The definition of a salon, according to Wikipedia, is “A gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. Salons, commonly associated with French literary and philosophical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, were carried on until quite recently in urban settings”. Originating in Italy in the 16th century and going on to flourish in France for the following two decades, the salon really came to be the cool thing in the twenties, in Paris, under the writer Gertrude Stein. Stein used to invite people to drop by to have a look at the works of Henri Matisse and Paul Cezanne, two of the painters whose work partly comprised Stein’s vast art collection. Matisse himself was known to drop by often with friends and potential buyers to show off his work. Stein, finding the constant interruptions a nuisance and a distraction from her own writing, decided to declare Saturday evening the official night that people would be welcome in the apartment she shared with her companion, Alice B. Toklas. Thus began the famous salon of Gertrude Stein, where all the notable artists, writers, thinkers and characters of the day would gather to drink and rant and pontificate.
Pablo Picasso was a regular, as was Hemingway, who designated Stein the godmother of his child. Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder and Sherwood Anderson are just a short list of the heavy hitters of the literary hall of fame who regularly graced Stein and Toklas’ home. Toklas often kept the wives and girlfriends of the writers and artists amused in a separate room; kind of ironic as the salon was originally the domain of women in the earlier centuries. In 16th century Italy, the salon was often energized by beautiful and educated patronesses such as Isabella d’Este and Elisabetta Gonzaga. Which brings us to present day Manhattan and Aidan Donnelly Rowley, who, along with The New York Foundling, co-hosted a “Happier Hours Literary Salon” at her stately townhouse on the Upper West Side on November 10th, 2014.
Author of the 2010 novel, “Life After Yes” and the blog “Ivy League Insecurities”, Donnelly decided that something was missing from the happier hours evenings and realized “that something was a charitable and philanthropic gloss”. Last Monday, on November 10th, Donnelly opened her warmly appointed townhouse for what she plans to be the first of co-hosted evenings where “bright, interesting and interested women can support authors and books and give back”. Over 65 of NYC’s top female philanthropists and social do-gooders assembled in the first floor drawing room to hear about The Foundling’s work, and many made donations to support the organization’s ongoing work. The Foundling’s COO, Bethany Lampland, began the evening’s program by discussing the charity’s history, including the founding Sisters, who are included in the book “If Nuns Ruled The World”, by Jo Piazza, one of the two authors who were featured at Rowley’s salon that night. Lampland highlighted their heroic efforts that continue to inspire and motivate the charity to help disadvantaged children all over the city.
The New York Foundling is one of NYC’s most historic and largest children’s charities that empowers thousands of children and families to live independent, stable and fulfilling lives. Whether it is an abused child in need of a foster home, a young mother who lacks the skills to care for her child, or a young person lost in the juvenile justice system, The Foundling provides the resources necessary to rebuild lives and rebuild families. The Foundling was started in 1869 by four nuns who launched a shelter for abused children in an East Village brownstone by placing a white cradle on the front step as a signal to desperate parents that babies they couldn’t care for would find a home within. Since that humble beginning, The Foundling has helped a quarter-million people.
Piazza’s book profiles ten extraordinary nuns and the causes to which they have dedicated their lives – from an eighty-three-year-old Ironman champion to a brave sister who rescues victims of human trafficking. Piazza shared with her audience at Rowley’s salon that she felt an overpowering need to write the story of these women whose inspiring work goes on largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. In the introduction to her book, Piazza writes that the number of Catholic nuns in America has dropped from 179,954 in 1965 to 51,247 in 2013. “Because of their dwindling numbers, Catholic nuns in America have been placed on a deathwatch. American Catholics have no idea how very soon there will be no nuns,” Sister Patricia Wittberg, a church sociologist at Indiana University told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. Piazza’s book demystifies the nuns, revealing them to be very modern and at times feisty. Many are avid users of social media, and some bravely face persecution, imprisonment, torture and rape while carrying out their work around the world. The back of the book states: “Overthrowing our popular perception of nuns as killjoy schoolmarms content to live in the annals of nostalgia, Piazza defines them instead as the most vigorous catalysts of change in an otherwise constricting patriarchy”.
Jenny Nordberg, who was also featured that night, is an award-winning journalist based in New York, with a long record of investigative reports for, among others, the New York Times, where she contributed to a series that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. In 2010, she was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism for a television documentary on Afghan women. “The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan” is Nordberg’s astonishing story of the practice of raising a girl as a boy in a patriarchal society that views the birth of a daughter as a weakness and misfortune. Called “bacha posh”, which literally translated from Dari means “dressed up like a boy”, is a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Nordberg recounted to the audience at the salon that some of the girls never throw off their male guise, and continue to live as males well past puberty. There were many questions that night from the women in the audience for both Nordberg and Piazza, and both writers addressed each query with sensitivity and patience.
the night was an auspicious beginning for Rowley’s salon, fulfilling as it did all the hallmarks of great literary salons of the past. There were cocktails and light fare to nosh on, but, most important, there was a lively and passionate transfer of information, ideas, and debate. Each guest was given a copy of both books to have signed by the authors and to take home for later reading. In our ever burgeoning technological world, where interpersonal contact and information transfer is most often relegated to keypads on tiny personal devices, there was a warm and nostalgic feeling of days when a congregation of like minded people was a thing to take pleasure in. For more information about the underground girls of Kabul, visit www.bachaposh.com.