I’ve never been a huge fan of Tiffany glass; it’s too ornate and ostentatious, as befits the Gilded Age during which the genre flourished. However, after reading CLARA AND MR. TIFFANY --- an engaging mélange of art, feminism and Old New York (1892 to 1908) --- I’m ready to run off to the Metropolitan Museum and give these brilliant objects a second look. I didn’t have a clue about the imagination and labor poured into them. Now I do, thanks to Susan Vreeland’s latest: a captivating novel based on the letters of Clara Driscoll, the leading light of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s women’s studio.
Many readers may associate the Tiffany name with gems, not glass, and indeed, Louis’s father founded the elite jewelry firm that still stands on 57th Street in Manhattan. But his son had a vision less conventional, and less profitable (the opposition of art and commerce is one of the book’s persistent motifs): to lift the spirit and dazzle the eye with stylized interpretations of nature. Louis also distinguished himself from most businessmen by his willingness to employ females --- specifically, a group of talented women who worked in stained glass. Clara Driscoll didn’t merely execute Tiffany’s ideas; she was a designer in her own right.
Inspired by an exhibit about Driscoll she saw three years ago at the New-York Historical Society, Vreeland sets out to imagine the aesthetic collaboration between Louis and Clara. Tiffany’s policy, in those unenlightened days, was that no female employee could be married (he was only relatively progressive). We meet Clara when, having been widowed, she asks Louis for her job back. Her first marriage was one largely of convenience, yet she misses the feeling of being cherished and never stops looking for a kindred spirit. Throughout CLARA AND MR. TIFFANY, we see her torn between a passion for work and a desire for love.
Four years later, Clara decides to remarry and once more resigns her position: “Now, I had thought, I would have to depend upon love alone to fill my cup of life.” But the engagement falls through, and for the third time she returns to Tiffany (“You are mine again,” says Louis; their relationship may be platonic, but it sure is electric!). When yet another man enters the picture, Clara’s dilemma returns. Will she follow her heart, or her head? I won’t tell.
Meanwhile, work is what Clara lives for. Vreeland’s descriptions of the process by which decorative glass is created tend toward the didactic, but they are never boring. When Clara visits Tiffany’s glasshouse, where the stuff emerges from its molten state, the writing is downright sensuous: “Partially clad men moved in a ritual choreography, swinging red-hot pokers. It was an elemental netherworld charged with maleness --- potent, half repulsive, half alluring.” Very D.H. Lawrence! Less sexy but more profound is the quiet gratification Clara derives from her profession: “Breaking up glass into small shapes, harmonizing colors, choosing textures, and setting them right to make something beautiful was healing. It was more than the pleasure of assembly that made it so. It was letting the colors sing, being open to their song.”
We also see a lot of Clara outside the studio. She revels in nature --- her chief source of visual ideas --- and her Gramercy Park boarding house, featuring a congenial cross-section of the city’s populace, is like family to her. Through her leisure activities we get a vivid sense of New York at the dawn of the 20th century: riding the first subway line, gawking at the shocking new Triangle Building, bicycling in shirtwaists and straw boaters. And because many of Clara’s “girls” are immigrants from the Lower East Side, she develops a keen awareness of the struggle for social and economic justice.
Labor politics drives one of the most gripping episodes in the book. When Tiffany’s male workers go on strike in protest against the women’s studio, they expect the 27 female employees to cave in. Instead, at Clara’s instigation (she emphasizes that this is not an attempt to break the union by bringing in scabs), they walk up Fourth Avenue, arms linked, cross the picket line, and go to work as usual. Their bravery is astounding.
Touchingly, her friends from the boarding house stand on street corners, cheering her on. Among them are several “nellies,” as the slang of the time described gay men. Nobody seems shocked by these likable fellows, artistic types with a penchant for quoting Walt Whitman. In fact, Vreeland portrays Clara as startlingly frank about all manner of sexual matters, including her first husband’s impotence and a night of premarital lovemaking with her fiancé.
Now, this is a woman who, however forward-thinking, couldn’t vote or show her legs or go out without a corset on. One wonders if she was really so candid about her intimate life, or whether Vreeland is taking a bit of poetic license.
I suspect the latter. Vreeland is understandably eager to emphasize the relevance of Clara and her Tiffany Girls, and in the process I think she makes them a touch too modern to be plausible. Yet Clara is a winning character, easy to identify with in part because she seems so contemporary. She isn’t idealized. Although strong willed, she is not especially young or pretty --- she criticizes her biggish nose, droopy lids and ever-present glasses. Nor is she the picture of modesty. She is ambitious, possessive about her special rapport with Louis, and angry that she often remains anonymous despite her indispensable role in his work. She calls this narcissism; we’d call it assertiveness or empowerment.
Never famous in her lifetime, Clara Driscoll is finally getting the recognition she deserves. A museum exhibit in her honor? A whole novel devoted to her life? “How richly fortunate,” Clara would say. “Surely there would be opportunity for me to shine.”
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on March 28, 2011