Harry Berberian is beyond passionate about his work at Graham Windham, an organization entrusted with the care of New York City’s children. Despite sharing only a brief cell phone call with him a few weeks ago, I could not miss the undertone of kindness and compassion behind his words, reflecting attitudes that are ubiquitous throughout the organization where he spends his days. A quick scan of GW’s website reveals a multi-faceted operation with an array of programs that secure safe home placements, foster children’s mental and physical health, and support students’ academic pursuits.
So, how did I happen to talk with Harry, and what does our conversation have to do with my search for Eliza Hamilton? It all began in August 2015, when, I admit, I paid too much for some nosebleed seats for the musical Hamilton shortly after it opened on Broadway. Like the rest of the audience, I was captivated if sometimes confused, struggling to process the rapid-fire delivery of so many words packed into a mere two and a half hours (according to mentalfloss.com, 20,520 words to be exact, an astonishing 144 words per minute). The jam-packed score gave me a sense of what it must have been like to be around the fast-talking, almost manic Hamilton himself. I saw the play before the release of the Hamilton recording, long before I’d had the advantage of reading the score and listening over and over—and over!—months before I knew every word, grasped every nuance.
My processing exhaustion aside, I came away with a powerfully emotive and lasting image: Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, describing in just a few short passages the details of her life, one that is itself worthy—perhaps more so than her husband’s—of a Broadway play to honor it. With my fellow theater-goers, I was lifted to a new consciousness as the music concluded, one that conveyed that true greatness—and perhaps the production’s title, Hamilton—might actually refer to the person who endured, who persevered with dignity and grace. Still, the ending of the play evoked for me a profound sense of astonishment and loss. Soo had only a supporting role, just as Eliza did in life. I wanted to know her story, to understand the person beyond the faded silhouette described in Chernow’s opening chapter.
After finding several articles online, including Kat Long’s Why Elizabeth Hamilton is Deserving of a Musical of her Own and Cokie Roberts’ The Hamilton I’d Put on the $10 Bill, I was convinced that my reaction was not unique. On the contrary, others seemed to agree that even given Miranda’s incomparable ability to condense years of narrative into a single track, distilling the last 50 years of Elizabeth’s life into a few phrases just seemed wrong, especially since half of Elizabeth’s life was longer than all of her husband’s. I mean, I get it: anyone who reads Chernow’s 2004 biography can’t help but be awestruck by the tumultuous life story of Alexander Hamilton. War, natural disaster, political strife, scandal, loss, tragedy after tragedy – these are the dramatic elements that make his story so compelling. In fact, if written as fiction, readers would never have believed all this devastation could have occurred in the life of an actual person. So, I forgive Lin Manuel-Miranda for the short shrift given to Eliza, especially since, without his play, I would never have known of her nor become so obsessive about finding her, understanding her, and in the end, honoring her example.
Thus I began my search for the full story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, one that would not prove to be an easy one. While Alexander Hamilton’s writings are a click away for anyone who should seek them, the women of the Revolutionary period were not inclined to keep their journals and letters, and in fact, often burned them. I would have to rely in part, then, on secondary sources, where most of the insights into Elizabeth’s experiences and character have been derived from the commentary found in letters, primarily from men. My Amazon deliveries mounted as I collected a Hamilton mini-library of obvious sources—Hamilton biographies, histories of Albany and New York, obscure reprints, letters and essays—and, “scamming for every book” I could get my hands on, I amassed as many used books as I could find. I tried gaining access to Columbia’s Butler Library rare manuscripts collection (harder to accomplish for an alum than it should be, but that is a topic for another blog.)
I collected information on rare resources from the New York Historical Society. Still, if I hoped to approach Eliza’s reality, I decided that I would follow personally in Eliza’s footsteps, visiting the places she grew up, made her home, cared for children, worshipped, mourned, and created.
So it was that, in searching for Eliza, I found Harry whose work, it turns out, was begun by Elizabeth Hamilton. With Isabella Graham and Joanna Graham Bethune, Eliza created the Orphan Asylum Society on March 15, 1806, an organization that today is known as Graham Windham. I can’t even imagine her reaction if she could see it in action today given its humble beginnings: six orphans in need of a home. In 2015 alone GW placed 979 children in foster care, 476 in foster care prevention programs, 265 in the Graham School Residential Program, and 2500 in community-based support programs. Moreover, GW is an organization graced with the selfless individuals who do some of our society’s most important, often heartbreaking work. The people of GW do not merely carry on the work Eliza started; they reflect her image: empathetic, humble and dedicated. People like Harry.
I hope that you’ll follow along with me, as I record my journey in search of Elizabeth Hamilton. With loving respect for her legacy, I hope to blend my travels and research into a portrait of this rare and important founding mother, one whose life, distinguished by her fortitude, loyalty, humility, and incredible resilience, is nothing short of remarkable.
Chernow, R (2004). Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin.
Debczak, M. (2015). “Hamilton” uses hip-hop to fit more than 20,000 words into 2.5 hours. Mentalfloss.com.
Long, K. (2016). Why Elizabeth Hamilton is deserving of a musical of her own. www.Smithsonian.com.
Miranda, L. (2015). Hamilton (An American musical). New York: Atlantic.
Roberts, C. (2016). The Hamilton I’d put on the $10 bill. [Electronic version]. The NewYork Times.