“The Great Mistake: A Novel” by Jonathan Lee. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 294 pages, $26.95 (hardbound).
Andrew Haswell Green’s name is not well known in New York City today despite his involvement in many of the great achievements in the city in the 19th century. When he was murdered in 1903, the mayor put the flags at half-staff and reminded Americans that Green had a greater claim to being Central Park’s “chief creator than any other single man.”
Green also deserved recognition for his service as the city’s comptroller and as president of the board of education, and also for helping create the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, the New York Public Library and the consolidation of the city’s boroughs into one metropolis. For this last venture, Green was dubbed the Father of Greater New York, but many of his critics called this “the Great Mistake of 1898” because they saw it as robbing Brooklyn of its independence. Novelist Jonathan Lee uses “The Great Mistake” as the title for this book presumably because it also describes the apparently senseless murder of Green on Friday the 13th of 1903 in broad daylight in front of his Park Avenue home as he returned home for lunch. Green’s assassin had made some cryptic remarks accusing Green of having prevented him from getting in touch with a Miss Bessie Davis. The murder appears to have been a case of mistaken identity.
Authors of historical fiction have to determine how much historical fact to include and how much improvisation is necessary to bring a historical period and its characters to life for readers. Lee does an excellent job of doing this.
The author skillfully weaves back and forth from the murder to earlier chapters on Green’s childhood on a poor farm in Massachusetts and his relationship with Samuel J. Tilden, who was almost elected U.S. president in 1876, and to the investigation following Green’s murder. He also manages to highlight Green’s achievements listed above with interesting insights without spending too much time on them. For example, the author has Inspector McCluskey, who is trying to unearth the motivation for the murder, review minutes recording some of Green’s words spoken as the board of education president and when Green is sitting for his portrait the painter quizzes him about how Green had brought the art and natural history museums and the public library to fruition. McCluskey also interviews Miss Bessie Davis (one of several names), a prostitute who owned an expensive mansion and saw herself as Cleopatra and had servants fanning her as she plied her trade.
The chapters in “The Great Mistake” are named after the common names Green had insisted be given to the gates to Central Park. He called them after the professions of ordinary people, such as Mariners’ Gate, Merchants’ Gate, Warriors’ Gate and Woodman’s Gate. These may be very loosely connected to the chapter contents.
Green had risen from poverty to positions of major authority in the city and he often questioned if he deserved his good fortune and the assistance of Tilden. In his early years, Andrew muses: “To be a gentleman in New York one needed an education. To obtain an education in New York, one needed money. To obtain money in New York, one needed to be a gentleman. The city formed its circles.” Green certainly became an influential lawyer and succeeded in fostering the creation of several institutions that still make New York City great today.
Lee’s novel demonstrates a lot of research and skill in creating an excellent historical novel on this fascinating public figure. This novel provides excellent insight into life in 19th century New York City and into some fascinating characters. I found the book hard to put down and recommend it very highly.
– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.