Author Jonathan Lee
Photo by Tanja Kernweiss
A walk in Central Park led Jonathan Lee to a bench, a discovery about the historical murder of Andrew Haswell Green, and the Hudson Valley.
Last summer I moved from Brooklyn to Ulster County, via 19th-century New York. It wasn’t the most direct route. I recommend the I-87 for those in a hurry.
My journey began in earnest in Central Park. I was climbing the Great Hill with a sandwich in my pocket when I decided to take a path through Glen Span Arch. To my left I noticed a set of shaded stone steps ascending through maple leaves, and at the top I found a marble memorial bench that bore an intriguing inscription:
IN HONOR OF ANDREW HASWELL GREEN / 1820 – 1903
DIRECTING GENIUS OF CENTRAL PARK IN
ITS FORMATIVE PERIOD
FATHER OF GREATER NEW YORK
I got curious. Who was this “Father of Greater New York,” memorialized on this old stone bench in a seldom-visited part of Central Park?
A week later I was digging through boxes of his correspondence and diaries at the New York Historical Society. It turned out Green was killed on Park Avenue in November 1903 — Friday the 13th — in a crime that graced the front page of The New York Times. The book I would spend the next five years writing, The Great Mistake, retraces that sensational murder investigation, but also aims to explore some quieter mysteries: How did Green achieve so much, yet end up being forgotten? Why do none of us here in the state of New York seem to know his name?
My research revealed to me that without Green, there might be no Central Park, no Metropolitan Museum of Art, no American Museum of Natural History, no Bronx Zoo, no New York Public Library, and no preservation of the Hudson River Palisades.
Born in 1820 to a farming family that had come upon tough times, his life’s work became the creation of public spaces within and beyond big cities. Places where anyone, no matter their class or background, might be able to experience the freedom he had felt when walking through open countryside as a child.
I have found that sometimes, after spending years writing about a particular person, your final discovery is that their obsessions are actually your own. Green’s obsession was trees. He read their leaves like they were the pages of a novel. The places that calmed him and stirred him were forests and trails and creeks.
More than a century after his murder, my own family had fallen into a pattern of taking regular vacations upstate, escaping our Brooklyn apartment once or twice a year to hike and seek out swimming holes. But by the time I finished my book about Green, I wondered: were we not escaping in the wrong direction? Why not take vacations into the city, and be based up here? It was obvious — as most good ideas are. The ghost I had discovered on that bench in Central Park had helped to open my eyes.
I have ended up in a house in Stone Ridge. Every morning at 5 a.m., when I sneak downstairs to try to write a few words before my kids wake up, I see through one particular window the outline of a dozen types of trees, many with roots in another century. Maybe that’s one reason why I find their presence so reassuring and inspiring. Trees are examples of living history, anchored in the mysteries of the past. They are a reminder of all the lives it is possible to live up here in the Hudson Valley.
Jonathan Lee is a bestselling author whose latest novel, The Great Mistake (Knopf), is available online and in bookstores. Signed first edition copies are for sale through Rough Draft in Kingston.