Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

Was a beloved book written on Macdougal Street?

August 30, 2014

Macdougal Street in the West Village casts a huge literary shadow.

In the 1920s and 1930s, writers like Theodore Dreiser, Ezra Pound, and Sinclair Lewis drank and ate at Polly’s and the Minetta Tavern. Jack Kerouac and Frank O’Hara hung out at the San Remo and the Kettle of Fish.

Allcotthousemacdougal

And around the corner, Edgar Allan Poe published The Raven while living at 85 West Third Street in the mid-1840s.

But there’s another literary claim to fame on Macdougal Street. In 1868, Louisa May Alcott reportedly wrote part of Little Women from her uncle’s double-wide red townhouse at numbers 130-132.

Louisamayalcott“In 1868, Louisa May Alcott sat at her desk before the second story window in her uncle’s house on MacDougal Street and penned the final paragraph of Little Women, states this New York University web page, by way of City Guide NY. (NYU owns the house now.)

The  joined houses at 130 and 132 MacDougal Street had been built in 1852 and purchased by Alcott’s uncle. Alcott remained in her uncle’s house until 1870.”

Despite what NYU says, there’s some dispute over whether Alcott wrote any of her story about the March family here.

Alcott reportedly wrote the novel at her family’s home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts.

Louisamayalcottb&wAn 1880 New York Times article on Alcott, by that time nationally famous, states that she wrote the novel in Boston.

“Most of her work has been done here; the first part of Little Women was written at the South End, and the second part in the Bellevue Hotel, on Beacon-Street, her favorite quarters. . . .”

LittlewomencoverAnd  in Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography, Cheever references the “manufactured” fact that Alcott penned part of the book here.

“Even the amazing NYU archivists have only been able to find references to the fact that Alcott wrote Little Women on MacDougal Street, nothing about how that fact came to be manufactured.”

A Village poet and the hospital she’s named for

July 17, 2014

Ednastvincentmillay1Edna St. Vincent Millay is an emblem of 1920s Greenwich Village.

Bohemian, free-love advocate, and a writer of passionate, sometimes cynical lyrical poetry, Millay lived in various places in the Village beginning in 1917, most famously at 75 1/2 Bedford Street.

Considering how connected she is to the Village, it’s still surprising to learn that Millay, born and raised in Maine, was actually named after another Greenwich Village icon: St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Giving her the middle name St. Vincent was a way to honor the hospital that saved her uncle’s life just before Millay was born in 1892.

EdnastvincentmillayarchWorking as a stevedore on a ship, he became trapped below deck for days without food or water.

When he was found, he was brought to St. Vincent’s and nursed back to health.

Shortly after Millay was born, her aunt wrote this in a letter to her uncle, “the Vincent is for St. Vincent’s Hospital, the one that cared so well for our darling brother,”  according to Nancy Milford’s wonderful biography of Millay, Savage Beauty.

Millay referenced the city around her in her poems: riding the Staten Island ferry, the “fruit-carts and clam-carts” of MacDougal Street. She died in her upstate home in 1950.

Stvincents1931byroncompany

Founded in 1849 and closed abruptly in 2010, St. Vincent’s (above, in 1931) was bulldozed out of its longtime location at Seventh Avenue and 11th Street over the past year.

Herman Melville imagines the brutal Draft Riots

July 7, 2014

DraftriotsmelvilleHerman Melville wasn’t in New York City in July 1863 to actually witness the Draft Riots.

A city native born on Pearl Street, he returned to the metropolis from Massachusetts that same year, moving with his family to a farmhouse on East 26th Street.

But the horror of the city’s worst riot certainly affected him. In 1865, he published Battle Pieces & Aspects of the War, which included a poem about the four horrific days of violence and murder that began 151 years ago this week.

The riots were ignited by opposition to the Civil War and class animosity, but more specifically the new draft begun days earlier that forced poor men to fight while richer men could buy their way out.

Draftriotsarson

Titled “The House-top. A Night Piece,” the poem “is an imaginative reconstruction of the awful scene with his judgment of the results,” states the introduction to The Poems of Herman Melville, edited by Douglas Robillard. It begins with a hot, restless night:

“No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And blinds the brain—a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.”

DraftriotsillustrationnyplThe steamy Monday after the draft began, thousands of mostly poor and working-class Irish immigrants, enraged by the draft lottery, began setting fires to buildings citywide and attacking and killing black residents who happened to cross their path.

“The town is taken by its rats—ship-rats
And the rats of wharves. All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe—
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve
And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.”

[Below: The New York Seventh Regiment was called in to quell the rioters]

Draftriotsseventhregiment

Read the full text of the poem, which hints at the military force brought in to finally put an end to the Draft Riots and serves a harsh indictment of man’s dual nature to do good and evil.

As for Melville, he spent the Gilded Age falling into obscurity, working at the Customs House on West Street near Gansevoort—a street named after his Revolutionary War Hero grandfather.

[Third image: NYPL]

Explaining Coney Island to the rest of the world

June 30, 2014

Much has been written about Coney Island, once just a thread of sandy beach supposedly named for its rabbit population (konij is Dutch for rabbit).

By the 1880s, of course, this little outpost had become Sodom by the Sea—a tawdry playground of hotels, pavilions, dime museums, freak shows, amusement parks, exotic animals, and more, all bathed in thousands of colored lights.

Coneyislandny3d

The phenomenon that was Coney Island attracted hordes of working class New Yorkers as well as foreign journalists, who wrote articles attempting to explain Coney to curious readers outside New York City.

Lunapark1906These articles serve as an illuminating look at the spectacle that rose out of the sand in just a few short post-Civil War decades.

“Coney Island, one of the great resorts for the million, is reached from the foot of 23rd Street in about an hour,” wrote English novelist Mary Duffus Hardy in her account of traveling through the United States in 1881.

“A few years ago it was a mere wide waste of sand, and was bought by a clever speculator for a mere song; it is now worth millions of dollars, and is covered on all sides by a miscellaneous mass of buildings of all descriptions.

Coneyislandlunaparkmcny

“The hotels are crowded, every nook and corner of the island filled to overflowing during the season; the beach is covered with a lively mass of holiday-makers, all bent on enjoying themselves; gay bunting is flaunting and flying everywhere; musicians are hard at work, beating drums, scraping fiddles, and blowing trumpets, as though their very life depended on the noise they are making.

Coneyislandpaddlingmcny1896“Altogether, it is a gay, stirring scene. Coney Island is not a place where the fashionable or aristocratic multitude most do congregate; it is a rather fast, jolly, rollicking place, and serves its purpose well, as the health-breathing lungs of a great city. . .  .”

In a 1905 issue of The Cosmopolitan, another English writer, Richard Le Gallienne, explained Coney Island this way:

“If you are too superior to have your fortune told by some peasant woman who knows nothing about it, and knows that you know that she doesn’t—don’t go to Coney Island.

Coneyislandsurfave1896mcny“Coney Island exists, and will go on existing, because into all men, gentle and simple, poor and rich—including women—by some mysterious corybantic instinct in their blood, has been born a tragic need of coarse excitement, a craving to be taken in by some illusion however palpable.

“So, following the example of those old nations, whose place she has so vigorously taken, America has builded for herself a Palace of Illusion, and filled it with every species of talented attractive monster, every misbegotten fancy of the frenzied nerves, every fantastic marvel of the moonstruck brain—and she has called it Coney Island.

NY3DBox“Ironic name—a place lonely with rabbits, a spit of sandy beach so near to the simple life of the sea and watched over by the summer night; strange Isle of Monsters, Preposterous Palace of Illusion, gigantic parody of pleasure—Coney Island.”

For more on Coney Island in the late 19th century, and all the other resorts and pleasure gardens where New Yorkers spent their leisure time, read New York City in 3D in the Gilded Age.

[Photos: Top, New-York Historical Society; two through five: MCNY/Byron Collection]

Come to Ephemeral New York’s book launch!

June 12, 2014

NY3dBookIntCover-1Please join me in celebrating the release of New York in 3D in the Gilded Age, a look at the city in the era of gaslights, elevated railroads, and the solidifying of the modern five-borough metropolis.

It’s a reading/meet and greet for anyone interested in the city’s past, books, or both—open to the public and hosted by the wonderful Museum at Eldridge Street.

Date: Wednesday June 18, 6-8 pm

Location: The Museum at Eldridge Street, 12 Eldridge Street between Division and Canal Streets (hit the link for directions)

RSVP required: contact@eldridgestreet.org

Free and open to all. Refreshments served—hope to see you there!

A new book by Ephemeral New York!

May 12, 2014

NY3dBookIntCoverAs longtime readers know, Ephemeral New York has been chronicling the city’s past since 2008.

I’ve enjoying researching and writing every post, and I’m so grateful for all the insightful comments and kind words from readers along the way.

On June 3, I’ll have something new to offer: a book. Titled New York City in the Gilded Age, it delves into one of the most dynamic periods in New York City history.

This is the era of gaslights, horse cars, and elevated railroads; of posh Fifth Avenue mansions and crowded tenements; of an explosion in population and industry as well as deep political corruption. It parallels our contemporary city, with its incredible growth amid a widening gap between the rich and poor.

 NY3DBoxNew York City in the Gilded Age features hundreds of exceptional, rarely seen photos and images from the archives of the wonderful New-York Historical Society. It’s packaged with 50 stereographs and a stereoscope viewer, providing a truly 3D look at the city in the late 19th century.

Over the next weeks, I’ll be featuring content and photos from New York City in the Gilded Age. I hope everyone enjoys this closer look at the people and events of this era.

Published by Black Dog & Leventhal in partnership with the New-York Historical Society, the book will be available at Barnes & Noble, the Strand, and many other stores on June 3 (and Amazon and Indiebound right now).

 Thank you again to everyone who has enjoyed Ephemeral New York over the years—it’s truly been a pleasure to produce this site.

Central Park West’s most enchanting apartments

March 17, 2014

SturbantallThe wonderful thing about New York is that you can pass a building hundreds of times before discovering its magic.

Which is how, on a rainy late afternoon with just a slant of sunlight left in the sky, I discovered the beauty of the Beaux-Arts gem the St. Urban.

It’s a 12-story apartment house at 89th Street, one of many French flat–style residences built in an almost unbroken line along Central Park West at the turn of the last century.

The building’s neighbors, the Dakota and the San Remo, are perhaps more flamboyant. The St. Urban’s beauty is more understated, and it stands today as an elegant throwback—described in one book as a “splendid anachronism” of gracious, Gilded Age living.

SturbancherubFacing the park is a porte-cochere—a magnificent recessed carriage entrance—illuminated by golden globes affixed to the limestone entrance.

The St. Urban’s sloping mansard roof and dormer windows give it a castle-like feel, which is underscored by its rounded, domed tower crowned with a copper lantern.

I’m not the only one enchanted by the St. Urban. In 2001, writer Andre Aciman had this to say about the building, in a New York Times Magazine issue that focused on the specialness of New York City.

Sturbanlobby

“As with Monet’s portraits of the Rouen cathedral, does the St. Urban stir so many images that changing the season, the cast of light or time of day changes the building as well?,” wrote Aciman.

Sturbanwiki

“All I know is that something in me is forever grafted here—which is why I dare not think of the city without this building, or of me without this city, or of this building without me.”

Returning to a strange, unrecognizable New York

March 10, 2014

Marktwain1867Like Joan Didion in her essay “Goodbye to All That,” countless authors have written their story of coming to the city, building a life here, and then realizing for various reasons that it was time to go.

But there’s a similar tale that isn’t told as often. It’s about living in New York, then leaving—only to return years later to a city that feels different, distant, not the home you knew so intimately.

It happened to Mark Twain. In 1854, at age 18, he left his city printer’s job for California, where he made a name for himself as a journalist.

In 1867 (three years before this photo was taken of Canal and Mott Streets) he found himself back in an indifferent, business-oriented New York.

He dubbed it “the overgrown metropolis” and mused about how “the town is all changed since I was here, 13 years ago, when I was a pure and sinless sprout” in letters to his former newspaper.

Mottandcanalstreets1870“I have at last, after several months’ experience, made up my mind that it is a splendid desert—a domed and steepled solitude, where the stranger is lonely in the midst of a million of his race, ” Twain wrote that August.

“Every man seems to feel that he has got the duties of two lifetimes to accomplish in one, and so he rushes, rushes, rushes, and never has time to be companionable—never has any time at his disposal to fool away on matters which do not involve dollars and duty and business.”

Henryjameswithfather1854“There is something about this ceaseless buzz, and hurry, and bustle, that keeps a stranger in a state of unwholesome excitement all the time, and makes him restless and uneasy, and saps from him all capacity to enjoy anything or take a strong interest in any matter whatever—a something which impels him to try to do everything, and yet permits him to do nothing.”

Twain would not stay in New York very long. Later that year he traveled to Europe and the Middle East, then settled in Hartford, Connecticut.

Author Henry James, above with his father, also felt like a stranger when he came back to New York in 1904 after years in Europe.

21washingtonplaceBorn and raised on genteel Washington Place in the 1840s, James was aghast at the new skyscrapers, which he deemed in The American Scene “grossly tall and grossly ugly” and “. . . extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted, and stuck in as in the dark, anywhere and anyhow. . . .”

He was struck by “the terrible little Ellis Island,”  trolley cars “stuffed to suffocation,” and the “melancholy monument” that was the new arch on Washington Square.

And James was really upset about NYU knocking down the school’s original college building…along with his childhood home.

Henryjames1913singersargent[Above, the NYU building that took James' childhood home's place on 21 Washington Place].

“The grey and more or less ‘hallowed’ University building—wasn’t it somehow, with a desperate bravery, both castellated and gabled?—has vanished from the earth, and with it the two or three adjacent houses, of which the birthplace was one.”

[Henry James in 1913, by John Singer Sargent]

A downtown street once called “Newspaper Row”

February 27, 2014

In the late 19th century—before media companies concentrated in Midtown and the Chelsea/Flatiron area—the short stretch of Park Row next to City Hall was New York’s media neighborhood, dubbed Newspaper Row.

Newspaperrow

Newspaper Row was home to major dailies such as the domed New York World, the New York Tribune, and the Sun (the little building between the World and the Tribune). The New York Times‘ headquarters stood on the other side of the Tribune.

Why Park Row? To be near the action at City Hall and close to NYPD Headquarters and the courts.

As the city marched northward, so did the newspaper headquarters: to new enclaves named for them, like Herald Square and Times Square.

Chronicling a city “shrouded and mute in snow”

February 10, 2014

JosemartiMarch 11, 1888, a Sunday, had started out spring-like, with temperatures hitting 40 degrees by noon. But afternoon rain turned to evening sleet, then heavy snow overnight.

New York’s surprise blizzard of 1888 had set upon the city. Before the 60 mile-per-hour winds and blinding snow ended on Tuesday, 20 inches would blanket the metropolis, paralyzing the city for days and killing about 200 people.

During the blizzard, Jose Marti wrote. Marti (above photo) was a Cuban journalist who had moved to New York in 1881 after leading his country’s fight for independence from Spain.

Blizzardstreetsceneloc

In exile, Marti wrote dispatches about life in New York for Spanish-language newspapers and continued his fight for Cuban freedom. He chronicled the “white hurricane” for the Argentinian paper La Nacion in searing, poetic language, capturing a city stuck without the communication and transportation systems it greatly depended on.

Blizzardmadisonave“[T]he first straw hats were just beginning to be seen on the streets of New York along with the glad, bright clothes of Easter, when the city opened its eyes one morning shaken by the roar of a storm, and found itself shrouded, mute, empty, buried in snow.”

“The snow was knee deep, and the drifts waist-high. The angry wind nipped at the hands of pedestrians, knifed through their clothing, froze their noses and ears, blinded them, hurled them backward into the slippery snow, its fury making it impossible for them to get to their feet, flung them hatless and groping for support against the walls, or left them to sleep, to sleep forever, under the snow.”

On Tuesday, a shaken city began to dig out. Trains that had been grounded resumed running, and residents set out to their workplaces.

“The elevated train, encamped for two days in sinister vigil next to the corpse of an engineer who set out to defy its gale, is running again, creaking and shivering over the treacherous rails that gleam and flash.”

Blizzardwest11thst

“This city of snow dotted with brick-red houses is terrible and astonishing, as if flowers of blood were suddenly to bloom on a shroud. The telegraph poles broadcast and contemplate the mess, their lines lying in tangles on the ground like disheveled heads.”

Blizzard14thst6thave“The city awoke this morning without milk, coal, mail, newspapers, streetcars, telephones, or telegraphs. . . . All businesses are closed, and the elevated train, that false marvel, struggles in vain to take the angry crowds that pack the stations to work.”

“The city is coming back to life, burying its dead, and pushing back the snow with the chests of horses and men, the ploughs of locomotives, and buckets of boiling water, sticks, planks, bonfires. And there is a feeling of immense humility and sudden goodness, as if the hand we all must fear has resting on all men at once.”

After the blizzard, Marti continued to write and push for Cuban independence, returning to Cuba in 1895. Later that year, he perished on the battlefield.

Blizzard of 1888 Bdwy at 31st St.

A bronze statue heralding Marti as an “apostle of Cuban independence” was dedicated in Central Park in 1965. On the pedestal, a plaque notes his literary genius.

[Photos: Library of Congress, New-York Historical Society, New York Public Library Digital Collection, New York Times]


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