In our latest installment of NYC Makers, we caught up with Fiona Davis, the bestselling author of The Masterpiece and The Chelsea Girls. We met up with her in her apartment, a quintessentially pre-war Upper West Side building, befitting of the New York City period pieces she pens which each take place in specific buildings in the city. The Chelsea Girls, which takes place in the Chelsea Hotel, is her most recent novel, The Address is set in The Dakota Apartments, but The Masterpiece which spins a multi-decade tale involving a lost art school in Grand Central Terminal has been one of our reader and tour-goer favorites, with many book clubs booking private tours of our Secrets of Grand Central Terminal tour.
Michelle Young, Untapped New York: The lobby here looks SO Upper West Side! When I was going to Juilliard as a kid, my teacher lived near here in a pre-war building, so this brings back so many memories. The building even had one of those manually operated elevators.
Fiona Davis: I know! I remember when I looked at this apartment, I was like okay, this will work.
Untapped New York: I really, really enjoyed The Masterpiece. I read it in less than a day!
Davis: I love a page turner, I really do.
Untapped New York: And the number of tour groups we’ve had, who have specifically requested private Grand Central tours because of your book, it’s really incredible. We’ve actually changed some of our tour to address some of the questions that have come up from locations and history mentioned in The Masterpiece.
Davis: Isn’t that fantastic?
Untapped New York: So I was wondering, what was the main inspiration for landing on the idea for this book?
Davis: You know, it actually came from a reader. I was doing an author talk for another book in White Plains, and she said, you know, if you want I can get you this behind the scenes tour of Grand Central. And I thought, you know, that’s not gonna work. It’s a train station, no one lives there. You know, how am I going to make this work? Probably not. But I’ll go on the tour. So I went on this tour and it was with Dan Brucker and it was amazing. We had hard hats. We went along with this architectural group of students. And we went everywhere. You know the catwalks, underneath the Waldorf Astoria.
[Here we went into a brief conversation about our latest discovery, how the famous train car supposedly used by FDR underneath the Waldorf was actually never used by him, and has been moved to a rail museum in Connecticut — you can read all about that here.]
Davis: So even then I wasn’t sure, but I started going through the history. I read about the art school and the minute I read that, I thought, well, that’s interesting because no one knows about it. 20 years and 900 students a year, and John Singer Sargent [was part of it]. There were just so many interesting things. And I know if anything surprises me, it’ll surprise the reader and then that’s where I have to head. So that’s where that really sprung from, from a reader suggestion.
The Grand Central Art Galleries and School of Art in 1923. Image in public domain from the 1923 opening exhibition catalog, from the New York Art Resources Consortium and contributed by the Frick Art Reference Library.
Untapped New York: Do you view Grand Central differently now after making it a central character and really getting to know it almost as a person?
Davis: Completely. Because I would always go there — luckily, I’m on the Upper West Side. I would go there to figure out, for example, the elevators near which track number, so I had things correct in the book as much as I possibly could, knowing that, some of this [was taking place] a long time ago. I felt so close to it. I really felt like it was mine for that year that I was writing it. I would go in and think well, this is my building. It’s so strange. But also seeing how it changed over time and understanding the layers and just imagining the ghosts that walk around. Even when I go in now, I’m very moved.
The Campbell in Grand Central Terminal
Untapped New York: I love the line in the book about how the building should not be called “Grand Central Station.” New Yorkers are very specific about that, how it needs to be “Grand Central Terminal,” especially train enthusiasts. It’s become a tell, that shows you aren’t really from New York if you say station.
Davis: I almost feel like some copy editors are like, Oh, it’s okay. It’s that’s the way it’s known. But for me, I can’t say station. And all those fun little things in Grand Central, like the whispering gallery and the Oyster Bar and the Campbell Apartment, how it was a police holding station in the ’70s and what it is today. It’s just amazing. The transformation..
Untapped New York: I love that so many of the places in Grand Central leads you to many other places in the city like the Guastavino Whispering Gallery, we just keep finding more Guastavino work around the city. I feel like so many things in Grand Central are so central to New York’s history. You find elements of it in so many places. Any favorite secret spots in Grand Central?
Davis: I would say The Campbell bar because it does feel like a secret and it’s such a surprise to walk in.
Sectional view of Grand Central Terminal, 1939. Letter G denotes the Grand Central Art Galleries above the main waiting room and offices. Image in public domain from Wikimedia Commons, created by New York Central Railroad.
Untapped New York: It’s so beautiful. Did you go and scope out where the entrance of the art gallery and art school would have been?
Davis: You know, it took a while to figure out because it was actually wrong in a couple places, in the articles like The New York Times articles in the 1920s. And finally I reached an architect who got me an elevation that showed where it was and it looks like it was on the top floor of the East wing. And it looks like the gallery was on the sixth floor of the South wing.
Untapped New York: Oh okay, so the school and the gallery were actually separate.
Davis: Yeah, they were two and it describes students running upstairs to get to the art school. So like down the hall and up the stairs. So it took a while to kind of piece it together, but I’m pretty sure that’s where it was. I really need to know where things are and how they were. Therea are no images of the art school. There are of the gallery, but not the school which is so amazing.
Untapped New York: Right, there’s that one pamphlet from when they opened…
Davis: And I have some have some booklets, the course booklets from the school. But so in a way that’s freeing because you can make things up. But at the same time, I wanted to make sure I had my facts as close as possible.
Untapped New York: Well it shows. You can feel the authenticity in the writing. So what do you hope readers of The Masterpiece will feel when they walk into Grand Central after reading the book?
Davis: I think it’s the sense of history preserved, and how close it came to not being there anymore. And how we look at it now and we think it’s so beautiful. But we don’t understand the transformations it’s gone through over the years and the decades and what it was like when the ceiling was pitch black from decades of cigar and cigarette smoke. And there were advertisements everywhere. And it was considered a place to be taken over.
Untapped New York: How easy that can happen right?
Davis: Yeah. And so really, for the book, the title of The Masterpiece is not only the artwork that Virginia finds, but it’s the terminal itself is this work of art that’s being saved. And so I think it’s kind of walking in and being awestruck by how beautiful it is, but also realizing how close it came to being taken away.
View of Grand Central from the glass walkways
Untapped New York: So one of the things that I loved was the weaving together of the real history and the narrative imagination that you’re able to to create from it. Did you have more fun doing one or the other, imagining the stories of the two women or digging into the history?
Davis: You know, I had so much fun digging into Clara’s character and the real life inspiration for her. Who was Helen Dryden? I think to me, that was really a crucial element of bringing it to being because her life was so fascinating and she, like Clara, came to New York. She was the first female teacher at the art school. She did over 90 covers for Vogue magazine which are spectacular. And all over the internet you can still find them. She was a consultant to Studebaker cars (like in the book). It was so huge that her name was in the advertisements that read “Interiors styled by Helen Dryden.” And she was named the highest paid female artist in America in the 1930s. And then she disappeared.
And the next citing is in a New York Times article in the ’50s about this woman in this welfare hotel, surrounded by stacks of yellow magazines from when she used to work. She said she’d had a great personal tragedy, and she could no longer work. And she died in a mental asylum in the ’70s. And I just thought, here’s this amazing pioneer who’s been completely lost to history and what a great way to kind of honor her through a character who became Clara. And Levon Zakarian (in The Masterpiece ) is based on Arshile Gorky. So to me that was the most interesting way to merge fact and fiction.
Untapped New York: When I imagine the Grand Central art school based on your book, I keep envisioning what the Art Students League looks like. The bustle of students moving around.
Davis: And I toured the Art Students League beforehand in order to get a sense of what that was like. And in fact, as I was walking around, I noticed all the artworks kind of out drying and stored. And I asked the curator, do things ever get stolen? And she said all the time, and that’s where the idea came to have a theft.
Inside the Arts Students League
Untapped New York: Do you have a favorite “untapped” spot in the city?
Davis: Yeah, Central Park in the north east corner of Sheep Meadow, there’s a Lilac Grove that in May is just spectacular. When it’s in bloom is just great. That’s one of my favorite spots.
Untapped New York: Any places on your New York City bucket list?
Davis: How about old Penn Station?
Davis: Yes! Wasn’t that crazy? I can’t wait when it comes out on Netflix. I can watch it again and rewatch it slowly because, that was just breathtaking the way they did that. Yeah, so for me I think it’s it’s those last layers of the city’s what I wish I could go back and see, like Penn Station.
The Dakota apartments
Untapped New York: What do you love about New York and what might you change about New York?
Davis: I love the idea that you can live here and have a neighborhood that feels like a small neighborhood where you pass people on the street whom you know, and you go into stores and you know the clerks. So it feels like you’re living in a small town that happens to be set in a big metropolis. You have all this culture at your fingertips, that’s what I love. But yet you still feel like you’re part of the community.
One thing I worry about is how, especially on the Upper West Side, you have all these empty storefronts now. And I’m a little worried about all the glass buildings going up. I just worry that the neighborhood is going to lose its character.
I have this wonderful historian Andrew Alpern (author of The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building) whom I talk to whenever I do a book. He’s an amazing resource. He and I were talking about it the other day, and he was saying that that’s what people have said since they first came to New York, and you’re kind of imprinted with your ideal New York with the year that you show up. And then anything that changes is getting further away and changing too fast. Which made me think, when people had farms, they were like, “Oh, my god, they’re putting up townhouses.” And when they were putting up townhouses, they’re like “Oh my god they’re putting up The Dakota, it’s awful!” And is this just part of that growth? I don’t know. But I can’t imagine glass tower after glass tower can be interesting. And empty glass tower after empty glass tower.
Untapped New York: So I know on Twitter, you call yourself a theater geek and history buff. Tell me a little bit about your background in theater and how that might impact how you write.
Davis: I came to New York as an actress and worked for about ten years doing Off Broadway and Broadway, and worked with a theater company which was really quite wonderful. And then decided after about ten years to go to journalism school and went to Columbia, which was just terrific. So it feels like every decade or so I just changed something completely. But it all feels like it’s all kind of moved towards writing historical fiction. I have a love of history and a love of New York. I feel like everything has moved into this new career, which is so much fun.
The Barbizon Hotel
Untapped New York: Tell us about the other books you’ve written and what’s coming next!
Davis: So the first one, The Dollhouse, is set at the Barbizon Hotel for women in the ’50s and today, and it’s about a journalist today who starts looking into the disappearance of her downstairs neighbor who’s lived there for decades. And it’s about how women’s voices and agency have changed over time and how they haven’t. And then the second one is at The Dakota, it’s called The Address. That’s set in the Gilded Age the year it opened in 1884 from the point of view of a housekeeper who comes to work there and becomes the lady “managerette” and also in 1980, when an interior decorator has to rip down all the original detail of one of the apartments and put in shag carpeting and floor to ceiling mirror, which is based on Roberta Flack’s apartment. And then the most recent one is called The Chelsea Girls and that’s at the Chelsea Hotel during the McCarthy era.
The one I’m working on now, it takes place at the New York Public Library. The thing that surprised me about that, like the art school in Grand Central was that when it was built, there was a seven room apartment built inside it for the superintendent and his family and he lived there with his wife and three kids. It’s storage space now an office, but you can still see the old dumbwaiter.
Untapped New York: Finally, tell us one surprising thing about yourself!
Davis: According to my cousin, one of our ancestors was the butler to Henry VIII!
You can get a copy of The Masterpiece on Amazon, and you can pre-order Fiona Davis’ upcoming novel, The Lions of Fifth Avenue, which release in July 2020. Join us on an upcoming tour of the Secrets of Grand Central Terminal or book a private tour for your book club!