By Sally Koslow
Among Rag readers, it’s preaching to the choir to say our neighborhood has much to recommend it. To start, the Upper West Side has two beautiful parks, two subway lines, and two Trader Joe’s. But my favorite thing about our ‘hood is how its vibrant history always makes me wonder whose ghost is walking the streets beside me. This is why, when I recently learned that Madeleine L’Engle, the author of one of literature’s most enduring works of fantasy fiction, lived for years in the Clebourne, my very building on West End Avenue, I was doubly glad I never moved to the Upper East Side, which I considered for a full day in 1994.
Madeleine L’Engle, who died at 88 in 2007, wrote poetry, plays, a memoir, books on prayer and many novels, as The New York Times put it–”as if she were taking dictation from her subconscious.” She wrote her first story at five. The author is best known for the timeless and compelling A Wrinkle in Time, which won the prestigious Newbery Medal for the best children’s book of 1963. “Wrinkle” has sold more than eight million copies, been printed in dozens of languages and adapted as an opera, a graphic novel, a television drama and two films. It has frequently been banned either for being too religious or not religious enough, but it keeps on selling.
The book tells the story of Meg Murry, a smart teenager whose scientist father is missing and whom her neighbors assume abandoned his family. A trio of celestial beings—Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit—inform Meg that Dad is being held captive by a mysterious creature. Meg, along with her brilliant baby brother Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin, travel to a perilous world of mass conformity in order to rescue Dr. Murry. Their adventure hurdles them through time and space.
At the Clebourne, Madeleine L’Engle’s spirit lingers. “I loved her books as a young child,” recalls Catherine Diefenbach, who currently resides in the sprawling apartment where L’Engle lived with her husband, Hugh Franklin, and their three children. He acted on Broadway and as Dr. Charles Tyler on the soap opera All My Children. “I met her at a reading at Eeyore’s Books for Kids,” for twenty years a popular shop on Broadway that closed in 1993, unable to compete when Barnes & Noble opened nearby. (It’s widely assumed that the bookstore in Nora Ephron’s movie, “You’ve Got Mail,” was inspired by Eeyore’s.) “She signed and wrote messages in three books for me: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind at the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which I have to this day,” Dr. Diefenbach says, “that my children have discovered and enjoyed.”
“I met Madeleine L’Engle in 1960,” recalls Kate Moscow, who grew up in the Clebourne. “Her children were pupils at St. Hilda’a & St. Hugh’s School as I was, and the two girls and I walked to school together. The household seemed joyful, with Madeleine bringing an element of playfulness. Religious faith was an important part of their lives, but it certainly wasn’t stuffy. Grace before meals was sung. We also sang when walking their collie, Oliver, in Riverside Park.”
With her husband, Madeleine L’Engle directed her children’s school’s annual Christmas pageant presented in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where she served as librarian. “Madeleine and Hugh taught us that the bigger the part you had, the bigger your responsibility to help others enter into the ‘mystery’ of Christmas,” Ms. Moscow remembers. “Madeleine taught a creative writing class for high school students. To this day I can hear her say, ‘The written word should be clean as bone, clear as light, firm as stone. Two words are not as good as one.’”
‘The written word should be clean as bone, clear as light, firm as stone. Two words are not as good as one.’
Another memory remains vivid for Kate Moscow. Bion, Madeleine’s son, had a turtle named Elroy that Madeleine kept on her desk in order to remember to feed it and clean its tank. Several years passed and Elroy died, possibly of boredom. Bion wanted to bury him under the apple tree at the family’s home in Goshen, Connecticut, but it was March and they weren’t going to be there until June. They considered a burial at sea–via the toilet—or a Viking-style ceremony on a model sail boat launched in the Hudson River and set ablaze, but nothing would do for Bion except under the apple tree in Connecticut. Ultimately, Madeleine wrapped the turtle in foil and placed it in the freezer. For the next three months, every time she cooked something that wasn’t to her daughters’ taste, the question arose, “Mother, is this turtle soup?” In the summer, Elroy was duly buried under the apple tree.
“My older sister read A Wrinkle in Time over and over and tried to teach me its gospel, but I was all about Harriet the Spy and biographies of Abraham Lincoln,” says Robbie Myers, another Clebourne resident. “My sister graduated to Lord of the Rings and other books that seemed to me just more sophisticated versions of what had sparked her brain when she was a kid. I was drawn to To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood, stories about things that happened to ‘real’ people in places I could believe plausibly existed. It’s not random that I became a magazine editor.” (Robbie Myers was the editor-in-chief of ELLE for eighteen years.) “My sister went on a Magical Mystery tour with the Doors, decked out in floaty Stevie Nicks dresses, then on to God and the spiritual world…I know with certainty that A Wrinkle in Time was foundational in shaping her world view.”
Ms. Engle’s work was said to be influenced by her reading of physicists Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg. (Yes, Breaking Bad fans, that Heisenberg.) She was often quoted as saying children’s literature is too difficult for adults to understand. While booksellers shelve A Wrinkle in Time with kids’ books, its originality makes it hard to classify. Critics have called it science fiction, a feminist tract, a religious fable, a coming-of-age novel, and a work of Satanism—and more. Perhaps this is why, according to Charlotte Jones Voiklis, Ms. L’Engle’s granddaughter, twenty-six publishers rejected the book before she sold it to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This happened only after an early reader dismissed it as “the worst book I ever read” and compared it to The Wizard of Oz. It was the Oz comparison that convinced the publisher that “Wrinkle’ would become a hit.
Madeleine L’Engle often said her real truths were in her fiction. “Why does anybody tell a story?” she once asked. “It does indeed have something to do with faith, that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, and that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”
Madeleine L’Engle matters. Still.
Sally Koslow, a novelist, is the author—most recently—of The Real Mrs. Tobias, set on the Upper West Side. www.sallykoslow.com