‘Clara And Mr. Tiffany’: A Brightly Colored Story

Clara Driscoll is credited with the idea for the famous Tiffany lamps. Host Liane Hansen speaks to author Susan Vreeland about her new novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany, a fictional account of how it happened.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

When we first meet the heroine of Susan Vreeland's new historical novel, Clara Driscoll is a widow and returning to work for Louis Comfort Tiffany. He made the stained-glass windows and lamps. His father, Charles, made the silver and jewelry. It was just before the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago, and Tiffany windows would be on prominent display.

Clara Driscoll supervises the women who execute Mr. Tiffany's designs. Susan Vreeland's novel is called "Clara and Mr. Tiffany." And Susan Vreeland is in the studio at KPBS in San Diego, California. Welcome to the program.

Ms. SUSAN VREELAND (Author, "Clara and Mr. Tiffany"): Thank you. Nice to be here.

HANSEN: Who is the real Clara Driscoll?

Ms. VREELAND: It most likely is Clara who conceived of stained-glass lamp shades. They really were not made before her tenure at Tiffany Studios. But in addition, she really engaged as much as she could with the City of New York, and all of its changes happening at the turn of the 20th century.

And she took an interest in the lives of the women that worked in her studio. They called themselves the Tiffany Girls. I'm sure they wouldn't have had that name today.

HANSEN: But that was the times.

Ms. VREELAND: That's right, that's right. And she was a woman a bit ahead of her time because she followed the politics of the day, even though she couldn't vote. She ultimately led a labor action of the women because the men at Tiffany Studios began to be threatened by the success of the women. At first, the lamps were only made by Clara's department. And the men went on strike, to try to shut the women down and get their department eliminated completely. So Clara had to take action. She did it admirably, I might say.

HANSEN: How would you describe Clara and Louis Tiffany's relationship? She seems to know him very, very well. His mannerisms - when he comes on the factory floor, he'll be, you know, ticking his cane that he doesn't really need. I think you describe him as Napoleonic at one point. What was the nature of their relationship? She seemed to have a pretty good one with him. She would jibe him a little bit.

Ms. VREELAND: Yes. She didn't call him Little Napoleon to his face, nor did she call him the peacock, which she thought of him as at times. But she did tease him and nobody else, of course, felt the security to do that. But she knew that he needed her, and that he was becoming more and more famous because of her and because of the lamps.

There were times, however, that oh, he rankled her and was arbitrary. And that didn't sit well with her.

HANSEN: Yeah. Did Clara ever get any credit? You mentioned an exhibition of Tiffany's work, but did Clara finally get some credit for her ideas and her designs?

Ms. VREELAND: I wish I could say yes, Liane.

HANSEN: No, not yet, huh?

Ms. VREELAND: She did win this bronze medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900. But he, himself, never gave her public notice. And I have to say that that was his policy not just for Clara, or not just for the women, but for the male designers, too. There were a few whose work was credited, but not Clara.

HANSEN: This book - I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems to be as much a book about the unsung and sometimes ultimate contribution of women at the time.

Ms. VREELAND: Well, I think so. She was leading these women against the men at a time when women in labor were developing unions of their own. She witnessed so many things in New York - changes like the advent of the subway, of electricity in the streets. She was fascinated with the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. So I had to give these changes and developments cameo roles as she engaged with New York.

HANSEN: Is that why you wrote this as fiction - it gives you that license and that liberty?

Ms. VREELAND: Yes.

HANSEN: Yes.

Ms. VREELAND: Yes. And it also - you know, there's a list of the Tiffany Girls and their nationalities and their birthdates. But we don't know too much about their personalities. So a novel could allow me to develop their ancillary stories, too.

HANSEN: Do you know why Tiffany jewelry and silver survived, and the glass company died out?

Ms. VREELAND: Well, I could say diamonds are a girl's best friend, and that never changes. But the taste for art did change. There arrived a new aesthetic in America - which was sleeker, simpler, straighter lines. And art nouveau went out of fashion. But Tiffany hung onto it. The company, Tiffany Studios, ended up in bankruptcy in 1930 - early '30s.

HANSEN: And what happened to Clara?

Ms. VREELAND: She eventually left Tiffany's to marry. And after she left Tiffany, she didn't continue working with glass. She developed a business designing silk scarves - hand-painted silk scarves, but none of those are extent; there's no way of tracing them. She probably sold them to a department store there in New York.

HANSEN: Isn't it interesting now that museum shops will sell scarves that are directly prints from the Tiffany windows?

Ms. VREELAND: Oh, yes. I have two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: That's only right and just, I think. Susan Vreeland's new historical novel is called "Clara and Mr. Tiffany." Susan Vreeland is in the studios of KPBS in San Diego. Thank you so much.

Ms. VREELAND: Oh, it's been my pleasure, Liane.

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