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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Even More on that Pie Girl Dinner.

A few weeks ago we had a question--and later, a blog post--about the practice of ladies jumping out of cakes. While Elisabeth found that animals (including ladies) have been popping out of cakes and pies for many years, what caught my attention was the interesting story about Stanford White, a New York City architect at the turn of the century, who orchestrated the infamous “Pie Girl Dinner.”

I had found a somewhat unreliable source online that said a picture of the girl popping out of the pie was on the front page of the New York Times in 1895. I searched the heck out of the New York Times archives (you can even limit to articles appearing on the front page), but to no avail. However, even though Elisabeth answered the question, I couldn’t let Stanford White and his Pie Girl Dinner go. I needed more!

We got Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Love and Death in the Gilded Age by Michael Macdonald Mooney via interlibrary loan, and while the book is prone to exaggeration and wild adjective overuse, it does provide a reprint of the famous Pie Girl Dinner picture (only it was the New York Evening World, not the New York Times):

The author points out that the illustration adds clothes to the pie girl. Note the man with the knife on the right; that's Stanford White.

It also paints a portrait of the dinner, complete with a healthy dose of descriptors. (As an aside, there are no footnotes or endnotes that site the author's sources, so who knows if this is accurate, or merely the brainchild of Michael Macdonald Mooney.) Before the big pie girl finish, the meal was served by scantily clad models. Trust me when I say that Michael Macdonald Mooney must have elaborated a little:

“The room soon hung heavy with acrid smells--the combination of wines, too much food, a fog of cigarette smoke, the sweat of the men mingled with the streaming sweat of the girls that mixed with their powders and perfumes....Then a faint tingled of bells could be heard, and the procession reappeared once again in Indian file; but they were no longer wearing their sashes, no longer wearing anything at all except sleighbells attached to their ankles and castanets on their fingers. Every man was silent" (196-197).

Then there was a sexy dance, described IN DETAIL (really, Michael Macdonald Mooney, was that necessary?), which I will spare you because this is a family show, and then, after a lull, this:

“Then a whistle sounded and through the swinging doors a file of Roman slave girls reappeared, their bodies streaked with sweat [again with the sweat, Michael Macdonald Mooney!], bearing a huge trestle, six girls on each side of it. Upon the trestle was what appeared to be a monstrous pie, the crust a meringue of ermine white and the base surrounded by banks of red and blue flowers....They began to circle the pie and to sing to it, their voices now heavy with wine and passion and incipient catarrh" (197-198).

I must pause here to say that I had to look up catarrh, which means "inflammation of the mucus membranes of the respiratory tract." I'm no editor, but I really want a little red pencil with which to edit Michael Macdonald Mooney's text (although I would never do that to a library book!). Also, I enjoy that the pie is monstrous. MONSTROUS PIE! Anyway, the catarrh-laden ladies sang the "sing a song of sixpence" song to the monstrous pie, and stopped at the line "when the pie was opened....":

“And at the cue, the top of the pie rose up, and birds--doves, canaries, and nightingales--began to fly everywhere in the room....As the birds scattered a shining blond child rose from the center of the pie, making graceful weaving motions with her arms” (196-198).

I will spare you the description of the "blond child," who, by the way, was Susie Johnson, age 15 or so. According to Michael Macdonald Mooney, who at this point I do not exactly look to as a reliable source, Susie Johnson ran away from home, became a model, and later married, but "'her husband threw her off because he heard of the "Pie Dinner." She is buried in Potter's Field'" (198-199). Poor Susie. I feel for her. You would too if you read how Michael Macdonald Mooney described the poor thing, and let's not forget she was trapped under a layer of meringue with a bunch of probably freaked out doves, canaries, and nightingales.

Even if every tiny detail of the sweat-laden party scene wasn't 100% accurate, we still get a pretty good picture of what the Pie Girl Dinner was like. My perception of meringue has been altered forever.

Mooney, Michael Macdonald. Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Love and Death in the Gilded Age. Morrow, 1976.

1 comment:

  1. thank you so much for doing this research and sharing it! very, very interesting. i do wonder if the pie girl evening was indeed what led to the "girl jumping out of a cake" profusion in popular imagination. cheers.


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