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New Midtown Exhibit Peeks at Private Diaries of Writers, Performers

By Della Hasselle | January 20, 2011 5:54am | Updated on January 20, 2011 5:53am

By Della Hasselle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MIDTOWN EAST — A new exhibit at the Morgan Library offers viewers a peek into the private musings of some of America's most celebrated minds, including Bob Dylan and John Steinbeck.

"The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives" opens Friday, and explores the many reasons why authors, musicians and other figures in the public eye often turn toward private journals.

Some writers, the exhibit notes, kept diaries as a way to keep a shared memoir, such as Lt. Steven Mona, who led a police rescue and recovery team after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

"I don't think I will ever look at anything in life the same way," Mona mused in his notes, on display in the exhibit.

Other entries in the exhibit resemble on paper what new media like Facebook and Twitter offer — a continuous narrative or documentation that was updated, at times, by the hour.

Bob Dylan, for example, kept an extensive verbal and visual diary of his 1974 concert tour with The Band.

"Exploding galaxies of the red white & blue pulsing in the night of the big eye," he wrote, next to a sketch of his Memphis hotel room.

And musings by abstract Expressionist painter Charles Seliger (1926–2009) show that he kept over 150 notebooks over several decades, rarely allowing a day to go by without recording activities, thoughts, and opinions, until his death in 2009.

Although diaries are intensely personal, the exhibit also points out that fears once expressed by great historical figures are the same ones that may commonly plague fellow New Yorkers today.

Distinguished writers like John Steinbeck, who called New York home before he died, even found that being a diarist, at times, was more difficult than being a novelist.

"I have tried to keep diaries before, but it didn't work out because of the necessity to be honest," Steinback said while keeping his working journal for "The Grapes of Wrath."

Others entries show that depression plagued the greats even during times of great success.

"Nothing to say except that I'm still hanging on," Tennesse Williams wrote in 1955, right before A Streetcar Named Desire was about to open in New York.

Regardless of the reasons why its kept, the diary can be an invaluable tool for modern-day viewers to get a better understanding of the creative minds they admire, said William M. Griswold, director of the Morgan.

"Diaries are particularly useful and revealing," he said. "They offer a real-time glimpse of the ways individuals of various eras and backgrounds have chosen to document their lives, thoughts, and personal struggles."

"The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives" will run at The Morgan Library and Museum on 36th Street and Madison Avenue from Jan. 21 through May 22, 2011.