Ithaca—justly celebrated for its natural beauty, cultural resources and general liveability— has been the home of a surprising number of notable and eminent people. At various times, members of the glitterati have trod the streets of our fair city, all to the greater glory of Ithaca.
For two years in the 1840s (1846-1848), prominent abolitionist and fugitive slave Jermain Wesley Loguen lived in a much smaller (population 5,600) Ithaca and was pastor of the St. James AME Zion Church on Cleveland Avenue.
World-renowned ornithologist and artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes lived his whole life (1874-1927), on and off, in Ithaca (much of it at 201 Wyckoff Avenue). In his lifetime, Fuertes illustrated scores of books and magazine articles, and was something of an international explorer in his pursuit of knowledge of birds.
A hundred years ago, when Ithaca was one of the centers of the movie-making industry, some of the first generation of true movie stars lived in Ithaca while making films. Frances X. Bushman, America’s first real matinee idol, lived at 202 Thurston Avenue during the summer of 1913. During the next seven years or so, such luminaries as Pearl White and Lionel Barrymore would stay at the Ithaca Hotel on the corner of East State and South Aurora Streets while filming. White was notorious around town for smoking, drinking, swearing and racing around Ithaca and environs in a bright yellow Stutz Bearcat, perhaps all at the same time.
In 1919, movie star Irene Castle married the scion of the locally-prominent Treman family, Robert E. Treman, and they lived in a house given to them by the groom’s father, Robert H. Treman at 106 Cayuga Heights Road (currently the Sigma Chi fraternity house). The marriage was short-lived, ending in divorce after Robert may or may not have invested and lost a good deal of Irene’s money in the stock market.
Alex Haley was born here in 1921 (his family lived on Cascadilla Street) and left shortly thereafter, though he was here long enough to have the municipal pool at the corner of Albany and Court Streets named after him. I’ve been to the pool, by the way, and it looks nothing like his pictures. Haley, for those of you too young to remember the miniseries phenomenon that was Roots, was an author, famous for the multi-generational family history book of the same name (Roots), The Autobiography of Malcolm X and conducting (for Playboy Magazine) the longest interview of Dr. Martin Luther King ever granted.
Iconoclastic composer Harry Partch spent the spring and summer of 1943 living at 329 West Seneca Street, working a part-time bookkeeping job with a scrap-iron company and working on his composition U.S. Highball, before becoming restless and moving on.
Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered by some to be the most influential philosopher of the 20th century, lived in Ithaca during the summer of 1949 in the home of a friend at 1107 Hanshaw Road. While here, and in failing health, he was rushed to the hospital, determining along the way that at all costs he did not want to die in America among Americans. Upon recovering, he hurried back to Europe, presumably much relieved to be back among Europeans.
Another famous Ithacan is Vladimir Nabokov, who lived in something like eleven different houses in Ithaca between 1948 and 1959 (mostly other professors’ homes). He is said to have written most of Lolita at 802 East Seneca Street, having listened on Ithaca city buses for ‘school-girl dialogue’ to use in the book. The story is that during a moment of creative frustration, he was dissuaded by his wife from incinerating the Lolita manuscript while at that address.
There are those of us of a certain vintage who remember the music of Harry Chapin. He lived in Collegetown in the early 1960s, writing songs and playing at, among other places, Johnny’s Big Red on Dryden Road (his first solo gig). His song “Old College Avenue” was written about a young woman with whom he lived on that street. Apparently, Chapin supplemented his music income on the pool tables at Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall.
Paul Wolfowitz, World Bank President and former Assistant Secretary of Defense is a product of local educational institutions (Ithaca High School and Cornell), having spent his formative years on East Hill (241 Valley Road).
If you’re someone who can sense the presence of past lives, Ithaca is a rich place. One imagines chance meetings. An undergraduate Kurt Vonnegut holding a library door open for Hans Bethe, maybe, or college student Toni Morrison crossing State Street as a teenage Paul Wolfowitz zooms by on his bicycle. Ann Coulter stumbling out of the door of the Nines as Dr. Sagan, the voice of rational, secular humanism drives by? Undoubtedly, there are others among us who, sometime down the road, will also become well known. For the rest of us, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of the accomplishments of Ithacans, past and present. §