The Debutante Ball is delighted to welcome Julie Klam! Her new book is You Had Me At Woof. She is the author of Please Excuse My Daughter. She lives in Manhattan with her people and dogs.
Julie joins the Debs in talking about a good…or maybe not so good…scare!
Early in my relationship with my husband, when he was still charmed by my quirks, I invited him to join me the night before Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve Eve) at the Merchant’s House Museum for a talk called “The Ghosts of Merchant’s House.”
Built in 1832 on East Fourth Street, a few blocks from Washington Square, the Merchant’s House Museum is a unique survivor of old New York. It is New York City’s only family home that is preserved intact – inside and out – from the 19th century. Members of the Tredwell family, Mr. Seabury Tredwell (isn’t that a fantastic name?) a wealthy merchant, his wife, Eliza, and their eight children lived there from 1835 to until the youngest, Gertrude, died there in 1933. The interior is filled with the family’s furniture and belongings, clothing and costumes, along with opulent decorative accessories. Personal possessions – unfinished needlework, family photographs, a shaving mirror, and sewing boxes – which the brochure says “leave the impression that the family is still living there and has just stepped out for a moment.”
They are also the basis for Henry James’ novel Washington Square, which spawned the play and the great movie The Heiress with Olivia De Havilland.
The story of Washington Square is of a rich, intelligent widow, Dr. Austin Sloper ,who thwarts his plain and dull daughter Catherine’s chance at marriage by telling her the guy she wants to marry (handsome and charming Morris Townsend) is only after her money and by the way, he will cut her off without a penny if she goes through with it. (He doesn’t want her to marry anyone because she takes care of him and then he’ll be left alone.) She decides she will go through with it anyway, but Morris pulls out at the news of no inheritance, he probably does love her, but he doesn’t have any money and the prospect bums him out way too much. Her only reasonable good Victorian plot line is to becomes a very bitter spinster with untweezed eyebrows, refusing even legitimate marriage proposals in the future. When her father dies, she finds out that he has left her only a portion of his wealth just in case Townsend reappears. She actually goes from bitter to black living her remaining days alone in that house.
If anyone’s ghost should be lurking about their ancestral home, Gertrude Tredwell’s seemed a perfect candidate. Unfinished business, unresolved anger, spinsterly, dressed in austere Victorian mourning clothes and the parted-down the middle updo with the braids on top of her head.
We arrived at Merchants House, bought our tickets and were taken into the parlor where a movie projector was set up. I kept squeezing Paul’s hand; I was so excited. He raised an eyebrow and quietly said, “take a look around.” It was a little bit of an eccentric looking crowd, vintage clothes and hats, just a wee bit out of step, but it was a ghost lecture after all. It definitely wasn’t an information session on a timeshare in Hilton Head Island.
The executive director of the house introduced the lecturer, a Dr. Manuel Santiago, an expert from the Paranormal Society of New York. He had a thick Spanish accent and an apparent vast knowledge of ghostly situations. Not, unfortunately, at the Merchant’s House which he’d only just come to for the first time about twenty minutes before us. That didn’t stop him from showing a lengthy slide presentation that included pictures of crucifixes, “floating orbs” and illustrations of women in the Victorian era in white dresses about which he would say, “One searching for a ghost in the Merchant’s House might see an appareeshun of dees nature.” Mmm hmm. Note to self: if you see a very sheer lady in a Victorian nightdress, it just may be a ghost. I watched him go through slide after slide of different examples of the paranormal. I wondered if he’d show us Casper or the Sta-Puff Marshmallow man.
I just want to see a ghost. Is that too much to ask? I grew up in a 250 year old house a few steps away from where first Chief Justice John Jay lived. The whole time we were there we never saw or heard anything. When my parents sold he house in 1992, something strange happened. The walls looked like rain was coming down them. It was like the house was crying. No one could explain it and before long my parents were in their new passive solar house far away.
After the less than informative talk, he opened the floor to questions. Pretty much every hand but Paul and mine shot up.
“Um, I smell burning toast sometimes in my house, I’m wondering if you think it’s haunted.”
Paul whispered, “I heard if you smell burning toast it means you have a brain tumor.”
“Hi, I feel a cold chill right by a drafty window in my home, I feel like it might be a ghost of Isadora Duncan. Do you think I should try and get rid of her or welcome her?”
“If I encounter a ghost and I don’t have holy water on me, can I use Evian?”
And on and on and on. Paul was in stitches, I thought he was going to pee in his pants. I was kind of mad and incredulous. After hearing this idiotic excuse for a ghost lecture, the people were not only not put off, but encouraged enough by Dr. Santiago’s vast knowledge to ask him what to do about their particular haunting situations. (They all seemed like they needed to up their doses.)
We were all invited to walk through the house after. Paul kept faking that he was being possessed or sensing ghosts. A woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder smiling and I thought she was going to chuckle with me about the charlatan, but no, she wanted see if I too felt the presence in the house. I didn’t feel a presence, I felt an absence… of the twenty bucks I paid to get in.
Thanks for dancing at the Ball, Julie! If you have comments or questions for Julie, join the conversation below!