Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland - Fiction
It's 1893, and at the Chicago World's Fair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows that he hopes will earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women's division, who conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which Tiffany will long be remembered. Never publicly acknowledged, Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman. She also yearns for love and companionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany, who enforces a strict policy: He does not employ married women. Ultimately, Clara must decide what makes her happiest--the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart.
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Vreeland: CLARA AND MR. TIFFANY
I opened the beveled-glass door under the sign announcing Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in ornate bronze. A new sign with a new name. Fine. I felt new too.
In the ground-floor showroom of the five-story building, stained-glass windows hung from the high ceiling, and large mosaic panels leaned against the walls. Despite the urgency of my business, I couldn't resist taking a quick look at the free-form vases, bronze desk sets, pendulum clocks, and Art Nouveau candelabras. It was the oil lamps that bothered me. Their blown-glass shades sat above squat, bulbous bases too earthbound to be elegant. Mr. Tiffany was capable of more grace than that.
A new young floor manager tried to stop me at the marble stairway. I gave him a look that implied, I was here before you were born, and pushed his arm away as though it were a Coney Island turnstile.
On the second floor, I peered into Mr. Tiffany's large office-studio. With a gardenia pinned to his lapel, he sat at his desk behind a row of potted orchids. In February, no less! Such were the extravagances of wealth. His formerly trim bottle brush of a mustache had sprouted into robust ram's horns.
His own paintings hung on the walls--Citadel Mosque of Old Cairo, with tall, slender minarets, and Market Day at Tangier, with a high tower on a distant hill. A new one depicted a lily on a tall stalk lording over a much shorter one. Amusing. Little Napoléon's self-conscious preoccupation with height was alive and well.
New tall pedestals draped with bedouin shawls flanked the fireplace. On them Oriental vases held peacock feathers. In this his design sense went awry, sacrificed to his flamboyancy. If he wanted to appear taller, the pedestals should have been shorter. Someday I would tell him.
"Why, Miss Wolcott!"
"Mrs. Driscoll. I got married, you remember."
"Oh, yes. You can't be wanting employment, then. My policy hasn't--"
I pulled back my shoulders. "As of two weeks ago, I'm a single woman again."
He was too much the gentleman to ask questions, but he couldn't hide the gleam in his eyes.
"I've come to inquire if you have work for me. That is, if my performance pleased you before." A deliberate prompt. I didn't want to be hired because of my need or his kindness. I wanted my talent to be the reason he wanted me back.
"Indeed" was all he offered.
What now to fill the suspended moment? His new projects. I asked. His eyebrows leapt up in symmetrical curves.
"A Byzantine chapel for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago next year. Four times bigger than the Paris Exposition Universelle. It will be the greatest assembly of artists since the fifteenth century." He counted on his fingers and then drummed them on the desk. "Only fifteen months away. In 1893 the name of Louis Comfort Tiffany will be on the lips of millions!" He stood up and swung open his arms wide enough to embrace the whole world.
I sensed his open palm somewhere in the air behind the small of my back, ushering me to his massive, carved mahogany exhibit table to see his sketches and watercolors. "Two round windows, The Infancy of Christ and Botticelli's Madonna and Child, will be set off by a dozen scenic side windows."
A huge undertaking. How richly fortunate. Surely there would be opportunity for me to shine.
Practically hopping from side to side, he made a show of slinging down one large watercolor after another onto the Persian carpet, each one a precise, fine-edged rendering of what he wanted the window to be.
"Gracious! You've been on...
Clara and Mr. Tiffany
By: Susan Vreeland