Where’s Lillie?

Alice Lowe, author of “Lillie’s Legacy”  from our Winter 2015 issue, recently revisited Coit Tower, the inspiration behind her piece. Upon visiting, she made a shocking discovery.

Ms. Lowe recounts this experience below.  


In early January, just a few weeks after “Lillie’s Legacy” was published in 1966, my husband and I went to San Francisco for a weekend getaway, our reward to ourselves for surviving the holidays. I was eager to revisit Coit Tower, the setting and theme of my essay.

On our first morning we made our usual trek from North Beach up Telegraph Hill, arriving at the tower just before it opened for the day. At 10:00 a.m. a woman I hadn’t seen there previously unlocked the door and came out on the steps. In a sing-song voice, she welcomed the dozen or so of us assembled, adding that she could provide translations in seven languages. Don turned left as we entered; I headed to the right. “I’m going to greet Lillie,” I said, referring to the bust of Lillie Coit that at one time graced the front steps and later was moved to a west-facing window inside.

I turned the corner and stopped short. The space the pedestal had occupied was bare. I wondered where they’d moved it this time, but there was no sign of it on a full circle around the perimeter. I returned to the entrance and asked the woman, “Where’s Lillie?” At her puzzled expression I said, “The statue of Lillie Coit that used to be in the west window.”

“I’ve never seen it,” she said.

She must be new here, I thought. I went back around to ask at the ticket window and was pleased to see Terry, the man who had taken me on the private tour to the hidden murals on my last visit. I re-introduced myself and reminded him of his generous act of a year ago and told him about my essay, gave him the website where he could read it. “You’re in it,” I said.

“So,” I asked, “where’s the bust of Lillie that used to be around the corner?”

Another perplexed look. “We had a display case featuring Lillie, with a photograph, a brief biography and some mementos,” he said. “There was no bust.”

I questioned him repeatedly, as if I would get a more satisfactory response if I kept asking, as if he would say “just kidding” and lead me to the statue. “I saw it when I was here last year,” I said.

“You couldn’t have seen it last year, even if it existed,” he replied, telling me that when they reopened after the last restoration, the pedestal wasn’t put back on display.

I called Don over and asked him what he recalled. His description matched Terry’s. “Why didn’t you say something when you read the draft of my essay?” I asked. He shrugged—he reads my papers, but he doesn’t offer critique or pay attention to details.

I could see it—a three-dimensional Lillie atop a pedestal, an engraved bio underneath—clearly in my mind. Was my memory playing tricks on me? Had I invented it? I was stunned, mystified, dismayed.

When I wrote my essay, I carefully verified all the facts about Lillie, the tower, the murals, the artists. But I had no reason to doubt this tangible monument. If I’d recalled seeing Elvis Presley in one of the murals, I’d have been suspicious, but a tribute to the benefactor of the tower, the irrepressible Lillie Coit? And after repeated visits?

Neuroscience has corroborated what novelists, poets and memoir writers have been saying for centuries. They’ve confirmed the physiological basis of memory and explored the brain activity involved in recalling stored memories, demonstrated that memory may be a result of the act of remembering and as such can be altered with every recall. Memory was the basis for Virginia Woolf’s concept of consciousness and our construction of it. She frequently questioned the accuracy of her memories and articulated her speculations. In memoir sketches she tells about her step-brother clubbing a fish with a broom handle, and immediately follows by asking: “Can I be remembering a fact?”

For centuries memoirists and essayists have issued disclaimers to explain faulty recollections. Rousseau stated in his eighteenth century Confessions that some of his facts might be incorrect, but “I cannot be mistaken about what I felt….” Tobias Wolff prefaced the more recent This Boy’s Life with a similar caveat “…memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make this a truthful story.”

With red-faced apologies to the diligent fact-checking editors of 1966 and to my readers, I plead my innocence by virtue of extenuating circumstances. In my mind, the bust of Lillie Coit welcomes visitors to Coit Tower.


Alice Lowe reads and writes about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Permafrost, Upstreet, Hippocampus, Tinge, Switchback, and Prime Number. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. Her work on Virginia Woolf includes two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

Issue 4 is Coming!

Our fourth bi-annual issue of 1966 will make its debut this month! The Winter 2014 issue will have work by Sandell Morse and Angela Morales, as well as essays about coyote killers, teeth, and breath. We continue to accept submissions of research-driven creative nonfiction. Please consult our submission guidelines. Don’t forget to share our upcoming issue with all of your friends, including those that are avid readers and writers! From the staff here at 1966, we hope you have a wonderful winter holiday and a Happy New Year. This upcoming issue is our gift to you.

Thoughts on Research from our Authors: Natalie Vestin and “The Sea of Crises”

As writers ourselves, we’re always interested in our authors’ process. Here Natalie Vestin shares the inspiration and research behind her essay “The Sea of Crises,” which appears in our current issue: 

My essay “Sea of Crises” was inspired by one of my dad’s stories about Mare Crisium, a valley on the moon. I’d known about the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, but I didn’t know there were other geographic features with names on the lunar surface. Part of my research for this essay included Giovanni Riccioli’s Almagestum Novum (his 1651 atlas of space) and astronomer Thomas Gwyn Elger’s 1895 treatise The Moon. The rest of the research happened accidentally. I had the moon and the Sea of Crises in the back of my mind, and I was reading Vera Rubin’s Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters and books about science and religious faith. I was also walking a lot at night during the winter. January in Minnesota is nightmarish except for the bright, bright stars and planets; the sky becomes a sort of solace you can look toward when the rest of the outdoors is trying to kill you.

 While I was learning more about lunar cartography, I became fascinated with Riccioli, the Jesuit priest who drew maps of the moon and named its features. He’s a cipher; not much is written about him, save for a few accounts of his odd scientific experiments and his unfortunate testimony against Galileo. I was drawn to him, because I was thinking about why people love – really love – the moon, and here’s this astronomer priest trying to walk a fine line between using science to say what he thinks about God and attracting the attention of Inquisitors. What do you write when you’re too terrified to write anything? I guess you write about the moon.

I wrote this essay in a series of poems first – poems imagining this priest, poems about the broken moon, poems about how astronomy grew out of thinking about the physical nature of God. The facts that came out of the research were important, but I also wanted to capture what first fascinated me about the Sea of Crises – that moment when I learned about it and wanted to make it me, wanted to map the moon to myself and think that all bodies can have seas of crises. That’s what’s lovely about research: what you look at and write about has the ability to speak for you and map you when you lack other ways of expression.

–Natalie Vestin

Some Thoughts on Medieval Statuary, Gay Talese, and Iconoclasts.

The west façade of the Cathedral at Exeter, in Devon, England, like countless other Gothic façades, is honeycombed with niches containing statues of saints, heroes, angels, and princes, and these are interlaced with stone vines, flowers, animals, grotesques, and gargoyles. Thirteenth century frogs, mice, baboons, oxen, and dogs perch around doorways. Bishops lift their hands in blessing. Winged demons smirk. Martyrs stand in frozen glory, the instruments of their martyrdom held in their hands like trophies. The statues’ impassive eyes stare out over the Cathedral Green, which serves as a park and meeting place for the city. Couples lounge together on the grass, groups of tourists eat picnic lunches; toddlers run around chasing the seagulls. Almost all of these—human and seabird—are oblivious to the more than one hundred thousand bodies buried inches beneath them. The Green used to be the town cemetery; for centuries it was illegal to bury one’s dead anywhere else. And so the community of stone keeps watch over the community of bone. Together they have dwelt here for seven centuries and if anyone can lay claim to owning this place, it is them, mute witnesses to a long history that to me, as an American, seems overwhelming.

Exeter Cathedral

Although all of the figures are literally blind, some of the statues see less than others. These have been decapitated or have had their faces smashed in. They stand resolutely in their niches, bearing their devastating scars proudly, the souvenirs of a second martyrdom at the hand of protestant iconoclasts: Henry VIII’s reformers, or, later, Cromwell’s Puritan supporters.

When we, inhabitants of the 21st century, use the word “iconoclast,” we tend to mean someone—often an artist or writer or activist—who attacks accepted ideas, beliefs, or traditions. But the original meaning of that word comes from the literal breaking of icons—the destruction of images used in religious decoration and observance.

In the case of the Exeter statues, while both groups of iconoclasts may also have had political motivations for their actions, their stated motivations were religious ones. Protestant iconoclasts saw the images as graven images, false idols of Catholicism, the remnants of a dark, misguided religion. Henry’s men, and later the Roundheads, went about the country smashing medieval sacred art, stabling their horses in churches like Westminster Abbey, and using centuries old stained glass for target practice. In the space of a few years, they’d destroyed hundreds of thousands of works of art. The iconoclasts were not only destructive, but also lazy: only the statues within reach of the ground have been vandalized. Anything higher than that was spared.

Centuries later, as I stand at the foot of Exeter Cathedral’s western wall, I am still filled with rage at the obscene vandalism, the complete ignorance that prompted it. I fucking hate iconoclasts (the original definition).

I’ve been here the past week as part of an American choir that is filling in for the cathedral’s resident choirs. As I sit in the Cathedral day after day singing, I am constantly aware of the work that went into its creation. Its interior walls are covered with the same kind of decoration that graces the west façade, and they have been similarly vandalized. I think of the hundreds of gifted medieval masons, sculptors, and craftsmen who dedicated their lives to serving God and decorating God’s temple. I think of all those gifted, worn, callused hands lifting stone, cutting it, carving it, shaping it, polishing it, painting it. I think of all the love and care and energy and time those men gave—as well as their intellect and creativity. The decorations at Exeter—and other Gothic places—are whimsical as well as beautiful. The Cathedral’s builder’s flea-ridden dog pops up in unexpected places—at the base of arches, in doorways. Demons roast a hapless sinner on a spit.

I think of the love and labor of the artist, and then I think of anger and ignorance of the iconoclast who did not understand the art. The iconoclast who, having reduced his worldview to the narrow strictures of a fundamentalist faith, could only comprehend those statues as idols. Ignorant of history and suspicious of art, he couldn’t fathom any other purpose to those statues. But of course, the statues on the west wall were never meant to be worshipped, but to serve as nonverbal religious instruction and as inspiration to the faithful. They were meant to be beautiful.

While I’ve been in Exeter, I’ve been reading Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, his study of sexual liberation in the United States. In addition to the more famous—or infamous—descriptions of sexual activity and his immersion in it, there is also an extended history of American literary censorship. The impulse behind American censorship seems to me to be the same as the one behind those hammer-wielding Protestants of hundreds of years ago. Self-appointed morality committees and anti-pornography crusaders defined as obscene any frank or detailed depiction of sexuality, including marriage manuals, birth control pamphlets, and classical literature. As a result of their advocacy, works of art as intricate and genial as the Exeter statuary were banned alongside cheap pornography: Ovid. Boccaccio, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Joyce’s Ulysses, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, etc. Countless independent editors, publishers, and distributors were jailed for selling them. Like their Puritan forbearers, the censors in their dogmatic ignorance could not conceive of a purpose in those books other than prurience. And, like their forbearers, their fear of one sin, idolatry (in the case of the Puritans) or libidinousness (in the case of the censors), led them to commit a greater sin: the wanton destruction of culture.

Talese himself faced criticism for Thy Neighbor’s Wife, especially for his participatory journalism. Although he was married, Talese included in his research a stay in a free love community, intercourse with other women and erotic massage, among other immersion experiences. Many believed he’d only used the book as an excuse to engage in extramarital sex. Talese said in an interview for a 2009 profile in New York, “If you want to write about orgies, you’re not going to be in the press box with your little press badge keeping your distance. You have to have a kind of affair with your sources. You have to hang out! I wanted to write about sexuality and the changing definition of morality. Maybe if I had put that in a subhead on the cover I might have gotten a better hearing.” Instead, Talese received the worst reviews of his career and, he felt, the scorn of fellow writers. We are, now, perhaps, more comfortable with creative nonfiction’s techniques of immersive writing and the use of detailed scene. I wonder if the book would have been as controversial in 2013 as it was in 1980. I wonder how many of us would be comfortable in immersing ourselves in such experiences? Whatever the answer, it is certain that Talese was breaking rules and taking risks—personal, artistic, and moral. An iconoclast, if you will.

While it was never banned, Thy Neighbor’s Wife enters the tradition of books like Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Tropic of Cancer, whose authors saw sex and sexuality as topics worthy of exploration through literature. Talese was surely aware that without the efforts of the writers, independent publishers, and anti-censorship crusaders he writes about—the true iconoclasts, many of whom suffered for the cause of artistic freedom—his own book would also have been banned.

In writing about the new sexual landscape, Talese changed—or if you prefer, shattered—readers’ cherished beliefs about ‘normal’ sexuality, an iconoclasm that expanded our understanding of contemporary American culture and our own desires.

As I continue to read They Neighbor’s Wife, I’m put in mind of an amazing essay we will publish in the next issue of 1966, Alicia Catt’s “On Saliva.” Like Talese’s book, it is a sharply observed, wide-ranging look at the body and what we do with it. I can’t wait for you to read it.

–Kelly Grey Carlisle