IT WAS A PERFECT WAY to bookend a day in New York, and, in my case, a final day after a six-month sojourn in the Big Apple.
What could be more heady than milling with the eclectic crowd gathered in Lincoln Center Plaza on Wednesday to watch the aquatic antics of a modern-day Houdini? And what could be more heady in a different kind of way than to visit a (finally) restored and reinvigorated Gotham landmark?
I’m talking in the first instance about David Blaine, who for his latest feat of derring-do has immersed himself in a fishbowl, plop in the middle of Manhattan. In the second, I’m referring to Renzo Piano’s extraordinary reimagining and amplification of the J.P. Morgan Library, which has brought its own magic to the once darkly cramped musty venue on Madison Avenue. The newly reopened building has, as it were, its own light, airy fishbowl-like quality. It’s Piano’s first completed commission in New York.
BUT FIRST THINGS FIRST. Having heard my grandmother talk about seeing Houdini early in the 20th century, I didn’t want to grow old and have to say I had the chance to touch Blaine’s bubble but for some long-forgotten reason didn’t bother to go and do it.
Blaine will only emerge after a week inside an 8-foot acrylic sphere full of water — and a final challenge, trying to beat the world’s record for holding his breath. (An early record of some three minutes underwater was held for decades by Houdini.)
If he’s in the mood, Blaine will touch your hand back through the glass or talk through a microphone to onlookers. Although there’s something very retro, almost vaudevillian, about Blaine, his producers are trying to make the event as interactive as possible.
Perhaps only in America are such seemingly pointless antics so spellbinding: When Blaine fasted in a box suspended above the Thames River for 44 days three years ago, many Brits derided him as an over-the-top publicity hound; a few even taunted him from the ground below.
Not so in Gotham. The crowd seemed curious, even admiring, as they gawked at the encased Blaine, tethered to breathing devices but tossing around like a giant squid.
“Do you think he’ll be really wrinkled when he comes out?” one little girl asked her mother.
Leaving aside the showmanship, the money, and whatever legerdemain may or may not be involved, Blaine is inarguably thumbing his nose at mother nature. Which helps explain the nearby tent of doctors and support crew who are there to monitor bodily signs and minister to the magician’s needs. (Blaine is fed intravenously; a water pouch was threaded into the top of the tank and hooked up to his tube while I was there.)
Among other problems Blaine may encounter are hypothermia, blackouts and nerve damage. The longer he stays underwater, Blaine’s handlers said, the more body heat he will lose and the more oxygen he will use, making the challenge more grueling.
To beat the modern-day record Blaine will have to hold his breath underwater for eight minutes, 58 seconds.
Not for nothing did Blaine, who is 33, train with the U.S. Navy SEALs, who put him through what he earlier described as “the most grueling physical training of (his) life.” He also prepared for this challenge with an elite free-diving team.
The ultimate test will be broadcast live Monday at 8 p.m. on a two-hour ABC primetime special, “David Blaine: Drowned Alive.”
AS FOR THE OTHER FISHBOWL, it too tries to involve the visitor in a more participatory way, without compromising the historic feel of the original private library. Thus, the remodeled Morgan is constructed on various levels and planes, with vistas looking out onto patios and roofs, and various closed doors (for optimum temperature control) leading to different parts of the collection.
Where art collectors like William Randolph Hearst went for the monumental, amassing the sort of huge statues seen in “Citizen Kane” and at the Hearst Castle in California, Morgan was entranced with the miniature. Thus, the room full of engraved Mesopotamian seals, no bigger than one’s thumb, and medieval books of hours with tiny, exquisitely drawn decorations.
Among the treasures on view were the bejeweled Lindau Gospel, from the 8th century; the only surviving original copy of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”; and one of the three Gutenberg Bibles in the Morgan’s possession.
Morgan, who made his money in banking, amassed some 3,000 objects and 600 manuscripts between 1899 and 1913, when he died. His son continued the tradition, and recent curators have updated the collection.
Added in recent years were early scribblings from the four Bronte siblings, including a maniacally crammed page from Bramwell Bronte (some 2,000 words on one small sheet), as well as Jane Austen’s first unpublished novel, “Lady Susan,” written in a graceful, legible hand. There’re also the original lines from “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which Bob Dylan scribbled on stationery from the May Fair Hotel in London.
Hoping to broaden the appeal of the venue, there are lectures and concerts to come this summer, including a talk by playwright Edward Albee on “The Creative Artist and Society” and another by writer Pete Hamill on “Popular Fiction, Newspapers and New York.”