Publication Date

December 1, 2008

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

The approximately 300 statues in New York City’s public spaces and parks represent great men by the hundreds, many of them on horseback. Before 1984 there was only one statue of a real woman—Joan of Arc (Riverside Dr. and 93rd St.)—though there were several of mythical or fictional females such as Alice in Wonderland, Mother Goose, the angel atop Bethesda Fountain in Central Park and, of course, the Statue of Liberty. Today there are sculptures of four more women on city property: Golda Meir (39th St. and Broadway), Gertrude Stein (Bryant Park), Harriet Tubman (123rd St. between St. Nicholas and Frederick Douglass Blvd. in Harlem), and Eleanor Roosevelt. All four statues have stories of interest to historians, but I will restrict my discussion to the monument in my own neighborhood. The Eleanor Roosevelt Monument on 72nd Street and Riverside Drive, by noted sculptor Penelope Jencks, will make a moving and stimulating excursion. To get there, take the Number 1, 2, or 3 train uptown from Times Square (a trip of between five and 15 minutes) and get off at 72nd Street. Walk two blocks west to see the statue.

Eleanor Roosevelt is a natural subject for public tribute in New York, as she was born in New York City, resided here for years, was the wife of a state governor, and a city reform politician in her own right. Yet this sculpture was not completed until 1996, thirty-four years after her death. The project was begun in the 1980s by a fundraising committee co-chaired by her grandson, Franklin D. Roosevelt III, and Herbert Zohn, a retired art dealer who lives near Riverside Park and 72nd Street. Support from the public and individual borough and City Council officials was bolstered by the New York State Department of Transportation, which rerouted a highway ramp, and the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation. The inauguration in 1996 featured an appreciative address by Hilary Rodham Clinton, and an audience that included dozens of Roosevelts and a host of elected officials.

The arresting and beautiful statue stands in an attractively landscaped corner of Riverside Park near the Hudson River (the brilliant landscaping was a part of the project). It is a blended likeness of Roosevelt at several ages—the limber body of a younger woman, the thoughtful and worn face of an older one. On her web site Jencks says that she had always admired Eleanor Roosevelt and identified more with her than she had with any previous subject. According to the New York Times, Jencks’s intense concern to get Eleanor Roosevelt right delayed the project by over two years. She studied thousands of photographs, struggled to find the right boulder for her figure to lean on, and fussed over the body proportions using many different measurements and models. One model was Phoebe Roosevelt, a great-granddaughter of Eleanor, who was then a law student in New York, and, at 5 feet 11, is only an inch shorter than Eleanor Roosevelt. “It’s my slouch” that cleared the way for Jencks, Phoebe Roosevelt reported.

Most of Jencks’s other work is edgy; her engaging figures often have elongated torsos and necks. But she chose a fairly realistic style for Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she depicted wearing a long coat over a loose-fitting 1930s-style dress, her ankles crossed. Leaning against the granite boulder with her hand on her chin and gazing into the distance, she looks thoughtful, kind, and a little bit tentative. A critic in Sculpture Review (Winter, 1997) calls the piece Jencks’s “finest achievement of her career making public sculpture.” Just under eight feet tall, and located on a small ivy-covered hill, the figure is both monumental and intimate. The three oak trees planted to surround the monument enhance this closeness—at least when the trees are in leaf.

Riverside Park is well worth visiting, even in January if the weather is not too bad. The park, running along Manhattan’s Upper West Side for several miles, was begun in 1865, and has since received the attentions of a succession of landscape architects including Frederick Law Olmstead, Calvert Vaux, and Samuel Parsons. If you walk past the Eleanor Roosevelt monument toward the river and go under a viaduct, you’ll see a path along the Hudson River, scenic but possibly not too appealing in January. A good bet for a snack is back along 72nd Street, past Broadway to Amsterdam Avenue, where a café called Nice Matin serves fairly good food and is said to be the uptown hangout of movie stars seeking the privacy that Upper West Siders always give to their celebrities. Amsterdam north of 72nd Street is a restaurant goldmine. On Broadway at 73rd Street, try the upstairs restaurant at the bustling, chaotic, and interesting Fairway Market (the restaurant is usually relatively calm).

Ellen Ross is professor of history and women’s/gender studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She has recently published Slum Travelers: Ladies and London Poverty, 1860–1920 (University of California Press, 2007), a heavily annotated anthology for use by college students in urban, social, or women’s history. She is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.