would have said to Frances Glessner Lee, if she were still living. Here’s what I whispered into the darkness surrounding the dioramas that are still used today to train law enforcement on the art of observation: Thank you for saying yes when people told you no. Thank you for using the privilege of your birth to champion science and evidence for the good of people less fortunate than you. Thank you for taking a tiny world, and making it that much bigger.



Being in Love: New Details about Marian the Librarian

marianthelibrarianLast evening, I was half-listening to The Music Man, the soundtrack to the movie, for the one-millionth time. The volume was low, and I was screwing around with an art project and half-contemplating which kind of topping I was going to put on my apple pies. I hummed along to Shirley Jones singing, “Being in Love,” a song that has always made me apprehensive. I have always wondered whether Marian the Librarian gets what she wants, or whether Harold Hill cons her the way he has conned everyone else.

Shirley Jones sang,

“All I want is a plain man.
All I want is a modest man.
A quiet man, a gentle man
A straightforward and honest man
To sit with me in a cottage somewhere in the state of Iowa
And I would like him to be more interested in me
Than he’s in himself and more interested in us than in me
And if occasionally he’d ponder
What makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great
Him I could love ’til I die”

And I thought, Well, damn. She ends up with Harold Hill, who may not be all criminal, but he’s no lover of language and literature and he’s not likely to quote Shakespeare by the fire.

And then I hummed along to the first bars of “Gary, Indiana,” imagining Pert Kelton and Robert Preston dancing together in the Iowan backyard of their Iowan farmhouse while Harold Hill’s conning Mrs. Paroo into letting Winthrop join the band.

Robert Preston sang,

“Gary, Indiana, as a Shakespeare would say,
Trips along softly on the tongue this way”

Shakespeare! There it was. An answer, a new detail that shook me out of my complacent half-listening. I had to listen to both songs again, to Google the lyrics. Sure, Harold Hill might have been a conman, but he was all but quoting Shakespeare. He was Marian’s Plain, Modest, Gentle Man—even if he couldn’t quite manage Straightforward and Honest—after all.

I remember the first hundred times I begged my dad to play The Music Man cassette tape in our family’s minivan so that I could sing along wherever we drove. I was seven, eight years old, and I loved Marian the Librarian. I loved looking at the little black cassette tape case with its 1960s artwork, I loved the triumphant trumpeting and tromboning, but mostly I loved listening to Shirley Jones as Marian. I loved Marian’s no-nonsense eyebrow furrowing, her stalwart loyalty to her little brother, her sense of justice-through-research. I even loved her sadness. The years I abandoned writing were also the years I ignored The Music Man. The novel I’m working on is based, in part, on The Music Man—not because I intended the connection but because the story and the character of Marian the Librarian are so deeply ingrained in my sense of storytelling and understanding of women’s roles, my desire for strong female characters—an unresolved, unsettled desire, since Marian seems so starry-eyed, so swayed by this persuasive salesman. In more recent years we’ve gone to see two live productions of The Music Man (one with Shirley Jones playing Mrs. Paroo), and these days I listen to the soundtrack on Spotify at work, whenever I need a little bit of Iowa, a little bit of Marian the Librarian, to get me through the day.

In other words, Meredith Willson is my patron saint. After listening to his show thousands of times, watching it every year at Thanksgiving, I’d been sure I knew just exactly how the characters fit together, figured out the finer details of River City, Iowa and its inhabitants. And yet, here was Shakespeare, a glimmer of something new in this show I thought I knew backwards and forwards.

Sitting there, flushed with happy surprise as I listened to “Being in Love” for the 1,000,001st time, I was reminded of reading my favorite books again and again, each time finding new details, new connections, new layers of meaning. This weekend I gave a paper at the Harry Potter Conference at Chestnut Hill College and I was struck by how much Potter readers had gotten from the series, how so many of them had read the books over and over, looking for meaning and looking for themselves.

Like good musicals, really good books let their readers tackle them again and again, and allow them to find themselves in those books. Like the Harry Potter series.

Or like Shakespeare.

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