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Catherine Clivette and the first Greenwich Village Historical Society

In 1941, an elderly woman with “bright blue eyes and auburn hair” stormed down to City Hall to confront Robert Moses. The fight, reported by The New Yorker, was about the imminent demolition of the New York Aquarium at Battery Park, which Moses dismissed as an “ugly wart” with “no history worth writing about.” Speaking in the Aquarium’s defense was Catherine Parker Clivette, a former opera singer and actress turned suffragist and civic activist, who highlighted the Aquarium’s association with Lafayette and Jenny Lind. Despite her efforts, the Board of Estimate voted in favor of Moses’ project, and the aquarium was closed.

Merton and Catherine Clivette with daughter Juanita in 1921. From californiaviewfinearts.com

Born in 1873 in Massachusetts, Catherine Parker Clivette, was best known for founding the Greenwich Village Historical Society; however, the society was one of many causes she would take on throughout her life. Catherine started her career as a singer, attending the National Conservatory for Music. She also briefly attended medical school but dropped out after her mother discouraged her. Instead, Catherine became a light opera singer, touring Europe and America.

In 1896, she married Merton Clivette and became a vaudeville actress. Merton Clivette was a character in his own right, having careers as a magician, a shadowgraphist, a mind reader, and an acrobat. (To learn more about Merton Clivette, watch our webinar, The Great Clivette: Greenwich Village’s Renaissance Man) Catherine integrated her talents into Merton’s act, becoming the ‘Veiled Prophetess’ in Merton’s mindreading show. The Clivettes toured for eleven years until their daughter, Juanita, was born in 1907. The family then settled down in Greenwich Village, where Merton became a painter, and Catherine became a piano and voice teacher.

Photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals. From the Museum of the City of New York.

From 1917 to 1923, the family lived at No.1 Sheridan Square, which would later become the home of Cafe Society. The family lived upstairs while the first floor became a gallery for Merton’s paintings. Their time at No. 1 Sheridan Square was a colorful chapter in the building’s history. Merton Clivette used his vaudeville theatrics to attract customers, naming his shop “The Art Mecca” and “the Bazaar de Junk.” The family also made headlines by claiming their daughter, Juanita, was the reincarnation of the poet Sappho.

The Brevoort, 11 Fifth Avenue.

At No. 1 Sheridan Square, Catherine founded the Greenwich Village Historical Society in 1922, a group “dedicated to maintaining tradition” in the Village. The society had weekly meetings, hosting themed night like “Alexander Hamilton Night,” conducting “historiette jaunts” around the lower west side of Manhattan, and showcasing readings of “spiritualized poetry” by Juanita Clivette. The society is best known for their plaques, erecting markers for Thomas Paine at 59 Grove Street, Mark Twain and Washington Irving at 21 Fifth Avenue, and Henry Hudson in Amsterdam. In the early 1950s, an apartment building, The Brevoort, replaced 21 Fifth Avenue and other 19th century row houses on West 9th Street, but the plaque for Mark Twain and Washington Irving has survived to modern day.

59 Grove Street is now the site of Marie’s Crisis Cafe.

Throughout the 1920s and beyond, Catherine Clivette was a prominent civic activist in New York, renowned for her fiery personality and frequent petitions. After her involvement with the Greenwich Village Historical Society, Catherine went on to establish the Society for the Prevention of Unjust Convictions. This organization advocated for fair treatment and trials, in particular for women facing vice cases—a cause likely influenced by her close proximity to the Women’s Detention Center.

Catherine remained a steadfast presence in the New York political scene until her passing. Her contributions did not go unnoticed, as evidenced by her mention in After the Vote: Feminist Politics in La Guardia’s New York. The book highlighted Catherine as the first to respond to Seabury’s investigations in 1931, noting her scathing letter that condemned the corrupt courts of New York. Her involvement extended to starting a petition that garnered over 1,000 signatures, earning her a reputation, as described by The New Yorker, that “if [Catherine Clivette] asks you to sign a [petition], you better sign.”

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