Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1950s’

A daring drunk lands a plane in Upper Manhattan

June 22, 2015

Like so many crazy stunts, it reportedly started with a bar bet.

On September 30, 1956, Thomas Fitzpatrick (below), a 26-year-old steamfitter from Emerson, New Jersey, was drinking at a tavern on St. Nicholas Avenue in Washington Heights.


For reasons that appear to be lost to history, Fitzpatrick bet another bar patron that he could get in a plane and land it in Washington Heights in 15 minutes.

Airplane1956headshotIt’s not clear if he made the time limit. But he did get a plane, a Cessna 140 two-seater stolen from Teterboro Airport, and flew it to Manhattan, where he landed it on St. Nicholas Avenue and 191st Street at 3 a.m.

Despite being drunk, Fitzpatrick “brought it down safely between six-story apartment buildings,” wrote The New York Times in 1958.

The plane “landed on a street with lampposts and cars parked on both sides,” a witness told The New York Times in a 2013 article. “It was a wonder—you had to be a great flier to put that thing down so close to everything.’’

Fitzpatrick told police that he brought the plane down in the street (below) because he had engine trouble, but they didn’t buy it. Originally charged with grand larceny, Fitzpatrick eventually paid a $100 fine.

That wasn’t Fitzpatrick’s only aeronautic feat. While drinking in a Washington Heights tavern on October 4, 1958, he told a patron about his previous Upper Manhattan plane-landing experience.

AirplanewashingtonheightsphilinqWhen the patron refused to believe him, Fitzpatrick drove with the man to Teterboro, secured a plane, flew it to Upper Manhattan, and landed on Amsterdam Avenue and 187th Street at about 1 a.m.

“Yesterday’s incident surprised and frightened residents and motorists who heard the plane descending,” wrote the Times. “The craft touched down, taxied a few yards and stopped in front of a Yeshiva University building.”

That second landing scored him six months in jail, after which as far as anyone knows, he never tried to fly to Washington Heights again.

[top two photos: New York Times; third photo, Philadelphia Inquirer]

The final days of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

March 2, 2015

On April 5, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to the electric chair for committing espionage for the Soviet Union.

Rosenbergs1951trialFor the next 14 months, a flurry of appeals, pleas, and protests was hatched to try to save the lives of the husband and wife convicted spies, ages 32 and 35, both natives of the Lower East Side.

In March 1952, their lawyers filed an appeal in Federal court, claiming the conduct of the sentencing judge, Irving R. Kaufman, denied them a fair trial.

That appeal was denied, as was an appeal to the Supreme Court claiming the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment.

Rosebergsdailynewsheadline“Doomed couple in Sing Sing for 18 months take news calmly,” a headline read in October 1952.

A stay of execution pushed back their scheduled March 9 date with death. Meanwhile, a clemency plea to the president was dismissed in February 1953.

Eisenhower replied that “their betrayal of United States atomic secrets to Russia could bring to death ‘many, many thousands of innocent citizens,'” wrote The New York Times in May 1953.

In May, the Supreme Court ordered the stay vacated. Electrocution was set for the week of June 15.

Religious leaders around the world cabled President Eisenhower and asked for clemency for the couple. Protesters marched in Boston, Los Angeles, and outside the White House.

Rally For The Rosenbergs

A final Supreme Court ruling, with only Hugo Black and William Douglas dissenting, paved the way for their deaths on June 19.

Rosenbergsdailynewsheadline2In New York that afternoon, 5,000 supporters rallied at the north end of Union Square, spilling onto East 17th Street (above).

But the execution proceeded that evening at about 8 p.m.

Julius went first. “As a clean-shaven Rosenberg neared the brown-stained oak chair he seemed to sway from side to side,” wrote the Times.

Ethel “entered the death chamber a few minutes after the body of her husband had been removed,” said the Times.

Wearing a green polka-dot dress and her hair close cropped, she kissed the cheek of a prison matron and was then strapped into the chair, a leather mask put over her face.

Rosenbergsrallygettyimages2After five shocks, she was pronounced dead.

Whether the death penalty was an appropriate punishment is still a contentious topic. Both admitted no culpability, but Soviet-era files later revealed that Julius was indeed a spy.

Ethel appears to have been implicated by her own brother, who testified against her to spare his own wife from prosecution.

[Top photo: AP; second and fourth images, NY Daily News; third and fifth photos: Getty Images]

The long history of the Milford (Plaza) Hotel

February 17, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHave you seen the renovated Milford Hotel? The building itself is mostly the same, but the lobby and interior on Eighth Avenue and 44th Street sport a sleek, minimalist look.

The modern renovation is hard to wrap your head around if you lived in New York in the 1980s.

Back then, the Milford was the cheapo, tourist-friendly Milford Plaza, known for its crazy-catchy 1980s commercials.

(Warning: view it, and the Milford Plaza song will be in your head in an endless loop for the rest of the day.)

And if your New York history goes back decades earlier, you might remember when the Milford Plaza was the Lincoln Hotel.

Opened in 1928, the Lincoln featured 1,300 rooms spread out across 27 floors. Over the next few decades, the hotel hosted salesmen, tourists, and people connected to the theater district. The restaurant and ballroom were packed with partygoers.  A few suicides were recorded too.

Hotel Lincoln, 44th to 45th Street at 8th Avenue New York CityBy the 1950s, the Lincoln was a shell of its former self—a rundown apartment hotel in out-of-fashion west Midtown. An 85 percent vacancy rent kept the number of residents low, the hallways ghostly.

Developer William Zeckendorf bought it in 1956 and got permission to kick the longtime rent-controlled tenants out. Yet they didn’t leave without a fight.

In 1956, the last of the holdout tenants—the Hotel Lincoln Seven, we’ll call them—faced eviction proceedings about the same time the hotel’s furnishings were scheduled to go up for auction.

“Within four hours of the sale’s opening bid, the restaurant, the barber shop, the coffee shop, and the beauty salon had been swept clean of fixtures,” wrote The New York Times.

ThemilfordmarqueeMeanwhile, the developers offered to relocate the holdout residents to similar hotel accommodations at the Knickerbocker on West 44th Street. They declined.

Finally, they ponied up cash payouts of $300o per tenant to promptly vacate. “The last to agree was Miss Edna King, a guest since 1929,” reported The New York Times.

Thanksgiving dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, 1956

November 12, 2013

It’s Thanksgiving during the Eisenhower years. You’re rich, you live in New York City, you don’t really want to schlep around and then prepare your own turkey dinner.


Good thing the Waldorf Astoria hotel, between Lexington and Park Avenues and 49th to 50th Streets, is open for the holiday.

Everything on this vintage menu still sounds wonderful (note the Waldorf salad, invented by hotel chefs in 1893), and very regional American: old fashioned cream of pumpkin Carolina, roast Vermont turkey, Iowa succotash. Who knew New Jersey specialized in cider?


This relatively contemporary menu has been pared down from the massive bills of fare handed out by the city’s luxurious hotel restaurants during Gilded Age Thanksgivings.

Browse them in the New York Public Library’s Buttolph menu collection, which can be viewed in their Digital Gallery—an exceptional resource.

Stony stares and silence on the D train in 1951

October 3, 2013

The D train used to stop at Chambers Street? Here’s photographic proof, from the Life magazine photo archives.

Shot by Eliot Elisofen, it’s a haunting slice of subway past: wicker seats, men and women wearing hats, the absence of cell phones and ear buds.


Yet so much in this 62-year-old photo rings true today. Note the passengers looking away from each other and public service ads warning riders about the ramifications of poor subway etiquette.

A 1959 teenage gang murder rocks the city

September 10, 2012

It all seems quaint now, but violent teenage street gangs were a new phenomenon to 1950s New Yorkers.

Among the most notorious of the estimated 150 gangs were the Mau Maus, Bishops, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings.

They terrified residents, who felt threatened by the rumbles and sporadic killings that took place in tightly packed postwar neighborhoods.

But no gang-related murder got as much newspaper ink as that of the Capeman—aka Salvador Agron, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican kid who had joined an Upper West Side gang called the Vampires.

On August 29, 1959, Agron and his crew met at midnight at May Matthews playground on 45th Street off of Ninth Avenue.

They were looking to fight members of the Norsemen, a mostly white gang. Instead they came across some local teenagers.

Mistaking them for gang members, Agron, dressed in a black satin cape, stabbed two 16-year-olds each in the heart. They staggered to nearby doorways before dying (right).

Part of the media uproar had to do with Agron’s dismissive, cocky attitude toward the crime.

Anti–Puerto Rican sentiment among city residents didn’t help either.

In 1960, he got the electric chair, but then had his sentence commuted in 1962.

Released from prison in 1979 (after escaping two years earlier), he became a youth counselor and died in 1986 at age 42 from pneumonia.

Paul Simon turned Agron’s life story into a Broadway musical in 1998—but it closed to poor reviews a few months after opening.

How city kids cooled off in the heat wave of 1953

July 12, 2012

A 10-day heat wave left the city blistering in late summer 1953, with record temperatures in the triple digits scalding the streets.

Luckily these city kids living in the vicinity of today’s Nolita (see the ad for 276 Bowery) knew how to keep cool: They opened a fire hydrant.

Life magazine photographer Peter Stackpole captured these wonderful images: the spray coming out high into the Belgian Block street, then a boy aiming a flood of water at his buddy.

The next shots show other kids joining in, with no street traffic getting in their way. And then a policeman apparently puts a stop to it.

It looked like a lot of fun while it lasted. Amazingly, almost every kid is wearing long pants!

A photographer captures Times Square in color

April 12, 2012

Born in Paris in 1906 and trained as an architect, Andreas Feininger arrived in New York in 1939.

He soon landed a job as a staff photographer for Life magazine, which lasted into the early 1960s.

In that time, he had the opportunity to shoot all kinds of people and places. He’s known for his sweeping black and white vistas of the city skyline, buildings, and industry.

But it’s his color photos of 1950s Times Square that capture something magical and luminous.

The eerie glow of billboard lights, sidewalks slick with rain, and faceless bodies milling about under theater marquees depict Times Square’s midcentury beauty and mystery.

“I see the city as a living organism: dynamic, sometimes violent, and even brutal,” he reportedly said.

See more of Feininger’s haunting, glorious New York photos (mostly in black and white) here.

A moment of “quiet humanity” from Saul Leiter

February 9, 2012

Saul Leiter’s photographs capture bits and pieces of midcentury New York’s muted beauty—as seen here in 1957’s Phone Call.

Martin Harrison, the editor and author of the wonderful Saul Leiter Early Color, wrote, “He sought out moments of quiet humanity in the Manhattan maelstrom, forging a unique urban pastoral from the most unlikely of circumstances.”

A street photographer’s tender, noble New York

October 10, 2011

Vivian Maier’s life and work are still being uncovered.

Born in the city in 1926, her story doesn’t sound remarkable: She lived in Europe until 1951, returning to New York City for four years, where she worked in a sweatshop before moving to Chicago.

There she spent the next 40 years as a nanny; reportedly she was homeless and broke later in life before the adult children she cared for years earlier rescued her from destitution. Intensely private, she died in 2009 at 83.

Now here’s the remarkable part. Throughout her life, she took pictures—at least 100,000 of them, the negatives of which were inside a storage locker that was auctioned off in 2007.

The new owner, amazed at his incredible find, has been working to bring attention to her art and give Maier her proper due. (Below is a self-portrait.)

“Most of Maier’s photos are black and white, and many feature unposed or casual shots of people caught in action—passing moments that nonetheless possess an underlying gravity and emotion,” explains a 2011 Chicago Magazine article.

Though many of her images were taken in Chicago, others document New York’s rougher edges in the 1950s—a tender collection of underdogs, not-quite-in-sync lovers, and lonely souls.

A portfolio of dozens of her New York photos can be accessed here.


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