By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
It is my privilege to have attended some of the great auctions of my lifetime, including those for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Jacqueline Onassis, the Grand Duke of Baden, and the Paul and Bunny Mellon sale... to name but a few. Each of these caused people worldwide to drop everything, and go through the catalogs with care and precision.
By reading these catalogs, one enters into the very most intimate life of the catalog subject. This is one of the few ways one has to actually learn how the other half lives. Let me be very clear with you: they don't just live, they flourish.
I first became aware of Robert de Balkany a couple of years ago, when the first of his magnificent collection hit the auction block for sales totaling 21.6 million dollars. Though I was present, and though I bid with more optimism than the situation warranted, I walked away with nothing. Nothing tangible, that is. For just to see the catalog and go through it lot by lot, is like a lesson in fine furniture, accouterments, candelabra, carpets, silver, dishes, decorative stones, extravagant china, goblets made for a king, and so much more.
When you are at the top of the tree, everything must be suitably matched. The more grand and glorious items you possess, the more you will search for more of these grand and glorious items, because anything else would look out of place. Thus just to open up the de Balkany sales catalogs is to gain an aperture to how one of the world's truly wealthy men, gifted with supreme good taste, actually lived.
Thus even if you buy nothing from this catalog and these sales, you have gained a leg up for the future because the more beauty and ostentation one sees and compares, the more comfortable one becomes in evaluating it, studying it, seeking it, and acquiring it. So I'm going to show it to you... my encounter with Robert de Balkany.
Robert de Balkany (1931-2015) grew up in the constantly changing world of the Balkan states. He was born in Hungary, a nation distinguished by boastful arrogance and constantly missed opportunities that resulted in the nation subjugated and in shambles. He resolved to leave such a place of uncertainty and chaos. He wanted to make money, and he knew that necessitated an environment of security and predictability.
He looked at all those assets, mind, body, and soul, and did what a man coming from nothing if he expects to conquer the market must do. First, he left Hungary, then under Soviet domination. He went to the United States to study architecture, and began his remarkable career of developing residential and commercial properties. He created them with astonishing speed. He chose as his focus the City of Light, Paris, and he became a citizen of France.
In those days, he added more and more projects to his burgeoning agenda. He believed in a thumb in every pie. As his real estate empire grew, he began to be concerned not just with what was outside the buildings, but what was inside. He was a fast study, aided by his two cultivated wives. First, the daughter of Ambassador Andre Francois-Poncet (divorced 1966), and secondly Marie-Gabrielle of Savoy (divorced 1990), daughter of the last King of Italy.
As a result of having the money and the desire for a perfect life, he began haunting the great auction houses of Europe and the United States. Like William Randolph Hearst, the famous American publisher, he bought wildly, extravagantly, teaching himself as he went. Here is where we learn a great deal about the man... how he thought and what he was trying to achieve.
He loved color... the richer and more opulent the better. He recognized, as so many still have not, that our ancient ancestors did not enjoy the blandness of white. They wanted exuberance, vitality, zest, and the elusive "Wow Factor". He was not interested in the sedate, the calm, nor the placid. Now he became a Hungarian all over again, determined to show the world what a Magyar of vision and bold audacity could do.
Here, however, he had a decision to make. He was impatient to complete his houses and his yacht. He did not want to wait another minute, and so he made a fateful decision to use decorators and decorator copies of many of his items to achieve his goal. He was rich... he didn't care if that richness was presented in copies; he simply wanted to show it off, and garner the unlimited compliments and envy of anyone privileged to see his expansive empire.
Thus, to go through the de Balkany catalog with a view towards purchase, one must be very careful to make sure the item you are interested in is not a copy, and moreover that all the parts are matched suitably. Again, de Balkany didn't care. And because the purchase of copies allowed him to acquire quickly and for lower cost, he leaned more and more in that direction to the horror of the purists, who told him how wonderful his interiors were, while inwardly scoffing at the nouveau riche.
In the event, a very sizable percentage of his collection was not composed of original pieces, but rather copies. Again, he didn't seem to care. After all, he had the effect that he wanted. And frankly, how many people can tell the difference between a First Empire chaise and its Third Empire copy?
The truth is, the hundreds and hundreds of people that attended the de Balkany auctions did not seem to care a wit about whether the piece was original or not, to the delight of his representatives at Christie's auction house in London. Virtually every item out of the over 700 items in these auctions sold, and sold not merely for the low estimate, but for prices dramatically ahead of Christie's suggested estimates. The total take for this second pair of auctions was 19.3 million dollars, for a combined total of over 40 million dollars... a record for sales of this kind.
One of my wise advisors years ago counseled me when participating in these celebrity auctions to grasp your hands and keep firm control of your bids. He would say, after a minor object was auctioned at lavish price, "Be happy you did not buy that, because if you had you'd never get your money out."
Thus the morning after the de Balkany auction, many otherwise intelligent people must have woken up saying "Oh my God I can't believe I paid that much!"
A Russian silver dressing mirror, St. Petersburg, 1876
Following my learned mentor's suggestions, I selected the number of items which I would buy only for the low estimate, not more. And so I stuck to my guns over both days of the auction watching people pay small fortunes for items which could be gained at a lesser rate from other auctions. Of course, I was disappointed... but realistic. After all, I still had my money.
At last, as one of the final lots in the second and final day of auctioning, I saw a stunning silver mirror made in 1876 in St. Petersburg. It was oval... the sides had twin beaded borders... surmounted by a double coat of arms... flanked by lions and surmounted by a royal coronet.
To my consternation, by this time in the auction, just minutes before its conclusion, I was chagrined and irked with myself for having wasted two days with zero results. Then the situation changed, as in auctions it so commonly does. In one minute everything was different. As a result, to my complete amazement, I acquired lot 690, this lovely silver mirror... and for below the low estimate. My mood changed instantly.
This proves again what cannot be stated too often. If you are patient and you are clear on what you will do with each lot you wish to acquire, you can acquire the most beautiful of objects, as I did in the Robert de Balkany sale, without breaking the bank or overriding my firm way of doing business, viz. about only bidding the low estimate. Now instead of regret because I acquired nothing, I shall purr with warm satisfaction every time I see this mirror surmounted by a royal crown.
Such an achievement demands champagne, and good cheer, don't you think?
N.B. I take this opportunity to thank Jill Waddel, head of the silver department for Christie's New York. She was my representative for two solid days when it looked like I was going to get nothing. Her voice was upbeat, her service concise and efficient, and her response to my purchase of lot 690 was almost as excited as mine was. Thank you.
To accompany this article, I have selected Cole Porter's immortal tune "I Love Paris" (1953). Robert de Balkany surely felt this way too.
"I love Paris every moment
Every moment of the year..."
Click here to hear the song.
Update: "I warned you!" Dr. Lant's dire admonitions on the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate were right on the money.
About six years ago, at the time of the ground breaking, I wrote the article that follows. It presented a number of serious objections to what the trustees were doing to revive the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. It was a bad idea at a bad place and badly conceived, and should never have been started, much less advanced.
But because the late senator Edward Kennedy wanted this institute, the trustees went ahead. Now the chickens are surely coming home to roost.
A report on this matter has just been released by Michael Levenson of The Boston Globe. Its primary finding is that less than 50% of the visitors they expected, and whose revenues they counted on, have visited the institute.
62,000 came, 150,000 were planned on and expected. This is the basis for a mammoth white elephant and continuing shocks about a project which should never have been placed in Massachusetts at all, much less in the backwater of Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Reading Levenson's article gives one a slightly sick feeling. For example, Jean F. MacCormack, president of the institute, is quoted as saying they are pleased with the number of visitors. How could she possibly be "pleased" when only 50% of the expected visitors have come?
Fatuous sentiments like this dot the report. No one wants to say what they see... a catastrophic volume of visitors, an institution which should never have been contemplated, much less advanced, but for the huge federal donation of $38,000,000. And nothing but platitudes and deceit in its future.
This institute proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Kennedys have sufficient influence to push an institution that is wrong in every particular. They know that it was positioned in the wrong place. They know that it is off the beaten path of other Boston cultural institutions. They know that when the money is gone the federal government, particularly under the Trump administration, will not contribute another cent, and rightly so.
It seems to me that otherwise conscientious rational people dilute their common sense with the so called "magic of Camelot". But this magic, if it exists at all, will suffer a grave outcome if this project is not dealt with in a sensible way as quickly as possible. Let us extend to the trustees in the administration of the institute this suggestion. Take two years... take three... and do everything within your power to bring attendance to the 150,000 per year you originally projected. If the attendance drops below the current figure of 62,000, it should be construed as sufficient evidence for immediate closure. If however attendance increases in a reasonable and positive fashion, let us see that as an opportunity to grow further.
I do not, however, feel comfortable in the institute's ability to raise further funds, and a substantially increased number of visitors. And let me say this, and say it so that all may see its clarity: just because the name Kennedy is placed on an institution is no good reason in and of itself for foisting this white elephant or any other Kennedy pachyderms on the public. If we needed a museum at all about the government, it should have focused on the Congress of the United States, House and Senate, and in a way that these institutions were explained, and not simply glorified by the name Kennedy.
I shall follow this matter further, and I shall await constructive debate in the creation of an institution that benefits the nation and the people of the Great Republic.
Now read the article that follows. It is not just prescience, it is common sense. And let us begin to focus on an institution based in Washington D.C. that explains our government by the people, for the people, to the people. That institution is long overdue.
Wrong right from the start. Problems, muddle, confusion, embarrassment at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's program note. You've got to wonder whether the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy and his second wife Victoria Reggie ever bothered to read the Constitution of these United States before advancing what the Senator saw as his 'legacy," the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.
Article 1 Section 1 of the most important and influential document of the Great Republic reads thus:
"All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives."
In crystal clear language, the Constitution lays out what legislative entities there will be, what powers they shall possess, how many representatives there will be in a state, who is eligible to serve, what officers there will be, how they are chosen, etc.
At no time does the Constitution state or imply that one branch shall be considered superior to the other. Instead, the Constitution lucidly makes the point that the two branches of Congress are equal.
This being the case, any discussion of the Congress, its history, and its place in the Great Republic must perforce focus not on one branch or the other but on the two co-equal branches and how they work together to advance the people's business, or not.
Why did Senator Kennedy decide to focus his institute on just one branch? First, because he served in the United States Senate for nearly fifty years and was widely regarded as one of its Grand Old Men. Second, because it was the sole branch of government in which all three famous brothers served, John, Robert, and Edward.
Once the decision was made that the Institute should focus solely on the United States Senate, a host of otherwise avoidable problems was planted and began to grow. These problems are now numerous and acute, threatening an already illogical organization that wiser heads than those in charge would have seen as a disaster waiting to happen, taking prompt remedial action accordingly, not least to save the face of this celebrated family.
The project is born (2003).
When you're a Kennedy of the Camelot Kennedys, it is expected, anticipated that you will have suitable monument, large, grandiose, something that adds to the family's renowned place in the history of the Great Republic. For after all, to be a Kennedy is to be an historic figure. No one knows this better than the Kennedy in question, the next to be immortalized. Discussions amongst the cognoscenti go something like this: "Should I run for offices for which I am entirely unqualified... or not?" "Should the names of my several spouses and friends with benefits be included in my monument... or not?" "Should this stirring quotation attributed to me but written by my ghost writer be chiselled in my eternal stone... or not?"
Such questions are unending, continual... and treated with the utmost seriousness by those expecting apotheosis, victims all to a collective edifice complex, the latest example being the Kennedy Senate Institute, a whopping 40,000 square feet of hubris. And what is to take place in all that space? Just about everything that has to do with the Senate, including its history, members, operating procedures, educational programs, issues, debates, filibusters, legislative training et al. Only senatorial amours and favorite salad dressings have been left out.
The problem is, the way this institute is organized is egregiously incorrect. Just as love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, so does the United States Senate go hand-in-hand with the United States House of Representatives. Whilst each has its unique aspects, neither makes complete sense (much less a productive legislative enterprise) without the other. They are two halves of the whole.
Imagine this scenario.
Ms. Martin's 5th graders are learning about how Congress works, how bills become laws... or not. Emmy Sue asks what happens when a bill passes the Senate. What then? And there's the rub... the Senate-only institute stops just when it needs to continue, so that people understand the complete Congress, the total legislative process, not merely its seigneurial "upper" branch. Even Emmy Sue, age 10, will know something's amiss when the guide says, "Er, the Senate bill goes to the House, but this institute only covers the Senate, so I cannot tell you more...." Even ten-year-olds would consider this weird, bogus, dumb. And they'd be right. That's why there must be a complete halt to the current farce... and a total rethinking of this embarrassing "institute" that has "Keystone cops" written all over it, before there are further cost over runs and another seventy million dollars, more or less, are wasted.
What must be done?
1) The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate as presently configured must be terminated. Its 40,000 square feet should be transferred to the JFK Presidential Library. Suitable spaces within the whole should be carved out for Robert Kennedy, Edward M. Kennedy, their wives and families, personal lives and professional achievements.
2) Focus should shift to a much needed Congress facility where everything about the Congress of the United States, past, present and future, can be showcased and presented to a nation which desperately needs a brilliant state-of-the-art interactive facility, the apogee of American technology, architecture, and historic preservation and presentation.
3) A suitable Washington, D.C. location should be scouted, considered, selected... no other location can or should be reviewed, much less Dorchester, Massachusetts, its current pied-a-terre.
4) ALL current administrators should be graciously, courteously shown the door forthwith.
5) The highest possible blue ribbon advisory board and trustees should be appointed with the sitting president a must as honorary chair. Mrs. Victoria Reggie Kennedy can have an honorable seat amongst them, but no more. An important institution requires important governors, and it is telling that the current institute has none.
6) A complete fund raising plan should be drafted with both private and public funds to be raised.
7) A knowledgeable, hands-on, organizational expert must be appointed, an individual of skills, deep pockets, and determination. My suggestion? Mitt Romney, if the presidency eludes him. After all Romney salvaged the 2002 Olympics. He is even an historic footnote in the story. He ran against Senator Kennedy in 1994, and lost. Mitt would do the project proud. His considerable pride alone would see to that.
Can such a radical shift take place? Of course. IF the principals now bobbling the matter are open to reason and a willingness to put the needs of the Great Republic above their own. Thus we need a "fixer" to arrange matters with grace, kindness, clarity, efficiency and such ruthless and surgical incision as may be called for.
In short, we need Joseph P. Kennedy, Patriarch. He would have seen the point, dragooned the personnel and raised the lavish funds required. Oh, where is Joe Kennedy now, and where shall we find his like -- and fast enough to avoid more muddle and abashment? For these, muddle and abashment, have set the two surviving children of Edward Kennedy against the woman he loved and revealed how toxic this situation already is and how much more poisonous it could get. For now, this is the sad legacy of Edward Moore Kennedy, and until it is firmly taken in hand, rethought and redirected it will fester and deteriorate into rancor, bitterness, and enmity.
As the music to accompany this article, I have selected "The Country's In The Very Best of Hands" (music by Gene De Paul; lyrics by Johnny Mercer) from the 1956 production of "Li'l Abner." Go now to hear this ironic gem... and let's hope it motivates the folks so over their heads and misguided at The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, so obviously not in the best of hands, or anywhere thing near.
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's program note. For months and months, I had been spending all my waking hours researching the housing market in Cambridge, Massachusetts and elsewhere. It was a long, frustrating, and expensive process involving as it did weekly flights to places I thought I might like to live, New York, Washington D.C., Virginia, North Carolina, and many more.
By the time I got to Follen Street, I was exhausted, irritated, and ready to pack it in for the day. But because I am a punctilious, precise kind of fellow, I insisted on seeing the last property on my list. It was on Follen Street.
A property in this building had just gone on the market, and this, given its proximity to Harvard Square, Harvard Yard, and the Cambridge Common, seized my immediate attention. In fact, it was love at first sight.
My first question was how did this brick building stay out of the hands of the Harvard real estate office. Someone had missed the boat for sure, for an apartment building this close to all things Harvard would have been ideally situated for a new administrative building, or faculty housing.
Instead, what I saw was a spacious unit on the top floor, excellent sun and light, and a size which caused an audible gasp. I didn't need any sales palaver from a realtor... what I wanted was a purchase document to sign... just like that.
The realtor, however, was slow and lethargic. It was late on Friday. He didn't want to get any papers out. He didn't want to do any of the necessary paperwork. He turned to me and said, in response to my brisk approach to the matter, "Come back Monday, and we'll settle the details."
As a result, I spent a very uncomfortable weekend afraid that someone else would snap up this property. I have never regretted my decision, and the fact that the value of my unit has gone up as many as 15 times what I paid for it is just so much gravy. My love affair with Follen Street had begun.
Over the course of the years, I have whenever possible gathered information for what became this article. The first item to be considered was how it came to be known as Follen Street, a name which most people render "Fallen", thinking that there might be a giant sink hole which caused this street to fall. In fact, the street is named after the Reverend Karl Theodor Christian Friedrich Follen.
His story is key in several areas, including the development of a liberal pastorate, such expertise in German and gymnastics that Harvard appointed him to several academic appointments, and most importantly, his controversial work with the Anti-Slavery Society and William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879).
German social activist
Follen is a representative of what every organization needs to take root, grow, and flourish. Follen was born in 1759 into the Grand Dukedom of Hesse-Darmstadt. It was a deceptive place, for it looked calm and conservative, but dark waters surged beneath the surface.
Karl's father, Christoph Follenius, was a counselor at law and judge in Giessen. The spirit of revolution was in the air, and no matter what your political or legal position, you had to have at least had a nodding familiarity with what was happening in all aspects of life, and how to protect your interests and even advance them.
Follen was a boy of energy, imagination, and vision. It is easy for such boys to find high minded colleagues, and to stay up late over a stein or two of beer solving the problems of the world. This was man's work, and no one much cared about your age.
This was, however, a time particularly in the German states of acute anxiety. The conservative powers, led by Austria and Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859), Chancellor of the Austrian empire, and a man determined to destroy any liberal idea or notion. Metternich stood squarely on behalf of no change whatsoever. Any advanced political group was to be infiltrated and destroyed.
This was intolerable to Charles Follen. The more he understood about Prince Metternich and his machinations, the more he determined things must become better, and to this end, began connecting with advanced liberals around Europe. His ideas were expressed in political essays, poems, and patriotic songs. He commenced his romance with liberty.
Follen bit by bit came to the notice of the powers that be. Given the fact that he traveled widely and connected with revolutionaries, not just in Germany, but in France, Switzerland, and more. In so doing, he made the mistake so many social activists make... talking too loud, shouting his ideas at the top of his voice, publishing too honestly... a man who thought that the future was liberalism just waiting for him and his colleagues.
Of course, he was arrested, in 1824, as a revolutionary, and this only had the effect of making him more determined to advance the cause of Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite. As part of his maturation, he came in touch with such prominent Americans as Peter Stephen Du Ponceau and George Ticknor, a Harvard professor. They assisted in getting him an unusual post: instructor in the German language. This was the first time the German language had been on Harvard's curriculum.
Harvard, under the leadership of John Thornton Kirkland, had an acute interest in German education, which was then thought of as being the most useful and advanced in the world. Using this position as an entry way for advancement, Follen in 1828 became an instructor of ethics and Ecclesiastical history at Harvard Divinity School. Simultaneously he was admitted as a candidate for the ministry. In 1830, he became professor of German literature at Harvard, and married Eliza Lee Cabot, the daughter of one of Boston's most famous families.
Now at this point, Follen already advantageously launched at Harvard, could easily have expanded his Cambridge empire. This would have been a high achievement, to be the advocate and leader of all aspects of the German curriculum at Harvard, already recognized as one of the great universities on Earth. But he wanted more... not just for himself, but for the entire Cambridge and Harvard communities.
This led him into making a review, not just making a list of the advantages of Harvard and Boston, but of what he came to see as their drawbacks and deficits. In short, he intended to use American freedom to advance his numerous causes of interest, particularly the anti-slavery movement.
Anyone who looks at the period from 1820 to 1860 cannot but be drawn into America's peculiar institution: slavery.
Many in the United States, both North and South, had made fortunes in the slave industry, either directly or indirectly. Many of these people either lived in the Northern United States, or had strong business and personal contacts there.
There was the sound of Yankee dollars being made, and world opinion largely blinked to avoid the moral implications of their dark world. In short, since slavery was legal, though not in several states, experienced businessmen and traders continued their work without moral distress. Charles Follen thought differently.
It is the moment he becomes aware of how deeply slavery was ingrained in a society that he becomes important. He picked up his tattered banner of Liberte, Egalite, and Franternite, determined to do something about it.
The time period is 1835
His lectures more and more found their focus in freeing the unhappy slaves of Africa. No man, it was clear, should ever own another man. He took these increasingly violent sentiments and began recruiting for his increasingly outspoken abolitionist beliefs. President Josiah Quincy of Harvard didn't like what he heard, and how often he heard it, for Harvard was based to a considerable extent on money from slavery, directly or indirectly.
In 1835, Harvard president Josiah Quincy decided that he had had enough, and that the indefatigable Follen would be removed from his many positions. Of course, Follen made a beeline to William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator (1831-1865). Garrison was like so many social reformers... he was belligerent, argumentative, and absolutely determined that his efforts would change society and free the slaves. Most of Harvard was appalled, and could hardly wait to trip up Garrison and ultimately Follen, and remove them from doing anything that would adversely impact the business of slavery.
The period between 1835 and 1860 was one where pro and anti-slavery forces were juggling for supremacy, and where the very idea of freeing the slaves had only just been advanced. But conservative Boston could only stand so much. For Bostonians, making money was far more important than freeing the slaves. The issue might need to come to an ultimate resolution, but businessmen in Boston were not willing to throw away a single penny merely because the black races of Africa were being crushed and dispossessed. That was not their problem.
Businessmen of course could see the handwriting on the wall; after all, the British empire, one of the largest customers for slave labor, had abolished slavery in 1833. But there was time left... yes, years of it. Properly handled, the slave traders and their necessary business associates could have 15, 20, maybe 25 good years left. Men like Garrison and Follen were dangerous... and the conservative forces wanted them removed, one way or another.
Such people worked hard to get Follen out of the Boston area. They were assailed on every front for their opinions, for these got in the way of Mammon. In 1838, they somehow managed to find a congregation in New York where Follen could voice his increasingly strident views on slavery.
As he was going to take up his parish, the steamer that was taking him to New York caught fire, and Reverend Karl Follen was burned alive, drowning in a storm in the Long Island Sound.
Tears were shed, though they were crocodile tears for certain, for in fact, Follen's untimely death lowered the temperature, giving people who had resolutely opposed him the possibility of appearing liberal themselves, when they were anything but.
Sadly, even Follen's name was toxic. His family and friends, and remember, he was connected to the Cabots who speak only to God, had to work hard to find a church which would hold a memorial service on his behalf. Yes, the good Christian people of Massachusetts chose to wash their hands of this menace, who had the acute misfortune to actually believe in incendiary Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite.
Every monument they put up to honor Follen, and there were several, including the establishment of an octagon shaped church in Lexington, Massachusetts, and my very street in Cambridge, smacks of hypocrisy, for they were nearly all glad to see him go... his charred body bobbing in the choppy seas. The toasts they made to Follen throughout the city all were of the good riddance variety.
The things they are changing however, and if in 1840 Garrison and Follen were out there, they were not alone. Everyday that passed brought Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation to the top of the agenda, validating the reformers. It was slow, painful, aggravating, and often dirty and squalid... but this is how progress is made.
As all this was going on, Follen's house on Follen Street hummed with the sounds of a large growing family, where besides anti-slavery objectives, there must have been a goodly measure of the kinds of activities which distinguished family life in the 19th Century.
One of these was the Christmas tree. Follen is credited with introducing to New England the first Christmas trees with miniature ornaments on their fragrant branches. Many people of course are credited with the Christmas tree, including Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, but Follen's claim seems secure.
Yes, Follen seems to have been the first to put little dolls, dried fruits, and seasonal ornaments on the green branches in Cambridge. This however almost did not happen, for as international traveler Harriet Martineau reported, who was then visiting in Cambridge as part of her celebrated American tour, real life candles were used on the branches, and one of these set the tree on fire, causing great anxiety at a lively German Christmas party in the drawing room.
It was however, despite this near catastrophe, a charming addition to the Christmas festivities which were in development against advanced Puritans who thought there should be no Christmas at all.
I often think of Reverend Follen. I am, after all, situated just above where his drawing room must have been. If not great, he at least made an impact on his new country, and on the town of Cambridge, which continues to welcome social revolutionaries from the entire Earth.
They are as persistent, demanding, and impossible as ever they have been, but you can rest assured of one thing. It is because of them, no matter how much we dislike them, that new ideas are advanced, vetted, analyzed, and improved or denied. After all, this is the function of a great University. Not orthodoxy, but constant investigation and research; the ability not to cling to outmoded ideas, but to freely acknowledge new ones, and disseminate them, not crush because they are not convenient or easy.
This was the credo of Reverend Charles Follen, and this must always be our credo as well... for the times, they are always a-changin', and like it or not, we must change with them. My home, suffused with the ghost of Charles Follen, makes it easier to do just that... for even in death, he influenced life, and no social reformer of any kind can ask for more.
I've selected for musical accompaniment to this chapter John Lennon's celebrated tune "Imagine" (1971). Lennon was a social revolutionary just like Charles Follen. He found the present and its uses hypocritical and affronting. As a result, he composed this song, "Imagine", which aggravated, infuriated, and irked people worldwide. Who did Lennon think he was?
We only came to know when a craven assassin pumped four bullets into his frail body, thus confirming his importance, particularly the songs at the end of his short life. Such people are often the target not just of harsh words and bitter accusations, but any number of means to curtail lives, offering much, demanding little, and with the possibility of changing everything.
"You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one"
Click here to listen to the song.
Dr. Jeffrey Lant, Harvard educated, started writing for publication at age 5. Since then, he has published over 1,000 articles and 63 books, and counting.