Boston chronicles

Boston chronicles

Exploring the U.S.

Boston chronicles

History welcomes you at every step in Boston, which has housed some of the greatest literary figures. Preeti Verma Lal takes us on a walk down memory lane to museums, art galleries and more...

Boston. The corner of Tremont and School streets. In the Omni Parker Hotel, tables tell tales. Tales of love. Of a Camelot and a beautiful girl. Of perfect pentameters. Of the Saturday Club, where Victorian writers sipped ale and discussed poem drafts. Of a man who rolled dinner rolls in the kitchen and then rewrote the history of Vietnam. In Omni Parker, the longest continuously run hotel in the United States, tables are not mere four-legged furniture. They turn narrators. 

It was in the corner table of the Parker restaurant that John F Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier; it was here that the local lad Kennedy made his first public speech at age seven. It was on Omni’s red carpet that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson walked every Saturday to discuss their literary works. A large mirror is propped on a huge table, in which Charles Dickens preened and rehearsed his animated rendition of A Christmas Carol during the 1867 Boston visit. And it was on the kitchen’s marble table that Ho Chi Min rolled Parker rolls… 

Legend has it...

In Omni Parker, the key to Dickens’s room is locked inside a glass-paned almirah; the Ho Chi Min table has become a pilgrimage for Vietnamese; the Saturday Club has fallen silent but the walls of Parker still resonate with the voice of Longfellow, who drafted Paul Revere’s Ride here. The Press Room is always abuzz with boy Kennedy’s first speech and that moment in the restaurant where he stood by the table, went down on his knees and uttered, “Will you marry me?” to Ms Bouvier. 

Boston was biting cold. With icicles caught in my black eyelashes, I was shunning all things mundane and monumental. The shadow of Victorian writers was all around me. At 4 Pinckney Street with five steps leading to a non-descript black door, there lived Louisa May Alcott with her father and sisters. Did she sit on the staircase to create the characters of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March in Little Women? 54, Pinckney Street was home to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Another bend. Another writer. Henry James at 102 Mount Vernon Street. In Boston, I was in a Victorian time-warp. I could murmur stanzas of Longfellow, but why was I longing for a poignant tale?

The tale of angst. Of depression. Of a poet wrestling her own demons. Of confessional poetry. Of Sylvia Plath who was born in a hospital in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighbourhood. Her first home, sadly, has no marker, no signpost that says “Sylvia Plath lived here” or “Sylvia Plath wrote The Bell Jar here”. The memory of Plath and her handwritten notes lie in Harvard Library. I took the train to Harvard, hoping I’d see Plath’s poems written in cursive hand. I could not — I had no permission. 

Disappointed, I walked to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House at 105, Brattle Street, and T S Eliot’s grey two-storied house in 16, Ash Street.

I could see all of John Kennedy in the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Instead, I chose to step into Taj Boston to be with Ted (Edward) Kennedy, who sat in the restaurant’s corner table, sipped martini and watched the world go by. Ted was not the only one I bumped into Taj. There was Shirley Temple. Elizabeth Taylor. And Winston Churchill. Temple in a frill frock sunk in a soft bed with tiny teddies all around her; Taylor in a pale dress chatting up dignitaries in pin-stripes.

 Both framed in wood hanging on the restaurant’s wall. If I walked another block, I would have been in Commonwealth Avenue that was described by Queen Elizabeth II as the world’s best street; a street that still reverberates with the thump of Travolta’s shoes as he, the petty thief in black hooded coat, blue jeans, his hair moussed back, runs down the avenue in The Forger. 

Ghosts from the past

Dapper president. Hollywood hunks. Dainty poetess. Rockstar writer (everyone in Boston calls Dickens a ‘rockstar’. Don’t ask me why. No one has answers. The moniker has stuck, though). I had to have an artist that day. Claude Monet, it was to be at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), which has the largest collection of Monets outside Paris. I swiped my Charlie day-pass, hopped into the train, got off at Boylston Street, crossed the street to meet Monet. The MFA has 22,000 art works, but I ran past the Samba art, jewellery and musical instruments collection.

All I wanted was Camille Monet in a Japanese dress. Before I could see Camille, I got distracted. By the Woodgatherers at the Edge of the Forest — an 1863 oil on 23x35 inch canvas. The blue of the sky was near-cobalt, the elm leaves brown, the grass dull green and the woodgatherers in black bent with wood on their back. However, it was Camille that had me intrigued. She in a red heavily-embroidered kimono, a fan in her hand, her gaze askance, her bouffant neat (it is a blonde wig); the red and blue deft strokes lending elegance and depicting the contemporary Parisian love for all things Japanese.  

Perhaps I stared too long at Camille. It was time to shut the Museum and for me to leave Boston for home. I had to meet someone before leaving. Kahlil Gibran, who moved to Boston when he was 12. It was in Boston that Gibran held his first art exhibition in Day’s Studio. It was in Boston that he met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, a respected headmistress, with whom he formed a life-lasting friendship. In Copley Square, I stood by Gibran’s bronze bas relief.

I thought not of him. I thought of Mary Haskell. What would a woman feel to be loved by a man called Kahlil Gibran? I wanted to ask Haskell. In Boston, Haskell did not answer. All I heard was silence. I returned home with Haskell’s silence. And Gibran’s love for her.