I recently finished Susan Vreeland’s Clara and Mr. Tiffany. A turn of the century account of Tiffany’s premier designer, Clara Driscoll, it is a story of passion, intensity, and yearning for validation.
First, at the risk of judging a book by its cover, I have to say how much I love this one. I know the art department of the publisher probably had more to do with it than the author, but whoever designed it really hit the nail on the head. The silhouetted figure of a woman in front of the Magnolias and Irises leaded glass window (which can be seen in full at the Met) is evocative of the anonymity of the woman’s department at Tiffany’s and of both Clara’s struggle for recognition and her immersion in her work, to the point of it bleeding into her non-professional life.
Now to the book itself. In a few words, Clara and Mr. Tiffany is the story of Clara Driscoll, the manager of the woman’s department at Tiffany Studios (colored glass windows and lamps, not jewelry), taking the reader both through her life after being widowed and returning to work and showing her relationship with Louis Comfort Tiffany through her prolific career in the decorative arts at the turn of the 19th century.
The story is well researched and lush with detail. Vreeland is able to immerse the reader in a time when women were only beginning to take their place as equals in the workplace. Conflicts of the period are alluded to and in some cases take a central role in the plot; labor unions, strikes, social reform, immigration, and gender discrimination are all pivotal parts of Clara’s life and affect characters’ decisions throughout the book.
Yet, my favorite part of Vreeland’s writing and the heart of the book are not historical details but, rather, her descriptions of the lamps, windows, and objects d’art designed and produced by the woman’s department at Tiffany Studios and her use of Clara’s artist’s eye to examine and understand the world around her. Details of the effusion of light through glass shards, of the beauty of a finished chapel leaded glass window, or even the simplicity of nature’s creations in gardens around New York City are all accomplished with the attention of an artist. As someone deeply moved and interested in art (Yes, I am finally using that bachelors in Art History for something!) this is what I like best about Clara and Mr. Tiffany. I am fascinated by Clara’s perception of whimsy in a dragonfly and symmetry in a cobweb. Furthermore, I am captivated by the minutiae of glassmaking and leaded glass windows and lampshades. From a literary standpoint, I think this is where Vreeland excels, putting readers into Clara’s almost obsessive mindset. By letting the reader see Clara’s point of view, the radiance of colored glass, and the labor intensive process of leaded glass making, one can understand her devotion to the craft, the energy that the women in Clara’s department give of themselves, and can fully appreciate what Clara’s career means to her. While I think this style of writing was perfectly suited to the story, I can see why, because of this method of writing, some other readers I’ve talked to thought the book was slow-moving. In order to appreciate the book, I think you have to have an appreciation for art and craftsmanship, or else the lengthy descriptions of window panels, color selection, and glassblowing might leave you cold.
As for the characters, I felt for Clara in her struggle to be recognized for her invention of the leaded glass lampshades that made Tiffany Studios a household name even today and her attempts to quell the resentment against and disdain for women working in a male-dominated field (let alone in the 1890’s in general when women were expected to cook and clean with a child on their hip at home). There is an aspect to the book that echoes struggles today for women to balance their careers with family, lovers, and friends. Because Tiffany forbids his female employees to marry, Clara becomes torn between her identity as an invaluable employee and artist at Tiffany Studios and her identity as a woman with love and need for acceptance in her heart. The main theme of the book was this tension between Clara’s work and her significant others. It was a time when women could not even entertain “having it all,” and Clara is truly married to her job.
The relationship between Clara and Louis Comfort Tiffany was another central entity in the book that was interesting to observe. Both figures are creative personalities who believe in beauty above all, art for art’s sake, and in limitlessness in designing their art. Clara and Tiffany play off of each other, inspiring one another in their professional relationship, but their mutual passion oftentimes blurs their artistic affection for each other into something else that I was hard-pressed to define. Whether it was a paternal approval that Clara was looking for, a lover’s admiration and attention, or a friend’s support and camaraderie, I am not sure. I think it was a little bit of each, which is what made the dynamics of their scenes together so fascinating and made me wish that there were more of those scenes. Clara and Tiffany are truly artistic lovers, and some of Clara’s need for recognition and praise manifests itself in a romantic-type desire that is born of the sentiment and ardor she imbues in her creations. At the same time, Clara is frustrated with Tiffany for refusing to single out her ingenuity and authorship that win the Studio fame and is enamored with his kindred spirit. She says:
I wanted to scream or tear something to show that I felt ripped in two. Despite the truth of our character assassination, I adored him. He and I had a bridge that no one else travelled that made us artistic lovers, passionate without a touch of the flesh. He made me thrive, and valuing that, I could do nothing that would endanger it.
Later, in a moment of yearning for recognition of her talent and labors, Clara asks:
Don’t you see my adoration for you? Don’t you recognize the longing heart within the glass I’ve touched? I ached to ask him these things, but I didn’t dare. I didn’t want him to think I wanted romance. What I wanted would have to be a finer union than any romance I’d ever known.”
Clara sees that her relationship with Tiffany is something beyond the banality of carnal pleasures, something of the psyche, something intangible and precious that enables her to interpret and refine nature in manmade glass, bringing stylized, aesthetic ideas of God’s creations into fruition.
The book straddles being about Clara’s relationship with Tiffany and his company and being about her conflict of building a life outside of her job. I think maybe here is where Vreeland may have lost a bit of her luster. She tries to portray both facets of Clara’s life, without doing full justice to either. If maybe the book were longer, containing more details of either of both of the relationships, maybe the comprehensive look at Clara’s life would have worked, but at times I think Vreeland sacrificed depth in Clara’s personal relationship for the relationship of Clara and her career.
Overall, I have to say that I enjoyed the book, although I wouldn’t read it again. Any art lover will enjoy the vivid descriptions of objects that can be seen in museums like the MFA, Boston or The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. For people with a low tolerance for atmospheric descriptions of detail over action, this might not be the book for you.