Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

A Village church’s secret presidential wedding

April 18, 2016

ChurchoftheascentionwikiThe beautiful Church of the Ascension, on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, has a long history in New York. It started in 1829 in a Canal Street building, where the city’s growing Evangelical population gathered.

After the original church was destroyed by fire a decade later, the parish moved to a Gothic Revival cathedral designed by Richard Upjohn in 1841 in what was then the outskirts of town.

In 1844, it earned fame as the site of a small wedding for a very prominent groom: United States President John Tyler.

And amazingly, the entire ceremony was pulled off without the press or public finding out until after the couple said their vows.

ChurchoftheasensionjuliaTyler (of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” fame) had ascended to the White House when his Whig party running mate, William Henry Harrison, died one month after taking office.

After meeting her at a Washington reception, Tyler fell hard for Julia Gardiner, a beautiful 24-year-old from a wealthy New York family.

Following the death of Tyler’s first wife in 1842, the president was determined to win Julia’s hand.

The independent-minded Julia (who shocked society when she posed on the arm of a man who was not related to her in a store ad) eventually accepted.

The wedding was set for June 26, and the goal was to keep the press from finding out—and making a big to-do about the short time between Tyler’s first wife’s death and his second marriage, as well as the couple’s 30-year age difference.

Churchoftheascensionjohntyler“Tyler was so concerned about secrecy that he did not discuss his plans with his other children until after the wedding,” stated one source.

Tyler, 54, did tell his son John Tyler, Jr., who arrived in New York for the wedding with his father. They stayed at Howard’s Hotel on Lower Broadway, where the staff were kept on lockdown so no one would find about about the famous guest.

The secret ceremony was pulled off successfully, with only one newspaper reporting the nuptials. “The bride is a very beautiful and elegantly formed woman of apparently 20 years of age,” wrote The New York Morning Express.

Churchoftheascension1840“She was robed simply in white, with a gauze veil depending from a circlet of white flowers wreathed in her hair.” Less than 10 people attended, and afterward “the party departed for the residence of the bride in Lafayette Place (below)…the wedding cortege consisted of five carriages.”

After a wedding dinner, the couple boarded a steamer. Apparently Tyler was recognized, because people on passing ships “cheered most heartily” and presidential salutes were fired from “various ships of war.”

Julia was only First Lady for a short time. After Tyler’s term ended, he moved back to his Virginia plantation.

Churchoftheascensionlagrangeterrace1886There, the couple had seven kids—in addition to the seven Tyler fathered with his first wife.

On another note, incredibly, two of Tyler’s grandchildren—children born of a son Tyler had with Julia—are still alive today.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; fourth image: Church of the Ascension; fifth image: NYPL Digital Gallery]

A Little Italy painter’s colorful, complex city

April 4, 2016

In October 1972, the cover of New York magazine featured a photo of a working-class man posing with several paintings.

[“Worker’s Holiday—Coney Island,” 1965]

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“This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living,” the New York headline announced. “He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses.”

[“New York City,” 1957]

Fasanellanewyorkcity

The smiling man on the cover was Ralph Fasanella. Born in the Bronx and raised in Greenwich Village’s Little Italy, Fasanella had already scored some success as a self-taught painter.

[“San Genarro—Festa,” 1950]

Fasanellasangenerrofestival

But the New York cover turned this middle-aged union organizer and gas station owner into something of an artistic late bloomer.

His enormous, carnival-colored paintings and panoramas, finely detailed and conveying the complexity of urban life, became sought-after examples of primitive art.

[“Stickball”]

Fasanellastickball

“Primitive” was a term he disliked. Social realism might be a more appropriate label for Fasanella’s work, as he captured images of family life, labor unrest, and working-class neighborhoods.

[“New York Going to Work”]

Fasanellanewyorkgoestowork

“[His paintings’] bittersweet mood and crowded space also conveyed something of what the critic John Berger called ‘the violence of the daily necessity of the streets,’ noting ‘the way that the density of the working population makes itself felt,'” wrote the New York Times.

FasanellacoverHis depictions of Italian festivals, the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and other New York icons burst with color, energy, and authenticity.

“Painting until the wee hours of the morning to the tunes of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, Fasanella described himself as a jazz artist,” states aflcio.org.

“He said he painted from his belly and would urge young aspiring artists to reject pretention, to be authentic, to paint what they know and where they came from.”

A desperate Mrs. Lincoln visits New York in 1867

March 14, 2016

Marylincolnmathewbrady1861On September 17, 1867, a woman checked into a room in the posh St. Denis Hotel (below) on Broadway and 11th Street.

Her reservation was made under the name Mrs. Clarke. But with her real name written on her luggage, she was quickly recognized as presidential widow Mary Todd Lincoln.

This was hardly Mrs. Lincoln’s first trip to the city. After her husband was elected in 1860, she was a frequent visitor to New York.

Her trips weren’t about politics, however. She was mainly in Gotham to shop the city’s many expensive stores—like A. T. Stewart, Lord and Taylor, and Tiffany & Co.

MarylincolnstdenishotelMrs. Lincoln was what today would be called a shopaholic. Perhaps she bought so many things to dull the pain after her 11-year-old son Willie died in 1862. Or maybe she felt that the president’s wife had to look her best at all times.

“I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity,” Mrs. Lincoln told her seamstress and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, during her husband’s 1864 reelection campaign.

Her extravagant spending was what brought her back to New York in 1867. She had fallen deeply in debt since her husband was assassinated two years earlier and she was forced to leave the White House for Chicago.

The struggling Mrs. Lincoln had the idea to sell some of her wardrobe items and jewelry, hoping it would ease her troubles.

MarylincolnkeckleyKeckley (left) arrived in New York the next day to assist Mrs. Lincoln with the sale. The two women moved to the Union Place Hotel, because the St. Denis would not allow Keckley, who was African-American, to stay on the same floor as her friend.

They went to a diamond broker first, and then “Elizabeth and Mary invited second-hand clothing dealers to their hotel to inspect Mary’s wardrobe for sale,” wrote Catherine Clinton for the New York State Archives Partnership Trust.

“Both women then prowled shops on Seventh Avenue, hoping to trade old clothes for new greenbacks.” But “gossip began to circulate about this mystery woman wrapped in widow’s weeds who was peddling her wardrobe.”

After the diamond broker betrayed her trust by having her letters published in the New York World, the press savaged her “old clothes sale” (though the New York Times also felt that family members of former presidents should be better provided for).

MarylincolnstdenistodayPublic opinion was against her. Even worse, her items drummed up no interest. She fled back to Chicago to her rented rooms.

Her financial situation continued to fall apart, as did her mind. She was committed to an Illinois asylum in 1875 but made periodic trips to New York to address her health before dying in 1882.

[The St. Denis Hotel today, which was on the route President Lincoln’s funeral procession took through New York in April 1865]

The Roaring Twenties nightclub in Central Park

February 29, 2016

Central Park was originally intended to be a place of rest and relaxation, a naturalistic preserve away from the teeming crowds of the mid-19th century city.

Centralparkcasino

So how did a posh, glitzy nightclub end up on the park’s East Drive at 72nd Street in the high society 1920s?

It has to do with James J. Walker, the nightlife loving, charmingly corrupt mayor of New York from 1925 to 1932.

CentralparkcasinointeriorThe nightclub was called the Casino (above and left), and even before it became a club, it had an interesting history.

In 1864, it started out as a modest stone cottage designed by Calvert Vaux to be the “Ladies Refreshment Saloon,” where respectable women visiting the park unaccompanied by a man could grab a bite to eat.

By the late 19th century, it evolved into a regular restaurant. Rather than a gambling house, the Casino (“little house” in Italian) was “where well-to-do diners could get a steak for seventy-five cents” while sipping wine on a terrace (below), according to Andrew F. Smith’s Savoring Gotham.

Enter Mayor Walker. The Casino would now be run by Walker’s friends, who turned the expanded cottage into a Jazz Age nightspot.

“Under its new regime, the Casino catered to the rich and famous,” reported the Complete Illustrated Map and Guidebook to Central Park.

Centralparkcasinopostcard

“Met at the door by liveried footmen, guests dined on elegant French cuisine, and—despite Prohibition—happily paid inflated prices for mixers to go with the bootleg liquor they brought with them.”

Centralparkcasinowalker“Dancing, in a spectacular black-glass ballroom to the tunes of Leo Reisman’s society orchestra, went on until 3 a.m. Mayor Walker and his mistress, the Broadway showgirl Betty Compton (left), were often the last to leave.”

The Casino continued entertaining the city’s elite club crowd even after the Depression hit.

It was a huge success, grossing more than $3 million in five years of operation . . . with the city getting $42K in rent.

But by the early 1930s, it was seen as a symbol of excess. Mayoral candidate Fiorello La Guardia denounced it as a “whoopee joint.”

8x11mm_X2010_7_1_ 117

In 1935, Robert Moses, the city’s legendary Parks Commissioner, tore it down (above, right before demolition) and replaced it with Rumsey Playfield—a concert venue that entertains New Yorkers in an entirely different way today.

[Photos: centralpark.org; MCNY]

The most tragic day of Teddy Roosevelt’s life

February 8, 2016

TRdiaryfeb14At the beginning of 1884, everything seemed to be going Theodore Roosevelt’s way.

The 25-year-old Harvard graduate, a descendant of a colonial Dutch family with deep roots in New York City, had already written an acclaimed first book, The Naval War of 1812.

He’d also been elected to the state assembly and was making a name for himself as an energetic and outspoken Republican who wouldn’t tolerate financial corruption.

His personal life was going spectacularly as well. In 1880 he had married the tall, willowy girl of his dreams, Alice Hathaway Lee (below).

Roosevelt was crazy in love with Lee and ecstatic that after a year of courtship she agreed to marry him.

AlicehathawayleefullOn a sleigh ride near her family home in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, after they had become engaged, “the horse plunging to his belly in the great drifts, and the wind cutting my face like a knife,” Roosevelt gushed about his love in his diary.

“My sweet wife was just as lovable and pretty as ever; it seems hardly possible that I can kiss her and hold her in my arms; she is so pure and so innocent, and so very, very pretty,” he wrote on February 3, 1880.

“I have never done anything to deserve such good fortune.”

Roosevelt’s political career would continue to soar. He became New York’s police commissioner, assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy, state governor, U.S. vice president, and then, thanks to an anarchist’s bullet, the nation’s president in 1901.

But before his political career would hit the national stage, fate would cut short this personal happiness.

TRportrait1881Three years after he wrote that diary entry, on February 12, 1884, Roosevelt’s wife gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt, in Roosevelt’s parents’ home at 6 West 57th Street, where they had been staying.

But the joy of a first child was short-lived. In another room, Roosevelt’s beloved mother, Mittie (below), was dying of typhus.

Lee’s health had also turned grave. One floor above Mittie, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt was battling an undiagnosed kidney disorder. Roosevelt went from room to room, but there was little he could do.

Both women died on February 14, Valentine’s Day.

In his diary that day, Roosevelt (above, in 1881) drew a large X. “The light has gone out of my life,” he wrote. The two Mrs. Roosevelts, one aged 22 and the other 48, were laid to rest at a double funeral at Green-Wood cemetery.

TRmittieroosevelt3“Her baby was born and on February 14 she died in my arms,” wrote Roosevelt on February 17.

“As my mother had died in the same house, on the same day, but a few hours previously. . . . For joy or for sorrow my life has now been lived out.”

Two years later, Roosevelt would marry childhood playmate Edith Carow and have five more children, and by all accounts a very happy family life.

[Diary page: Library of Congress]

Welcome aboard the “muggers’ express” train

December 21, 2015

If you weren’t around to experience it yourself, you’ve probably heard all about the New York City subway system in the 1970s: gritty, practically bankrupt, and a lot more dangerous than it is today.

Muggersexpress1973wiki

How bad was it? In 1978 alone, there were nine murders on the subway. By 1979, felonies occurred on trains and in stations at a rate of 250 incidents each week.

Muggersexpress4trainwikiCity officials were so alarmed by the number of thefts, beatings, and murders underground, Mayor Ed Koch responded by having a uniformed cop ride every train that ran between 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

But one subway line had a dicier reputation than the others. The IRT Lexington Avenue line—today’s 4, 5, and 6 trains—earned the nickname the “muggers’ express” because so many passengers were robbed on board.

Muggersexpressarticle

Some sources have it that only the 4 train was the muggers’ express. It’s hard to say if the 4 was worse than the 5 or 6, though; all three lines went through some pretty rough neighborhoods in Manhattan and the Bronx, and the 4 and 5 went deep into Brooklyn too, just as they do today.

[Top photo: Jim Pickerell/US National Archives and Records Administration; second photo: UPI; third photo: Wikipedia]

The insane 1934 plan to fill in the Hudson River

November 30, 2015

Tired of New York’s terrible traffic and lack of housing options?

It might be time to revisit one of the nuttier ideas for reshaping and redeveloping Manhattan ever proposed: draining the Hudson River and then paving it over.

Fillinginthehudson

This idea doesn’t seem to be a hoax. It was covered in the March 1934 edition of Modern Mechanix in a wild article entitled “Filling in the Hudson.”

FillinginhudsonmagcoverThe terrifying illustration on the opening page shows the Hudson River dammed up and filled in from Lower Manhattan to the tip of Harlem.

The plan, proposed by “noted publicist and engineering scholar” Norman Sper, would “reclaim” from the Hudson River 10 square miles, which would “not only provide for thousands of additional buildings, but also for avenues and cross streets,” to ease congestion.

“Today there are ten avenues laid out along the length of Manhattan,” proclaims the article. “These are crossed by 125 streets. It is the lack of up-and-down arteries which has given rise to the existing traffic crisis. Sper would double the number of avenues.”

The water from the Hudson River would be diverted into the Harlem River and the East River. The entire project was supposed to cost the city a cool $1 billion.

Fillinginthehudsonpage2

It’s unclear how far this idea went; it doesn’t appear to have been covered in any of the major dailies. And since there is no 15th Avenue running through the middle of the Hudson, obviously no one ever took it seriously.

Check out more crazy plans and proposals for New York City that thankfully never made it past the blueprint stage.

From wealthy socialite to women’s rights activist

November 23, 2015

AlvabelmontyoungWhen she was known as Alva Vanderbilt, she was one of the wealthiest women in New York City.

And as a young wife and mother in the 1870s and 1880s, Alva was determined to spend big bucks to secure a place for her family in the city’s stuffy, old money society run by Mrs. Caroline Astor.

To become part of the so-called Astor 400, she built a magnificent French renaissance mansion at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, modestly christened Petite Chateau (below).

Alvavanderbiltcostumeparty1883

She then threw a housewarming party in the form of a masquerade ball and invited 1,200 of New York’s richest residents, who feasted and danced while dressed as kings and queens. (Alva, right, as a “Venetian renaissance lady.”)

And when she couldn’t score a box seat at the Academy of Music on 14th Street, the city’s premier opera house at the time, she convinced other new rich New Yorkers to pitch in money to build the more opulent Metropolitan Opera House, which opened in 1883.

After finally breaking into formal society, she divorced her husband in 1895 and married another enormously rich man, Oliver H.P. Belmont.

For the next decade, she resumed life as a society matron, entertaining and building incredible mansions in New York and Newport, Rhode Island.

AlvavanderbiltlepetitechateauAfter Belmont died in 1908, however, Alva traded mansions and balls for activism. Instead of putting her money toward estates and entertaining, she began funding causes that advanced women’s rights.

That year, she founded the Political Equality Association and gave millions in support of the fight for suffrage both in the United States and in Great Britain.

Inspired by dedicated suffragists like Alice Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst, she helped launch the National Women’s Party, and she opened her mansion doors in New York City and Newport for rallies and events. (Above: 1912 Suffragist Parade, New York City.)

Alvavanderbiltsuffrageparade1912

Her devotion to women’s rights expanded even after 1920. She helped support working women’s groups. The former wife of two famous capitalists even helped keep Socialist magazine the Masses financially viable.

Alvavanderbilt1920She was living in France in 1932 when she suffered a stroke. At her funeral in early 1933, friends and family draped a banner across the coffin that read “failure is impossible,” per her instructions.

The woman who early in her life dedicated herself to becoming part of an American aristocracy made women’s rights around the world her lasting legacy.

When New York celebrated “Columbus Week”

October 12, 2015

The Columbus Day parade of 2015 is expected to draw a million viewers to the parade route on Fifth Avenue.

Columbusdayparade1892

That’s peanuts compared to the crowds that turned out for Columbus Day parades of decades past. And it’s nothing compared to the Columbus Day—actually Columbus Week—of 1892, the 400th anniversary of the Italian explorer’s washing ashore in the Caribbean.

Columbus Week 1892 was an all-out party, featured a naval parade up the Hudson, fireworks at the Brooklyn Bridge, displays at various city parks, a Catholic school parade of thousands of kids, and a music festival.

Columbusdayparade1892nypl

And of course, there was a grand parade, seen here in two images at Union Square. “Many miles of men in the great Columbus procession,” the New York Times wrote in a headline on October 13.

“Streets turned into arbors of bunting—cascades of gay colors everywhere—model work by the police in handling the greatest crowd New-York ever held.”

[Photos: NYPL Digital Gallery]

A bumpy dedication of the Statue of Liberty

September 28, 2015

Statueoflibertymoran1886On October 28, 1886, the city had scheduled a day of festivities for the official dedication of the Statue of Liberty.

Things mostly went off well, but not without plenty of hitches that turned the celebration into a comedy of errors.

First, there was the cold, miserable rain, which poured down on marchers during the morning parade from 57th Street to Madison Square Park to the Battery.

President Cleveland (a former governor of New York State) was to lead the parade and then watch from a reviewing stand at Worth Square—which he did, umbrella-less, with sheets of rain pouring down on him for two hours.

Statueoflibertycrowdsonshoreline

In the afternoon, after the city’s first-ever ticker-tape parade, an official dedication ceremony took place on what was once known as Bedloe’s Island—with thousands of New Yorkers watching from the Battery.

Interestingly, no regular citizens were allowed on the island, and few, if any, women were invited. A group of suffragists rowed out close, though, and held their own ceremony, hoping the day would come when women had the liberty to cast votes.

Statueoflibertyunderscaffolding

The 2,500 or so French and American dignitaries invited to the ceremony were treated to music, prayers, gun salutes, speeches, and finally, the unveiling of the copper-colored statue, which had been shrouded in a French flag.

The wet flag was lifted prematurely, however, in the middle of a speech by New York Senator William Evarts, cutting Evarts off.

Statueoflibertybaseunderconstruction

After President Cleveland accepted the statue from France, a flotilla of ships began setting off alarms in celebration, drowning out the rest of the speeches.

The boats also released plumes of smoke, which along with the clouds and mist made it even harder for crowds on shore to see the copper-colored statue.

Statueofliberty1890sA huge fireworks display had to be cancelled that night because of the rain. And the actual lighting of the statue?

It didn’t go off well, mainly because no one could figure out how to light Lady Liberty properly—odd, as she was supposed to be an official lighthouse for New York Harbor.

Finally, on November 1, the city did a do-over of the fireworks and illumination. According to the New York Times, at least the phyrotechnics went of splendidly.

“Land and sea alike were teeming with glories. The vast fleet added not a little to the scene—the distant city with its million lights and flame-tipped spires was a sight to be remembered itself.”

“When the last rush of rockets from the island had scattered their showering gold and the wonted darkness settled again, the great figure grew brighter and huger and gleamed ghostly but beautiful, the new Anadyomene, Liberty rising from the sea.”


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