Of Masks and Invitations

Before e-mail, texting, and social distancing, there was one way to invite historical figures to dinner

photo by jonathan Blanc ©New York Public Library

Currently, Patience and Fortitude, the two marble lions guarding the steps to the front entrance of the New York Central Library wear face masks to encourage the public to continue wearing theirs for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. I have a warm spot in my heart for those lions, even before they became icons for early adoption of social distancing.

I’ve not read it (yet), but a high school English teacher of mine absolutely adored the book, “Van Loon’s Lives,” a biographical fantasy in which Dutch historian Hendrik Willem van Loon invited historical figures to dinner for conversations and debate. (The full title was “Van Loon’s Lives: Being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages, from Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, about whom we had always felt a great deal of curiosity and who came to us as dinner guests in a bygone year.”)

I’m mentioning “Van Loon’s Lives” now because those two glorious marble lions are indelibly connected to the book in my mind. When she first described the book to me, Mrs. Nedoff explained that Van Loon invited the historical figures to dinner by sliding invitations underneath Patience’s and Fortitude’s marble paws. This captured my imagination so much that I’ve checked for invitations both times I’ve visited NYC.

Alas, there were no invitations to be found.

Imagine my disappointment years later when I read that Van Loon’s actual method of invitation in the book is to leave a list of names under stone lions in front of the town hall in Veere where Van Loom had a summer home. It’s an even greater disappointment that the one I have for Steve Allen apparently never acknowledging Van Loon’s Lives as the inspiration for his PBS tv series, “The Meeting of the Minds.”

A stray thought occurs to me. This was a book from Mrs. Nedoff’s childhood. I wonder if this book was first read to her by an adult. Perhaps he or she changed the location of the lions from Veere town hall to the New York Central Library to enhance the glamor of libraries for her young mind. That’s just a guess and will remain one because Mrs. Nedoff passed away a few years ago.

Masked or unmasked, Van Loon literary canon or not, I’m still going to check Patience and Fortitude for invitations the next time I’m in New York. I might even leave an invitation or two myself.

photo by jonathan Blanc ©New York Public Library

The lion photos on this page were taken by NYPL staff photographer. You can see more of his other photos at his website by clicking here.

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