Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1920s’

John Sloan paints many moods of McSorley’s Bar

February 13, 2014

McsorleysbarjohnsloanBeing ensconced inside a dark bar with a pint and good conversation is many a New Yorker’s  idea of heaven.

John Sloan may have felt that way too.

His famous 1912 painting “McSorley’s Bar” depicts working-class customers comfortably drinking around a wood bar (with bartender Bill McSorley, son of the original owner, who founded the East Seventh Street ale house in 1854), wiling away the hours.

It’s his most renowned McSorley’s painting, but not the only one. Sloan completed at least three more, each capturing various glimpses of loneliness and whimsy and highlighting the small moments of pleasure and respite in a workingman’s life.


“McSorley’s Back Room” also dates to 1912. “The hushed, contemplative mood of this painting echoes Sloan’s description of the bar as an oasis ‘where the world seems shut out—where there is no time, nor turmoil,’” states the Hood Museum website, quoting Sloan.

“The tavern’s founder was no longer living when Sloan discovered the place, but through this painting and a related etching Sloan appears to pay homage to John McSorley, who, according to his son, always sat there in the sun.”

In 1928, Sloan memorialized the dozen cats living at the bar in “McSorley’s Cats.” Could that be bartender Bill McSorley again, with cats badgering him for food?


With Prohibition still the rule of law, Sloan painted “McSorley’s Saturday Night” between 1928 and 1930. States the McSorley’s website: “everyone seems to have a mug in his hands.”


Sloan moved to New York in 1904 and spent many years depicting the city’s moods, from joy to isolation.

As for McSorley’s, this dusty old saloon, which famously refused to serve women until a court order in 1970, has been memorialized many times in art and literature, most famously by Berenice Abbott, Joseph Mitchell, and e.e. cummings.

The Rockefeller Center that never came to be

January 23, 2014

Rockefeller Center is a symbol of 20th century New York City: a 14-building Art Deco icon  that’s crawling with tourists and office workers.

Metropolitansquare1928But the complex there today wasn’t the original city within a city that John D. Rockefeller Jr. envisioned for 49th to 50th Streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

In 1928, the plaza surrounded by towering buildings was to be called “Metropolitan Square” (right).

Anchoring it would be a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, then located in an 1880s theater on no-longer-trendy Broadway and 39th Street.

MetoperahouseproposalurbanRockefeller offered land at the site to the Met for free; they simply had to raise the funds for a new theater. (One proposal by architect Joseph Urban is at left.)

A deal was set . . . and then the stock market collapsed in 1929. The Met backed out.

“Although the Rockefellers were also hit by ‘Black Tuesday,’ losing half their fortune, the 54-year-old heir managed to finance the costly development by agreeing to be personally responsible for the repayment of the loans,” stated the website for PBS’s American Experience.

“In the absence of an opera building, [Rockefeller] envisioned a commercial development for the site. . . . Over the course of nine years, in the depth of the Depression, the building of Rockefeller Center would provide employment for 75,000 workers.”

[Below, what the neighborhood looked like before it was torn down and replaced by glitzy skyscrapers and office space, from the MCNY]


By 1939, construction finished on the last building. “The vertical thrust of the whole ensemble was meant to symbolize humanity’s progress toward new frontiers, a theme dear to Rockefeller, who sought to advance that cause through his philanthropies,” explained PBS’ American Experience.

The modern metropolis of Georgia O’Keeffe

November 18, 2013

If Georgia O’Keeffe to you means gauzy flowers and southwestern motifs, take a look at her Modernist depictions of the cityscape in the 1920s.

[below, "East River From the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel," 1928]


Born in Wisconsin in 1887, O’Keeffe studied at the Art Students League in 1907, then came back to New York a few years later to attend Teachers College.

 She returned once again in 1918 to live with photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who had been impressed by her charcoal drawings and forged a relationship with her through letters.

[Below, "East River No 1," 1927]


The two married six years later, after Stieglitz’s divorce was finalized. They lived together in the Shelton Hotel at 49th Street and Lexington Avenue, and from her window O’Keeffe began painting the New York skyline.

“Although O’Keeffe’s paintings of skyscrapers might appear simplistic, their power lies in the perspective O’Keeffe employs in her technique,” explains this link from the University of Virginia.

[Below, "New York Night," 1928-1929]


“Her paintings often times used the vantage point of being on the ground and looking up which conveys a sense of wonder an individual might experience while craning one’s neck to look up at the awe-inspiring skyscraper.

Georgiaokeeffe“In contrast, O’Keeffe’s subtle use of light in New York Night conveys a sense of warmth and life inherent in the city.

“Although the majority of the painting is comprised of dark buildings, the lighted windows in the skyscrapers and the lighted street area in the lower left-hand corner of the painting are suggestive of the living beings who breathe life into the city on a daily basis.”

O’Keeffe also painted the Radiator Building in Bryant Park, all glowing embers.

[O'Keeffe in 1918, photo taken by Alfred Stieglitz]

A Brooklyn con man who impersonated everyone

November 12, 2013

Stanleycliffordweymanmug1943“One man’s life is a boring thing. I lived many lives; I’m never bored.”

Those were the words of Stanley Clifford Weyman, born in Brooklyn in 1890, who spent his life as a fabulist who pretended to be other people.

He didn’t always get away with it. But after every arrest, he returned to a life of impersonating others.

Weyman first pretended to be the U.S. counsel representative of Morocco. Arrested for fraud, he then claimed to be a diplomat, a lieutenant, and the Romanian counsel general.

Caught again at his own fancy dinner party at the posh Hotel Astor, he  was jailed for a year and paroled by 1920.

Next he convinced an Algerian princess into giving him $10,000; she thought he was a state department official who could get her an appointment with President Harding. He pulled it off (that’s him on the left in the photo)—but got snagged anyway.

StanleyweymanprincessWeyman was pretty shameless. At Rudolph Valentino’s funeral in 1926, he pretended to be the personal physician of Valentino’s companion, actress Pola Negri.

In the 1940s, “he operated a school in draft-dodging in Brooklyn, where he trained his students in feigning feeblemindedness before draft boards,” wrote The New York Times in 1960.

The amazing thing is that after decades of compulsive impersonation, he apparently made a go of living a straight life after his final prison sentence, for forgery, in the 1950s.

In 1960, Weyman was working at a hotel in Yonkers; it was held up one night. He tried to intervene and was shot to death.

Eight years later, he was the subject of a fascinating article in The New Yorker titled “The Big Little Man From Brooklyn.”

The cat that stopped traffic in 1920s New York

October 24, 2013

Looks like a Manhattan mama cat has solicited a policeman’s help in getting her kittens across a busy intersection.

Hmm, if lolcats were around back then, what kind of snarky caption would be added to this photo?


I don’t know where this photo was taken This photo chronicles an incident on Lafayette Street; an Ephemeral reader found the original photo in a 1928 New York Times article.

“Even a cat may hold up traffic,” the caption reads. The story goes on to mention, “the cat who held up traffic on Lafayette Street, while, with a kitten in her mouth, she strolled nonchalantly from one side to the other. . . .”

The showgirl and her notorious 1920s speakeasy

October 3, 2013

TexasguinanMary Louise Cecilia Guinan was a born entertainer.

Nicknamed “Texas” after her home state, she got her start in show business as an actress, touring the country with theater groups, rodeos, and vaudeville shows at the turn of the last century.

After a failed marriage, a stint in Hollywood making silent films, and with dreams of stardom, she moved to New York City in 1905. Bubbly and extroverted, she scored roles in musicals and movies.

But her biggest role wasn’t on the stage or screen—it was in one of Prohibition-era New York’s most popular speakeasies.

It happened by accident. After impressing early 1920s crowds with her brassy attitude as a hotel lounge singer, she became the club’s emcee.


She connected well with customers and was hired to emcee at other nightspots—at the Knickerbocker Hotel on 42nd Street, for instance, and a place called the El Fey on West 48th Street.

“Nights at the El Fey, and later at Texas’s other clubs, blended alcohol-fueled mirth and sportive bedlam,” wrote Leo Trachtenberg in City Journal.

Texasguinanpolice“Armed with a clapper, a police whistle, and her ever-derisive wit, wrapped in ermine, and sporting an array of gigantic hats, Texas impaled big spenders with insults and made them love it.”

In 1925, Texas opened the 300 Club, at 151 West 54th Street.  John Barrymore, George Gershwin, and Clara Bow were regulars. The club was targeted by officials, who were constantly padlocking the door and arresting Texas.

Her cheeky explanation: patrons brought liquor with them, and that the place was so small, the showgirls were forced to dance close to customers.

The Depression ended the party. Texas went back to acting, and in 1933 while on the road in Vancouver, she contracted dysentery and died at 49.

Mostly forgotten today, the “Queen of the Night Clubs” is immortalized in some Damon Runyon short stories; she’s the basis for the nightclub operator “Miss Missouri Martin.”

In the photo of the El Fay club, two swastikas flank the entrance. They had nothing to do with Nazi Germany; the swastika symbol was a good luck symbol, according to the City Journal article.

A daredevil stuntman on a 42nd Street skyscraper

April 8, 2013

Why is this man standing on his head on a skyscraper being fed donuts?

It’s a publicity stunt, of course. That’s Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, famous in the 1920s for his flagpole-sitting feats (his record is 49 days).


By 1939, when this photo was taken, the flagpole-sitting fad was over, and Kelly was reduced to doing gimmicks for events such as National Donut Dunking Week—which is the reason he’s upside-down on the roof of the Chanin Building on East 42nd Street.

He gained notoriety for his daredevil feats in life, and then for the way he died near his apartment on West 51st Street. “Broke and on welfare, Kelly dropped dead in 1952 while walking between two parked cars in New York City,” states

“Clutched tightly in one arm was a scrapbook containing clippings and mementos from his glory days as King of the Flagpole Sitters.”

[Photo: New York Daily News]

The zodiac symbols on a Bryant Park office tower

April 3, 2013

ZodiacbuildingjulyaugseptZodiacsignsfebmarchThe soaring temple of commerce at 11 West 42nd Street has been casting a shadow over Bryant Park since 1927.

Now home to NYU’s Midtown campus, the building features 32 floors and an ornate lobby (shown off in this slideshow).

Yet perhaps its quirkiest detail is on the facade: the 12 very detailed zodiac signs carved into the stone entrance, with the corresponding months listed beneath each one.

Eleven West 42nd Street has a few other distinctions. Above the zodiac signs are carved figures representing various professions—a likely nod to the building’s use as a modern office tower.


And on a more bittersweet note, the ground floor was the last home of Coliseum Books, one of New York’s premier independent bookstores until it went out of business in 2007.

Madison Square Garden moves to Eighth Avenue

March 4, 2013

This 1930ish postcard shows what was then the “new” Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street.

It’s the third incarnation of New York’s iconic arena, and the first one located no where near Madison Square.


It moved here in 1925, and for the next four decades hosted boxing matches, circuses, rodeos, Billy Graham revivals, ice shows, and of course the Rangers and the Knicks.

Was this a good place to watch a game? It looks awfully cramped and crowded from outside.

In 1968 the Garden moved again, this time to its current home at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue. In its place we have the office tower Worldwide Plaza, which looks strangely similar to the old MSG.

Some great old photos of the Garden and its very cool marquee can be found at Wired New York.

Partying with Zelda Fitzgerald in the 1920s

November 29, 2012

Every decade in New York, a couple comes along and serves as an emblem for the time.

In the first part of the Roaring 20s, that couple was F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

On April 3, 1920, reunited in New York, they married in a hasty ceremony in front of eight people at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. They stayed at the Biltmore Hotel, then the Commodore Hotel, getting kicked out of both for being too rowdy.

They celebrated their eviction by spinning giddily through the hotel’s revolving doors for half an hour. Zelda also earned wild child status when one night she jumped into the fountain at Union Square fully clothed.

“They did both look as though they’d just stepped out of the sun,” wrote Dorothy Parker.

Scott’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, was a hit, and New York’s smart set was dazzled by the young couple. Zelda was particularly taken with the city’s nightlife, according to Nancy Milford’s Zelda: A Biography. In Zelda’s words:

“Girls in short amorphous capes and long flowing skirts and hats like straw bathtubs waited for taxis in front of the Plaza Grill; girls in long satin coats and colored shoes and hats like straw manhole covers tapped the tune of a cataract on the dance floors of the Lorraine and the St. Regis.”

“Under the sombre ironic parrots of the Biltmore a halo of golden bobs disintegrated into black lace and shoulder bouquets . . . . It was just a lot of youngness: Lillian Lorraine would be drunk at the top of the New Amsterdam by midnight, and football teams breaking training would scare the waiters with drunkenness in the fall. The world was full of parents taking care of people.”

Of course, the parties didn’t last. After moving to Paris later in the decade, the golden couple split, and Scott went to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting, where he died of a heart attack in 1940.

By 1930, Zelda was in a Maryland mental institution. There, she perished a fire in 1948.


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