Past Is Prologue

Fred and Me

I fell in love with a guy from New England before I knew anything about him, except his art. This is a dangerous practice, as anyone who has spent time with an artist of any sort can surely tell you.

I should know better. I do know better. But I swear this time it’s different.

I found out everything I could about him through the usual channels — not obsessively, mind you, nothing creepy. I made certain inquiries. I’m like that when I’m interested in somebody, as a friend or otherwise. I want to know where they came from so I can understand how they became the person I adore. Maybe it’s more about me than them. That’s an ugly thing that is also probably true.

But I do love origin stories, like Genesis and Ghostbusters. So I learned more about him because that’s what I do.

I learned he was from Connecticut, America’s most blandly pretty and aggressively dull state. I learned he loved long walks, alone or with friends. I learned that he missed his brother. Eventually, I learned about the moment he walked into a bedroom and saw his mother’s dead body, how that flash of pain was seared into his young brain in excruciating detail. She’d overdosed on opiates and died in the house. He was not yet four years old.

I always hope something like that happens when they’re smaller, so maybe it isn’t burned into their soul with a branding iron. But perhaps part of you always understands, and always remembers.

Unsurprisingly, I learned that he plunged into terrible dark moods and intensely productive manias. That is so my type. It is fun until it isn’t, and then it’s terrible, and then it’s fun again. Oh, and he was as fond of coffee as I am. We both got advice from others that we really ought to take it easy with that stuff, among other substances. We both ignored the advice.

But before I knew any of that, all those random facts that don’t even really give you the flavor of a person, I just knew his art — his spectacular, world-altering, verdant, living art. Now that had a distinct and beautiful taste to it unlike any other. I loved it, so I thought I knew and loved his full authentic self, too. I didn’t, of course. Art is always a performance. It can be true, but it is never completely honest.

Take this story, for example.

I have not yet told you that he’s dead, and that we never actually met, as our lifetimes did not overlap. This is highly inconvenient for me personally. But it is still true that I love him, and I think Frederick Law Olmsted (Fred, to his friends) would be okay with that.

Art is always a performance. It can be true, but it is never completely honest.

I fell in love with America’s pioneering landscape architect the first time I ever saw his most celebrated work of art, Central Park. A shy, bookish child of New Jersey, I was used to fields and forests but not to 843 acres of carefully cultivated magic. My parents fell in love and married in a town that is smaller than this most famous of all the Olmsted-designed public parks and private spaces that dot the country.

Vaux and Olmsted’s winning competition entry, the Greensward Plan for Central Park, 1858.

The great park (which, I should say, was equally his business partner Calvert Vaux’s co-creation) seemed so magnificent that I couldn’t imagine it was the work of human beings. It must’ve just sprung up there all on its own after somebody powerful waved a wand. This was an enchanted kingdom, the work of a supernatural being.

I was a child, remember, and it is easy for children to believe in gods and monsters. It would be years before I learned that on this planet, only the latter remain to walk among us.

Fred Olmsted believed that a public park should be a relaxing space of joy and renewal, open to people of every age, color, creed, class, and gender. Of his New York City works, he actually preferred Prospect Park to Central Park, as a certain type of Brooklynite will be sure to tell you. Hell, I live in Los Angeles at the moment, and I will tell it to you as if you’ll actually care. (You do care, don’t you? You should. I think you should. If you saw the parks, you’d understand.)

He had a bit more control over the construction of Prospect Park. I’m sure that’s why he preferred it. Like a lot of people forged in trauma, Fred cherished control and order. He wasn’t great at sharing the workload, much less accepting constructive (or other) criticism.

I’d love to visit all his parks, but that might take a lifetime. I’ve gotten to see some of them, though. The Emerald Necklace in Boston is pretty great — I spent some time there before I got deeply depressed and dropped out of college. During the worst days, I wondered if I might keep myself alive long enough to end up in the famed McLean Hospital, where so many New Englanders have suffered and healed from wounds that can’t be seen on the body. Fred had once submitted a design for the grounds there, but it was rejected.

I did stay alive, but I did not end up in McLean, or in the facilities where my grandmother spent time, or in the New Jersey asylum where my violent great-grandfather died. Back home, I walked the countryside with my parents and brother and by myself. Nature, as Fred knew, can heal a lot of wounds.

Colorized photo of Central Park’s lower mall, 1901
Colorized photo of Central Park’s lower mall, 1901
Central Park, 1901.

Within a few months, I was able to go into New York to see Central Park again. What a balm it was that spring. Fred’s park made me feel like I was real again, like other people.

When I got better and found a new school outside Asheville, North Carolina, I was thrilled to discover that Fred had designed the landscape at the Biltmore Estate. If the artist leaves something of himself in each work, I figured this meant he was still near me, in his way.

My childhood best friend lives in Milwaukee, and I am pleased to say that Fred has left his mark there, as well. When her children were small, I played with them at Lake Park, on the shores of Lake Michigan.

I had a kind of celebrity crush on Fred for a long time. But our relationship really deepened after I spent several years living in Los Angeles in my thirties. It is true that he designed no park within the City of Angels. But I devoted hours — nearly 19 of them, in fact, spread out over the last of my drinking months — listening to the audiobook of Justin Martin’s Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted.

I had plenty of time on my hands, in between hours spent typing various things for money. I lived alone. I went on plenty of dates, but my romantic life was disappointing at best. Developing a crush on a dead guy seemed more sensible than trying to continue running on the hamster wheel of people who ultimately cared as little for me as I did for myself.

Dating seemed to baffle and frustrate Fred, too. If we ever met in real life — once I got past explaining why I spent a lot of time swiping my finger across a glowing brick while grimacing — I think he and I would’ve had very relatable conversations on the subject.

I learned that he did get married, finally, at age 37, to his brother’s widow. He acquired a couple of stepchildren and had a few more children after that.

I didn’t get married or acquire kids at 37. I did quit drinking — not because of Fred, but because of other men and women and children and mostly because of myself, and maybe because of God or my aforementioned taste for coffee. You get a lot of coffee when you quit drinking, if you hang out with the right crowd. It was weird, and still is, but it’s better.

I have listened to that audiobook several times since, paying closer attention to the details about his early days as an apprentice sailor on a ship to China (the crew nearly mutinied), a gentleman farmer on Staten Island (he didn’t love it), and a journalist undercover in the plantation South (the resultant articles are today assembled in The Cotton Kingdom, a landmark abolitionist work that I own on audiobook and in hard copy).

I marveled at all that he packed into a lifetime. All this, and all the parks, including a masterful vision for Yosemite (I have a copy of the speech he gave to other planners), plus stewardship of the United States Sanitary Commission for the Union during the Civil War? Truly, Fred was unbelievably accomplished. And, as it turns out, quite a handsome gentleman. Do a Google, you’ll see what I mean.

Young Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. Ahem.

His service with the USSC was of particular interest to me. He joined the Union medical division as its first General Secretary in 1861. He wasn’t fit for Army service — a carriage accident the previous year had left him injured and may have led to the death of his infant son.

But what Fred accomplished with the USSC was bigger than anything he could’ve done as an Army officer. He did what great humans do when they walk into a shitshow: They clean it up, organize it, and make it better. The National Park Service website has a page devoted to his work:

Upon arriving in Washington, DC to inspect twenty army camps, Olmsted found that the troops were shockingly ill-clad, ill-provided for, and living in abject squalor. Officers and soldiers held military regulations regarding sanitary measures in contempt and medicine and medical personnel were in short supply. The army ignored Olmsted’s initial efforts to address the situation.

Fred, however, would not be ignored. He had just co-designed an enormous Manhattan fairyland that required the blasting, removal, and rearrangement of 476,000 cubic yards of rock that formed 190 million to 1.1 billion years prior. He was not about to let some uniformed guys with weird beards tell him that hand-washing was for sissies.

He did what great humans do when they walk into a shitshow: they clean it up, organize it, and make it better.

He was responsible for the creation of sanitation protocols that saved countless lives. He oversaw the construction and management of floating hospitals on ships. He personally helped treat wounded soldiers during the Peninsula Campaign. He supervised the nurses and surgeons who, often improvising as they went, developed the foundation of modern trauma medicine. He saw soldiers endure amputations with and without anesthesia. He kept relentless hours, always trying to improve outcomes, always working harder and harder.

Some colleagues thought he never slept. Sometimes he didn’t, for days on end. Mania will do that to a person. Today we know that suffering need not be the price one pay for genius, and we have methods to help those who are privileged enough to access them. Fred would’ve had that privilege. He made good money as an adult, and before that, when he was a young man, he had a dad who worried about him and supported him as best he could. His dad remembered the dead body in the house, too.

But there was no mindfulness-based stress reduction then, no EMDR, no choice of antipsychotics or atypical antipsychotics or SSRIs.

Horticultural therapy did not exist as it does today, though perhaps in his way Fred was a pioneer of that specialty, too. People heal in the places he built, and this was absolutely part of his mission. But he didn’t have the tools to heal himself, whether in a battlefield hospital, in a garden, or in the boardrooms where he fought with countless higher-ups.

His supervisors at the USSC didn’t exactly adore him. He was mercurial, sometimes seemingly illogical, and headstrong. His manic phases confused and worried those who didn’t understand him. I think his father understood him. I think his wife, Mary, understood him, as she’d understood her first husband, his brother John.

I think I understand him, maybe.

He served until after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 when the mounting pressure and his own mental health struggles led to what sounds like a nervous breakdown. He resigned, but he had built something that would continue to save men during and after the war.

There’s so much more to his life story. I wish I could ask him all about it. Most of us are a mix of trash and treasure. Fred made mistakes. Aside from his lifelong war with the roiling waves of darkness within him, the ones that couldn’t always drown the memories, he could be a regular old-fashioned pain in the ass. He could be cantankerous, irrational, and rude. But he was decent, and he was idealistic, and he tried to make things better.

I can’t talk to him, so I read about him, and I listen to stories about him — like that audiobook, Genius of Place.

As it turns out, it makes a good soundtrack for packing boxes. I am almost 40 now, and I am leaving Los Angeles for a little while. This is not because it doesn’t have any good parks. In fact, this is one of the finest cities in the whole wide world, and it has some excellent parks. Once, my friend was hiking and injured his leg in a canyon here, and the same day, the cops found a human head in that very same canyon. Hollywood, baby!

Early in the pandemic, I put on a mask and went on a socially distant date in Griffith Park with somebody I met through an application on my telephone. This fellow would become a very nice socially distant friend. We hung out by the abandoned zoo, as one does.

Griffith Park is bigger and wilder than Central Park. Griffith J. Griffith, the man for whom it is named, donated 3,015 acres of parkland to the city of Los Angeles. Seven years later, he shot and severely wounded his wife. He went to jail for two years. It’s still called Griffith Park. And that’s the most Los Angeles thing I could tell you about Los Angeles.

I will be back, but there are birthdays and babies on the way, and I haven’t had a slice of pizza down the Shore in a minute.

Before I left, I wanted to go see Yosemite for the very first time, to gauge how much of Fred’s early idealistic plan had been realized. I’ve spent so much time with Fred out here, and it felt like a nice conclusion to this part of my California story. Fred and me, these East Coast kids gone West.

But then my short vacation was canceled due to the fires that spread rapidly in the state, consuming over 4 million acres, an area bigger than Connecticut. Forests burned, and so did houses, buildings, utility poles, electronics, cars, all of the things humans make so that life is easier and safer. Yosemite was closed because it was hard to breathe there.

I was worried about the wildlife, worried about my neighbors, and worried about my adopted state. The air quality in my neighborhood was very bad on some days. A sickly amber haze nearly blotted out the sun. My eyes and skin itched, and I was thirsty and tired more often than usual.

As far as the vacation goes, I was disappointed, but sometimes we don’t get to say goodbye to the people and places we love in the sweetest and most romantic manner. There’s not always, or often, a kind ending to real-world stories.

Remember McLean Hospital, in Massachusetts? Fred submitted a design for the grounds there, and it was not used. Years later, he died there, mad with dementia, a nearly unrecognizable shell of his former self. His wife, Mary Olmsted, had done her best to care for him at home for years. But even she was finally persuaded to let him go.

It is hard to let go of a person. It is easy to let go of a vacation, or the ending you’d planned for a story. If you stay open, you get something new in its place.

I found other uses for my dwindling time in Los Angeles — mainly, work, for which I am always grateful, but especially this year. Soon enough, I found myself in an old building in downtown Los Angeles, working on a small production that required masks, ventilation, forehead temperature checks, and — the cruelest change to set life in 2020 — individually wrapped snacks instead of the craft services buffet.

On a break, I wandered into a quiet hallway to check my phone. I was stressed about the movers, and about ending the cable service — cable companies are more desperate to keep you around than any lover ever could be, and they truly will not take “no” for an answer until you’ve said it five times. Their attachment style is definitely anxious, and their love language is not letting me get off the goddamn phone.

I looked up, and I caught sight of a large swath of fabric hanging in a plexiglass case down the hall. I walked closer to peer at it. It had clearly been colorful and beautiful once. I had no idea why it was in this office building.

It was a worn, faded old banner, about 10 feet tall, elaborately stitched with a tableau featuring an angelic nurse with wings rising above a battlefield upon which lay wounded soldiers. It read: “THE UNION: It must and shall be preserved.”

On a blazing hot autumn weekday, in an industrial section of downtown Los Angeles, in a state where no Civil War battles were fought, I was looking at the official seal of the United States Sanitary Commission. How did I know? Because I recognize my boyfriend’s work anywhere, okay? (Also, it said “United States Sanitary Commission: June 9, 1861.”)

There was no reason for it to be there, but is there a reason for anything to be anywhere? Sometimes things just are. I was in that building, on that day, in that hallway, because I needed to work, and because I needed to check my email and stretch my legs and neck, and I looked up and there was Fred, staring me right in the face. I stared back.

I made inquiries about the banner, of course. I have to know everything about what I love, remember. It was there because somebody found it in an attic. Why a relic of the Civil War should have been in the attic of a building in Los Angeles is anybody’s guess, but they had it restored as best they could and they put it on display for others to appreciate.

I wanted the perfect outdoor golden California kiss goodbye from the sun-soaked earth. But sometimes you don’t get a stunning, wide-open vista, with clean air and an awe-inspiring cerulean sky above a gigantic park built to inspire the masses. Sometimes you get a faded, battered banner in a humble office building in a faded, battered, humble part of town to remind you that love is patient, love is kind, love is all around, love is all you need.

There are many kinds of love. I do not have romantic love in my life, not right now. Fred is dead, and dating apps may as well be, for all the enjoyment they provide me. But I love my family, very much, and it is time to go home to see them. I will not live with them because I love them too much to foist that upon them.

After I’m settled in my temporary place in New Jersey, a state that to my knowledge is not currently ablaze with anything other than deservedly high self-regard, I will drive a borrowed car over the state border to the great city on the Hudson.

After spending too long looking for parking, ultimately settling for an overpriced lot, and undoubtedly popping into a Starbucks with wild-eyed desperation in order to use the bathroom, I will go to Central Park. I know it wasn’t his favorite, but it’s my favorite, and I have some say in this relationship, after all.

It will be cool there, perhaps even cold by then. I will sit down, and my ass will eventually get uncomfortable on a bench that will have a little nameplate for somebody’s beloved bubbe, 1918–2007, or for the love of The Horticultural Society of New York, or some other worthy honoree. There is a bench named for Madeline Kahn, and that is the best one. You should go find it.

I will tell Fred what’s been going on, and I will listen for his answer. I will hear children playing, teens laughing, adults complaining in six languages about this or that, elderly couples walking slowly in companionable silence, canes and walkers and wheelchairs and scooters thumping, rolling and buzzing along.

Two older people will talk politics, agreeing so loudly and fervently that it looks like they’re arguing — this is the kind of culture I come from, and I feel at home around it, and half the people in New York are from places where shouting is the accepted traditional form of agreement. It’s like the trickling of an electric fountain in a strip mall day spa: perfectly soothing.

A dog will bark at another dog, and somebody will have one of those space-age backpacks made for cats, and somebody else will coo over the cat while another whispers that it’s a little bit weird to bring a cat outside, no? Somebody will run by, wearing a mask, breathing heavily as they try to pace themselves, to stay healthy, to stay alive, even this year, especially this year.

It will be exactly as he hoped it would be. It will be everything he wanted. It will be the only kind of peace he could imagine — not for himself, not ever, but for the rest of us. To sit in Central Park is to live inside a gift from somebody who loved the idea of you before you were born.

To me, it will all sound like love.

Author, REAL ARTISTS HAVE DAY JOBS (and other books). Writer of scripts. Host of WELL, THIS ISN’T NORMAL podcast. Patreon.com/SaraBenincasa

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