This Friday, the New-York Historical is presenting William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) as part of our free Friday night film series. Based on Henry James’ 1880 story Washington Square, the film stars Olivia de Havilland as a young woman who falls in love with a handsome young man (Montgomery Clift), despite the objections of her emotionally abusive father who suspects the man of being a fortune hunter.
In 1880, when James wrote his novel, Washington Square Park did not yet have its iconic memorial arch, designed by McKim, Mead & White. That was built in 1889 to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as the first President of the United States. In fact, until 1825 the land on Washington Square Park was used as a burial ground, and to this day there are still human remains buried under the park.
By 1948, when The Heiress was filmed (though the film takes place in the 1800s), the center fountain of the park had been renovated to include a wading pool, and the park began to be a haven for folk singers and other “bohemian” New Yorkers. Today it continues to be a center for Manhattanites, from NYU students to modern-day hippies to anyone who can afford to live in Greenwich Village!