Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

A March blizzard pummels New York by surprise

March 13, 2017

The day before it hit, the temperature (measured from the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway) was a balmy 40 degrees—and the forecast at the tail end of what had been a warm winter called for light rain.

The next morning, Monday, March 12, 1888, the rain had turned to snow, ferocious winds created heavy drifts, and temperatures dropped to the low 20s.(Below, Park Street in Brooklyn)

For the next 24 hours, “the city went into its gas-lighted rooms and its heated houses, and its parlors and beds tired, wet, helpless, and full of amazement,” reported the New York Sun on March 13. (Below, 14th Street)

Take a look at these scenes of the city during and after the “White Hurricane” that pummeled the metropolis at the start of a workweek in mid-March 129 years ago.

About 200 people were killed during the storm itself and many more succumbed to storm-caused injuries later, felled by heavy snow or left in unheated flats after coal deliveries ceased. (Below, Fifth Avenue at 27th Street)

The downed power lines, stuck streetcars and trolleys, and deep mounds of snow are reminders of all the damage a late winter storm can do when city residents have been tricked by a mild winter season into feeling spring fever before winter is officially over.

Exiled Cuban journalist Jose Marti chronicled the storm from his New York home for an Argentinian newspaper.

Marti captured the mood of the city paralyzed by snow in poetic, descriptive prose, more of which you can read in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: via Stuff Nobody Cares About]

A Village hotel, a suicide, and a haunting painting

February 17, 2017

Since opening in 1887, the Albert Hotel on University Place and 11th Street has been a magnet for creative souls.

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Author Robert Louis Stevenson booked a room in this lovely Victorian Gothic building, receiving Augustus St. Gaudens as a guest.

albertpinkhamryderWalt Whitman and Mark Twain spent time at the Albert, as did Hart Crane and Thomas Wolfe in the 1920s. Jackson Pollack, Robert Lowell, and folk rock bands like the Mamas & the Papas all made the hotel their home base.

But one late 19th century painter who gained notoriety for his moody landscapes and eccentric habits was so taken aback by an experience he had in the hotel’s restaurant, it inspired one of his darkest, most haunting works.

The painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder (left), was a near-recluse. Totally devoted to his art, he often walked from his downtown flat to the Battery late at night to observe the effect of clouds passing over the moon.

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“But a roof, a crust of bread and an easel,” was all he needed in life, Ryder reportedly wrote.

alberthotel1907mcny93-1-1-5311Ryder’s brother was the manager of the Albert, so he often took his meals there. One evening, he talked up a waiter about an upcoming horse race, the Brooklyn Handicap, and a favored thoroughbred named Hanover.

“The day before the race I dropped into my brother’s hotel and had a little chat with this waiter, and he told me that he had saved up $500 and that he had placed every penny of it on Hanover winning the race,” Ryder recalled years later.

“The next day the race was run, and as racegoers will probably remember, Hanover came in third. I was immediately reminded that my friend the waiter had lost all his money.”

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“That dwelt on my mind, as for some reason it impressed me very much, so much that I went around to my brother’s hotel for breakfast the next morning and was shocked to find my waiter friend had shot himself the evening before.”

alberthotelfrom11thst“This fact formed a dark cloud over my mind that I could not throw off, and ‘The Race Track’ is the result.”

Subtitled “Death on a Pale Horse,” the painting was completed between 1896 and 1908.

It belongs to the Cleveland Museum of Art—a work of art whose connection to a Bohemian hotel in Greenwich Village and a horse race in Brooklyn is not obvious yet runs deep.

[Fourth image: MCNY 93.1.1.5311; fifth image: The Sun headline, two weeks after Ryder died in 1917]

A lurid best-seller shocks 1850s New York

February 13, 2017

hotcornkatyIt was deemed “filthy” by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn preacher and moral crusader Henry Ward Beecher praised it, then quickly retracted his recommendation once he actually took a look at it.

Henry James, a young boy when it was published, was forbidden to read this “tabooed book” by his father—and of course became obsessed with getting a copy, he recalled years later.

What kind of book could stir such outrage—and become a runaway best-seller—in the New York City of 1853?

hotcorncover1853Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York Illustrated, was a collection of short stories that had originally run in the New-York Tribune.

The stories chronicled the interconnected lives of several poor kids and adults living in the wretched Five Points slum in the antebellum city.

The main character was young Katy (top), a Five Points resident and “hot corn” girl—one of hundreds of vendors who stood on New York corners hawking this favorite street food of the early 19th century.

(“Hot corn, hot corn, here’s your lily-white hot corn/hot corn, all hot, just came out of the boiling pot” was a hot corn girl’s signature refrain.)

hotcornpolicebeatingThere was also “Wild Maggie,” her drunk father, a ragpicker’s daughter named Madelina, and Katy’s alcoholic mother, who lives off the pennies Katy makes selling corn.

Interspersed in the drama are lurid descriptions of the real streets of Five Points as well as the efforts on the part of the missions that had recently set up there, hoping to ease the lives of residents with charity, offers of work, and religious moralizing.

Hot Corn was such a hit that it immediately spawned three plays. P.T. Barnum staged a rendition, and another version ran at the Bowery Theatre—becoming the second most popular play in the 1850s after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, another novel-turned-drama.

hotcornmancookingcornNo one was reading Hot Corn for its literary merits, of course. The tawdry yet sentimental tales of poverty, broken families, and alcoholism gave respectable book-buyers a scandalous look into slum life.

The stories milk every emotion. Omnibuses run people over, characters end up in jail or in Green-Wood Cemetery, rats run wild, and there’s at least one marriage and deathbed scene.

The message about the evils of alcohol found an audience as well. The temperance movement was gaining steam at this point in the 19th century, even in a city that centered around saloons and taverns.

hotcorndeathbedsceneDespite its massive popularity, Hot Corn disappeared from booksellers’ shelves by the end of the decade.

Consider it one in a long line of lurid dramas exposing the underbelly of New York life or the hidden world of a not-well-known subculture, from the Horatio Alger stories of the late 19th century to Rent on Broadway.

[All illustrations all come from the text, which you can download for free via Google]

A 1940s poem’s dark and ominous Varick Street

January 23, 2017

elizabethbishopkingstreetIn 1944, Elizabeth Bishop, then 33 and with a published book of poems under her belt, moved into a tiny flat at 46 King Street (from which she painted this watercolor of 43 King Street, at right, across the street).

She’d already lived in various downtown apartments since graduating from Vassar in 1934, among them 16 Charles Street and 61 Perry Street.

elizabethbishopcollegeyearbook1934Unlike so many other artists and writers of her generation, Bishop (left, in her Vassar yearbook) had an uneasy relationship with the city. She spent much of her early years traveling, living in Manhattan only in short stints.

One poem in particular, “Varick Street,” published in 1947, offers a surreal glimpse of what put her off about New York.

At night the factories
struggle awake,
wretched uneasy buildings
veined with pipes
attempt their work.
Try to breathe,
the elongated nostrils
haired with spikes
give off such stenches, too.

elizabethbishopfactoryIn the 1940s, Varick Street—the widened extension of Seventh Avenue South, which plows through the West Village’s meandering cow path streets—was a hub of manufacturing.

Bishop seemed to view the factories (perhaps this one at left, on the corner of King and Varick) right outside her King Street window as mechanized and ominous threats to love.

The poem alludes to the unnatural, the “pale dirty light” and “mechanical moons” of the factories.

The industry and commercialism of the city’s manufacturing world appear to threaten the narrator’s love for the unnamed person sleeping in bed beside her.

Our bed shrinks from the soot
and hapless odors
hold us close.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me

Bishop’s work is not confessional, and though her poems are intimate, they tends to avoid the personal.

But one can imagine Bishop lying in bed next to her beloved, in a relationship complicated if not doomed by an industrial and commercialized city that to her doesn’t recognize love and encourages betrayal.

Here is text of the poem in full, originally published in The Nation.

[Top photo: Tibor De Nagy Gallery; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: 47-49 King Street in 1975 by Edmund Gillon, MCNY: 2013.3.2.2211]

Everyone in 19th century New York loved oysters

January 5, 2017

oysters1900mcnyx2010-11-10037Oysters in the booming 19th century city were kind of like pizza today: sold in exclusive restaurants and lowly dives, prepared in countless styles, and devoured by rich and poor alike.

“Oysters were the great leveler,” wrote William Grimes in his book Appetite City. “At market stands, the New Yorker with a couple of nickels rubbed shoulders with the gay blades known as ‘howling swells.'”

“In humble cellars and lavish oyster palaces all over the city, oysters were consumed voraciously for as long as the oyster beds held out.”

oystersfultonmarket1870nypl

Oyster saloons popped up near theaters. Fisherman sold them off boats on the rivers. Fancy oyster houses fed the wealthy. Vendors at curbside stands sold them on the cheap, often adhering to what was called the “Canal Street plan”:

oystersmcdonaldsbowerynypl1907“All the oysters you could eat for six cents, usually sprinkled with vinegar and lemon juice, or perhaps just a little salt,” wrote Grimes. “By the 1880s, ketchup and horseradish were standard as well.”

As the ultimate democratizing food, oysters were enjoyed on Fifth Avenue the same as they were in Five Points (see illustration below).

Even Charles Dickens was amazed by their abundance and popularity at cheap Bowery dives during his visit to New York in 1842, which he famously chronicled.

“Again across Broadway, and so—passing from the many-coloured crowd and glittering shops—into another long main street, the Bowery. . . .” he wrote in American Notes.

oysters5pointsnypl1873

“These signs which are so plentiful, in shape like river buoys, or small balloons, hoisted by cords to poles, and dangling there announce, as you may see by looking up, ‘oysters in every style.’

“They tempt the hungry most at night, for then dull candles glimmer inside, illuminating these dainty words, and make the mouths of idlers water, as they read and linger.'”

[Top image: MCNY, 1900, x2010.11.10037; second image: NYPL, 1870; third image: NYPL menu collection; fourth image: NYPL, 1873]

Peek into a travel diary of colonial New York

December 27, 2016

sarahkembleknightNew York in 1704 was barely a city at all.

Under British rule for only 40 years, about 5,000 people called it home. Not much existed past Maiden Lane. Industry focused on the harbor. The original Trinity Church had just been built. Yellow fever was epidemic.

And in autumn of that year a boardinghouse keeper named Sarah Kemble Knight (at left) set out on horseback from her hometown of Boston to journey to Manhattan and back, helping a friend handle legal issues.

Traveling via horse through colonial New England’s primitive roads and bunking in public houses would be rough for anyone, let alone a 38-year-old woman (she did have the help of a guide).

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But what makes the trip extraordinary is that Knight kept a journal, which was published as a book in 1825.

“The Cittie of New York is a pleasant well compacted place, situated on a Commodius River [which] is a fine harbor for shipping,” Knight wrote on her arrival in December 1704.

sarahkembleknighthouses1700She only stayed in the city for a “fortnight”—two weeks. Yet some of her impressions of New York as a place of fashion, stately houses, flowing alcohol, and high-speed fun might sound familiar.

“[New Yorkers] are not strict in keeping the Sabbath as in Boston and other places where I had bin,” she writes. “They are sociable to one another and courteous and civill to strangers and fare well in their houses.”

“The English go very fasheonable in their dress. [But] the Dutch, especially the middling sort, differ from our women, in their habitt go loose. . . .” Knight says, explaining that the Dutch women wear a caplike headband that leaves their ears sticking out “which are sett out with jewels [with] jewells of a large size and many in number.”

sarahnyin1700Dutch women also have fingers “hoop’t with rings.”

New Yorkers are great entertainers, she says, and taverns “treat with good liquor liberally, and the customers drink as liberally and generally pay for’t as well….”

The 18th century city knew how to have a good time. “Their diversions in the winter is riding sleys about three or four miles out of town,” Knight writes, “where they have houses of entertainment at a place called the Bowery, and some go to friends houses who handsomely treat them.”

sarahfrauncestavernnyplWhile out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart.”

Sounds like modern city traffic and bad taxi drivers!

[Top image: National Women’s History Museum; second image: New York in 1695; NYC Tourist; third image: NYC in 1700, Wikipedia; fourth image: Fraunces Tavern, built by Samuel DeLancey in 1719 on Pearl and Broad Streets; NYPL]

Santa as we know him was invented in New York

December 19, 2016

New Amsterdam’s 17th century colonists celebrated “Sinte Klaas” every December 6. The “jolly old elf” who drops toys down chimneys dates to 1823, when “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was published anonymously in an upstate newspaper.

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But the Santa we know today was refined and modernized by Harper’s Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast, whose first depiction of a gift-giving, rotund father figure was published during the December 1862 holiday season, with Civil War raging.

“Nast’s Santa appears on the cover of the paper in an illustration titled ‘Santa Claus in Camp.’ states a website called Civil War Profiles.

santaharpersweekly131863

“Nast drew a patriotic Santa dressed in striped pants and a coat covered with stars sitting on his sleigh beneath a waving American flag. Two drummer boys in the foreground of the sketch appear fascinated with a jack-in-the-box toy. One soldier is shown opening his box to find a stocking stuffed with presents, while another soldier holds up the pipe he received as a present.”

santaharpersweekly131863chimney

To make it even clearer which side Santa took in the War Between the States, Nast drew Santa holding a wooden effigy of Confederate president Jefferson Davis by a rope.

This cover illustration is one of two that feature Santa Claus on a sleigh in that January 3, 1863 issue. Inside is a more sentimental Nast drawing.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverIn one panel, a young mother prays for her soldier husband’s safe return from war. In the second panel, the husband is sitting beside a fire, ostensibly thinking of his family.

And atop the roof is a small bearded man, his reindeer-drawn sleigh parked beside him as he looks down the chimney.

Santa Claus, electric Christmas tree lights, the first tree lighting in a park—New York pioneered many of the holiday celebrations we take part in today, as The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, explains.

The 1870 murder trial that transfixed New York

November 14, 2016

abbysagemurderbygaslight2Adultery, a jilted husband, an abused wife, a deathbed marriage—the 1870 murder trial of New-York Tribune writer Albert Richardson had it all.

The story begins in 1857, when Abby Sage, a 19-year-old actress, married Daniel McFarland, who claimed he was a wealthy lawyer.

Turns out he wasn’t a lawyer, nor was he wealthy. Instead, he was an alcoholic prone to violence.

abbysagealbertrichardsonWhile Sage earned success as a playwright and on stage opposite Edwin Booth at the Winter Garden Theatre, McFarland would drink, go into violent rages and threaten homicide or suicide, then promise he’d clean up his act and find a steady job.

Things changed, however, in 1867, when the couple and their two young sons moved into a boarding house at 86 Amity Street—today’s West Third Street.

There, Sage met another boarder, a widower named Albert Richardson. At the time, he was a writer for the New-York Tribune and had made a name for himself in literary circles. During the Civil War he served the Union as a spy, was captured by the Confederacy and then escaped a prison in North Carolina.

abbysagedeathbedmurderbygaslightSage and Richardson became friendly and began spending days together, working on their writing. When McFarland found out, he went into an angry spiral, threatening murder and suicide again.

Finally, Sage left him—and soon her friendship with Richardson turned romantic.

McFarland was enraged. Sage began divorce proceedings, and McFarland attempted to get custody of their sons.

Desperate to be free of her violent estranged husband so she could be with the man she loved, Sage temporarily moved to Indiana, where divorce was allowed for extreme cruelty and drunkenness. In fall 1869, 16 months later, she came back East, believing that her marriage was legally over.

abbysagetrialcourtroom

Her ex-husband, however, made good on his murderous threat. On November 25, McFarland entered the Tribune office on Spruce and Nassau Streets, pulled out a pistol, and shot Richardson, mortally wounding him.

abbysagebrooklyneaglearticleapril51870Richardson was taken to the posh Astor House Hotel, where he lingered for a week. In that time, while McFarland was in the Tombs, he and Sage arranged to be married—by famous Brooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher.

There was never any question that McFarland killed Richardson. But to get McFarland off the hook for his crime, defense lawyers had to shift the spotlight from the shooting to Sage and Richardson’s relationship, which began while Sage was technically still married.

“The prosecution focused on the misery of the McFarland marriage, with Abby’s relatives and friends, including Horace Greeley [owner of the New-York Tribune, who knew Sage as well from her literary endeavors], giving testimony,” according to 19th century crime website Murder By Gaslight.

abbysageastorhouse1874“The defense changed the focus to the adulterous relationship between Abby and Albert Richardson. An intercepted letter from Albert to Abby, coupled with Daniel McFarland’s family history of mental instability, allegedly triggered the insanity in McFarland that led to the shooting.”

“The trial lasted five weeks. The jury deliberated for an hour and fifty-five minutes and found Daniel McFarland not guilty.”

[Top image: Murder by Gaslight; second image: Wikipedia; third image: Murder by Gaslight; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 5, 1870; sixth image: Astor House Hotel, 1874, NYPL]

Loveliness in turn of the century Bryant Park

October 24, 2016

Here’s Bryant Park in 1913, just a few years after the New York Public Library building opened on the site where the Croton distributing reservoir once stood (hence the park’s original name, Reservoir Square).

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But whose bust is that in the foreground?

It’s Washington Irving‘s, according to the Bryant Park Blog. Apparently the city placed this sculpture here because Irving once served on the park’s advisory council.

Removed during a 1930s park renovation, the bust is now part of Washington Irving High School near Gramercy Park.

What remains of Jefferson Market’s police court

October 10, 2016

New York is rich with creatively repurposed buildings. A once-stately Spring Street bank is now a Duane Reade. The shelves of a elegant Fifth Avenue bookstore now carry lipstick and nail polish sold by a makeup brand.

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And the magnificent Jefferson Market Courthouse building (above, in 1878, a year after completion) on Sixth Avenue and Tenth Streets—with its Gothic turrets and stained glass loveliness—has been a New York Public Library branch since 1967.

jeffersonmarketstairsIt’s a terrific place to read. But perhaps the best part is that the interior contains the remnants of its late 19th century use as a police court (with an adjacent jail).

Jefferson Market was one of several local courts at the time that handled neighborhood crimes.

Head down the spiral staircase to the basement reference room, where long arched hallways, doorways, and a main area are lined with brick.

This is where the holding cells once were for the parade of (alleged) drunks, prostitutes, and petty thieves taken in by cops.

jeffersonmarketbasement

There was room for 138 suspects. Here they bided their time until brought to see the judge, or waited after sentencing to be escorted to one of the city’s jails or workhouses.

jeffersonmarketcourtdoorUpstairs in the first-floor children’s room was the actual courtroom, with imposing Victorian Gothic-style entryways.

Suspect after suspect lined up here, pleading their cases before the magistrate brought the gavel down.

The famous and infamous made appearances along with average joes. In 1896, writer Stephen Crane came in to defend a woman arrested for solicitation who he met while “studying human nature,” as he put it.

Harry K. Thaw, the jealous husband of Evelyn Nesbit who killed Stanford White ten years later on the roof of Madison Square Garden, also appeared before a judge here, who determined that Thaw should be held without bail and sent to the Tombs.

jeffersonmarketnightcourtnypl1907-1909

It must have been a circus when the night court opened in 1907. Keeping the court open through the wee hours of the next morning helped alleviate crowding, and it made it a lot easier to process the nightly haul of “prodigals” trucked down in police wagons from the vice-ridden Tenderloin district in today’s Chelsea.

jeffersonmarketnyplsketchcriminals“The night court in Jefferson Market sits in judgment only on the small fry caught in dragnet by police,” wrote one publication in 1910.

“Tramps, vagrants, drunkards, brawlers, disturbers of the peace, speeding chauffeurs, licenseless peddlers, youths caught red-handed shooting craps or playing ball in the streets; these are the men with whom the night court deals.”

Women, too, crowded the holding cells and courtroom. “Old—prematurely old—and young—pitifully young; white and brown; fair and faded; sad and cynical; starved and prosperous; rag-draped and satin-bedecked; together they wait their turn at judgment.”

For women especially, night court became a tactic of intimidation. Since most of the other females there were prostitutes, the association with them was supposed to intimidate “nice girls” under arrest.

jeffersonmarketuprisingofthe20000

This was the goal when striking shirtwaist workers were deposited at Jefferson Market in 1909, according to the NYPL history site. But the female strikers didn’t break (strikers leaving a police wagon and entering the courthouse, above).

jeffersonmarketpolicecourtsketch1

Jefferson Market’s police court days were over by 1940, though the building retained its association with criminal justice, thanks to the fortress-like jail that provided terrific street theater for decades, the Women’s House of Detention, built in 1929 and demolished in 1973.

jeffersonmarketgarden-orgToday, the site of the women’s jail is now a beautiful garden behind the restored and beloved (and thankfully saved from demolition in the 1960s) Jefferson Market Library.

Take a walk around the library and grounds, and feel the presence of a rougher, wilder slice of the city. Now, can anyone shed light on who the old man on the exterior fountain might be?

[First image: Alamy; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Greenwich Village History; seventh image: unknown; eighth image: Jefferson Market Garden]