I am working on my new novel, doing most of my research at the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme, Connecticut. The 1897 brick building sits on a small hill, shaded by venerable oaks and maples, its curved granite steps and white columns graceful and inviting. Lots of writers have worked here including my friends David Handler and Dominick Dunne. We all set some of our novels in fictional versions of Lyme or Old Lyme. David's is Dorset, Dominick's was Prud'homme, and mine is Black Hall.
The old part of the library contains a reading room that feels cozy, a literary home. Its walls are lined with landscapes by plein air painters who visited town around the turn of the last century. They stayed at Miss Florence’s boarding house just a half mile along Lyme Street and set up their easels to paint the local beauty: hills of mountain laurel, cottage gardens, tidal inlets, rocky shores. Over a hundred years later, many of the scenes they chose are unchanged.
Old Lyme is located at the mouth of the Connecticut River, where it flows into Long Island Sound. There is water everywhere. Creeks, streams, marshes, and five small rivers create a particular quality of light that attracted the artists. The light is both delicate and intense, changing the landscape from second-to-second.
The Tonalists founded the Lyme Art Colony, joined later by painters who gave birth to American Impressionism. I am inspired by this place just as the artists were; it's been the setting of nearly all my novels.
The library’s reading room has a fireplace. Years ago, when I was nineteen, I wrote at this same table and often saw Dr. C. Philip Wilson, the father of a friend, sitting in an armchair beside the fire, engrossed in the New York Times or a book. It gave me comfort to see him there. He was kind and understanding, always interested in what I was writing.
Dr. Wilson was a well-known psychiatrist in New York City, and he and his family spent summers here (as my family did.) He was tall, with dark hair and a serious, almost penetrating gaze that relaxed into a warm smile. I felt him wondering what I was doing all day-every day at our small-town library instead of at college while his son, my age, was off at Princeton. He made it very easy to tell him that I had dropped out of college because of depression. As the season went on, he would ask how I was doing, and I remember how he would listen with quiet compassion, and encourage me to keep writing. I wonder whether he realized how much those conversations meant to me.
He made me feel as if I mattered. It was a tremendous gift to a troubled young writer. Over the years he and his wife would come to my readings at the library and local bookstores. I still have notes they sent me, filled with generous praise, cheering me on. Once the three of us ran into each other at the Florence Griswold Museum, for an exhibit of works by Bruce Crane. His palette was reserved, unlike the bright, sunny colors of summer gardens and sparkling blue coves used by many of his American Impressionist friends.
Crane seemed to favor autumnal, elegiac and slightly melancholy scenes, such as one of an autumn marsh, with tawny reeds and tarnished silver waters. I remember standing with the Wilsons in front of a winter landscape—a snow field against a pewter sky, the horizon a narrow, brilliant slash of orange. We stared at it for a long time, as if watching an actual sunset, waiting for the sun to go down.
The painting, and Crane’s canvases in general, drew me in. I felt an exhilarating darkness in his work. Crane had spent years visiting Old Lyme. His wife Jeanne was hospitalized with mental illness. In 1902 he divorced her and married his stepdaughter, Jeanne’s daughter Ann.
I didn’t know those details at the time, but now I wonder if Dr. Wilson sensed Crane’s family pain, if that was why he’d regarded that sunset painting with such deep attention. Or perhaps I’m just, in retrospect, imputing the compassion he felt for me and others to the artist and his family.
Not long before Dr. Wilson died, I ran into him in the city, on Fifth Avenue. The day was sunny, and across the avenue Central Park was cool and green. I felt so happy to walk with him for a few blocks.
We caught up on news about our families and books—he too was a writer. I wish I remembered more of the details of that talk, but what stays with me was the familiar warmth, the sense of his fathomless interest and curiosity in the world. Parting, we said we'd see each other in Old Lyme.
That was the last time I saw him.
These days, working in the reading room, I miss Dr. Wilson. I glance over at the armchair by the fireplace and can still see him there, still hear his voice and feel his presence.
The loveliness of an old library is carried through time by the ghosts who loved it in their day. the stacks hold memories of the many dear readers, the many dear friends. The library holds many stories, including our own.