If you stroll out to the traffic island where Park Avenue South intersects East 37th Street (and, civil citizen that you are, you will do so in accordance with the municipal traffic regulations that you have memorized in preparation for the day when Rudy Giuliani subjects us all to a surprise quiz), you’ll find a roadside marker commemorating a bit of long-forgotten history. A plaque there pays tribute to the memory of one Mary Lindley Murray, who “rendered [services to] her country during the American Revolution, entertaining at her home, on this site, Gen. [William] Howe and his officers, until the American troops under Gen. [Israel] Putnam escaped.”
If your all-knowing eyebrows have begun to arch, reared as you are on stories of various “entertainments” that would put a blush on General Howe’s cheeks, be advised that Mary Lindley Murray’s diversionary activities included nothing that would shame her descendants-the family that put the Murray in Murray Hill. According to the legend the plaque celebrates, the formidable Mary Lindley Murray and her two daughters used whatever charms of personality they possessed to detain the redcoat high command while the remains of the American rebel army hightailed it out of New York in 1776, never to return until the Revolution was over. New York was not very hospitable to those who let thoughts of freedom and liberty get in the way of a few deals, and its great civic leaders were given to swooning whenever they chanced to hear tones that bespoke Mother England. Some things never change.
Anyway, the plaque on Park and 37th is like so many other markers that we ignore as we go about our business. Here in New York, of course, we regard history as an obstacle to bigger and better money-making schemes. (Knock down that landmark! Pave over that worthless cobblestone!) We have none of the reverence for the past that is so pervasive in, say, Boston. Had the Boston Massacre taken place in New York, not only would it have been very confusing indeed (try explaining that one to today’s students), but the site probably would have been chewed up in some real estate boom and would now be home to something called “Trump’s Patriot Penthouse.”
Luckily for us, though, we have people like Charles Monaghan, who espouses the view that the past-New York’s past-is worth examining for its stories and for its lessons. Mr. Monaghan has spent much of the last decade in single-minded pursuit of the family that gave its name to Murray Hill. The result is a splendid bit of local history entitled, as luck would have it, The Murrays of Murray Hill, published by the Urban History Press. It is modest in size (137 pages) and scope, but each page contains a revelation about New York and how it got this way. “It’s the first book ever written about the Murray family,” Mr. Monaghan said.
In another era of publishing, one that considered regional history and fiction to be eminently worthy enterprises despite the low profit margin, Mr. Monaghan’s volume would have found a fine home with some earnest house and would occupy a proud place on the local history shelf of your local bookstore. But lacking as it does any marketable brand-name celebrity-local history can be, like, so uncool that way-Mr. Monaghan’s book comes to us via the small-press route.
Over lunch at the Century Club (with James T. Flexner, the biographer of George Washington, in a spirited conversation 20 feet away, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan holding forth at another table), Mr. Monaghan explained that he owed his interest in the Murray clan, particularly the textbook writer and grammarian Lindley Murray, to his wife, Jennifer Monaghan. She is an expert on American literacy textbooks and a professor at Brooklyn College-yes, those infernal public colleges actually have actual instructors with actual knowledge to impart to actual students.
Mr. Monaghan’s pursuit of the story took him from the archives of the New-York Historical Society to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The book is more than a good bit of New York storytelling; it’s a tribute to one author’s old-fashioned obsession with an obscure but wonderful story. Get a copy, and you’ll find out why that plaque at Park Avenue South and 37th Street may require some revisions.
It has come to this column’s attention that several readers regard March 17 as something of a feast day. If you fit that description, or you know of some poor soul who does, allow me to suggest that you contact the Celtic Art Gallery in Long Island City (718-482-7624). There, those with an appreciation for something other than green beer and political pandering can gaze upon letters written by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan and other such notables. Several exhibits document the long but largely forgotten history of New York’s Irish nationalist community: The Irish Republic, like the state of Israel, was born in the imagination of exiles in this city. Slainte !