Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

When Norman Mailer ran for mayor in 1969

November 9, 2011

In 1969, New York was on a precipice. Crime was going up, teachers headed out on strike, a snowstorm crippled the city, and there was a sense that things could get a lot worse.

Enter pugnacious author and Brooklyn resident Norman Mailer. Using the campaign slogan “no more bullshit,” Mailer threw his hat in the ring for the Democratic nomination for mayor.

It wasn’t a joke. Columnist Jimmy Breslin signed on as his running mate, vying to be City Council president.

Their ideas? “I’m running on a platform of ‘Free Huey Newton and floridation,” Mailer told a crowd at the Village Gate. “We’ll have compulsory free love in those neighborhoods that vote for it, and compulsory attendance in church on Sunday in those that vote for that.”

They also advocated that New York City become the 51st state (which wasn’t a novel idea). They pledged the construction of a monorail, a ban on private cars in Manhattan, and monthly vehicle-free Sundays.

When primary day came, Mailer ended up fourth out of five candidates—and John Lindsay won reelection that November.

[Photo: Breslin and Mailer conceding the race, from Dissent magazine]

A 1920s poet haunts a Brooklyn red-light district

October 19, 2011

Sands Street today is an unremarkable stretch through the Farragut Houses in Dumbo.

But this beachy-sounding street has a very colorful history.

In the late 19th century, it was Brooklyn’s red-light district, so seedy it earned two evocative nicknames: locals called it the “Barbary Coast” in the 19th century and then “Hell’s Half Acre” through the 1950s.

Lined with saloons, rooming houses, gambling dens, and tattoo parlors, Sands Street catered to sailors from the Navy Yard and the East River waterfront.

It also appealed to less rough-and-tumble New Yorkers craving a dangerous thrill.

Struggling young poet Hart Crane (below), an Ohio transplant living just a short walk away at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights, regularly visited Sands Street in the 1920s.

“With Emil away at sea a lot and their relationship intermittent, Crane walked down to Sands Street searching for sex to share in a rendezvous meant not to last,” writes Evan Hughes in his wonderful book Literary Brooklyn.

“Cruising was a dangerous pursuit for Crane in a time of rampant homophobia. More than once he came home beaten and bloodied.”

Crane committed suicide in 1932, leaving behind his poem “The Bridge,” an ode to the Brooklyn Bridge—which he was able to see from his apartment and perhaps Sands Street as well.

[Top photos: Sands Street tattoo parlor, undated, and Sands Street in 1946, from the NYPL digital collection]

A popular 1840s literary salon on Waverly Place

October 12, 2011

Even in the 1840s, Greenwich Village was a literary hub.

No wonder a young teacher and poet named Anne Charlotte Lynch (left) moved there when she relocated from Rhode Island in 1845.

While trying to break into the periodicals of the day, Lynch began hosting literary salons at her house at 116 Waverly Place.

Extroverted and unpretentious, she attracted lots of big-name writers.

Edgar Allan Poe, living just over on West Third Street, was a regular; supposedly he read “The Raven” aloud one night.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (below), Herman Melville, and Horace Greeley were also among the frequent guests.

“She received every Saturday evening,” recalls an 1894 journal called Literary News. “American literature was just beginning to make itself felt, and her house became the weekly gathering-place for aspiring poets, writers, and novelists.”

After she married, her salon moved to her new home on West 37th Street. She ran it each week at least through her 60s, carving out an unpretentious, creative space that helped nurture American talent.

How starlings got their start in Central Park

October 5, 2011

Recognize these birds? They’re European starlings, an iridescent, noisy species that thrives not just in New York but all over the U.S.

As the name makes clear, this breed isn’t native to North America. It owes its existence here to a super rich, quirky Bronx land owner named Edward Schieffelin—head of a group called the American Acclimatization Society.

“Schieffelin, a wealthy drug manufacturer and theatre aficionado, brought European starlings to New York City as part of his attempt to introduce every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to the United States,” explains a Parks Department web page.

None of the other winged critters Schieffelin brought over managed to survive. But the 120 starlings he set free in Central Park in 1890 and 1891 multiplied.

For 10 years, they remained in the New York area, but by 1930 were spotted in Tennessee and then finally made it to Alaska in 1970. Today their numbers are in the hundreds of millions.

Shakespeare’s one mention of the starling comes from King Henry IV: “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer.”

It’s a reference to its mimicking ability, which is why the starling is sometimes called the poor man’s mynah.

Washington Square Park’s “Tramp’s Retreat”

October 3, 2011

“This image of a ragged fellow begging from a well-dressed woman in Washington Square . . . testifies to Washington Square’s split personality at the end of the 19th century,” writes Emily Kies Folpe in her terrific book, It Happened in Washington Square.

Folpe quotes an 1892 Century magazine article about the Square, which notes that one section was populated by homeless men and called “Tramp’s Retreat.”

This Harper‘s piece from 1900 identifies as on the southwest end.

While the northern, Fifth Avenue side of Washington Square was as elite and genteel as it was 50 years earlier, the southern side was now bordered by rooming houses . . . and filled with tramps.

“To the tramp, who is attracted hither in summer by the cool shade, the square serves several purposes. It serves him first in the capacity of a restaurant, where he may eat his luncheon unmolested,” states the Harper’s article.

Lastly it serves him as a lodging house, where he slumbers peacefully until the ‘sparrow cop’ comes around and awakens him.”

[Washington Square postcard from the NYPL Digital Collection]

Driggs Avenue: Henry Miller’s “early paradise”

September 4, 2011

“It’s strange what a little boy remembers of his early life,” wrote Henry Miller in a 1971 New York Times essay, nine years before the death of the author of Tropic of Cancer and other great 20th century novels.

Until age nine, Miller lived with his family (at left) at 662 Driggs Avenue (below) in Williamsburg. His memories of what he deemed his “sojourn in paradise” offer fascinating glimpses of life through a kid’s eyes in 1890s Brooklyn.

“Diagonally opposite us was Fillmore Place, just one block long, which was my favorite street and which I can still see vividly if I close my eyes.”

“At the Driggs Avenue end of this street was a saloon and at the other end a kindergarten. I remember the saloon because as a child I was often sent to get a pitcher of beer at the side entrance.”

“A few doors from our house were the shanties, two or three decrepit buildings right out of a Dickens novel. In one of them was a candy store owned by two spinsters called the Meinken Sisters.”

No street was as sensual as Grand Street, says Miller, thanks to Reynolds Bakery.

“The back of the bakery gave out on North First Street, where we often played cat, or shimmy as we called it then, and the aroma of fresh baked bread, crullers and donuts assailed our nostrils day in and day out.”

“Continuing south on Driggs Avenue one came to Broadway where the elevated ran. Beyond that lay the aristocratic Bedford section. Immediately beyond Broadway was the Fountain, where on Sunday the bicycle riders gathered to ride to Prospect Park and Coney Island.”

“Years later, when I took up quarters in Paris, in the poor districts especially, I often ran across streets which reminded me of that strange territory surrounding Metropolitan Avenue.”

This blog devoted to Henry Miller covers more ground in the Times article, which is behind a paywall.

An unexpected stay at the Chelsea Hotel in 1978

August 10, 2011

The long list of famous folks who made the Chelsea their home has been well-documented, especially since management shut the doors to short-term guests on August 1.

But what about the non-celeb working people who did a stint there? Author Mary Cantwell documented her time at the Chelsea with her teenage daughter while the two were between apartments in 1978.

“By now we had run out of sublets, and there was nothing for it but the Chelsea Hotel,” she writes in her 1995 memoir Manhattan, When I Was Young.

Cantwell explains that she’d been in the Chelsea three times previously and that “on leaving it one walked through scarred corridors to a street where old black men, and a few old white men, held sad travesties of cocktail parties with cheap wine in paper bags and a brave bonhomie.”

“I had a horror of the Chelsea, yet here we were, with three cats, a dog, a few clothes, our portable television set, and my hot rollers, lodged directly above the room in which Sid Vicious had murdered his girlfriend, Nancy, a few days before.

“‘Did you hear anything?’ the plainclothes man who knocked on our door asked. ‘We’re new here’ I answered, and tried to make it clear that we were only passing through.”

They ended up staying eight months, snug in small, overheated accommodations, before moving on:

“It was a cold winter, but the radiators shuddered with heat, and in the fireplace the Dura-Flame logs from the delicatessen shook with flame. . . . The dog and the three cats nudged us in our sleep, jubilant because they were never more than five feet from their owners.”

[Top: NYPL photo of the Chelsea in the 1920: right: the Chelsea in 1996; source: Gyrofrog]

Bleecker Street: “headquarters of Bohemianism”

August 3, 2011

“He who does not know Bleecker Street does not know New York,” wrote James D. McCabe in his 1872 guidebook Lights and Shadows of New York Life. “It is of all the localities of the metropolis one of the best worth studying.”

Why did McCabe single out Bleecker? In post–Civil War New York, it was a perfect example of how quickly a thoroughfare can go from fancy to shabby chic.

“It was once the abode of wealth and fashion, as its fine old mansion testify,” states McCabe, referring to the grand detached houses that lined Bleecker from the Bowery to Sixth Avenue.

“Twenty-five years ago they were homes of wealth and refinement . . . the old mansions are [now] put to the viler uses of third-rate boarding houses and restaurants.”

Bleecker’s rep sank thanks to the bordellos that began lining nearby Greene and Mercer Streets. Soon it became the center of Bohemianism—a label that applied into the 1960s, when Bleecker hosted Beat writers, folk musicians, and edgy comedians.

“You may dress as you please, live as you please, do as you please in all things, and no comments will be made. There is no ‘society’ here to worry your life with its claims and laws. Life here is based on principles which differ from those which prevail in other parts of the city.”

[Van Nest mansion drawing: courtesy of the NYPL Digital Collection]

A creative commune in 1940s Brooklyn Heights

July 28, 2011

Brooklyn Heights has always attracted literary residents. Walt Whitman lived there in the 19th century, Hart Crane, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer in the 20th.

And from 1940 to 1941, one house at 7 Middagh Street became home to a rotating group of authors, poets, and artists whose stars were rising (or in a few cases, falling) at the time.

It all started in 1940, when George Davis, then the literary editor at Harper’s Bazaar, rented the townhouse with his friend, 23-year-old Carson McCullers (top left).

McCullers had just published her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. She and Davis leased the house for $75 a month and let friends W.H. Auden (top right), Paul Bowles (below), British composer Benjamin Britten, and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (bottom left) move in.

At “February House” (so named because many of the occupants had birthdays that month), Auden wrote The Double Man and McCullers worked on The Member of the Wedding.

But like most situations involving adults sharing living quarters, things didn’t work out. Residents moved out amid disorder and excessive drinking. The bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was the final nail in the coffin, with only Davis remaining from the original group.

By 1945, 7 Middagh Street was history, razed to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Two famous writers meet in Washington Square

June 30, 2011

Imagine two celebrities today greeting each other on a Greenwich Village street, then sitting on a park bench together just shooting the breeze, apparently unrecognized.

That’s what happened one day in September 1887, when Mark Twain took the train from his Connecticut home to New York to meet Robert Louis Stevenson, the popular writer of Treasure Island.

“The Scottish-born Stevenson was staying near the square at a hotel on Tenth Street and University Place,” writes Emily Kies Folpe in the wonderful It Happened in Washington Square.

Stevenson, suffering from tuberculosis, was passing through the city on his way to an upstate sanitarium.

“The two famous writers strolled down to the park and, following Stevenson’s doctor’s orders to take in the sun every day, settled down on a sunny bench to enjoy a good talk.”

So what did they discuss? According to the website of the Hotel Albert (now a co-op), where Stevenson likely stayed on 10th Street:

“The two men settled comfortably into a sunny part of the northwest corner of the park and spent the next five hours telling stories to one another, ‘regardless of wives, lunch and doctors, from 10 a.m….until 3 in the afternoon.'”

Twain moved to the Village in 1900 and spend the rest of his life as a New Yorker. Stevenson died at 44, seven years after his park meetup with Twain.