New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s Thanksgiving Eve column “Thankful for Libraries” resonated with me, and not just because I’m a retired librarian who likes to see libraries given their due.
Blow described how his childhood home had a small, homemade hallway bookshelf filled with a set of encyclopedias and “random books that my mother grabbed when the high school library thinned its stacks at the end of each year.”
“They were all reference books,” wrote Blow. “That was what I imagined all books were. I read encyclopedia entries all the time. It was the modern-day equivalent of going down a rabbit hole while web surfing.”
That was my childhood experience, too, though my neighborhood in the Bronx was no doubt very different from his in the small town of Gibsland, Louisiana. (There may have been more people living in the four six-story apartment buildings on my small street, Undercliff Avenue, than there were in all of Gibsland.)
We, too, had a small bookshelf filled with a set of encyclopedias (the 1961 World Book) and other reference books: Bartlett’s Quotations, Roget’s Thesaurus, a pocket rhyming dictionary, and more. And I, too, would read encyclopedia articles, often grabbing a volume on my way to the bathroom or opening to a random page while eating breakfast at the kitchen table.
When the annual World Book yearbooks would arrive, I’d help put the tear-off stickers it came with in the appropriate places in the 1961 encyclopedia to indicate there were updates to articles.
My local branch of the New York Public Library was a tiny facility in the basement of one of the seven tall buildings of the Sedgwick Houses, a public housing project just up the hill from Undercliff Avenue. I’d also make visits every week or so to the larger Francis Martin branch with my father. When I was 15, I wanted to be a librarian when I grew up, though that would not happen until more than 20 years (and several other careers) later. .
But that love of reference books never went away. When a beloved great uncle, who was our family dentist, died in 1986 he left a small amount of money to his nieces and nephews. My father passed that money to me and my sisters under the condition that we spend it on something that reminded us of Uncle Max. Max was a lover of knowledge, and I spent my $1,200 on a 1987 set of the Encyclopedia Americana.
I was living in Boston by then, working for my dad’s small New York public relations firm after stints as a newspaper reporter and as a staffer in a group home for developmentally disabled adults. But I was still going down rabbit holes. One of those began with my curiosity about the history of the retail strip in the Boston neighborhood of Allston, where I rented an office on the second floor of a commercial building (above Riley’s Roast Beef and other stores).
I went to the Boston Public Library in Copley Square and found they had 60+ years of city directories in large, bound, red-covered volumes on a shelf in the microfilm room. (These, and others like them, didn’t become available online until much later.) I went back multiple times, copying the names of businesses into a notebook. Back in my apartment, I typed them into a file on the first computer I ever had.
That’s when it hit me: my 15-year-old self had it right. My true calling was as a librarian. I enrolled in the Master of Library Science program at Simmons College (now Simmons University) in 1990.
One of my first two classes that year was Allen Smith’s class on reference services. I still remember an early assignment: find the name of a Massachusetts woman who invented a machine for manufacturing flat-bottomed paper bags. You’ll find stories saying it was invented by a man, he told us, but find the woman who really invented it. And down the rabbit hole I went.
(I would encounter that woman, Margaret Knight, the holder of dozens of patents, again, down another rabbit hole, 30 years later.)
My first job after graduating from Simmons in 1992 was at the Brighton branch of the Boston Public Library. I met folks at the Brighton-Allston Historical Society and gave them a copy of my Allston research on floppy disk though they did not have a computer. (The floppy disk disappeared, but years later I found they still had a printout that I gave them.)
I worked at several job in several kinds of libraries in a rapidly changing field in my 29 years as a librarian before retiring as Head of Liaison and Instruction Services at the Boston University Libraries in June 2021. I spent much of my library career teaching undergraduates how to do research, including the art, the joy, and the value of going down rabbit holes.
Print encyclopedias have largely given way to online versions, including the crowdsourced Wikipedia. I reluctantly tossed my parents’ 1961 set of the World Book Encyclopedia when my mother moved out of her apartment to assisted living in 2012. My 1987 Encyclopedia Americana went up to our attic not long after. But I have my own little bookshelf of specialized reference books — on history, language, architecture, baseball, and more — next to my desk, with more scattered around our house.
And I’ve been an active participant in Wikipedia, expanding, updating, correcting, and otherwise contributing to that popular successor to those venerable print encyclopedias. I’ve even created three Wikipedia biographies from scratch, documenting the lives and accomplishments of men and women I first “met” going down rabbit holes of my own.
So, here’s to libraries and reference sources of every kind, and to the resources, the services, the people, and — most of all — the spirit that captured Charles M. Blow and me long ago and continues to inform, intrigue, and inspire us, and others, today.
In 2004, soon after starting a new job at the Boston College Libraries, I was put on an Information Literacy Task Force. I’d been a librarian for 12 years at that point — at the Boston Public Library, the Harvard Business School, and a non-profit organization, among other places — but I’d never heard the term “information literacy.”
It seemed like a buzzword (buzzphrase?). I wasn’t really sure what it meant.
I took a playful poke at the uncertainty, composing a poem called What is Information Literacy?, comprised of eight anagrams of “information literacy.”(“Formality in creation?”; “Merry citational info?”; “A faintly moronic rite?”; “Non-literary CIA motif?”; and more).
Now, as I get set to retire June 1st as Head of Liaison & Instruction Services at Boston University — 17 years and 14 MBTA stops removed from those early days at Boston College — I’m saying goodbye to a professional connection to “info lit” that ended up occupying much of my career.
But while the profession may be ending, the connection remains. So does the uncertainty — and that’s a good thing.
I tell undergraduates — and their professors — that research is as much about discovering questions as it is about finding answers. I tell them I call my own method of research “directed stumbling.” I tell them to “Get lost,” to go down the rabbit hole, to find their own path through research. And they get it. They really do.
I’ll miss working with undergrads and with the library staff and faculty partners who’ve become friends and colleagues over the years. But I’ve still got plenty of rabbit holes to go down. Stay tuned and watch this space for more.
This is a story about fake news and misinformation.
It’s not about an election or anything all that important; it’s about fashion, about a photograph of a particular hat supposedly made by famed Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli in the shape of a gorilla’s hand.
It’s not exactly “fake”. The hat and the photograph of it that sparked this story are real.
And it’s not really “news.” Both the hat and the photograph are from 1953.
But the story of this hat and the way misinformation about it came to my attention (and that of others) illustrates how “fake news” — important or otherwise — so easily spreads through social media today.
Oh, and the real story of the hat is much better than the fake one. It’s a wild tale involving all of the following: a Serbian-born circus performer and exotic dancer; a British baron; Hitler, Mussolini, and the kings of Spain and Bulgaria; a 1953 movie starting Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly; and its own set of questionable facts from long before the emergence of modern social media.
Let’s start at the beginning and go backward.
Share and Share Alike
On November 17th, my sister shared the photo on Facebook from an FB group called Vintage Weird to which it had been shared from a page called Historyinpictures.
The caption on the photo said “Model wearing a hat shaped like a hand by Elsa Schiaparelli for Life magazine, 1953. Photo by Douglas Miller.”
My sister commented “I have a Schiaperelli hat, that I found in the trash in my Paris apt in 1969. It didn’t look anything like this one, though.”
I was curious enough to want to know more about the hat and, as a librarian and an avid searcher of obscure facts — important or otherwise — I thought this one should be easy.
Google has digitized the complete run of Life magazine from 1936 to 1972 and made it searchable. Schiaparelli showed up several times in my search of that digital archive, including once in 1953. But there was no hat shaped like a hand. And no sign of a photo credit for Douglas Miller, in that issue or in any issue of Life.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t from Life magazine. No big deal.
Sticking with Google, I searched for Schiaparelli hat hand and got nearly half a million hits, about two-thirds of them from the photo sharing site Pinterest. Most had the same photo. Some even had the Life logo superimposed in the lower left corner of the image.
Several of the Pinterest posts had additional information, like the description on this one from a user on the South Korean Pinterest site.
“A model wearing ‘Lucky Escape’, a hat inspired by Clark Gable’s escape from the gorillas in the film ‘Mogambo‘. It is made from terracotta peach bloom felt and is shaped like a gorilla’s hand. (Photo by Douglas Miller/Getty Images) Life 1953”
The description has no mention of Schiaparelli, though the image is saved to the Korean user’s Elsa Schiaparelli page. But it does provide some big clues, including a name for the hat, a tie to the 1953 Hollywood movie Mogambo, and the Getty Images source. Indeed, a search of the Getty Images site brought up the photo with the same description (but minus any mention of Life magazine — or of Schiaparelli).
Armed with these new clues, I was off to my next destination: the Newspapers.com database, one of several historical newspaper databases to which I subscribe. And there was the hat, in several newspapers, though in different photos than the one that started this quest. (Even the first one below is different; note the slight difference in the position of the model’s hand from that in the Getty photo.)
But no matter which photo was used, all of the news clips identified the designer not as Elsa Schiaparelli but as “Lady Newborough” of London.
It seems likely that the model in the hat was photographed by several different photographers for different newspapers and news bureaus at the same Lady Newborough event. (Douglas Miller was a British photographer who worked at times for a British news service.)
Fact and Fiction
So, the hat and the photo were real. (More on that in a moment.) But when, how, and why did Schiaparelli and Life enter the picture?
The “when” is uncertain, but the earliest instance of the photo I could find with the misinformation is from 2009.
The “how” is easy: somebody added the misinformation to the picture description and shared it, to Pinterest or another site, and others picked it up and spread it far and wide. Anyone can have a Pinterest site and share whatever they like, and anyone can join the Vintage Weird site and post there, too. Historyinpictures is more controlled and has a more official sounding name but doesn’t always seem to do the legwork to verify information it shares.
As for the “why”? It’s probably because whoever added the misinfo thought it would be more interesting if it was attached to a famous name. (Think of the 1997 “Wear Sunscreen” newspaper column that went viral when someone shared it — falsely — as a commencement speech delivered by Kurt Vonnegut at MIT.)
Maybe whoever it was was thinking of an actual Schaparelli hat: the shoe hat, designed in collaboration with Salvador Dali in the 1930s and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Real Story (or is It?)
So who was “Lady Newborough”, the real designer of the gorilla-hand hat? Further searches told quite the tale.
“Lady Newborough” was born Denisa (sometimes shown as Deniza) Braun in Serbia sometime between 1907 and 1913. (Sources vary as to the date.) According to her 1958 autobiography Fire in My Blood — more on that below — she ran away from home at a young age to join the circus and worked, at various times, as a tight rope walker, a stripper, a fan dancer, an airplane pilot, an ambulance driver, and more.
“I have been many things, wire-walker, night club girl, nude dancer, air pilot,” she wrote. “In fact there are only two things I refused to be and one is a whore and one is a spy — and there were attempts to make me both.”
By her own account — it is hard to know where truth ends and embellishment begins — she had encounters with Hitler, Mussolini, various European monarchs, and an African sheik. (Hitler, she said, once tried to invade her room in a Berlin hotel, but she got rid of him by pretending to have a toothache. Mussolini, who she said picked her up in a bar in Rome, “was fun to be with, which is more than Hitler ever was.”)
In 1939 — this much is well documented — she married the Englishman Thomas Wynn, the fifth Baron Newborough, who was more than twice her age. Their engagement caught the attention of gossip columnist Walter Winchell in his widely syndicated column.
In 1940, she gave birth in Paris to a daughter, named Blanche-Niege (French for Snow White) and known as Juno. The birth was announced in several British tabloids including this front-page feature in The Tatler.
Baron and Lady Newborough divorced in 1947. Here’s how a London-based reporter for an Australian newspaper (The Herald, Melbourne, March 29, 1947) described Lady Newborough after the divorce:
“Lady Newborough is a Titian-haired Jugoslav, with a beautiful golden skin, [who] has been widely photographed in Europe as one of the most beautiful of young pre-war socialites.”
Calling herself Denisa, Lady Newborough, the new divorcee found herself in debt and in bankruptcy court. It was then, she told newspaper reporters, that she turned to an old skill at designing and making hats.
“As you know,” she told a reporter, “my marriage is being dissolved. This is causing me a lot of trouble. I became so worried that I began playing cards for money. Because I was worried I lost heavily at bridge, but only because I played badly. Usually I am very lucky at cards. I have now stopped playing bridge and have concentrated on hatmaking and everything is looking rosy.” (Wire service story as carried in The News, Adelaide, Australia, March 12, 1947, via The Trove, Australian newspaper database.)
Her hats were apparently a big success. She drew widespread media coverage in newspapers and in British newsreels. You can see her at work in this British Pathé newsreel from 1953. That’s her on the right in the screenshot below; the narrator calls her “one of Britain’s leading designers.” (See links to more Lady Newborough newsreels at the end of this story.)
Mogambo and the “Lucky Escape” Hat
Five months after the above newsreel was made and shortly after the premier of the John Ford-directed Mogambo at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, Lady Newborough introduced a line of five hats inspired by the film.
The movie, filmed in various parts of Africa, told the story of a big game hunter, played by Clark Gable, and his romantic entanglements with two women, played by Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. (Gardner and Kelly were both nominated for Oscars for their roles in the film.)
I hoped, by the way, that the gorilla-hand hat was inspired by an actual scene in the movie where a gorilla’s hand grabbed the head of one of the actors. But, alas, there was no such scene. (Yes, I watched the movie. What won’t I do for research?)
Mogambo was not the only Hollywood movie to inspire Lady Newborough hats. A few months later she came out with these hats based on the musical The Band Wagon.
Fire in My Blood
By 1958, Lady Newborough was apparently in financial straits again. Her solution this time was the racy autobiography Fire in My Blood. The front cover (shown above) included images of a scantily-clad redhead and dancers at a society ball and a blurb that read “Stripper, sensualist, mistress–the fascinating story of a woman who would do anything for love“.
The book was serialized in the British tabloid News of the World.
It generated newspaper headlines about the shock of the tell-all memoir and its effect on the British aristocracy.
There were reports of a planned promotional trip to the United States. Hollywood was supposedly interested in turning it into a movie. Lady Newborough was said to be working on a sequel to be called My Lordly Lovers. (None of these seem to have happened.)
By the 1960s, it seems, Lady Newborough was no longer making hats. A news photo from October 1963 shows her selling antique silver in a stall in Shepard’s Market in London’s Mayfair district, around the corner from her flat.
“Although she says she is doing it for the money,” said the caption, “she also says it is the nicest thing she has ever done.“
She was in the news five months later when she temporarily blocked a planned demolition of the site where her stall was located. And then again, a month later, when she was brought into court on charges of letting a tenant use her flat for prostitution. She was released on bail and later cleared. (Her lawyer claimed it was a set-up by the police, miffed at her earlier protest against the demolition.)
There was one more brush with the law, in 1973, when she was charged with handling stolen property. (A gold cigarette case, an amethyst bracelet, and a gold chain and medallion.) She was released on bail, and I have not been able to find anything further about the case, or anything more about Lady Newborough after 1973.
The entrance to her Mayfair shop does, however, appear (left) in the background of an unrelated video in 1974.
Denisa, Lady Newborough, died on March 21, 1987. She may have been largely forgotten by then, but she lives on, ironically, through her obituary in The Daily Telegraph.
In 2014, the paper’s former obituary editor, Harry De Quetteville, in a column titled “Why We Love Obituaries,” wrote that “beyond recounting the achievements of obvious big hitters – whether Nobel winner or Hollywood star – it is the job of the obits editor, to my mind, to root out the fascinating quirks and extremes of life.”
He chose five examples from the history of The Telegraph. At the top of the list was Denisa, Lady Newborough.
Newborough Hats (1955) This color newsreel features two women trying on Lady Newborough hats. The older woman is made fun of with the narrator noting that “What some women can carry off well, on other women it merely looks, uh, a little out of place.” At another point she is shown putting a hat on backward until corrected. In truth, though, that woman is Lady Newborough, pretending to be someone else.
I have a large collection of thematic atlases, about a hundred or so of them, mostly on different historical themes. Now, for the first time, I’m acknowledged in one.
It’s The Atlas of Boston History, edited by Nancy S. Seasholes and published by the University of Chicago Press in 2019.
My contribution is a minor one: on Plate 20, Irish Immigration, 1700s-1855, there an image of Burgess Alley, an Irish tenement in the Fort Hill section of Boston. It’s from an 1849 report on cholera in Boston. The late Ruth-Ann Harris, a professor of Irish Studies at Boston College who contributed that section of the atlas, was looking for a tenement image and I pointed her to this one. (I can’t say exactly when that was, but it was a long time ago; Ruth-Ann died in 2012, the same year I left the BC Libraries.)
This atlas, by the way, is a terrific one. The maps are excellent. The text is concise and nicely integrated with the maps. Illustrations are carefully chosen. All elements work together to provide a narrative on Boston themes ranging from exploration to immigration to economy, ethnicity, politics, culture, infrastructure and more.
Here, for example, is what’s covered in just one section of the atlas, with nine of the 57 plates and accompanying text and illustrations.
I’ve long been intrigued by thematic maps and atlases. I think of them as an example of what I call “non-verbal narrative,” although they can include verbal elements on the maps themselves, their legends, or accompanying text. (Baseball statistics and baseball cards are another example I have a personal connection to, but that will have to wait for another post.)
The maps, individually and collectively, tell stories of time and place, of people and societies, each with a particular focus.
My collection of historical atlases began with a 1974 printing of the ninth edition of Shepherd’s Historical Atlas, a fairly Eurocentric book first published by William R. Shepherd in 1911. (You can view the maps from both the 1911 and 1923 editions online via the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection of the University of Texas Libraries.)
But while this presentation is a repeat performance of my latest talk it is also a return to my own past, to my origin story (so to speak) as both a librarian and a local historian.
Back in the late 1980s I lived in Allston and had my own small public relations firm, working out of a shabby office on the second floor of this building at the corner of Brighton Avenue and Harvard Street. Riley’s Roast Beef—the owner also owned the building—occupied the storefront at the corner, a former Liggett’s drugstore.
Inspired, perhaps, by this postcard—I can’t remember for sure—I became interested in the history of the retail district that ran north and south on Harvard Street and east and west on Brighton Avenue. I began visiting the microfilm room at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square where they had city directories dating back to the 1860s.
From 1930 to 1981, each year’s directory—they were large volumes bound in red hardcovers—included a reverse directory showing listings street-by-street, address-by-address, in addition to the longer-standing alphabetical listings.
Over several months of visits, I painstakingly copied the information into a notebook. Back in Allston, I typed the info into my computer. When I was done, I put it all on a floppy disk and gave it to Bill Marchione at the Brighton-Allston Historical Society. (Bill was and is an inspiration to me.) BAHS didn’t even have a computer, but Bill graciously accepted the disk.
About a year-and-a-half ago I contacted BAHS to see if, by chance, they still had the floppy disk. They didn’t, but they did find a printout of the database that I gave them, with some notes. Nice to know I was so organized back then.
Some time later as I was thinking about new career directions, I realized how much I enjoyed working in the library. I started to investigate getting a master’s in library science. I had informational interviews with librarians at historical organizations and newspapers. (I had been a newspaper reporter for a few years after college.)
I got my MLS from Simmons College in 1991. My first job as a librarian was at the Brighton Branch of the Boston Public Library. I joined the board of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society, though I had moved to Roslindale in 1990, and stayed on the board until I started a new job in 1993.
A few years later I moved with my family to Brookline where my interest in local history continued to grow. I joined the Brookline Historical Society board in 2006 and became president three years later. I’ve even been working on a Coolidge Corner version of that long-ago Allston retail project that got it all started.
So, back to Allston and Brighton it is, and to my days of future past.
* When the phrase “Days of Future Past” popped into my head as the title for this post, I was (showing my age and past musical tastes) thinking of the old Moody Blues album. Little did I know that most people (and Google’s search) associate the phrase with the 2014 X-Men movie.
I’ve been thinking for some time about starting a new website where I could share new projects beyond those I post on the Brookline history blog I started way back in 2009. It can also, I hope, take advantage of the kind technological support that will allow me to do things I can’t do on my own.
I’m just getting started with it (and learning the capabilities of the new site as I go along). So stay tuned.