11.19.2008

Flannery O'Connor's Six Months in New York City

Flannery O'Connor lived for six months in New York City in 1949. Before moving to the city, the native of Savannah, Georgia had been staying at Yaddo, the famed artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York. She had received the invitation to stay at Yaddo in 1948 following the completion of her degree at the University of Iowa, and she spent a couple of months at Yaddo in the summer of '48, working on her first novel, Wise Blood. She returned in September, stayed through the holidays, but after a controversy at Yaddo in February of 1949 she cut short her stay. What transpired was that a long-time Yaddo guest, Agnes Smedley, was accused in a NYT article of being a Communist spy, and after some tense conversations with the colony's director, O'Connor and Robert Lowell, the poet and another guest, decided to leave. So, she came to live in New York.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O'ConnorThose of you who, like me, cherish their worn copy of Flannery O'Connor's The Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971) can pick up what happens next by reading publisher Robert Giroux's Introduction. Giroux writes that he first met O'Connor in February of 1949 when Lowell brought her to his office: "Behind her soft-spoken speech, clear-eyed gaze and shy manner, I sensed a tremendous strength. This was the rarest kind of young writer, one who was prepared to work her utmost and knew exactly what she must do with her talent." (viii. Introduction) He tells how his publishing company came eventually to publish Wise Blood.

While visiting Savannah last week, I walked over from my hotel to Flannery O'Connor's childhood home on E. Charlton Street. While visiting her house, the adjacent square and its moss-filled trees, and the Catholic church and school she attended, I experienced a little of the southern Gothic atmosphere that pervades her stories. Those who have read John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil will remember Savannah as a hothouse of eccentricity, a place unlike any other, but visiting again made me think that the Gothic age may not last as long as I had previously thought.

While she lived in New York City in 1949, Flannery O'Connor's home was the YWCA at 610 Lexington Avenue. Housed in a solid neo-Roman building near the intersection with 53rd St., the Y residences long provided an inexpensive and safe haven for young women in the city as well as career services and counseling. The YWCA has since moved its headquarters, and the old 1912-era building was torn down at the end of last year. In fact, the building was torn down to make room for the luxury condominium high-rise hotel, Shangri-la, with a design by Sir Norman Foster. *(Oops, make that Lord Foster, thanks to a correction by a reader. See comments.) As of this writing, the development is on hold, as investors try to replace their Lehman Brothers financing with new partners. (Wired New York has an informative thread on the tearing down of the old Y and updates on the new development. Wired New York discussion) At any rate, the Y is gone, so there's no NYC Flannery pilgrimage to be had.

After her stay in New York, O'Connor moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut where she lived in the garage apartment of Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (well-known for his translations of the Greek classics). A year later, she contracted disseminated lupus, a disease that ran in her family and which brought her father's life to a close when she was 16. She subsequently moved to the family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. She died in 1964 at the age of 39.

An additional note about Yadoo: NYU is currently hosting a series of programs with the theme, "Yaddo: Cultural Conversations about American Culture, Arts, and Social Policy." See this website for more information.

Images: Standard public domain picture of Flannery O'Connor; pic of O'Connor's childhood house in Savannah by Walking Off the Big Apple.

5 comments:

Barry Larking said...

"In fact, the building was torn down to make room for the luxury condominium high-rise hotel, Shangri-la, with a design by Sir Norman Foster."

Sir Norman has moved on and up. He was given a life peerage (not a hereditary one passed from father to son but for 'life' only). These are always made by the government of the day. So he is now Lord Foster. A rare case of someone receiving the honour by virtue of talent, though I wish they had not torn down that building to prove it.

Teri Tynes said...

Thank you, Barry. I should have remembered the peerage and made him Lord Foster.

Anonymous said...

Just as an aside: while the YWCA has since moved downtown (50 Broadway), and no longer offers inexpensive housing, you're correct, in that, it continues to provide other invaluable serices for low-income women in NYC. While Ms. O'Connor's NYC home sadly no longer exists, the spirit of the thousands of women who stayed there lives on in the women the YWCA serves today.

Teri Tynes said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Anon. Cheers to a long life for the YWCA.

On another note, it occurred to me that should the large tower be completed, it may be fitting for all Flannery O'Connor fans in NYC to assemble there at some point for a public reading of "Everything That Rises Must Converge." Also appropriate, if you read the story's first sentence: "Her doctor had told Julian's mother that she must lose twenty pounds on account of her blood pressure, so on Wednesday nights Julian had to take her downtown on the bus for a reducing class at the Y."

Anonymous said...

From, "Anonymous" March 10, 2011:
Sorry, that should read, "108th" Street/Broadway.