Paris Center Stories: Meredith Levin, Columbia University Libraries

Meet Meredith Levin, the Western European Humanities Librarian at Butler Library. An honorary member of the Paris Center team, she is currently working on the creation of the Reid Hall History Website with our administrative director, Brune Biebuyck.

March 10, 2020

Tell us about yourself. How long have you been at Columbia?

I’ve been at Columbia for five and a half years. I am the Western European Humanities Librarian at Butler Library, so I am the direct library liaison for several departments, institutes and programs – including all of the programs here at Reid Hall.

How did you first come to Reid Hall?

It was through Paul LeClerc, the director of the Paris Center. The University Librarian at Columbia, Ann Thornton, had been a director at the New York Public Library before she came to Columbia, so Paul had known her many years ago when he was president of the NYPL. He took a look at the Reid Hall library and thought: “Isn’t it interesting that no one from Columbia Libraries has worked with our students before?”

So, they proposed that I would come to visit and look at the library and see what the collections were like, and also see what the undergraduates and masters students might need in terms of research support.

How long have you been coming to Reid Hall now?

It’s been almost five years. It was in my first year of working at Columbia that this started and then it became an every-semester trip.

What was the most interesting discovery you made while cleaning out the library?

Personally, I really love travel writing, so I loved the collection of guidebooks from the 19th century and early 20th century. But probably the single coolest thing I found was a book on the history of France that had a bookplate in it from Teddy Roosevelt. It had belonged to Teddy and we have no idea how it got here.

How did you start working on the Reid Hall History website?

Brune Biebuyck, the administrative director of Reid Hall, had always dreamed of working on this project; and although Paul was the person who initially brought me to Reid Hall, the person with whom I work most closely has been Brune. She realized quickly that, given the volume of material and the layers of history this place had, she would benefit working with another information professional; so, she asked if I would be interested. Little did we know that I would become as obsessed with the project as she is!

How long have you been working on the project? Did you start from the Reid Hall archives and branch out from there?

I’d say we’ve been working in earnest for about two years now. I think Brune really started with the Reid Hall archives. I still really haven’t had a chance to dig into those materials and that’s what we’re doing now – digitizing news clippings and stray papers. I started with the archives at Barnard and Columbia. Because I’m based in New York, it made sense to look at the archives of the people who were instrumental in developing this place in the 1920s and 1930s and then we worked out from there.

Columbia also has a collection called the 'Reid Hall Records.' Most of the content comes from the transfer of the property in 1964, but there are also some things from earlier – meeting minutes from the Board of Directors going back to the ‘20s, again a lot of it coming from the Virginia Gildersleeve era, and then some random documents like Mrs. Reid’s initial deed of purchase when she acquired the land in 1911.

Do you have a lot of images?

We have a ton of images. A lot of it comes from digitized newspapers and magazines. In terms of actual photographs, those are actually really hard to come by, so when we do find one it’s like the holy grail.

What was the most surprising thing that you found while doing your research?

I think the most surprising thing for me was the period in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when Reid Hall was the University Women’s Paris Club, and how women were openly gay and living here with their partners and it just didn’t seem to be a topic of conversation or debate. This was just a place where intellect was valued above all things, so if you were a scholar, or an artist, or a writer, you were judged solely on the basis of merit. I think that’s pretty progressive, certainly when given that in the States in the ‘20s or ‘30s that wasn’t a lifestyle that was really accessible to a lot of people.

Do you have a favorite image or a favorite anecdote that you found?

My absolute favorite is the story of Crystal Ross, who was a woman who knew Hemingway and whom he immortalized in The Sun Also Rises. She was a PhD student in comparative literature at the Université de Strasbourg and she had gotten a master’s at Columbia in 1911. From Texas originally, she met John Dos Passos when she was in New York – I don’t think they knew each other very well but they got engaged – and then she came to France to study. He was off writing in Paris and she decided, when classes were finished, to come visit him in Paris. She stayed at Reid Hall because she was a proper woman, she wasn’t going to stay with him. He, as a writer and novelist, was already friendly with Hemingway, so that’s how he introduced her to him. They were all at the Closerie des Lilas and decided to go to Pamplona on the spur of the moment to watch the bullfights. She went with them and then, at the end trip, decided to break of the engagement and go back to Strasbourg. Dos Passos went off hiking in the Pyrenees mountains and, again, no one really knows if she kept in touch with him or Hemingway. But obviously she left a mark on him because he uses her in the first couple pages of the book to set up the story of the trip to Pamplona.

A number of women artists who were living here from the 1890s to 1914 are really amazing too. One was a sculptor named Alice Morgan Wright. She was a suffragette – super progressive, going on a hunger strike for women’s voting rights. She also founded the Humane Society with her longtime partner, who was also another progressive woman suffragette. I thought this woman was amazing – an artist fighting for women’s rights and worrying about animal cruelty – when did she have time to sleep? And you find this with a lot of these women. They weren’t just great artists; they often came from very prominent families and they used that prominence to benefit others. They weren’t just people who came here to paint and then get married, they really wanted to play a role in society – service has always been a part of the culture here.

What are you researching now? Have you moved on to a different time period?

We’ve been trying to do our due diligence throughout from the porcelain factory to the beginning of the Columbia era. Now we need to think carefully about what was going on here in the '70s, '80s, and '90s; and that’s where Brune really comes in because she was here and remembers a lot of it – and has many of the records in her possession. We’re also starting to do an art inventory with the disparate pieces that are on the walls and in storage around the property. Now that we know more about these women artists who were here, either as visitors or residents, we’re hoping that we’ll be able to look at a painting or drawing and attribute it to one of them. That was the process for identifying the artist who painted the beautiful oil painting in the library. It’s by a woman named Blondelle Malone, who was living here around 1911-12. She did a show here at the Club and we realized that, not only had she exhibited this piece at the show, she had also won a prize and then gifted the painting to Reid Hall.

Two women in garden

It’s just a constant process of uncovering and trying to put together the networks, because all of these people had different connections. Sometimes they forged relationships while they were here, but often they came to Reid Hall knowing people and then brought others in with them. It’s really to cool to map out the connections between people – some of them are really well-known, and then some are obscure but you find traces of them in newspapers. We sort of feel like we know all these people.

Do you feel like this project has made you one of the “women of Reid Hall”?

Absolutely! I’m an honorary Reid Hall member for sure.

 

WATCH "AN ILLUSTRATED PRESENTATION ON THE HISTORY OF REID HALL"

Presentation of the history of Reid Hall with Brune Biebuyck, Meredith Levin, and Shannon Marquez