Throwback Thursday: Remembering Countess Vera, the Lady Who Loved Pigeons

Countess Vera. Photographs by Stephen Harmon.

Stephen Harmon is an Upper West Sider, a retired lawyer, and a world-class photographer whose work is displayed in many of the city’s museums, including The Museum of the City of New York, The Brooklyn Museum, The New-York Historical Society, and The New York Public Library. His photographs are often featured in the West Side Rag.

By Stephen Harmon

One of the people I met on the old Upper West Side, who I remember the best and who fascinated me the most was Countess Vera, “The Pigeon Lady.” From the late 1970s, when I moved to the UWS, until about 1985, maybe earlier, she fed the pigeons every day, sitting on the benches that were then on Broadway at West 73rd Street. She loved the pigeons, allowing them to eat peanuts from her hands and even perch on her shoulders. I think most people thought she was a crazy old lady, but I knew that was not true, because I often spoke with her and knew her story, which maybe was fiction. She told me that she was smuggled out of Russia after the Revolution because she was from the aristocratic class, she was a Countess, and her entire family had been killed and its property confiscated by the Bolsheviks. That’s why I have always called her Countess Vera.

“She always wore pearls…”

She was an elegant lady. She always wore pearls and bright-patterned dresses and various beret-like hats, I suspect to hide her wispy white hair. She was a little vain. She refused to tell me her age, and every day she came to the street with a little lipstick that set off her soft, amused smile. I think now she had that amused look because she was amused by my interest in her and my desire to photograph her; a desire she readily accommodated, even allowing some of the close-up images you see here. Despite her smiles and amused look, I sensed about her an ineffable longing, perhaps for Russia, perhaps for her youth. Here are some of my favorite photos of Countess Vera.

“I sensed about her an ineffable longing…”

“She loved the pigeons…”

“She was amused by my interest in her…”

COLUMNS, HISTORY | 22 comments | permalink
    1. Brenda says:

      How absolutely beautiful

    2. World Peacenik says:

      Thank you Stephen.

    3. upper west side girly says:

      Would love to see more stories like this one:)

    4. Helen Haman says:

      Lovely pictures of a lovely woman and her pigeons! Thank you.

    5. Sarah says:

      Nice! And this figure full of nostalgia is now a nostalgic figure for others.

    6. Lovely says:

      This is really lovely. Thank you for sharing. Such interesting and talented neighbors we have!

    7. Phoebe says:

      When I was a child, I remember a bird lady telling me to hold out my hand, and having a pigeon hop from hers to mine; it was probably she. I still love pigeons and am fascinated by the fact that, contrary to experts’ predictions, the variety of “design” is ever-expanding. Even though I’ve evolved to be a cat-lady, I still sometimes have to stop and take pictures of pigeons. I wish I’d spoken with her. I guess I never crossed her path over the years. Bird people rock—no matter what “they” say.

    8. Brewer says:

      NYC is where beautiful things can happen daily, and then suddenly never appear again. I wonder if Stephen Harmon, being a lawyer, and such a talented inquisitive photographer, ever inquired with NYC Social Services if she was alive after 1985.

    9. susan says:

      A lovely story. I particularly like Sarah’s thoughtful comment.

    10. Sharon says:

      What I liked was visiting San Juan Capistrano. They had feeders where you could purchase food to feed the pigeons. I very much appreciated the respect they for wildlife instead of most stinky New Yorkers that hate pigeons since they might poop on their cars. Like so what self centered New Yorkers. Bring your car to the carwash and get it cleaned. Glad I moved out of New York never to return.

      • “…Glad I moved out of New York never to return.”

        Sure you are; and yet here you are, (obsessively?) keeping up with our little neck of the woods…

      • Grayson says:

        Stinky? Self-centered? I never cease being amused at the obsessive angsty negativity of people who left New York. I guess it’s the converse of “If you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere” — if you can’t make it here, you’ll be defensive about it forever.

    11. Janice says:

      Great remembrance and beautiful pix! Thank you.

    12. Linda says:

      Sweet story and beautiful photos. Thank you.

    13. DenaliBoy says:

      Lovely story. Thank you

    14. Shelly BLeier says:

      Bless you Countess Vera, where-ever you may be. She was beautiful…inside and out. I wish people didn’t have such misconceptions about pigeons. They are beautiful birds, part of the Dove family. they are just looking to survive on the street. Have mercy on them…they are all fighting for that little crust of bread.

    15. It’s lovely that you engaged with Countess Vera. Elderly people that are alone should not be assumed “crazy” or odd. Many are lonely as they have lost friends/family members over the years. And many have an interesting story to share. You captured her image beautifully.

      • Phoebe says:

        Well, most of us wouldn’t be so lonely if most of us didn’t judge the other as the other, and just sat down next to.

    16. nadia m says:

      Thank you for bringing her back to me. My mother and I would pass her when she sat on a bench on the East side of Central Park.(This must have been in the earl to mid sixties). She enjoyed that we would stop to speak to her and spoke to my mother at length in Russian. I was too young to appreciate her company and just wanted to keep going. But just seeing her photograph brought a flood of memories

    17. Vera Pressman says:

      I so enjoyed this sweet, touching story that sets off one’s imagination about her and her life. Many thanks for publishing this.

    18. Sam katz says:

      Lovely story. If you want to find out if she really had aristocratic White Russian roots, there is a Russian Orthodox Church at 93rd and Park that catered to the exiled aristocracy where someone might be able to recognize her. Odds are, though, that she would have worn a crucifix as that community was deeply tied, for the most part, to their heritage. But you never know, and no one will unless someone can remember or find out her name. New York White Russian Society held a charity ball every year, but you had/have to be still pretty well-heeled to afford it attend it. Never the less, the story reminds of a New Yorker cartoon I saw years ago: a man with a stick in his hands was sitting on a park bench and at his feet was a pyramid of pigeons, all stacked upon one another like a circus act. The wife approaches and asks, “We’re you waiting long?”