Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mr. Tiffany, a Pain in the Glass

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland is one of those books that took me a little while to get immersed in, but after a few chapters, I was hooked. I became totally absorbed in the world of New York City at the turn of the century. We get a taste of both the poverty the newly arrived immigrants experienced in the Lower East Side, and we also see how the other half lived, the mansions of the monied Fifth Avenue crowd. The author has a knack for making the reader feel as he/she is part of the main character's circle of friends and is experiencing the exciting events of that time period. When Clara and her colleagues are confronted with a picket line, it was both nerve-wracking and thrilling.

Vreeland was inspired to write this historical novel after seeing the exhibit, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls, at the New York Historical Society. After undertaking meticulous research on Louis Comfort Tiffany, the culture of New York City during the Gilded Age, and immersing herself in Clara Driscoll's letters, Vreeland proceeded to write a story (one that reflects many of the events mentioned in the letters) about the unsung artistic contributions of the Women's Department in Tiffany Studios. It seems that those beautiful, celebrated leaded-glass lampshades were conceived and designed by Clara Driscoll and not Louis Tiffany! Unfortunately, Clara and her industrious team of women were never given any credit for their achievements. Tiffany probably only initially created the Women's Department because he wouldn't have to worry about them going on strike like the unionized male employees were capable of. Another chauvinistic policy of Tiffany's was that he wouldn't allow married women to work for him.

I ended up caring very much for Clara and her friends. I totally empathized with Clara's frustrations with not having her artistic accomplishments recognized as they should have been. Louis Tiffany is portrayed as a man with many faults. At times he appears capable of breaking out of his prejudices and old fashioned ways of thinking, but he never fully does. I guess that is what makes him a fascinating character.

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