Episode 15: A Day at the Met with Mixed Up Files (Transcript)

Episode 15: A Day at the Met with Mixed Up Files

[Page turning, book opening]

Girl: "Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. She planned very carefully. She saved her allowance and she chose her companion."

[Theme music]

Nahanni Rous: Generations of children have read about the Kincaid siblings’ meticulously plotted escape from home. They run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they fall in love with a statue from the Italian renaissance, and discover a secret about its origins.

[Theme music]

Nahanni: It’s been 50 years since E.L. Konigsburg published From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, and the adventure still feels fresh. Welcome Back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous. We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Konigsburg’s Newbury-award-winning novel. And what better way to do it than by retracing Claudia and Jamie’s steps inside the Met! JWA’s Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum and I are headed there along with some special guests.

Nahanni: Before we visit the museum, we’ll talk to Konigsburg’s daughter, Laurie Todd. Konigsburg died in 2013. I reached Laurie by phone at her home in Idaho. She told me what sparked her mother’s idea for The Mixed Up Files.

Laurie Todd: We were on a family picnic and we were complaining about the heat and the ants. And she thought to herself that if her kids ever ran away from home they wouldn’t be going into the woods, they’d try to find someplace comfortable.

Nahanni: And for the Konigsburg kids, what could be more comfortable than the Metropolitan Museum of Art? The family spent a lot of time there. One day, in the French Renaissance rooms, Konigsburg spotted a tiny piece of popcorn on a silk chair. The chair was behind a velvet rope. How had that popcorn gotten onto the chair? The idea for this best-selling novel grew from a kernel of corn and children kvetching at a picnic. Konigsburg took Polaroids of Laurie and her brothers at the museum and based the book’s illustrations on them. Her kids also partially inspired the book’s characters.

Laurie: I think my mother was astute at realizing our personalities. I think the character of Claudia was maybe a combination of me and maybe my mom, even.

Nahanni: Claudia Kincaid is a straight-A student and a meticulous planner.

Laurie: I think my mother was very reliable, planned a lot. That kind of thing. My mother had to be very responsible young.

Nahanni: Konigsburg’s parents both worked, so she took care of her sister a lot and helped out around the house. E.L., or Elaine Lobl, was born in New York City in 1930. Her parents were Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Laurie says being Jewish was a big factor in shaping her mother’s world view, and so was the Great Depression.

Laurie: Well, my mother was very poor. She was the first in her family to go to school and she had to have 3 scholarships to be able to do it.

Nahanni: Laurie says her mother wanted a bigger world than the one she grew up in, and she looked to education as a way to achieve that. Konigsburg majored in chemistry at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, where she met her husband. For a while, she worked as a high school biology teacher. But her husband kept changing jobs, so they moved a lot.

Laurie: And so she looked for a career that would enable her to be home with the kids. And really, that’s how she started doing this, plus feeling this need to write. I know it wasn’t what she expected. She had fully expected to become a scientist.

Nahanni: That was a pretty unusual expectation for a woman in the 1950s, when women were supposed to become homemakers. But Konigsburg figured out how to have both a career and a family. Laurie says her mom’s writing was always part of their life growing up.

Laurie: We walked home for lunch from school and mom would read us chapters from the book she was writing to get our reactions. She wanted to know what was funny and why. She actually did look for our reactions quite a bit.

Nahanni: This was part of their routine as a family. After all, Konigsburg wrote 20 books. Her plots are unusual-- sometimes funny, sometimes tragic. She wrote about a Jewish mother who coaches her son on a baseball team called the B’nai Bagels, about four outcast kids who befriend a paraplegic teacher, and about a boy who stops talking when his sister suffers a head injury. Many of her characters are Jewish, but she also wrote about African American kids, working-class white kids, and immigrants. Her characters seem real, and complicated. They’re capable, brainy, rebellious, pubescent, and quirky.

Laurie: My mother would be the first to say that all her books had a common thread and that was children finding their own identity. And becoming comfortable with that. And she would say, I wrote about that again, even though she didn’t intend to.

Nahanni: Konigsburg’s last book was in galleys when she had a stroke. She was in her late 70s, and wasn’t able to write again. She died after another stroke in 2013.

Laurie: I’m just incredibly proud of my mother… and I think what she writes stands up to all the changes that have occurred because I think fundamentally kids remain the same. Again, she spoke to identity, and discovering who you are and being comfortable with that. And I think that is still what occurs in growing up... there is certain universal things that transcend time.

[Train sound]

Nahanni, whispering: What are we doing?

Shalvah: We're on a train.

Nahanni: Where are we going?

Shalvah: We're going to NY.

Nahanni: What are we doing in NY?

Shalvah: I'm missing school because I'm going on a tour in the Metropolitan Museum of The Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.

Nahanni: That’s my daughter, Shalvah.

Train conductor: last and final stop, New York’s Penn Station, the Big Apple, now arriving.

Nahanni: We’re playing hooky so we can meet Judith and her daughter Ma’ayan... at the Met.

[Ambient noise, laughter]

Nahanni: Ma’ayan and Shalvah are both ten. The last time you heard them on this podcast, they were up in a tree surveying the crowds at the Women’s March in Washington. Now, we’re here at the museum for a tour based on Konigsburg’s novel. The tour doesn’t open to the public until July, but we’re getting a sneak preview. Here’s our tour guide.

[Museum lobby noise]

Alice Schwarz: Hi, I’m Alice Shwarz, I’m a museum educator here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I started coming here as a little girl and then of course, read The Mixed Up Files at age 10, and this was a great new insight into the Museum.

Nahanni: Alice has worked at the Museum for 33 years, and has taught in and about all the collections.

Alice: OK, so should we start?

All: Yeah.

Nahanni: We enter the Greek and Roman Gallery. Natural light floods the hall. Voices echo off marble surfaces. Many of the statues are missing limbs, but their command of the space is still impressive. Alice pulls out her copy of The Mixed Up Files, and our little group huddles around.

Alice: I want to take you to a picture in the book, that is this room. How it used to be.

Nahanni: Alice flips to a black and white drawing.

Alice: The picture of the fountain. Here we go. Alright.

Nahanni: In the picture, it’s dark, and Claudia and her brother Jamie are standing naked in a shallow reflecting pool, surrounded by statues of dancing children. The water is freezing cold, but on their third night away from home, Claudia has decided they need a bath. The fountain isn’t here anymore.

Alice: So, just imagine that this is the real space where they supposedly bathed within the fountain.

Nahanni: Claudia and Jamie scoop coins off the bottom of the fountain. The next day they use the money to buy lunch at a nearby automat... a sort of vending machine.

Alice: So, I want you to come in farther with me. You might see in the distance three ancient Roman sarcophagi...

Ma’ayan: Is that where they put the instrument cases?

Alice: Exactly. So let’s go back to one of them. One of my favorites.

Nahanni: Claudia plays the violin, and Jamie plays the trumpet. The day they run away from home, they take the instruments out of their cases and stuff the cases with extra clothes. At night in the museum, they hide them in an ancient sarcophagus.

Alice: So my first question to you is, do you know what a sarcophagus is?

Shalvah: It’s sort of like a coffin, where you’re buried in.

Alice: Exactly.

Nahanni: Claudia has planned every detail of their escape. She likes things to be orderly. Ma’ayan and Shalvah appear to appreciate this quality.

Ma’ayan: Um, which character do you think you identify with the most?

Shalvah: Um, I think Claudia, because sometimes I like to be really proper and sort of experiment with challenges, like try to be really responsible. And I definitely like to correct other people’s grammar.

Ma’ayan: Um same here, I think I identify with Claudia the closest. She likes to do things for herself. She likes to plan, she really likes to be in charge... and I am also constantly correcting people’s grammar.

Nahanni: In the late 60s, the streets outside the museum were full of political protest: anti-war demonstrations, civil rights and Black Power... The feminist movement was gaining momentum. On the surface, the book doesn’t reflect this at all. The museum provides a shelter from the outside world, and Claudia seems to be a proper, somewhat conservative girl, but then, she runs away.

Nahanni: Why do you think she wanted to run away?

Ma’ayan: I feel like, she had like three younger brothers so I think she felt like she was the oldest and she took on the responsibilities of being the oldest but wasn’t appreciated. I think she just thought her conditions weren’t fair.

Shalvah: She calls them injustices... I think they’re sort of taking advantage of her as being the clever one and the smart one.

Ma’ayan: I agree.

Shalvah: So she does all the work because she can. She’s also just tired of having the daily, normal life... go to school, come back. She says at one point she was tired of being Straight-A Claudia Kincaid.

Judith Rosenbaum: One of the injustices she talks about is that not only is she the oldest but she’s the only girl, and so she’s expected to do more around the house. And clear the table and set the table, and those things that are not expected of her brothers in part because they’re younger, and in part because they’re boys. Cause this book was written 50 years ago so the expectations within family around what roles were for girls or boys were different. I think there‘s a way in which she’s enacting her own little rebellion of the sixties inside the museum.

Nahanni: Claudia’s accomplice in this rebellion is a member of the family she's running away from. She picks Jamie because he’s the least annoying of her three brothers. Plus, he’s saved up his allowance so he can help fund their adventure. Still, in the beginning of the story, they argue constantly. She corrects his grammar, he says her ideas are stupid. But their shared adventure brings them closer.

Shalvah: There’s one point in the book where it says, like, “then something happened, they became a team.” I think at that moment they realized they had to work together or else nothing would work, they would get caught, and they would just be sent back home. And they had to work together or else they wouldn’t succeed in their adventure.

Judith: What do you think they learn to respect about each other?

Ma’ayan: I think that they learned that they were different but they also learned that they had a lot of things in common, and that, you know, their differences kind of complimented each other.

Nahanni: Claudia appoints Jamie the treasurer because he’s more frugal. Jamie is impressed by Claudia’s planning. She has even figured out where they will sleep. We follow Alice into the French Renaissance.

Alice: So we’re gonna go look for a bedroom...

Nahanni: The lights are dim in the French rooms, and the floor is carpeted, so it’s a bit quieter in here. It feels like we’re walking into a full-sized dollhouse with very fancy furniture.

Alice: These are the French rooms of the time of Louis the 14th and Marie Antoinette...

Judith: She wanted to sit at Marie Antoinette’s desk.

Alice: And that’s Marie Antoinette’s desk, right there.

Nahanni: It’s an ornate wooden table with a bookstand. It’s edged in gold... a pretty nice desk! But nothing compared to the bed Alice shows us in the next room. The bed Claudia and Jamie fictitiously slept in is not at the museum anymore.

Alice: But we have within the museum I think there are eight bedrooms. And this one, I thought, was the most fabulous.

Nahanni: The bed is covered in light blue embroidered silk, gathered and draped into swags with gold trim and tassels. More silk hangs from the carved wooden canopy, which soars 13 feet off the floor. There’s a small set of stairs next to the bed because the bed is so high up.

Ma’ayan: Ok, I’d be ok sleeping there if I were running away.

Alice: Right? This is why I chose this room. So let’s go a little bit closer. So this is 1700s France. This was for quite a wealthy family... It gives you a very good idea of how certain high-level people in Paris were living at the time. Imagine resting your head on the bolster and just stretching out.

Shalvah: Do you think kids have ever tried to come in and hide in here?

Alice: Certainly no one would get by with sleeping overnight. But what I find fascinating about this museum because of how large it is, you can easily travel through the Met, tuck yourself back in a certain gallery, and on several occasions be in a room where it’s nothing but you and the works of art.

Nahanni: Sounds like an experience straight from The Mixed Up Files.

Nahanni: How do you think you would feel if you were walking in these spaces in the dark at night all by yourselves?

Shalvah: I would feel a little bit queasy and a little bit creeped out.

Ma’ayan: Ok, I would not be walking here because I would be wherever I was sleeping, petrified with fright.

Nahanni: Claudia and Jamie do creep around the museum at night. They manage to avoid the night watchman, but they almost get caught during the day. It turns out Jamie’s class is at the museum on a field trip! Their paths almost cross in the Egyptian wing. Jamie and Claudia hide inside Perneb’s Tomb, a 4-thousand-year-old burial chamber.

Judith: I remember this! This is where they almost got caught by Jamie’s class, remember?

Ma’ayan: Oh yeah! That’s so cool.

Nahanni: Want to go in?

Shalvah: Can we go in?

Ma’ayan: Yeah.

Nahanni, whispering: Go ahead Ma’ayan.

Nahanni: We squeeze through a narrow slot. The ancient stone walls are covered in plexiglass. It’s a tight fit for our small group inside the tomb.

Shalvah: Oh, wow... there are walls full of hieroglyphs of people doing different kinds of work.

Nahanni: At the end of the chamber there’s a false door. A sign explains that “it symbolizes in concrete form that the living can indeed make contact with the dead.”

Ma’ayan: Wow!

Nahanni: So it’s a door. It’s like a doorway between one world and another.

Nahanni: Claudia and Jamie have in a way entered the world of the dead: They’ve stored their bags in a sarcophagus, they’re surrounded by mummies, and they’re hiding from their classmates inside a tomb.

Nahanni: What are they thinking?

Judith: Their classmates are about to turn the corner and find them in here.

Ma’ayan: They probably are just surrounded by fear, they’re going to be found out!

Nahanni: But at the last minute a teacher calls the class away, and Claudia and Jamie are not discovered. The otherworldly existence they’ve carved out for themselves is preserved a little longer. Long enough to solve the secret of the angel.

Nahanni: The angel statue arrived at the museum around the same time as Claudia and Jamie. Crowds of people line up to see it. It’s rumored to have been carved by Michelangelo, but no one knows for sure. Or almost no one. Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler sold the statue to the museum for almost nothing. Claudia has a hunch she knows the truth. Finding out becomes the centerpiece of Claudia and Jamie’s adventure.

Nahanni: The statue of the angel doesn’t really exist, at least not as far as anyone at the museum knows. Alice says a sketch of an angel by Michelangelo used to hang in the museum, and Konigsburg might have seen that. The sketch is so fragile they now keep it in a vault.

Ma’ayan: Are there any statues that are kind of like the angel?

Alice: Yes...

Nahanni: We spend some time with a small marble cupid by Michelangelo.

Alice: Take a look at it from all sides.

Shalvah: How did you find out that it was by Michelangelo?

Alice: Do you remember the parts in the book... remember they found the three rings with the M and then they went to the New York Public Library to do all sorts of research... so that’s exactly how historians and conservators work out what is an object, where is it from, how old is it... it’s a lot of piecing information together.

Ma’ayan: But how can you be positive that it’s authentic?

Alice: Probably we can’t be positive about anything. To be perfectly honest. The one thing we could be positive about is the age of something. Because there’s carbon dating. There’s an entire department of scientific researchers that are dealing with teeny tiny specs of different aspects of works of art that can determine the age of something.

Nahanni: Anything else historians want to know requires a lot of research and educated guesswork.

Nahanni: Could the mystery is better than knowing for sure?

Ma’ayan: No. I think I’d want to know.

Alice: I agree with you. So do we!

Nahanni: Claudia agrees, too. she doesn’t want to go home until she finds out whether the angel is an authentic work by Michelangelo. To solve the mystery, Claudia and Jamie take the train to Mrs. Frankweiler’s palatial estate in Connecticut. But the old woman is as enigmatic as the statue. She won’t give them a straight answer, and makes them hunt through her mixed-up files, a lifetime’s worth of research, catalogued according to a system only she understands. Finally, in a file marked Bologna, they discover a 470-year-old document sealed between two pieces of glass. It’s a sketch of the angel signed by Michelangelo. Mrs. Frankweiler swears them to secrecy. Her message seems to be that the mystery is worth as much as the work itself. Claudia is finally willing to go home. Does that mean she’s found what she was looking for?

Shalvah: She said she wanted to go back to Green-which different.

Nahanni: Greenwich.

Shalvah: Greenwich. Greenwich?? Ok... And so she found a difference… she found a secret that she could keep for herself. And that kind of excitement. And I think she did succeed in what she was looking for.

Nahanni: Claudia and Jamie promise to keep Mrs. Frankweiler’s secret. But they go home with more than that. They’ve spent a week in the company of mummies, angels, and mythic works of art... and each other.

Theme music

Nahanni: Thank you for joining us, and Claudia and Jamie, for this episode of Can We Talk?.If you’re in New York in mid July, meet Alice Shwarz at the Met for a Mixed Up Files tour. She’ll be leading them on July 13th and 15th. Special thanks to Laurie Todd, Ma’ayan Rosenbaum and Shalvah Lazarus. Judith Rosenbaum is the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team also includes Emily Cataneo. Ibby Caputo edited the script and our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.

Visit us online at jwa.org/canwetalk to listen, subscribe and send your friends a link to your favorite episodes. You can also help people find this podcast by rating and reviewing us on iTunes. Please consider making a donation at jwa.org/donate. And if you're interested in sponsoring an episode, suggesting a topic, or just dropping us a line, please contact us. We’d love to hear from you.

Judith: To our next podcasting adventure!

Ma’ayan: What will the next podcast be about?

Judith: We are taking a summer break.

Ma’ayan: No you’re not!

Nahanni: Oh yes, we are!

Ma’ayan: How about we just do the podcast for the summer?

Shalvah: Yeah!

Ma’ayan: We’ll do one about Hermione Granger.

Judith: How does that relate to Jewish women?

Ma’ayan: Or Porpentina Goldstein.

Shalvah: We’ll do one about RBG!

Judith: Yeah, that would be good. Maybe she’ll respond to you guys for an interview.

Nahanni: You have to pitch us! And we are tough.

Judith: Sort of.

[Laughter]

Nahanni: I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. We are taking a summer break. So we’ll see you again in the fall.

[Theme music fades]

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 15: A Day at the Met with Mixed Up Files (Transcript)." (Viewed on August 23, 2019) <https://jwa.org/episode-15-a-day-at-the-met-with-mixed-up-files/transcript>.

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