In Which I Meet Washington Irving (For Real!)

I had a most extraordinary experience up in Newport this week — so extraordinary that I’m not even certain I can convey it here in this blog. With your indulgence, though, I’ll see if I can at least give you a feel for what the past few days have been like. I’m not even going to begin to do it justice, so for everything you read, please ratchet it up by a factor of ten for the appropriate amount of awesomeness.

On Wednesday morning, I traveled with Sainted Wife Barb up to Newport, Rhode Island, to make an appearance at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum. If you’re a bibliophile, you should make a pilgrimage to the Redwood at least once in your life, if not once a year, for it’s not only the oldest lending library in the United States, but also the one that’s been in continuous use the longest. It was established in 1747, and it’s a thing of beauty. The pic over there doesn’t even begin to convey how beautiful it is.

The oldest part of the library, the Harrison Room, is still crammed with books from the original collection–all there on the shelves for you to look at, marvel over, and think about what your well-read 18th century American wanted to see in his or her library: Encyclopedias. Jonathan Swift. Homer. Poetry. Every book a gem, and every one still in gorgeous shape. And what hangs above the shelves isn’t too shabby, either: original portraits — originals! — of notable Rhode Islanders by painters like Gilbert Stuart.

Well. Making an appearance in a room like that is an honor and a thrill, not to mention sphincter-clenching; it’s The Perfect Room, and you try your best to be worthy of it — and you’ve got almost 300 years of history staring down at you from the walls, reminding you not to embarrass them.

But there was another element in the mix at the Redwood that made this talk so important to me: members of Washington Irving’s family would be in attendance. In fact, I was in Newport at their invitation — an enormous honor, so I wanted to ensure I gave a talk that would give them, and all in attendance, a feel for just how remarkable their ancestor was and, I insist, still is. Barb had encouraged me — quite rightly — not to use any of the talks I had given in the past, and insisted I write a brand new set of remarks. So I had in hand what I called my E! True Hollywood Story speech. I knew it was going to run somewhat on the long side, but I hoped it would be informative enough, and funny enough, to keep everyone interested.

I had a crowd of nearly 100 jammed into the already intimate Harrison Room, and received a very nice introduction from, first, Cheryl Helms, the Library Director, and then from one of the editors of The Providence Journal (whose name, I am embarrassed to say, escapes me at the moment. I’ll edit this piece to insert it when I track it down.) I walked from the back of the room, through the crowd, to the podium, took a deep breath, and off I went.

…and it went even better than I had hoped. Because I had only finished my remarks the night before, I hadn’t had time for what I call a Deep Drill (where I read everything through in real time and “listen” to it) to determine whether it worked. I come from a speechwriting background, so I tend to script out everything — even what may sound like a casual aside — but my Deep Drill helps me determine where there may be dead air, where a joke has landed flat, or whether something has gone on too long — and right now, live on stage, I was Deep Drilling as I went along, getting a feel for the crowd as I talked, and deciding how to hit the beats as I approached them. And to my delight, it all went just fine. Laughs came in the right places, heads nodded or shook where I expected, the questions were interesting, and when I was finished, I got a really long, genuinely warm round of applause (as someone told me later, “We’re not a clapping crowd. We only clap when we mean it.”)

I signed and chatted for another thirty minutes or so, then after the crowd had gone, Barb and I got in our obscure rental car (an HHR? What the hell is that?) and followed Jan Gordon — head of Marketing for the library, who had also taken very good care of us — down Bellevue Avenue and over to the home of our host for the evening, the gentleman who had first approached the Redwood about inviting me to speak: Washington Irving.

Yes, for real.

In this case, it was Washington Irving III — or Rip, as everyone calls him — and he’s in a direct line of descent from Irving’s older brother, Ebenezer (since Washington Irving himself never had children, my first question to Rip upon meeting him — probably rather brusque, but I couldn’t help it — was “Which one do you come from?”) And what a charming gentleman, with an equally charming son (also Washington, though he goes by Knick, as in ‘Diedrich Knickerbocker.’ Cool, huh?).

Rip and Knick had very graciously put together what they called a “small” dinner party of about 3o guests, at his beautiful house, which he had carefully designed to reflect the contours and overall mood of Sunnyside, Irving’s home in New York. The food, conversation, and overall hospitality were all wonderful, the company exquisite.

And with their easy patter, gracious manners, and way of making everyone feel like the most important person at their house, it was obvious that Rip and Knick had the blood of Washington Irving coursing through their veins. If they’re any hint of what Irving was like in his day, it’s no wonder doors flew open for him to parlors around the world.

And staring down from his place of prominence over the fireplace, of course, was ‘Uncle Washie,’ in a beautiful Jarvis portrait that I had never seen before (“it was just cleaned,” Knick told me with a somewhat embarrassed laugh).

It was a true honor — it’s really the only word that carries the right amount of weight — to stand there in that house, under that portrait, and have the Irving family (I also met Rip’s brother Pierre, and his really acidly-funny wife, Kathy) tell me that my book had done their family proud. It was all at once humbling and enormously flattering, and it’s a moment of my life I’ll never forget.

And I think Washington Irving — who valued family perhaps more than anything else — would also have been enormously pleased to see just how much his own family is doing him proud. His name, reputation, and legacy are in good hands.

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