By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — More than 1,000 people showed up on a wintry day in 1915 to watch the unveiling of the Joan of Arc statue at West 93rd Street and Riverside Drive, but today the monument is largely forgotten.
Valerie Thaler, 64, spent months poring over historical documents in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History and at the New York Historical Society with the goal of answering one question: why is there a statue of Joan of Arc in New York?
The get the full answer, you'll have to attend a talk Thaler's giving on Thursday, Joan of Arc's 599th birthday. But in an interview Wednesday, she revealed a few of the interesting tidbits of the "fascinating story" she uncovered about the statue of the French saint, who was burned at the stake in 1431 at age 19 after leading the French army to several victories.
"The meaning behind the statue is as relevant today as it was when the statue was unveiled in 1915," Thaler said. "The reason is just as meaningful."
The life-size bronze figure of Joan of Arc standing tall in the saddle with her sword drawn was the first statue in New York depicting an actual woman (previous statues had honored fictional women.) Today there are three other public statues of real women in New York: Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman and Gertrude Stein, Thaler said.
Thaler says a "cast of characters" helped make the Joan of Arc statue a reality, including one man who Mark Twain said was "as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag."
Mrs. Thomas Alva Edison pulled the sheet off the Joan of Arc statue at its dedication ceremony in 1915.
With most of Europe at war, the statue was in some ways a symbol of solidarity between the United States and its ally France, Thaler said.
The statue's base includes stones from the Tower of Rouen, where Joan of Arc was held prisoner, though not, as rumored, actual stones from her prison cell.
Thaler first became interested in the statue's origins last year when she attended a local history lecture. Someone in the audience stumped the speaker by asking about the Joan of Arc statue.
Thaler, who retired from a career in financial services and calls herself a "compulsive researcher," went home an did a quick Google search that set her on the path to learning the statue's story.
"I found the personalities fascinating and I kept coming across puzzles that I wanted to solve," Thaler said.
She connects the Joan of Arc statue to other great civic ventures of the 19th and early 20th century, such as Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"People wanted New York to be the greatest city in the world," Thaler said. "All these activities were manifestations of that desire."
Thaler's talk will be at 6:30 p.m. at the New York Youth Hostel, 891 Amsterdam Avenue at West 103rd Street.