100 years ago this summer, a little girl received a lovely present from her grandmother.
A leather-bound notebook, perfectly sized for small hands. The paper was heavy, to thwart ink from pooling and bleeding through. The pages were lined, to keep unsteady handwriting neat. The gilded edges indicate the importance and timeless elegance of its owner, a daughter of one of New York’s first families. Her name was emblazoned on the cover— Honoria Alice Livingston.
Honoria was the eldest daughter of John Henry Livingston and Alice Delafield Clarkson Livingston. Her great-great grandfather was Chancellor Robert R Livingston, one of the 5 drafters of the Declaration of Independence, the Minster to France under Jefferson, and the co-inventor of the first practical steamboat, just to name a few accomplishments. The Livingston mansion, Clermont, was decorated in 7 generations of familiar excellence. Honoria grew up at Clermont surrounded by her family’s achievements and with the love her parents, her younger sister Janet, their beloved nurse Ollie, a dozen or so servants, and a menagerie of pets.
Her maternal grandparents, Howard and Alice Clarkson, lived just up the road and visited often. Grannie Alice and Mom Alice were both prolific poets and journal writers in their own right, so it’s no surprise that young Honoria was showing an interest and a talent for creative writing herself. Grannie christened the notebook with a special poem for her young granddaughter.
When Grannie was a little girl
She made a little book,
And many times with joy and pride,
Did in its pages look.
And here she wrote her little tales,
And sometimes verses too;
For airy fondness came to her
Just as they come to you.
And now you write such pretty tales,
And little verses too;
So Grannie thought perhaps this book
To hold them all, would do.
The very day she received the book, Honoria took to work. On the next page, in her very best 10-year-old handwriting, she titled the contents “The Poetry I Made My-Self.” She wrote three poems that day and several more throughout the week.
Comb and brush
I hear a thrush.
Comb and brush
I want to wash.
Brush and comb
Gobi is home
Brush and comb
Away I rome.
Honoria A. Livingston. Aug 3rd 1919
Early poems reference her family, her beloved dog Gobi, and strict rhyming schemes, even if she had to bend the rules a bit to make it work. The following year, the little notebook traveled with the Livingston family as they moved abroad to continue their daughters’ education. Honoria’s repertoire of subject matter grew beyond family life at Clermont and started to include the French countryside, German soldiers, English fairies, and Italian friends.
The Livingstons lived in Europe for the next 6 years. Honoria became a teenager and her subjects became more mature and dramatic:
There’s a road that leads to nowhere good,
There’s a road that leads to Hell;
But there’s also a road to Paradise,
and on that road I dwell.
-Honoria A. Livingston Oct. 5th 1924
Her structures became more experimental and modern:
Of the Universe!
Tell us, I pray thee
Where do the sunsets go when dead?
-Honoria A. Livingston December 2nd 1924
But even so, more than half of her poems are about her beloved pets and many about the comings and goings of her family and friends. Some of her poems are even in French and Italian! She loved to write about the moon and sunsets over Florence, where the family called home for her teenage years.
A week before her 17th birthday in 1926, she wrote a poem to herself, remarking on the occasion and how much she had grown since starting the notebook:
From a very little child
Into a stately maiden dark,
she has grown.
Guicciardini, Florence. January 25th 1926
The rest of her poems in 1926 play out as her previous years in Italy had— pets, family, and beautiful evenings at the family’s Villa. But in November, something happens. The family suddenly rushes back to the States, leaving precious friends and belongings behind. Honoria’s handwriting becomes rushed, the ink is half washed away in big drips, and pages are torn out. The end of 1926 and the beginning of 1927 do not exist.
This is when Honoria’s father, John Henry, passed away.
After JH’s passing, the family settled back in at Clermont. Honoria writes in the notebook for another year and then sets it aside— a memento of her childhood and teenage years. She grew up, had her debut in New York City, and married a charming Irishman named Rex McVitty.
They spent their lives at Clermont in Sylvan cottage, even after the mansion and grounds were deeded to The People of the State of New York. They enjoyed meeting park visitors and actively took part in site events. Honoria lived in the cottage until her passing in 2000— her tin mailbox and Poughkeepsie Journal newspaper box were only recently removed from the driveway.
But even as Honoria grew up, from a 10-year-old girl with her first important grown-up possession, to a beautiful debutant, to an accomplished writer, golfer, gardener, and the Lady of the Estate, she never forgot about her notebook. She came back to it “many times with joy and pride,” just as her Grandmother had before her. As an adult, she even edited and typed some of her early work.
From a historian’s perspective, Honoria’s poetry journal is a fascinating artifact. Not just a chronical of a young girl growing up, but a chronical of life for an American family and a window into post WWI Europe. Not just flights of fancy, but a collection of popular culture influences of the time. Not just cute pets, but little family moments that tell us so much about the last generation of Livingstons of Clermont. It’s a lovely little book, a scrapbook of experiences, and we are lucky to have it.
Post by Emily Robinson, State Parks