Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

The first confidence man was a New Yorker

August 29, 2016

Of course the first confidence man would perfect his scheme in Manhattan. New York was all about making money, a place where greed overtook common sense and hucksters found plenty of victims.

Conman1915illustration

One of those swindlers was a suave, 20-something man with dark hair named Samuel Thompson, who also went by the name of Samuel Willis, among other aliases.

Conman1872attackonaswindlerIn the booming, increasingly anonymous mid-19th century city, Thompson would approach a stranger who appeared to be well-off, pretend to know the man, and after a little conversation ask, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow,” explained the New-York Herald in July 1849.

“The stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing ‘confidence’ in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do.”

After stealing from marks all of the city, Thompson was finally arrested in 1849; he mistakenly hit up a man who he already stole a watch from the year before.

Conmannytribune1855The press made a big deal out of Thompson’s arrest, dubbing him the “original confidence man” and taking a certain glee in the fact that so many New York fat cats fell for the ruse. One writer even proclaimed that the new breed of Capitalist business men were the real con men.

“Let him rot in ‘the Tombs,’ while the ‘Confidence Man on a large scale’ fattens, in his palace, on the blood and sweat of the green ones of the land!” argued a writer from Knickerbocker Magazine.

Thompson was convicted of grand larceny and spent a few years in Sing Sing, then apparently took off to ply his act around the country, though he ripped off another mark in New York in 1855, according to the New-York Tribune.

ConmanmelvillebookNaturally, all kinds of scammers began copying Thompson’s brilliant con—leading to the term con artist and continuing a long tradition of New York swindles, from bunco to the selling the Brooklyn Bridge to three-card monte.

Thompson even inspired Herman Melville, who published The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade in 1857, one of many Melville characters who originated in the headlines.

Hat tip to Jonathan from New York Local Tours for this entertaining bit of New York trivia, via the Crime in NYC tour.

[Top image: NYPL Digital Gallery; second image: New-York Tribune 1855; third image: NYPL]

Bathing beauties of the 1896 Sunday Journal

August 26, 2016

Is this siren showing off at a high-end resort like Long Branch or enjoying the surf at lowbrow pleasure paradise Coney Island?

Sundayjournalaugust161896

Both destinations are probably covered in the William Randolph Hearst-owned Sunday Journal. Hmm, could the whole summer resort focus be an excuse to run images of women in bathing costumes?

Look at the writers: Stephen Crane!

[Image: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The sad fate of these Lafayette Street columns

August 1, 2016

You could call it one of New York’s first luxury developments: a nine-building stretch of magnificent marble row houses on the recently laid out cobblestone cul-de-sac of Lafayette Place.

LaGrangeTerrace1895mcny

The new, two-block street was uptown in the late 1820s, when construction, spearheaded by John Jacob Astor, began. Land that had recently been forests and fields was about to become the young city’s most fashionable quarter.

Sing Sing inmates quarried the white marble used to build what would be named LaGrange Terrace (above, in 1895), after the name of the Marquis de Lafayette’s estate in France.

LaGrangeterraceoriginalnypl

(Lafayette fever was running high in the city; the Revolutionary War hero had just made a rock star-like return visit to the grateful metropolis in 1825).

Completed in 1833 (above) with amenities like running water, central heating, and bathrooms, LaGrange Terrace was occupied by Delanos, Vanderbilts, and Gardiners, as well as short-term residents Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Washington Irving.

LaGrangeterrace1911nypl

“Society liked the seclusion of the street, and houses were soon built on every side of the terrace,” wrote the New-York Tribune in 1902.

But fashions change, and Manhattan was on a steady march northward. By the end of the 19th century, the marble row—sandwiched in the light industry district on renamed Lafayette Street—was faded and forlorn.

LaGrangeterrace2016

After they were acquired by department store magnate John Wanamaker (whose store was on 9th Street), five of the buildings had a date with the wrecking ball in 1902. The columns were reportedly salvaged by a builder who intended to use them in another project.

In the ensuing years, LaGrange Terrace, known also as Colonnade Row, has had its ups and downs. A mansard roof was added, and the grimy columns began disintegrating. But earning landmark status gave the row historic recognition.

LaGrangeterracewiki

And what about the marble columns bulldozed a century ago?

They turned up decades later outside a boys’ school in Morristown, New Jersey—on property that was once the estate of the builder who salvaged them.

[Top photo: MCNY; second and third images: NYPL; fifth photo: Wikipedia]

The artists and writers of 1920s St. Luke’s Place

July 28, 2016

In a neighborhood known for its charming brownstone-lined streets, St. Luke’s Place in the West Village stands out as exceptionally magical.

Stlukesplacerow

Built in the early 1850s opposite a sprawling cemetery owned by Trinity Church, the 15 rowhouses span the north side of this slightly curved lane—which is actually Leroy Street, rechristened between Seventh Avenue and Hudson Street to give the block cachet.

Stlukesplace5and6mcnyStlukespaulcadmusThe first owners of these impressive homes, with their roomy parlors and grand entrances, were wealthy merchants.

By the 1910s and 1920s, like so much else in the Village, many were carved into flats and taken over by painters and writers. These newcomers gave St. Luke’s Place its literary and artistic reputation.

The roster of one-time residents features some diverse talent. Painter Paul Cadmus (above) lived at 5 St. Luke’s Place (left, with number 6 in 1939).

Number 11 (below in 1900, with 12 and 13) was home to Max Eastman, poet and publisher of the anarchist periodical The Masses.

Stlukesplace11to131900mcny

Sherwood Anderson resided in a one-room basement flat at number 12. Theodore Dreiser took an apartment at number 16 a month later (bottom photo, center) and began An American Tragedy there.

Stlukesmariannemoore1920sPoet Marianne Moore (left, in the 1920s in the Village) and her mother lived two doors down in the basement of number 14.

The location was convenient, as Moore worked in the public library built across the street after the cemetery was moved and the land turned into a city park.

St. Luke’s had other notable residents: sculptor Theodore Roszak kept his studio at number 1. Jazz Age mayor Jimmy Walker had his family home at number 6. West Side Story playwright Arthur Laurents owned number 9.

And as 1980s TV fans know, number 10 was used to represent the exterior of the Huxtable family home on The Cosby Show.

Stlukes15to17

St. Luke’s is as lovely as ever, and if it’s still home to many poets and painters, they keep a low profile. As for the ones who resided here in the 1920s and 1930s, if only we knew more about how their lives overlapped as neighbors.

[Second and third photos: MCNY; Paul Cadmus painting by Luigi Lucioni, Brooklyn Museum]

A sign of a 1920s speakeasy on Sixth Avenue

July 18, 2016

When these walkup buildings on Sixth Avenue near West Fourth Street went up in the 1830s, they may have looked more alike.

Speakeasysixthave

Over time, however, things change: facades are altered, paint goes up, and cornices are chopped (or crumble) down.

SpeakeasytalesofthejazzageBut the altered facade at number 359, the red building on the right, is drastic: the three second-story windows have been bricked in and painted over.

What did the proprietors of 359 Sixth Avenue have to hide? Booze.

This was the secret second floor (or half floor, according to one account) speakeasy called the Red Head, one of probably hundreds that popped up in Village basements and back rooms after Prohibition.

A second wooden door (below) past the front door led to the speakeasy, reported Westviewnews.org.

Launched in 1922 by cousins Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns as a way to pay their college tuition, the Red Head disguised itself as a tea house and served alcohol in teacups, according to Savoring Gotham: a Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

Speakeasyredheaddoor“The Red Head became a favorite drinking spot for the ‘flaming youth’ made famous that year by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the club’s regulars, in his book of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age,” wrote Donald L. Miller in Supreme  City.

Kriendler and Berns kept their speak in business thanks to Tammany Hall protection money and a constant flow of college kids and celebrities like Dorothy Parker.

No party lasts forever. In 1925, Kriendler and Berns shut down the Red Head and opened a speakeasy called the Fronton at 88 Washington Place.

They then moved up to Midtown, settling in at 21 West 52nd Street. After Repeal it became the 21 Club, where drinks still flow to this day.

The globe and quill in the Meatpacking District

July 14, 2016

Who would build the headquarters of a publishing company on far West 13th Street at the turn of the century—amid the warehouses and cold storage spaces of what was then the center of New York’s produce, meat, and dairy markets?

Colliersbuildingglassdoor

Peter Collier did. Collier was the founder of popular Collier’s magazine, which covered “fiction, fact, sensation, wit, humor, and news” and ran some noteworthy authors (Hemingway, Fitzgerald) and groundbreaking muckraking pieces too.

Collierscover1921Collier put his company offices and printing plant (he published books too) in this neoclassical building at 416-424 West 13th Street, constructed from 1901 to 1902.

West 13th Street here was Astor-owned land, and Collier’s son was married to an Astor daughter.

In the 1920s, 700 people worked in the company headquarters (including e.e. cummings), cranking out thousands of books and periodicals a day.

But the Collier company decamped from the building in 1929. It did turns as a General Electric warehouse, girdle factory, and moving company home base.

Collierslogo

More than a century later, in the revived and revamped Meatpacking District, Collier’s stately and inspiring globe logo, flanked by a quill pen and fountain pen and topped by a torch, represent a very different West 13th Street.

[Top image: Glassdoor.com]

An Avenue A artists enclave called Paradise Alley

June 27, 2016

Paradisealleycourtyard2016Perhaps the name Paradise Alley was meant as a joke.

This little East Village enclave consisted of several small tenement buildings sharing a courtyard on the hard-luck corner of Avenue A and East 11th Street.

Or maybe Paradise Alley was a truly heavenly place to live and work, especially for the painters and writers who made it an unofficial arts colony through the 1960s.

However it ended up with its illustrious name, Paradise Alley has had a long history.

Paradisealley11thstreetlookingnfromavea1933

Built in the 1860s, the walk-up buildings here were home to the waves of German, Irish, and then Italian immigrants who settled in a neighborhood known by turns as Mackerelville, Kleindeutschland, and the northern end of the Lower East Side.

ParadisealleybrooklyneagleThe Paradise Alley moniker supposedly came in the 1920s. By then, many artists and writers had moved in, renting rooms along with regular neighborhood folks for $17 to $25 per month.

That wasn’t small change for poor New Yorkers during the Depression. In January 1933, Paradise Alley residents went on a rent strike, insisting on a 25 percent reduction in rent and the mysterious demand of “proper sanitation facilities.”

PardisealleysubterraneanscoverThe strike led to a wild anti-landlord and anti-police riot after the landlord evicted several tenants, all artists or writers, and left their belongings on the sidewalk.

Paradise Alley’s next claim to fame came thanks to Jack Kerouac, who fell in love with Beat poet Alene Lee, a Paradise Alley tenant in the 1950s.

Kerouac wrote a thinly veiled description of the enclave (and moved it to San Francisco) in his 1958 novel The Subterraneans.

Paradise Alley was “a big 20-family tenement of bay windows . . . the wash hung out in the afternoon the great symphony of Italian mothers, children, fathers . . . yelling from stepladders, smells, cats meowing, Mexicans, the music of all the radios . . .” as Kerouac described it.

In the 1960s, Paradise Alley was renovated; 40 families were relocated and rents raised to $80-$135 a month.

Paradisealleyrenovatednyt1960sThe builder hoped it would be a Patchin Place of the East Village. He put in a fountain, gas-lit lamps, and brickface facades. Morgan Freeman and composer David Amram were tenants.

The end came in a 1985 fire. Today, the corner hosts a senior living complex.

Could the 19th century tenement on the other side of the complex’s gate (top photo) be a last fragment of this lost East Village enclave?

Bedford+Bowery has a more in-depth piece from 2013 on Paradise Alley (with terrific photos).

[Second image: Avenue A looking north from 11th Street in 1933, NYC Municipal Archives; third image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1933; fifth image: a renovated Paradise Alley in 1962, New York Times]

A Village eccentric’s popular 1920s speakeasy

June 23, 2016

BarneyGallant1920s1930smetBarney Gallant (standing, at right) was many things.

He was a Latvian immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1903; Eugene O’Neill’s first New York City roommate, sharing a rundown Sixth Avenue flat with the playwright for $3 a week; and manager of the Greenwich Village Inn in Sheridan Square (below left).

He was also a colorful rebel so convinced that Prohibition was idiotic, he became the first New Yorker ever prosecuted under the Volstead Act in 1919 when his waiters served booze to undercover cops (he spent 30 days in the Tombs for this misdeed).

After his stint behind bars, Gallant—now a hero and celebrity—decided he would keep serving liquor, but only to customers in the know.

BarneygallantgreenwichvillageinnSo he opened his speakeasy, Club Gallant, in 1922 at 40 Washington Square South.

It was a hit, attracting “youngsters with strange stirrings in their  breasts, who had come from remote villages on the prairie; women of social position and money who wanted to do things . . . businessmen who had made quick money and wanted to breathe the faintly naughty atmosphere in safety, and ordinary people who got thirsty now and then and wanted to sit down and have a drink,” stated Stanley Walker in 1933’s The Night Club Era.

BarneygallantwashsquarenorthClub Gallant moved to Edgar Allan Poe’s old digs at 85 West Third Street. Gallant then decamped to 19 Washington Square North (right), where he opened his ritzy speakeasy Speako de Luxe (below).

The key to his success, besides his eccentric personality and reputation for having more friends than party-loving mayor Jimmy Walker?

He made his speakeasies exclusive, and he asked customers to adhere to some rules. (Rule 10: “Please do not offer to escort the cloakroom girl home. . . . “)

After Repeal in 1933, the “mayor of Greenwich Village,” as he was dubbed by the press, opened a restaurant at 86 University Place.

BarneyGallantspeakodeluxo

He wrote an article for Cosmopolitan in 1946 called “The Vanishing Village” and worked on his memoirs in the 1960s, supposedly.

What stories he must have had to tell! He died in a Miami retirement home in 1968.

[Photos: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Alamy]

Three centuries, four views of a Village tavern

June 13, 2016

Once a country backwater of tobacco farms, Greenwich Village owes its urbanization to lethal disease outbreaks.

Oldgrapevine1851

Residents fleeing late-1700s cholera and yellow fever epidemics in the city center moved up to Grin’wich, as it was then called. By 1840, the population had shot up fourfold.

“Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects,” states the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation.

Oldgrapevine1905

Streets, businesses, and houses followed—including a three-story clapboard roadhouse at Sixth Avenue and 11th Street. Built in the 18th century as a home, it became a popular tavern by the 1820s called the Old Grapevine, for the vine that ran along the facade.

The first illustration depicts the Old Grapevine in 1851. West 11th Street looks like a rural road, thanks to the trees and paving stones.

Oldgrapevine1914

Two ash barrels are the only street furniture. The small fence at the far left surrounds the second cemetery of Shearith Israel, established here in 1805 by a synagogue of Spanish and Portuguese Jews.

The Old Grapevine wasn’t just any tavern. “During the Civil War it was a popular hangout of Union officers and Confederate spies,” states the NYPL blog.

Oldgrapevine1915

“Later, when the Jefferson Market Courthouse was built the local lawyers and politicians would gather there to talk business. Artists and actors also met there. It was the ideal place to get news and information, or in the case of spies and politicians, the ideal place to spread rumors and gossip, leading to the popular phrase “heard it through the grapevine.”

[The origin of the saying might be a myth, as some comments below explain.]

The second image shows the Old Grapevine in 1905, from under the tracks of the elevated. The third image is from 1914.

The clapboard house is still standing, but 11th Street is paved and the ash barrels are gone, replaced by a Journal American newspaper box.

Oldgrapevine2016

One year later (as seen in the fourth photo), the Old Grapevine was about to be bulldozed, replaced by a six-story apartment building renting rooms for $12 a month.

A New York Times article from 1915 recalled the Grapevine wistfully: “it was not only a place to warm the inner man with the fermented juice of the grape, malted beers, and fine musty ale, but a place where good fellows met, as in the more palatial clubs today, to match their wits, tell the latest story, and discuss in a friendly way the political destinies of the nation.”

Here’s Sixth Avenue and West 11th Street today. The Old Grapevine is long gone; only the cemetery on the far left remains.

The “poet sisters” host a Gramercy literary salon

June 9, 2016

CaryaliceIf you were a writer or thinker of some renown in New York in the 1850s and 1860s, then you likely found yourself on Sunday evenings inside a small house at 53 East 20th Street.

This was the home of Alice (right) and Phoebe Cary, two siblings dubbed “strong minded” (a 19th century put-down for an independent woman) who hosted weekly Sunday salons in their Gramercy Park parlor for the city’s literary and cultural crowd.

Here, newspaper editors, authors, and some of the bohemians who had congregated at Pfaff’s on Bleecker Street came together to “meet and mingle,” according to one biography of the Carys.

“The poet sisters, as they were known, owned a wide, low, old-fashioned house on East 20th Street, near Fourth Avenue, and their informal Sunday receptions were always thronged,” wrote Lloyd Morris in Incredible New York.

Caryphoebe“They had come to New York from an Ohio farm as young women, without either money or formal education, determined to support themselves by writing.”

Alice Cary wrote poems, ballads, and “little idylls of country life,” stated Morris. Phoebe composed parodies of Longfellow and “astringent verses about love that made old-fashioned readers uncomfortable.”

Considering the guest list, conversation at the Carys’ salon must have been fascinating.

Regular invitees included P.T. Barnum, whose American Museum and the curiosities inside it thrilled the city; Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune; publisher and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and other cultural leaders of the day.

Carys50east20th“On Sunday evenings, you found the Carys in their parlor, a large room decorated in red and green, furnished with many comfortable, velvet-upholstered sofas and chairs,” described Morris.

“Later, everyone would cross the hall to have tea in the square, oak-paneled library.” Except Greeley, who drank two cups of sweetened milk and water and then took off to write his Monday newspaper editorial.

The famous male guests were joined by “strong-minded” movers and shakers, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

CarystreetaddressThese were women like the Carys, who pursued professional work and “asserted that women ought to think for themselves, ought to get their opinions at first hand—not because this was their right, but because it was their duty,” wrote Morris.

The Carys held their weekly salon for 15 years; both sisters, closer to each other than anyone else and just four years apart, died in 1871.

[Third photo: from MCNY, early 1900s; labeled the “Careys” home and the address is 50 East 20th Street, so it is perhaps the sisters’ home, which no longer exists]


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