Remembering John James Audubon’s 125th Birthday Celebration from the Vantage Point of His 225th

Many among the distinguished assembly that convened in the Church of the Intercession the evening of May 4, 1905 to commemorate John James Audubon’s 125th birthday knew that they were bidding farewell to an era, witnessing the demise of that enclave of villas beneath the forest trees on a vale by the Hudson known as Audubon Park. Four decades earlier, Audubon’s farm Minnie’s Land had disappeared during its transformation into the suburban Audubon Park, leaving Audubon’s house the lone reminder of that earlier Arcadia, a still recognizable house despite its Victorian accretions: a mansard roof, bay windows, reconfigured porch. Now, as a newly-consolidated City of Greater New York raced into the 20th Century, the tranquil Audubon Park was on the verge of extinction, beset with apartment-house developers hungry for land along the route of the newly-opened subway, particularly when that land also lay along the recently-extended Riverside Drive. Though many sitting in the Church of the Intercession that evening may have realized that Audubon Park’s days were numbered, how many realized that major chunks of the Audubon myth were also about to crumble?   (Above, Church of the Intercession at the corner of Audubon Park; photo by George Wheeler, May, 1905)

Even as the dignitaries and guests gathered in the church on the corner of Broadway and 158th Street that May evening in 1905, Francis Hobart Herrick was researching and writing his seminal biography of John James Audubon, a biography that would explode the Audubon myth, peeling back layers of sentimentality, demolishing the “tall tales,” deconstructing Audubon’s self-perpetuated myth, replacing it with the first thoroughly researched biography of the great American painter and naturalist – proving in the process that fact could be much more interesting than fiction. Before Herrick, each of the dozen writers who had explored Audubon’s life had relied upon the the same body of myth and family lore, hindered not only by Audubon’s ability to invent and reinvent himself to fit his audience, but also by Lucy Audubon’s perpetuating that invented biography, finely re-spinning it to enhance her role as the story’s heroine.

Given that body of legend and fables, we should not be surprised that the 125th Birthday planning committee, led by Intercession’s rector Milo H. Gates and including editor-writer-conservationist George Bird Grinnell and Audubon’s granddaughter Mary Eliza, scheduled the event for the wrong day, wrong month, and even the wrong year. They had calculated the date based on Audubon’s “invented” birthday, the same date that appears on his monument, the date another Audubon granddaughter, the fascinating and willful Maria Rebecca had used in her version of her grandfather’s life. Only Herrick’s diligent, world-wide research and a thorough investigation of public and private records would reveal that Audubon was born April 26th, 1785, only one of many Audubon myths and misconceptions the industrious author debunked.

Ironically, as the Audubon myth began to crumble, the Minnie’s Land-Audubon Park myth began its ascent, the fourteen-acre farm nine miles from City Hall, not even a quarter of a mile down the hill from the village of Carmansville morphing into a forty-acre estate as “remote as a lodge in the Catskills.” Perpetuating family lore, on the occasion of Audubon’s 125th Birthday Commemoration, Mary Eliza Audubon – or Miss Eliza as she was known to the many students who passed through the school she and three of her sisters ran in their house on 152nd Street – wrote an “historical” piece for the New York Times that combined myth, her own childhood memories, and a writing style heavily dependent on Biblical allusion and language. In that article, she depicted a mythical thirty-two Minnie’s Land set in a northern Manhattan “as wild almost as the Southern savannahs, or the unpeopled prairies of the West,” a place where the Hudson “washed the coves and points as they had when only red men had inhabited the island.” As Miss Eliza recounted events, “into this quiet and beautiful land in search of a retired home wandered Audubon,” a modern-day Moses leading his family to the Promised Land.   (Above, Minnie’s Land from an 1851 woodcut.)

As the eldest Audubon grandchild living in the vicinity of Audubon Park, Eliza had assumed a local authority much like the national authority her cousin Maria Rebecca had assumed when she published her biography of her grandfather. Without much probing, other authors borrowed Eliza’s Minnie’s Land description, embellishing it into a forty-acre estate “as remote as a lodge in the Catskills.” In the next two decades, Rufus Wilson, George Bird Grinnell, and Reginald Pelham Bolton all based their sentimental, nostalgic assessments of Minnie’s Land on information they gleaned from Miss Eliza and her cousins Harriet and Maria Audubon.

The appealing image of Audubon the quintessential woodsman living in silvan seclusion far from the sweltering city, no matter how inaccurate, stuck, trumping fact simply because it conveniently fit into Audubon mythology. It also served the interests of conservationists and the Audubon Society, then in its earliest days, individuals and organizations who had a vested interest in contrasting the innocent woodsman Audubon with a wily, industrializing society. Myth, legends, and fables die hard. As Herrick wrote in the introduction to a collection of Audubon’s essays, “Fables, like traditions are commonly of slow growth, but when they have become entrenched in the popular mind by a process of gradual absorption their tenacity of life is remarkable.”

Ultimately, whether Audubon’s final home was fourteen acres or forty, whether we call it a farm or an estate, whether it was nine miles from City Hall or ninety are not facts that alter the significance of Audubon’s achievement with the publication of The Birds of America or negate his place in the pantheon of America’s heroes. However, searching for the facts and balancing them against the myth, we achieve a better understanding of Audubon after publication of The Birds, better understanding of the Audubon family after “JJA,” and most importantly a better understanding of the development of Minnie’s Land into Audubon Park and Audubon Park’s eventual absorption into New York City.

Despite her creative version of history, Miss Eliza was accurate in one assessment: “Soon there will be but a legend of the home of the man who was no mere scientist, but the lover and reader of his Creator’s most beautiful works of nature.” Fortunately, her vision of a Hudson “defiled with factories and furnaces” was not an accurate one – at least not in the vicinity of Audubon Park – but she hit the mark dead center with observation: “his fellow-citizens will not forget that he dwelt among them; that he first built in this place, and that he was and is great among great Americans.”

The cake honoring John James Audubon’s 225th birthday at a party in Audubon Park,
a few steps from the location of the naturalist’s final home. 
(Cake by Carrot Top Pastries)

[For more of Miss Eliza’s memories, see New York Times, April 30, 1905, p. X6 “Audubon’s 125th Birthday Anniversary Will Be Observed Next Thursday]