Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

A famous poet forced to work in the NYC subway

November 9, 2020

Edwin Arlington Robinson earned his place in the literary canon with early 20th century poems like “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy.”

He was awarded three Pulitzers in the 1920s, and his verse, themed around loss and failure, is a staple of American poetry anthologies.

But before this, Robinson was a broke downtown poet so desperate for money, he took a job in the New York City subway—and he was dubbed “the poet in the subway” once recognition came his way later in life.

It wasn’t the kind of life Robinson seemed destined to live. Born in 1869 in Gardiner, Maine, to a wealthy family that discouraged his literary ambition, he attended Harvard (below photo, at age 19) and had some early success self-publishing his poetry.

Then in the 1890s, a recession claimed his family’s fortune. His parents and a brother died, and his brother’s wife, who Robinson was in love with, rejected him.

So Robinson left Maine and relocated to New York City, dedicating himself solely to writing poetry. He lived for some time in Greenwich Village at the Judson Hotel (above ad, 1905)—today’s Judson Hall, part of NYU, according to nycatelier.com.

In New York, “he lived in dire poverty and became alcoholic,” states a biography by the chairman of the Gardiner Library Association. “He took odd jobs and depended upon the financial support of friends to give him time to write.”

One of those odd jobs was in the subway. One source says Robinson was a “time checker” working with a construction crew, Americanpoems.com has it that he inspected loads of shale during the building of the subway system, which opened in 1904. (Below, subway construction at Christopher Street and West Fourth)

Finding time to write was a struggle, especially for a poet who described himself as “doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry. There was nothing else that interested me,” according to the Gardiner Library Association biography. (Subway excavation, below, at Park Avenue and 42nd Street)

Robinson’s days toiling in the subway would come to an end—thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s son Kermit.

“Kermit Roosevelt had studied some of [Robinson’s] poems at Groton and had been transfixed by their chilly beauty,” wrote Edmund Morris in Theodore Rex.

“The President had read them too, at his son’s urging, and agreed that Robinson had ‘the real spirit of poetry in him.'” (Above: Kermit Roosevelt with his dad and brothers, second from left)

Kermit discovered that Robinson was in dire poverty and struggling to support himself with his subway job. So the President, “in strict secrecy waiving all civil-service rules, had offered Robinson jobs in the immigration service or the New York Customs House, which latter the poet accepted.”

[Robinson was following in the 19th century footsteps of Herman Melville, also born wealthy but took a job as a customs inspector to support himself]

“A tacit condition of employment was that, in exchange for his desk and $2,000 a year, he should work ‘with a view toward helping American letters,’ rather than the receipts of the U.S. Treasury.”

Roosevelt, a fanatical reader, even wrote a positive review of Robinson’s ‘Children of the Night,’ the volume Kermit had given him (above left). “A poet can do much more for his country than the proprietor of a nail factory,” TR once said.

With a steady source of money, Robinson could devote himself more to his largely solitary life of writing poetry. He died of cancer at New York Hospital in Manhattan in 1935.

[Top image: Lila Cabot Perry, 1918; second image: New-York Tribune; third image: wikiwand; fourth and fifth images: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: Corbis; seventh image: bookedupac.com; eighth image: Wikipedia]

What the White Horse Tavern meant in the 1950s

June 22, 2020

The rough edges are long gone from the White Horse Tavern, the corner bar at Hudson and West 11th Streets that’s been serving drinks (not always under that name) since 1880.

Originally this dark, old school bar (above, in 1961) catered to longshoremen and locals. Today, it’s spiffed up for a sidewalk cafe kind of crowd.

But for a moment in time in the 1950s, this saloon with the white horse heads in the windows became a place for writers.

These writers, mostly young men, gathered in the wood-paneled back room to talk books, culture, and politics with others from across the political spectrum.

The White Horse’s postwar literary crowd were drawn to Dylan Thomas (right), the Welsh poet who became a regular, reportedly because it reminded him of the bars in Wales.

It was also where he had his last drinks, having collapsed on the sidewalk after downing 18 shots of whiskey on November 3, 1953. Thomas died at St. Vincent’s Hospital three days later.

His death enhanced the White Horse’s rep (above in 1940), and young writers made the place their own, according to Dan Wakefield, at the time a 23-year-old freelance writer living on Jones Street.

“We regulars in the back room thought of ourselves as underdogs and rebels in Eisenhower’s America,” recalled Wakefield in his 1992 memoir, New York in the 1950s.

“Most often when I went to the White Horse I was waved to a table by Mike Harrington, the author and activist who served as the informal host of an ongoing seminar on culture and politics, dispensing information and opinion interspersed with great anecdotes about left-wing labor leaders and colorful factional fights of political splinter groups I could never keep straight….”

The writers of the White Horse weren’t just left-wing. “Adding to the social life and political repartee in the back room of the Horse were fresh young righties,” noted Wakefield, who wrote that they “turned out to be perfectly pleasant, witty, intelligent people, and we lefty liberals and right-wing conservatives found we had more common ground of conversation and interest with one another” then with those who wee apolitical.

It’s hard to imagine in our polarized social media era, but people really used to get together in person at bars and engage in free-ranging conversations about books, politics, and culture.

Art D’Lugoff, who opened the Village Gate nightclub, recalled in Wakefield’s book: “I used to make the rounds of the bars—Julius’s for those fat hamburgers on toast, then the San Remo, the Kettle of Fish, and the White Horse. Booze was a social thing. The bar scene wasn’t just to get drunk. It was like the public square in a town or a sidewalk cafe in Paris—comradely meeting and talking.”

At the White Horse, Wakefield mixed with Norman Mailer, Seymour Krim, and James Baldwin (above in 1955), who lived on Horatio Street and was often targeted by the working-class Irish and Italians in the neighborhood.

Baldwin wasn’t the only one, Wakefield wrote, explaining that local Villagers “regarded all bohemians as suspicious interlopers. The hostility toward all nonconformists was heightened during the McCarthy fervor of the fifties, when mostly Irish kids from the surrounding area made raids on the Horse, swinging fists and chairs, calling the regulars ‘Commies and faggots.'”

The White Horse (above in 1975) was something of a neighborhood respite, and the bar’s literary reputation continued even after Wakefield left New York City in 1962.

At some point decades later, the vibe changed. These days, under new ownership, the White Horse (above, 12 years ago) is more neighborhood pub than literary hangout. But for a short time in postwar Greenwich Village, a crowd of young writers mingled with one another and volleyed ideas and opinions around that back room with passion, energy, and excitement.

[Top image: LOC; second image: Bunny Adler; third image: Danwakefield.com; fourth image: Carl Van Vechten; fifth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; sixth photo: MCNY 2013.3.1.613]

Tracking the “mousetrap” of Greenwich Village

March 2, 2020

Greenwich Village’s charm lies in its refusal to conform to the city street grid. Who doesn’t get a kick out of former country lanes and cart paths that are now city streets, which intersect and dead-end into each other at strange angles?

This charming confusion confounded New Yorkers in the late 19th century as well, decades after the Greenwich Village of estates and farms was subsumed into the cityscape.

It led one early 20th century New York historian-author to name a section of the Village the “Mousetrap.”

“Some streets are like pages of history, and none more so than those of Greenwich Village; so it is quite a delight to walk among them,” wrote Charles Hemstreet in his 1905 book, When Old New York Was Young.

“Whenever I do so I am sure to end up in one particular spot. It is a part that I have christened the “mouse-trap”—a labyrinth of quiet, narrow streets.”

 

“It is curious to note the different ways in which the streets of the ‘mouse-trap’ disappear. Sometimes they end abruptly in a court; sometimes they twist out of sight around a row of houses against which they are brought to a sudden halt; sometimes they slip into another street and become one with it; sometimes they are cut short by little open spaces which are called parks, and which in are a few decaying trees.”

The main street of the mousetrap, according to Hemstreet, is Bleecker. While Bleecker does in fact end at a park (Abington Square Park), today’s version of Bleecker doesn’t have that twists and stops it may have had in Hemstreet’s day.

Instead we’re left with mousetrap-like streets such as West Fourth, which oddly intersects with West 10th, 11th, and 12th Streets. Greenwich Street meanders nowhere near Greenwich Avenue. Hidden alleys like Milligan Place and Grove Court add to the confusion.

I’ve found only one contemporary reference to the Greenwich Village mousetrap. In a 1996 New York Times article about traffic issues in the Village, Andrew Jacobs quotes residents who call the triangular intersection of Christopher, Grove, and Waverly Streets as the “mousetrap.”

[Top image: Taunton’s Pocket Edition map, 1879/NYPL; second image: Washington Place at Grove and West Fourth Streets, MCNY x2010.7.1.6719; third image: West 12th Street at Greenwich Avenue, MCNY c 2010.18.222; fourth image: Milligan Place, MCNY 89.2.1.62]

The strange story of the Village’s “Raisin Street”

January 27, 2020

Never heard of “Raisin Street” in Greenwich Village?

If you lived in the nascent city of New York in the early years of the 19th century, you might have traversed it. The rise and demise of this little street has a curious backstory.

“Raisin Street” was a corruption of “Reason Street,” the name given to the one-block stretch between today’s West 11th Street and Barrow Street. At the time, the Village was a country enclave dotted with farms and small homes a few miles from the city center.

“Reason Street” honored Thomas Paine (at right), the philosopher whose 1795 treatise, The Age of Reason, criticized organized religion.

Paine, who was born in England, had a heroic reputation in the early 1790s. Before and during the Revolutionary War, he was considered a patriot because he encouraged the American colonies to fight for independence.

After moving to France and getting thrown in prison for supporting the French Revolutionaries, Paine came back to the States and spent his final years living in boardinghouse on Herring Street, soon to be renamed Bleecker Street. (Paine’s boardinghouse is the home in the center in a 1920 photo.)

Reason Street made it on an 1807 map by surveyor William Bridges (above). In the next few years, however, the name would be gone, as this 1828 map below shows.

Why the change? The Age of Reason, “an uncompromising attack on the Bible, proved to be unpopular, and did much to sully the reputation Paine had built as a patriot,” wrote Daniel B. Schneider in The New York Times in 1999.

When Reason Street “became city property in 1809, it was rechristened Barrow Street in honor of the artist Thomas Barrow. Barrow, a Trinity Church vestryman, was famous for his depiction of the church in ruins after the great fire that devastated the city in 1776.”

Despite his de-mapping, Paine’s presence in Greenwich Village wasn’t completely obliterated.

Though the boardinghouse he lived in on today’s Bleecker Street was demolished in 1930, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, another house he resided in on the current Grove Street still stands.

“As Paine’s health declined, it became necessary to move him out of the boarding house at 309 Bleecker Street where he lived,” according to the GVSHP blog, Off the Grid.

“Another boarder, Madame Marguerite Bonneville, took a small house on Columbia Street (today 59 Grove Street) in May of 1809, and moved Paine there. He passed away there on June 8, 1809.”

The plaque at left is affixed to the 1839 Federal-style house that replaced the home where Paine died.

The current building is the home of Marie’s Crisis—named for Paine’s The American Crisis, which urged the states to fight for freedom.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY X2010.11.220; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: TimeOutNY]

A remnant of the Drama Book Shop from 1962

December 16, 2019

Like so many other New York City specialty bookstores, the Drama Book Shop has a long history of moving around.

First established in 1916 inside the West 42nd Street offices of the New York Drama League, according to a 2017 New York Times article, the shop then moved to 47th Street, and by the late 1950s it occupied a brownstone and then a commercial building on West 52nd Street.

That’s where this relic of one of the 52nd Street stores comes in.

Thumbing through an old catalog of plays, I noticed the front cover had this Drama Book Shop decal across it—displaying not just one of the best store logos ever but also an old 2-letter postal code (used in the days before 5-number ZIP codes) and a two-letter phone exchange, JU for Judson.

(There’s nothing like coming across bits and pieces of the city’s literary glory days while browsing old books, right?)

The catalog, from the Samuel French company, dates back to 1962; twenty years later, the store hopscotched over to Seventh Avenue and 48th Street, then to 250 West 40th Street in 2001.

Forced from the 40th Street location earlier this year, the Drama Book Shop was bought by Lin-Manuel Miranda and three others Hamilton collaborators. An updated New York Times piece from last month says the new store will open on West 39th Street next spring.

The last years in Edgar Allan Poe’s Bronx cottage

October 7, 2019

Like so many people who come to New York with literary dreams but no money, Edgar Allan Poe was always moving from one low-rent place to another.

In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the struggling writer (with his young wife, Virginia, and his mother-in-law, Maria, in tow) bounced around Greenwich Village, Turtle Bay, East Broadway, back the the Village on West Third Street, then to a farmhouse in today’s Upper West Side.

In 1846, with Virginia sick with tuberculosis, the little family made one final move.

Hoping that fresh country air would help his ailing wife, Poe paid $100 a year to rent this small cottage (above) in Fordham, then a bucolic hamlet in Westchester but today firmly within city boundaries in the Bronx.

That rustic, “Dutch” cottage, as it was described in 19th century books—where Virginia (below right) succumbed to TB and Poe wrote some of his best-known poems—is still in the Bronx. (Above, in 2007)

Moved about 500 feet from its original location on Kingsbridge Road to the then-new Poe Park in 1913 (the site of an apple orchard when Poe lived nearby), the cottage is open to the public.

While the preserved home sits at the edge of an urban park surrounded by gritty apartment buildings and the 24-hour noise and traffic of the Grand Concourse, imagine the place as it was in Poe’s day.

Outside the front porch were trees, flowers, and songbirds—quite a different feel from the haunting romance and gloom of many of Poe’s writings.

“In Poe’s time the cottage was pleasantly situated on a little elevation in a large open space, with cherry trees about it,” James Albert Harrison quotes one historian in his 1903 Poe biography.

One visitor, a fellow American writer, described it as “half buried in fruit-trees, and having a thick grove of pines in its immediate neighborhood,” wrote Harrison.

“Round an old cherry-tree, near the door, was a broad bank of greenest turf,” the writer said. “The neighboring beds of mignonette and heliotrope, and the pleasant shade above, made this a favorite seat” where Poe was often found.

Poe kept tropical birds in cages on his front porch, “which he cherished and petted with assiduous care,” the writer noted.

Inside, the cottage—just a kitchen, a sitting room with Poe’s desk, a small bedroom for Virginia, and then steep stairs leading to a second floor with a low ceiling—was described as tidy and warm. (Below, in 1894)

“The cottage had an air of taste and gentility that must have been lent to it by the presence of its inmates,” wrote writer and friend Mary Gove Nichols. “So neat, so poor, so unfurnished, and yet so charming a dwelling I never saw.”

“The floor of the kitchen was white as wheaten flour. A table, a chair and a little stove that it contained, seemed to furnish it completely. The sitting-room floor was laid with check matting; four chairs, a light-stand, and a hanging book-shelf composed its furniture.”

By autumn, Virginia was close to death.

In her bedroom, “everything here was so neat, so purely clean, so scant and poverty-stricken, that I saw the poor sufferer with such heartache.”

Virginia “lay on the straw-bed, wrapped in her husband’s great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat in her bosom….The coat and the cat were the sufferer’s only means of warmth; except as her husband held her hands, and her mother her feet.”

After Virginia died and was buried in the Valentine family vault at a nearby Dutch cemetery, grief-stricken Poe began his “lonesome latter years.”

On one hand, his output was excellent. He finished some of his most famous works; in addition to The Bells, he wrote Annabel Lee and Ulalume.

But he was despondent and began drinking heavily. Remaining at the cottage (above, in 1898) with Maria, he was known to take long walks through the pines and cedars of Fordham and into Manhattan across the High Bridge (below, in a 1930 lithograph.)

Poe died in 1849 in Baltimore, of course, leaving Maria as the cottage’s sole occupant.

She moved to Brooklyn (and lived another 22 years). As the 19th century continued, the cottage fell into disrepair. Meanwhile, Fordham and other Westchester villages were annexed to New York City and began to slowly urbanize (below, 1898)

With Poe’s literary genius finally recognized 50 or so years after his death, his uninhabited cottage, one of few original dwellings left from Fordham’s rural days, was moved to the new Poe Park and restored with state funds.

Poe’s house is now a very small museum. But for three years, it was his world.

“It was the sweetest little cottage imaginable. Oh how supremely happy we were in our dear cottage home,” Maria Clemm recounted in 1860 (at left).

[First, third, and fourth photos: Wikipedia; eighth photo: MCNY, 1894, x2010.11.671; eleventh photo: 1930 lithograph; twelfth photo: MCNY, 1898, x2010.11.6718; thirteenth photo: Wikipedia]

How Central Park got its Shakespeare Garden

September 9, 2019

It’s hidden in Central Park near West 81st Street: a four-acre oasis of winding hillside paths and wooden benches resplendent with colorful, fragrant plants and flowers.

But this lovely green space of quiet and peace near Belvedere Castle isn’t just any garden in the park.

It’s the Shakespeare Garden—filled with a dazzling display of the trees, plants, and flowers that William Shakespeare referenced in his poems of plays. It’s also designed to evoke the English countryside of the 1600s.

Like many of Central Park’s magnificent landscapes, the Shakespeare Garden never appeared in the original plans for the park laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1850s.

How the garden made it into the park near West 81st Street has to do with the Shakespeare garden fad of the early 20th century in England and America, sparked by Shakespeare’s 300th birthday in 1916.

What eventually became the Shakespeare Garden started out as the “Garden of the Heart,” created in 1913 as a garden for kids to learn about nature by Dr. Edmond Bronk Southwick.

 Southwick (below right) was the park entomologist—and also an avid Shakespeare fan, according to Garden Collage.

He either took it upon himself or was nudged by city officials (sources vary) to turn this very popular children’s garden into a landscape of “beautiful plants and flowers mentioned in the works of the playwright, as well as those featured in Shakespeare’s own private garden in Stratford-upon-Avon,” states CentralPark.com.

(Above right, the garden in 1916, with a waterfall that’s no longer there.)

On April 23, 1916—as part of the city’s Shakespeare Tercentenary Week—Southwick’s children’s garden was formally renamed the Shakespeare Garden, the Sun reported.

In its early years, the city’s Shakespeare Society and Southwick himself maintained the array of plants, including columbine, primrose, wormwood, quince, lark’s heel, rue, eglantine, flax, and cowslip, according to CentralParkNYC.org.

But the Society broke up in 1929, and the Shakespeare Garden went into a long decline, eventually restored and saved by the Central Park Conservatory and volunteers.

The Shakespeare Garden has undergone some changes. Plaques containing quotes from the Bard’s works can now be found beside some of the plants.

Also, a mulberry tree that supposedly grew from a mulberry cutting from Shakespeare’s actual garden was felled by a 2006 storm and had to be removed.

Today it remains a magical, slightly secretive spot in the park with spectacular flowers that would likely get a nod of approval from the writer behind the English language’s most romantic poetry and plays—and anyone seeking serenity and beauty. (And a place to curl up with a book!)

Central Park’s garden is not the only Shakespeare Garden in the city. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has one, too.

[Fifth and sixth images: New York Times, 1916]

Why everyone went to the 8th Street Bookshop

May 27, 2019

The handsome brick storefront at West Eighth Street and MacDougal Place has been occupied by countless businesses since it went up on this Greenwich Village corner in 1838.

But perhaps it’s best remembered as the home of the Eighth Street Bookshop—one of dozens of booksellers centered around Eighth Street or Fourth Avenue that made the Village a bibliophile paradise in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Operated by the brothers Elias and Ted Wilentz, the Eighth Street Bookshop gained fame as a literary gathering place with close ties to the nonconformist writers of the day, whose works and lifestyle gave rise to the term ‘Beat Generation,’ states the Village Alliance.

While browsing the three floors of books (especially the extensive paperback section), it wouldn’t be uncommon to bump into one of the many writers or poets who lived in the East or West Village at the time, such as Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, or e.e. cummings (who lived a few blocks away on Patchin Place).

Of course, all great bookstores are more than literary haunts. As Publisher’s Weekly recalled in 2001, the Eighth Street Bookshop was also the center of a social scene.

“‘Before I met and married Ted in 1965, I remember the Eighth Street Bookshop being the equivalent of a singles bar in the 50s,’ Joan Wilentz [Ted Wilentz’s wife] told PW. ‘It was such an exciting venue. We just drooled over the titles available. There was just a wave of exciting talents in that post—World War II generation that partied at each other’s houses.'”

In 1965, the store relocated across the street to 17 West Eighth Street. In 1976, a fire tore through that location, and the Eighth Street Bookshop shut its doors for good in 1979.

It’s run wasn’t long, but Villagers of a certain age still remember it well.

[Top photo: Robert Otter, 1965; second photo: Katherine Knowles via ArtNerd]

The last house left on State Street’s mansion row

December 10, 2018

State Street is a short downtown stretch with a gentle curve along Battery Park that ends at the foot of Broadway.

Today, one side is lined with glass box buildings that serve the interests of the Financial District; it’s overrun with tourist buses.

But in the late 18th century, State Street had an entirely different feel.

Running along the waterline of Lower Manhattan, it was the city’s most desirable mansion row.

More than 200 years later, only one of those mansions still stands: the James Watson House, built in 1793.

James Watson was a Federalist and the first speaker of the New York State Assembly. He was rich, too; he made his money in imports and exports.

Like other members of the wealthy merchant class, he built himself a home befitting his status.

This was no shoddyite palazzo though. Elegant and in the fashionable Georgian style, according to the Guide to New York City Landmarks, Watson’s home gives us an idea of how the upper class lived in the postcolonial city.

As always, location mattered. With its proximity to the harbor, residents would have remarkable water views. And while the heat baked the rest of the city, the Watsons could open their enormous windows and catch the breeze.

Not only that, but the house was close enough to the harbor so that Watson could keep an eye on his shipping interests, according to nyc-architecture.com.

In 1806, Watson sold his house to merchant and sugar refiner Moses Rogers. It was Rogers who added the Federal-style two-story curved portico, which followed the curve of State Street.

Imagine the loveliness of overlooking the harbor out on that portico. Those impressive columns were likely made from ship masts, states a 1965 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

As the 19th century continued, State Street remained fashionable.

Robert Fulton bought a mansion here in 1808, and Herman Melville was born around the corner in 1819 on Pearl Street.

By the mid-1800s, though, State Street was changing. (See third image, from 1859.)

Landfill turned the Battery into a recreational area that drew crowds. And when Castle Garden went from concert hall to an immigrant depot center in 1855, the mansions became boarding houses.

In 1888 (fourth image), the Watson House was now the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary, which aided Irish immigrant women.

A remaining building next door (seen above in 1920 and in 1936) was bulldozed decades later, and on the site rose Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic church in 1964.

In the 1960s, the Watson house was restored to its original 18th century beauty. Today, it stands out amid the street’s banking industry glass boxes, a relic of a gentler era.

It’s not a house these days but a shrine to Elizabeth Seton, the first saint born in America and a former resident of State Street. Seton lived on the other side of the Watson house as a child in the 1770s.

[Fourth image: Valentine’s Manual, 1859; fifth image: King’s Handbook, 1892; sixth image: MCNY, 1920: X2010.18.252; sixth image, 1926, LOC]

The artist and scholar gargoyles on 121st Street

November 12, 2018

Copper bay windows, grand arches, juliet balconies and a sloping roof: As university housing goes, the 8-story Bancroft Apartments are pretty fanciful.

Preeminent architect Emery Roth designed the building, which opened at 509 West 121st Street in 1910.

By 1920, it had been acquired by Columbia University’s Teachers College, just a block away in the city’s new Acropolis neighborhood, so named for the many schools in the area.

Considering that what’s now called Bancroft Hall ended up housing educators, it makes sense that the gargoyles decorating the facade are nods toward higher learning.

Behold the building’s wonderful painter and scholar (a writer perhaps, pointing to letters in a book?). I don’t think these characters represent any specific people but instead symbolize creativity, education, and imagination.

Walter Grutchfield has more on the Bancroft Apartments, including an amazing shot of an inscription on the upper wall. For more Morningside Heights gargoyles, check out these goofy gargoyle examples.

[Top photo: Columbia University]