An American Bloomsbury

By Carole Klein

Houghton Mifflin. 330 pp. $19.95

NO DOUBT it is a matter of taste, but to mine the loveliest neighborhood on the island of Manhattan -- and the closest that island comes to genuine urban civility -- is Gramercy Park. Like Boston's Louisburg Square and Baltimore's Mount Vernon Place, Gramercy Park strikes a precise balance between the beauties of nature and the elegance of the city. Its tiny park is a bright green jewel, one that seems all the more desirable because only those who live in the neighborhood are given keys to its gates; and the buildings that surround the park, many of them the original 19th-century structures, have somehow retained both their dignity and their human scale.

In the best sense of the term Gramercy Park is old New York: prosperous but unpretentious, comfortable with its past and its present, indifferent to the incessant noise of the city on the make. As Carole Klein observes, "what Gramercy Park most resembles is a 19th-century London square. The graceful rows of red brick and brownstone houses, with their lacy wrought-iron grillwork, magnificent mahogany doors, and brass lanterns, project an air of civility and serenity more often associated with England than with America." One need not be an Anglophile to recognize that in Gramercy Park, something approximating perfection in urban life has been achieved.

It is for this reason that I turned with real eagerness to Klein's history of the park; having visited it often when I lived in Manhattan a quarter-century ago, I wanted to learn more about its history and about the people who shaped its character. In that sense, Klein does not disappoint; she tells the story of the park's early days with authority, and her depiction of New York's ambience in the 19th century is vivid. Unfortunately, though, she has persuaded herself that Gramercy Park is "the closest thing America has ever had to a Bloomsbury, a rich mix of talents living and working together in a circumscribed area." Were that proposition true, it would make for an interesting and appealing book; but precious little of the evidence Klein has collected suggests that this is, in fact, the case.

Klein appears to have fallen victim to a temptation to which many another author has succumbed: she thought she had discovered a theme that would give her story unity and weight, and then found herself caught in an increasingly desperate attempt to prove that theme's validity. But in order to demonstrate that Gramercy Park is "an American Bloomsbury," Klein is forced to stretch the boundaries of the tiny neighborhood far wider than they actually are, and to devote many pages to artistic and literary activities that took place nowhere in the vicinity; the result is a book that, notwithstanding Klein's earnestness and good intentions, never manages to fulfill its central purpose.

Had Klein contented herself with a long magazine article or a very short book, she might have done entertaining and useful work. The 75-page first section of her chronicle, "The London of America 1822-1860," is a well-researched account of how a lawyer and real-estate investor named Samuel Ruggles purchased the land on the East Side between 19th and 22nd Streets and oversaw its slow but sure development into an oasis; Ruggles was "steadfast in his dedication to enriching urban life by providing gentle places of escape," and from the outset Gramercy Park was exactly such a place.

KLEIN writes interestingly if floridly ("His head of lustrous brown hair held high, his blue eyes flashing, and his mouth looking unmistakably sensual, Sam could hold his own in the most august circles"), about Ruggles and also about his son-in-law, George Templeton Strong, a lawyer now remembered for his brilliant and voluminous diaries. A block away from the park was Peter Cooper, founder of the Union that still bears his name, a manufacturer and inventor whose modesty was exceeded only by his philanthropy. By contrast with the greed and venality of Manhattan in the late 20th century, Cooper stands as a model of propriety. "I do not recognize myself as owner . . . of one dollar of the wealth which has come into my hands," he said. "I am simply responsible for the management of an estate which belongs to humanity."

If there was an artistic or literary flavor to Gramercy Park in the early and middle 19th century it largely was provided by James Harper, one of the founders of the publishing firm originally known as Harper & Brothers. One of the few people in Kline's chronicle who actually lived on Gramercy Park, Harper was, in Klein's unoriginal phrase, "a major arbiter of America's literary taste." But if his residence on Gramercy Park had anything to do with this, Klein fails to demonstrate it. Indeed it is at this point where her argument, and her story as well, begins to fall apart. Beginning with Edwin Booth and Augustus Saint-Gaudens and progressing to the likes of Stanford White, Edith Wharton and O. Henry, Klein draws up a long list of artists and writers but fails to demonstrate that a single one of them was influenced by living at, or near, Gramercy Park.

As is shown by the plan of Gramercy Park that is used as endplate for Klein's book, the park proper is bounded by 21st Street to the north, 20th Street to the south, and two small streets, originally carriageways and footpaths, to the east and west. But as best can be determined from the information Klein provides, none of the aforementioned artists and writers lived there; Booth lived on 19th Street until he moved, relatively late in life, to the Players Club on the park, Wharton grew up on 23rd Street, O. Henry's apartment was on Irving Place. Henry James, whom Klein attempts to connect to Gramercy Park, was briefly on 25th Street, Stephen Crane was on 23rd, and the famous Armory art show of 1913, which Klein describes as being in "the Gramercy Park neighborhood," was at Lexington and 25th.

This isn't nitpicking; Klein stretches Gramercy Park so far that it is no longer Gramercy Park at all, but the lower-middle East Side, if not Manhattan in its entirety. Gramercy Park emerges in her portrait as no Bloomsbury, because the neighborhood itself never provided, as Bloomsbury did, a unifying and formative influence. The people about whom Klein writes were drawn not to Gramercy but to New York, and it was New York rather than Gramercy that energized them. Gramercy Park is a beautiful place, and Klein's tribute is both fond and greatly deserved, as well as published in an exceptionally handsome book; but an artistic haven Gramercy Park is not, nor has it ever been.