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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | The august, Upper East Side edifices housing the Museum of the City of New York and its neighbor, the New York Academy of Medicine, were the setting of a recent gala to benefit the much more humble South Street Seaport Museum.
A year ago, the South Street Seaport Museum almost closed. M.C.N.Y. director Susan Henshaw Jones and her uptown team agreed to spend at least a year to try to save it. Schermerhorn Row on Fulton Street, where the South Street Seaport Museum is located, dates from 1810. Its buildings once sheltered counting houses, maritime businesses and cheap hotels used by sailors and other itinerants. Graffiti from earlier occupants still adorn its walls. After more than two centuries, its floors slope, and remnants of abandoned staircases and ancient elevators punctuate the galleries.
“We are working, shoulder to shoulder, to help assure the future of the Seaport Museum,” said Jones to the audience of around 375 people that filled the auditorium at the New York Academy of Medicine on Mon., Oct. 15. They had paid $100 to $2,500 a ticket to be there.
The gala netted around $90,000 for the South Street Seaport Museum, which will be added to the museum’s general operating fund.
The evening’s program began with a screening of historic films about whaling. One of them from the National Geographic Channel showed an underwater view of a pod of sperm whales as they were communicating, feeding and resting. A live performance of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Crumb’s melancholy score “Voice of the Whale,” which accompanied the film, evoked the graceful movements of the whales and their haunting sounds. Another film, “Hunting Leviathan,” depicted the dangerous, bloody business of whaling. Next came a reading of excerpts from Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” by a star-studded cast headed by Tony Award winner Matthew Broderick as Ishmael. Then, ticketholders at the higher levels repaired to M.C.N.Y. for a champagne reception.
Melville would have known the Schermerhorn Row buildings. He was born in New York City in 1819 and died here in 1891. He went to sea as a young man and came home to write about it.
“No writer ever put reality before the reader more unflinchingly,” said Nathaniel Philbrick, who introduced the readers and served as moderator. Philbrick, a best-selling author and a Melville expert, was quoting author Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom Melville dedicated “Moby-Dick.”
Animated by accomplished actors — Jonathan Epstein, Matthew Rauch and John Douglas Thompson along with Broderick — Melville’s powerful, precise and poetic words evoked the majesty of the sea and Captain Ahab’s demented quest for the white whale named Moby-Dick, who had maimed him.
So Melville wrote, “It was a sight full of quick wonder and awe!” they read. “Not the raw recruit, marching from the bosom of his wife into the fever heat of his first battle; not the dead man’s ghost encountering the first unknown phantom in the other world; — neither of these can feel stranger and stronger emotions than that man does, who for the first time finds himself pulling into the charmed, churned circle of the hunted sperm whale.”
Philbrick ends his recent book, “Why Read Moby-Dick?” by ascribing to Melville a “redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope” and “genial stoicism in the face of a short, ridiculous and irrational life.”
“This is why I read ‘Moby-Dick,’” he said, and why he thinks others should, too.
Gala ticketholders munched on those thoughts along with pastries as they sipped their champagne and talked in part about the future of the little Downtown museum.