I was a kid when Rosalie Edge died in 1962, and although I never heard of her back then, the subsequent discovery that our lives overlapped for a decade gave me a feeling of immediacy. Imagine if you dare, that on my family’s frequent trips to New York City we passed Edge’s Fifth Avenue apartment house while she lived there!
On the same day aged Rosalie and little me might have been stroIling through Central Park or visiting the American Museum of Natural History!
If your adrenalin did not just spike you are not cut out to be a biographer. Having your lifespan intersect with your subject’s is a thrill current biographers of Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were born too late to indulge.
Edge sank beneath my horizon; 30 years later as I nonchalantly transcribed her private letters, the lives of those who had known her were blinking out. One day I called to speak to Edge’s nephew Donald Barrow who was about 72. His wife cheerily asked me to call back later.
He had a stroke that afternoon and never spoke again. Shaken by this I set aside century-old letters to pursue remaining family and acquaintances Peter Edge suggested could give character references for his mother. I first phoned 100-year old Lelli who lived in Rome. For 30 years loyal, still-lucid Lelli accompanied Rosalie as interpreter and Renaissance art and architecture critic in Italy, France and Switzerland, and scouted out avian sights for her favorite American grandee. Next, Edge’s English goddaughter Melissa Marston Macleod, a first-time newlywed at 82, remembered the “volatile” relations between Rosalie and her husband Charles. Irma Broun Kahn, 84, who with her late husband Maurice Broun worked (slavishly) for Edge at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for 28 years, invited me to stay with her at her townhouse in Modesto, California. It reeked of un-housebroken dog. Roger Tory Peterson, 82, reminisced guardedly about Edge when we met at Hawk Mountain. John B. Oakes, 77-year old retired editorial writer for The New York Times, wrote me that he met Edge once, and as an impressionable youth learned everything about conservation from her ECC revelations.
Though an Audubon member Oakes never stopped making small contributions to the ECC, or sympathizing with her “radical attitude.” Oakes urged me to talk to his 86-year old friend Richard Pough, an Audubon employee who under Edge’s influence co-founded the Nature Conservancy. Unbeknownst to Columbia University, Edge’s lasting influence is also embedded in Oakes’s 1994 creation of the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism sponsored by the school.
Rosalie’s estranged daughter Margaret Nightingale, 75, hosted me at her sparsely furnished house in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Margaret declared that her mother deserved acclaim for all she had done to save raptors. But she hated her mother anyway. If they happened to approach on a sidewalk in Manhattan Margaret shot Rosalie a withering glance, turned, and crossed the street. Might I have witnessed it?
Next: Into the Basement.