By MARY RICHE
DES MOINES, Iowa, Jan. 19, 2023 — I love celebrating my birthday. And I like the pivot point of a birth date, giving me reason to reflect on the past year while dreaming about the year ahead. On my birthday in late 2021, there was absolutely nothing, not even a distant glimmer, about marriage or romance on my radar screen.
Fast forward to January 2023. I’m a newlywed septuagenarian and just spent a glorious week in New York City with my husband Chuck Offenburger, on a tour that was his gift for my 75th birthday.
It turns out that many of our experiences included sassy women with a dose of spunk. Those are traits that kept an ear-to-ear smile on my face for five straight days!
Coffee at mid-afternoon at Times Square, in the middle of it all.
We had great seats at two Broadway hits, “Music Man” and “Funny Girl,” and explored four amazing museums.
Mason City, Ia., native Meredith Willson might be best known for his Broadway mega-hit “Music Man,” that opened in 1957 and won five Tony Awards, back then, beating out “West Side Story” for Best Musical. But as an alumna of the University of Iowa, I’m partial to the “Fight Song” Willson composed for our Hawkeyes.
The revival of “Music Man”that just closed at the Winter Garden Theater was the third, and its star Hugh Jackman called playing Professor Harold Hill his “dream role,” in an early interview. I’ve been a longtime fan of Jackman’s talent, and I thought he was dreamy in this famous part. He and Sutton Foster, who played “Marian the Librarian” Paroo, had extended their contracts through January 15, 2023, and we timed our trip so we could see them in their final week. The show finished after more than 45 weeks of breaking weekly ticket sales records.
Bliss at “Music Man” in its final week at the Winter Garden Theatre.
I enjoy any performer who appears to be enjoying him- or herself on stage. And I swear I could see the twinkle in Prof. Hill’s eye as he charmed Marian – and everyone in the audience. I found him irresistible.
Foster, playing Marian, the spunky up-tight (for good reason) town librarian, was an equal match in this role, with her singing, dancing, and acting. I’ve been a big fan of hers since she performed at the Civic Center in Des Moines in 2016 with our Symphony. She oozes personality, and together with Jackman, they made magic.
I loved everything about the choreography, the sets (reminiscent of Grant Wood’s work), an animation of the Wells Fargo wagon on a large screen backdrop, followed by an actual wagon and anatomic Clydesdale horse galloping on stage! And, oh! The orchestration, the tap dancing, the singing, the four-part harmony of River City’s School Board on their barbershop quartet numbers, the acting, and the showstopper finale of “76 Trombones.” I’m tapping my toes and humming as I type these words.
And it took me back. Long ago, as part of “rush week” for my Alpha Delta Pi sorority at the University of Iowa, I sang Willson’s song “Ya Got Trouble,” although we changed the lyrics to “Ya Got Fun, right here in Iowa City.” (If you want more of this story, send me an email.)
At “Funny Girl” in the August Wilson Theatre.
Seeing “Funny Girl” on our trip was a dream come true for me. This classic opened on Broadway in the spring of 1964, and “always a little show girl myself,” I immediately bought the LP album – the first I ever purchased – and then I also bought the show’s songbook for piano. I was a huge fan of Barbra Streisand, who played the famous show girl Fanny Brice.
I liked the spunk Streisand brought to the role and thought her voice was out of this world. I almost wore out the album; I still play and sing from the piano songbook, and “Don’t Rain on my Parade” remains one of my all-time favorite songs, though I also like the ballad “Who Are You Now?”
Current star Lea Michele, who now plays Brice, is sassy and spunky at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre. I first became a fan of her voice on the TV show “Glee.” She’s now getting rave reviews from the critics for “Funny Girl,” even though there was initially bad publicity about how she had replaced Beanie Feldstein, who first had the Brice role in this revival.
Most people know the song “People” from this show, and I read an article suggesting the music allows the singer to “let loose” – which Lea Michele did over and over. By the time she sings “My Man” in the finale, I was a puddle of tears. (So was my husband!) The audience was certainly responsive to Michele; there were two standing ovations for her during the show, and the one after the finale went on for several minutes.
We also had tickets to four museums: the Whitney Museum of American Art; The Morgan Library & Museum; the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, and the Neue Gallerie New York.
Our museum tours featured many notable names, some of particular interest.
We learned about a notable librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, and a Priestess, Enheduanna, the earliest known author in world history to have his or her name on an article or book. There was Piano, as in a person – not the musical instrument which played a key role (forgive the pun) in my little girl dream to be a show girl. And Vanderbilt, as in the family, its legacy, and Chuck’s alma mater.
Let me elaborate.
Renzo Piano, the Italian architect whose firm Piano Renzo Building Workshop (PRBW) designed the Krause Gateway Center in Des Moines, also designed New York city’s Whitney Museum of American Art and the new entrance and space for The Morgan Library & Museum.
Two Vanderbilt women, one by birth and one by marriage, had important connections to both the Whitney Museum and the Neue Gallery. In 1914, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established the Whitney Studio and began collecting work by American artists. The Metropolitan Museum of Art declined her collection of more than 500 pieces, so she set up her own institution, and the Whitney Museum of American Art was founded in 1930. I like that kind of spunk. And when it’s combined with wealth, in this case, it led to something good. Or great, like the Whitney has become.
With Edward Hopper’s famous “Automat,” which is showing as part of a huge feature on all of Hopper’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “Automat” is on-loan to the New York City gallery from the Des Moines Art Center, its permanent home.
Today’s Whitney opened on May 1, 2015, in the former Meatpacking District and West Village neighborhoods of lower Manhattan. This great location sits between the High Line, an elevated walking that used to be a railroad, and the Hudson River, with a picture-perfect sunset from the Whitney’s 8th floor café.
Seeing the Des Moines Art Center’s Edward Hopper painting “Automat,” currently on loan for this exhibit at the Whitney, was a highlight. I enjoy most of Hopper’s work because his paintings draw me (sorry for another pun) into the mood of the story I’m creating in my own mind as I view his work.
Seeing the Morgan Library and Museum was at the top of my museum list, because I’d read the historical fiction novel “The Personal Librarian,” about a very real person, Belle da Costa Greene (1879-1950). She an American woman in her 20s, living the secret that she was Black and posing as White, when she was hired as business tycoon J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian. I admired Belle’s courage and spunk, and her intellect and expertise, which gave her the credentials to expand Morgan’s collection.
Mary Riche in the elegant personal library room of J.P. Morgan
Mary with a sculpture of Belle da Costa Greene, “The Personal Librarian” for J.P. Morgan and director of his exceptionally good library and museum.
The Morgan’s collection is immense, and it’s the only institution in the world to possess three copies of the Gutenberg Bible — one on vellum and two on paper. It was the first substantial book in the West that was printed from movable type.
I was in awe of Morgan’s special exhibit “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia, ca. 3400-2000 B.C.“
Enheduanna is recognized as the earliest-named author in world literature. This woman appeared to have intellect and spunk that led to an appointment by her father as his emissary between two divisive conflicting religions. Her name was discovered on a disk during an excavation in 1927, and most of the exhibit is on loan from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology – commonly known as the Penn Museum.
One of the three copies of the Gutenberg Bible held by the Morgan Library and Museum.
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum commemorates the 9-11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and injured thousands more at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
The outdoor memorial – an area around the sites of the Twin Towers that collapsed after terrorist-piloted jet airplanes crashed into them – is free and open seven days a week. The September 11 Memorial Museum is underground and requires tickets, many of them “timed” to control the crowd numbers. It includes “footprints” of the towers, with a collection of monumental and authentic artifacts “presenting visitors with personal stories of loss, recovery, and hope.”
The photos are stunning and jaw-dropping. A special room features video of those killed, as family members tell stories about their loved ones. A large wall displays 8-by-10 photos of everyone killed in this tragedy. Chuck located the photo of John Michael Moran, a New York City fireman who was a regular on RAGBRAI in Iowa. Another large gallery wall features dramatic photos of K-9 dogs that participated in heroic rescue and search efforts.
We left September 11 Museum arm in arm and silent.
RIP for one of everyone’s favorite RAGBRAI’ers.
Our final museum visit was Neue Gallerie New York, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt III, lived here when it was the William Starr Miller House. (She called the 28-room home “the gardener’s cottage” because she had moved into it from an 85-room mansion.)
Now, as the Neue Gallerie , it is home for the fabulous and widely-varying art collection of Ronald S. Lauder, the 87-year-old son of make-up magnate Estee Lauder. The calling card of the Neue Gallerie has become a portrait “Woman in Gold” by Gustave Klint. The Austrian artist’s greatest work, which portrays a woman named Adele Bloch-Bauer, was stolen by German Nazi soldiers in the pillaging that started World War II. It was later recovered and for decades was essentially held hostage by lawsuits over who should be its owner today. Ron Lauder managed to buy it in 2006.
Klimt’s portrait was the basis for the film “Woman in Gold” starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. Mirren plays Maria Altmann, the elderly Jewish woman with enough sass that she could have been the first woman to utter “Nonetheless, I persisted.” Altmann’s many years of attempts to reclaim her family’s possessions, which were left behind when they fled the Nazis in Vienna 60 years earlier, required the intervention of the US Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor.
Mary with a replica of the “Woman in Gold” at the Neue Gallerie New York.
We also visited the famous and historic landmark Strand Book Store in Lower Manhattan’s East Village with its rare, used, and new books. This was my first visit. Now owned by Nancy Bass Wyden, wife of Oregon’s U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, the Strand was started as a small store for used books gathered by her grandfather Benjamin Bass. It was subsequently operated and greatly expanded by her father Fred Bass. He gave it the slogan that it held “18 Miles of Books.” Ms. Bass Wyden prodded her dad to add the elevator and air-conditioning. She also started the sale of merchandise like T-shirts and tote bags, stationery and miscellaneous items. Of course, we found books and stationery note pads to buy!
There was so much, much more to our adventure. We were brave enough, maybe foolish enough, to use the subway system to move around the city, and it turned out to be fun. We discovered that if you look and act like you are 75-year-olds from Iowa, New Yorkers will fall all over themselves trying to help you!
We loved strolling the vast Central Park, watching the ice skaters and having coffee at the newly-renovated Tavern on the Green in the park.
We also shared wonderful meals with old friends.
After dinner with James Healy, a hometown guy doing well in New York City.
One was dinner with James Healy, 33, the talented singer and actor originally from our town of Jefferson, Ia. James is now living in Brooklyn and performing as a “supernumerary” at the Metropolitan Opera. He is also working for actress Bette Midler’s non-profit New York Restoration Project, which is focusing on cleaning and enhancing the city’s environment and ecology.
And we had breakfast with Henry Hecht, Chuck’s friend and fellow Vanderbilt University graduate, and his wife Sally Wasserman, who have an apartment in the East Village and a home in nearby Stamford, Conn. Henry was a noted sportswriter for the New York Post, serving as the paper’s beat reporter covering the New York Yankees in their wild “Bronx Zoo” years of the 1970s and early ’80s, and later wrote for Sports Illustrated, The National and Long Island Newsday. He is now a writing coach. Sallly is an attorney working in her family’s property management business.
The Hecht-Wassermans are classic New Yorkers. “You asked the things I loved most about New York City,” Henry wrote later. “I said the theatre. But the big picture is the city’s energy. It was made for me. Or rather, I was made for it.”
A lively breakfast with Henry Hecht and Sally Wasserman.
Chuck asked me what I favored most on this birthday tour trip, and the two musicals were my quick response. Of course, my favorite part of the trip was being with Chuck as we continue our “blissed out” state of marital happiness.
Now, a few days later, I would add how much I loved discovering the threads of spunk and sass in the women we applauded, figuratively and literally. I loved that they were fearless without forfeiting their femininity.
I’m thinking spunk and sass might be a great theme for my 75th year!
Mary strolling Central Park.
With the skyline of Lower Manhattan, maybe Staten Island and New Jersey beyond us.
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