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You don’t read a book because it topped the NYTimes “Best Seller” list for umpteen weeks. Nor because Good Reads labelled it “Best Historical Novel of the Year”, though that’s a recommend hard to ignore. You read a book because it touches where you are, what you need, who you might like to have known — or been. I’ve just wept my way through The Nightingale and learned a lot. I hope you will, too.
How many books will prepare me to write the story of Clotilde Sobieska and her convoluted connection with a small town in northwest Iowa?
Howard Tabor’s aunt Mary Grace had married Kurt Bernhard, a French refugee from WWII. Uncle Kurt left a good deal of himself behind, as most refugees do. In his case it was the memory of his first wife Clotilde Sobieska, daughter of Peter and Mary, themselves Polish refugees and vintners living in Alsace-Lorraine. Confused yet?
When Paris Went Dark was helpful in understanding the Bernhard’s generation, in France and during the war I don’t (didn’t) enjoy reading about. And now The Nightingale may be enough to rough out the story of Clotilde’s short life in the French underground. In the Agincourt narrative, it seems to have sprung from a painting by Gabriel Spat, titled originally “Portraite une famille” but repurposed into “The Project.” What I can say after reading Nightingale is that my attention span is long, while my capacity for writing, telling this or any other story, is shorter than “Cliff’s Notes” by contrast.
When Paris Went Dark was a first stab at understanding the Nazi occupation of Paris, which was becoming central to the plot.
Entries in “The way things work” category are usually about the mechanics behind or within some element in the Agincourt story. Often it concerns the role played by an object in developing a character or event, in this case the painting by Gabriel Spat titled “Portrait une famille”.
Yesterday’s entry outlined the process of identifying the artist Gabriel Spat, whose on-line bio was sketchy at best. But today I’ll turn to the characters actually in this family portrait and how the painting came to be in Agincourt.
- Howard’s aunt Mary-Grace Tabor married Kurt Bernhard while she was living in NYC, studying to be a Montesorri teacher. The painting shows the Sobieski family, parents of his first wife Clothilde, who were vintners in the Alsace-Lorraine. A lot of this is already treated in “History as Genealogy” and “Family Trees“. And all of that is put into perspective in an entry titled “Relativity“.
- Three of Spat’s paintings in the Community Collection are treated separately here, here and here. Each of these has come from the Bernhard connection and together they reinforce the link between Bernhard and his European origins. The story of his first wife’s death during the Nazi occupation of Paris has yet to be told, but I suspect it will involve her burial at Pere Lachaise cemetery.
- Inherent in all this is the Community Collection itself, a community resource that began innocuously enough with a one-time exhibit at the G.A.R. Hall in 1912 organized by Amity Burroughs Flynn. The CC contains well over eighty pieces.
- In the page titled “The Community Collection” you will find more detailed information about the collection itself and the circumstances behind its creation. Perhaps more important, however, is the pattern of information in each entry, how to detect what is “real” from what is fiction, and ultimately what each piece contributes to the overall narrative.
In the end, I suppose, the thing that gives me greatest pleasure is the search, not only for information about Gabriel Spat, for example. But also for giving more meaning to this wonderful work of art; of giving names and faces to the anonymous family recorded in the work itself—people unlikely to ever be known, otherwise; and to add both depth and breadth to Agincourt’s history and its multiple and varied connections with the outside world.
A great deal of what happens in my head has little or nothing to do with architecture. As hard to believe as that may be, it’s true. Today, for example, I happened to be at Zandbrōz looking for wrapping paper and there was a book by Ron Rosbottom titled When Paris Went Dark. Yes, the “City of Light” was dimmed if not actually extinguished by the Nazi occupation of 1940-1944, and one of the consequences for Agincourt of that real historical phenomenon was the death of someone who never came to America, let alone the prairies of northwest Iowa.
The prospects for a small town in the American Heartland to be linked with places well beyond Des Moines, Omaha, or even Chicago is very likely. The first of those connections came from saving Anson Tennant from the sinking of the Lusitania. Some readers may recall that Dr Bob wondered why my architect-avatar had to die so soon after his Opus Only, the Agincourt Public Library.
I had imagined Anson as a one-hit-wonder [the Vanilla Ice of architecture?] and conveniently sent him to England on the May 8th, 1915 sailing of the ill-fated Lusitania. But Dr Bob’s question changed the direction of the Agincourt story—as he has influenced many other aspects of my life—by bringing him back from the presumed dead. Rescued by a passing Basque fishing trawler [whose likely presence had been brought to my attention by Mark Kurlansky’s book The Basque History of the World] which then brought him to Donastia [a.k.a., San Sebastian] on Spain’s northern coast and recuperative care of a convent hospital, where he made the acquaintance of a young novice who subsequently left the Order to marry Anson and bear him three children, two sons and a daughter. Don’t’ challenge me to diagram that sentence. The 1936 Spanish Civil War restored Anson’s memory and reunited him with his American family. I’ve neglected to thank Dr Bob for this windfall of new detail for the story.
One of the painting’s in the Community Collection provided another opportunity to forge trans-Atlantic connections. Gabriel Spat’s “Portrait use famille” depicts what is probably a husband (seated) and wife (standing beside and slightly behind him). One child, presumably a girl, stands at his right knee facing her father, and another child of indeterminate gender is cradled on his lap. [I’d provide a link to that blog entry, but it is currently private for reasons I can’t state at present.] Spat’s painting needed a stronger link with the story; it was insufficient in my mind that its presence in Agincourt was accidental. So the family group in that painting required identity.
Given the workings of my mind, the family became the Sobieskis, Polish emigrants who made wine in the Alsace. One of this children was Chlotilde Sobieski, and she eventually married Kurt Bernhard—who I think may have been an investment counselor. The Bernhards lived in Paris when the dates were right for the darkness that Ron Rosbottom writes about. What I knew only generally can now achieve greater detail.
How did Clotilde Sobieski Bernhard die, I wonder. And how did Kurt and his own young daughter arrive safely in Britain with the painting of his deceased wife and her family as his only link with the past? What circumstances crossed his path in New York City with that of Mary Grace Tabor, Anson’s great aunt? Now you have some idea why the Agincourt Project will never be truly over until I myself am dead.