Posts Tagged ‘the Bowery in the 19th century’

A songwriter’s desperate end in a Bowery hotel

April 24, 2017

If you’ve ever found yourself humming “Camptown Races” or “Oh! Susanna,” then you know Stephen Foster.

He’s the genius behind these and other catchy Antebellum-era favorites, many of which supposedly captured life in the Old South — even though Foster was born in Pennsylvania in 1826 and only visited the South when he honeymooned in New Orleans.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the inventor of the pop song: “the bastard stepchild of the parlor song and the minstrel song, of the European and African strains of American music,” as Michael Friedman wrote in The New Yorker in 2014.

And sadly, his tragic life trajectory echos that of many of today’s pop stars.

Growing up, Foster learned to play various instruments. He tried college, then went to work for his brother. But music was his passion, and he began selling songs in the 1840s to sheet music publishers.

“Oh! Susanna,” in 1848, was his breakthrough hit; it sold an astounding 100,000 copies and was performed by the popular New York–based Christy Minstrels.

“The song spread like wild fire with people whistling it in the streets,” states Pittsburgh Music History. “People all over country were singing it.”

Foster was famous now, churning out hits he liked to call “American melodies” (he reportedly disliked the demeaning, racially charged language in many minstrel tunes and tried to make the characters in his songs, both black and white, sympathetic).

He also inked a deal with a New York publisher that paid him 2 cents in royalties for every copy of his music that sold.

But the 1850s weren’t kind to Foster. His wife left him, he was creatively stuck, and pirated copies of his songs took a toll on his finances. He moved to Hoboken for a spell, then returned to Pennsylvania before coming east again.

In debt and alone by 1860, he lived in various Bowery hotels, took on a writing partner, and tried to restart his career.

Living on the Bowery (above, at Chatham Square in 1860) — which was then transforming from a lively theater district to a wilder strip of lowbrow stages and saloons — wasn’t a good move for a man already beset by depression and alcoholism.

“He rented a room in a cheap hotel at the corner of Bayard Street (at right), hoping for inspiration,” wrote Michael Leapman in The Companion Guide to New York, “but instead developed an undetermined fever and a gargantuan taste for drink.”

On January 10, 1864, Foster’s writing partner, George Cooper (below with Foster) found him on the floor of his room, naked and bleeding from the neck. He’d apparently slipped and cut his throat on a porcelain washing basin.

Brought by carriage to Bellevue, he died a few days later, at age 37. In his pocket was 38 cents and a note that read “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts” but nothing else.

“Beautiful Dreamer,” which he wrote in his Bowery hotel room, was published after his death and became arguably his most enduring song, a standard to this day.

[Top photo: Bowery Alliance; second image: Alamy; third photo: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 48.79; fifth image: Pittsburgh Music History]

New Year’s Day dinner on the Bowery

December 27, 2009

Fried rabbit on toast, canned Oyster Bay asparagus, hot mince and pumpkin pie—these and other delicacies were on the menu at M.F. Lyons’ Dining Rooms on the Bowery for New Year’s Day dinner in 1906.

And yep, those prices are in cents. I wonder what kind of residents showed up for this meal.

“Mike” Lyons’ restaurant has an interesting history. It was the sight of dinners featuring corrupt Tammany Hall politicians such as “Little Tim” Sullivan. 

Opened in 1872, it met its end in 1907, long after the Bowery’s heyday as an entertainment district.

“From 1,200 to 2,000 people were fed every night,’ a 1907 New York Times article reported. “At 3 in the morning there was a man back of every chair waiting to grab it, on special occasions, and the police patronage which had always been considerable increased.

“There was one class of patrons who continued faithful to the Lyons standard. This was the Lyons food line, composed exclusively of women, who at 5 in the morning were at the doors now closed with baskets,” the article continued.

“The left-over food was given to them without question or discrimination. These will mourn the passing of Lyon’s.”

The menu comes from the New York Public Library’s menu collection.