Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Storytime in Hudson Park: West Village 1910s

ABOVE: Children young and quite old gather around this Hudson Park storyteller. Can't quite place where Hudson Park is? Check here.

Tom and I are hard at work on this week's podcast. I'll be updating the blog later in the day on Wednesday!

Monday, June 29, 2009

The days before DUMBO: Brooklyn Bridge, June 29, 1909

From a pamphlet celebrating the Brooklyn Bridge's 50th anniversary in 1933. (Click photo for larger view.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sip-In shenanigans: before Stonewall, there was Julius'

Old memories lovingly clutter the walls of Julius, a West Village institution (Pic Flickr)

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, every other Friday we'll be featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.

In operation: 186?-present

This weekend is the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a chaotic, rowdy altercation that bloomed over the course of the weekend to energize the New York's gay movement. (If you haven't already, give our podcast on the history of the Stonewall riots a listen.) But despite its reputation, Stonewall is not the oldest gay bar in New York. Not even close.

For that honor, you need only march a few steps to Waverly Place and 10th Street to that crusty, beloved old institution Julius (159 W. 10th St). It also happens to be the location of a pre-Stonewall protest of angered gay activists, an event both revolutionary and somewhat amusing.

Julius is truly an old bar although nobody seems to know exactly how old. Two popular guesses settle at either 1865 or 1867, easily making it one of the oldest bars in New York, just a tad younger than McSorley's Old Ale House. The building itself is even older, dating from 1826, becoming a grocer in 1840 before transforming to its current, more jovial purposes.

It has many things in common with McSorley's Old Ale House. The walls are plastered with memorabilia from days gone by. The bar is a well-worn relic, the tables and benches made of old beer barrels. Like McSorley's, they even serve burgers, and really, really good ones at that! Its history is a tad more shrouded than McSorley's but equally studded with famous clientele.

It was a popular speakeasy throughout the 1920s, evidenced today by Julius' still existing sidedoor with peephole. Both Fats Waller and Billie Holiday are rumored to have performed in the backroom, quite likely as Holiday worked at the nearby nightclub Cafe Society during the 1930s. In subsequent years the clientele was decidedly a mixed lot and Julius would ply writers like Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote with drink and companionship.

By the 1960s Julius had become a low-key staple of the West Village gay scene. However, it appears that it was 'straight enough' that it survived Mayor Robert Wagner's cleanup of the city in preparation of the 1964 World's Fair, a wholesale shutdown of West Village gay bars and other 'undesirable' places. Even through this Julius lived on, although patrons and management alike had to maneuver through rather arcane and sometimes silly rituals.

According to writer Edmund White, who often visited the bar, said "There was even a period when we weren’t allowed to face the bar but had to stand absurdly with our back to it to prove, I suppose, that we had nothing to hide."

It gets even more absurd. Technically, according to the New York State Liquor Authority, it was actually illegal to serve drinks to homosexuals. Obviously, this rule was seldom enforced, but the constant fear of such a twisted regulation being suddenly enforced by an undercover cop eventually drew action from New York's burgeoning group of young gay activists.

Members of the Mattachine Society, one of New York's earliest gay organizations, planned on challenging the rule by going into bars, loudly announcing their homosexuality and ordering a drink. Their read statement at the bar would be awkward, but simple: "We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service."

The key would be that they were followed around by a phalanx of press representatives. So, when the bar refused to serve them, the Mattachine Society would have their moment, captured and ready for print.

It didn't quite go as planned. The challenge came on April 21, 1966, more than three years before the Stonewall riots. They told members of the press to meet them at the Ukrainian-American Village Restaurant but management closed shop before they arrived. They tried two other bars, a Howard Johnson's and a place called Waikiki, and each time they were served without incident.

But of course, the organizers were looking for an incident. They arrived at Julius for their big moment. Obviously, they would be served here as well. But they made a deal with the management who "agreed to play along" (according to Carter's book), refusing service to the men.

The now-legendary Julius Sip-In, as the event as come to be called, was an entirely fabricated event, yet it served its purpose. The New York Times even ran the story, under the rather backhanded headline, "3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars." The law was successfully challenged in court.

Since then, Julius has quietly sat on the sidelines, observing both the curious changes to the neighborhood and the development of a viable and open gay community in the Village and elsewhere. You don't have to be gay to appreciate its unique place in New York City history. Just grab a stool and spend awhile admiring the bar's warm, lived-in details.

Oh, and you really must try the burgers. Did I say that already?

By the way, who the heck is Julius? According to one speculation, Julius was the name of the original owner's basset hound.

Michael Jackson at the Museum of Natural History 1984

Michael Jackson 1984: The singer relaxes at a New York hotel, preparing to visit the Museum of Natural History. Not to buy any ancient bones, but to be honored for two entries in the Guinness Book of World Records -- for selling the most popular album in history (Thriller) and then winning the most Grammy Awards (8). Thousands of fans stood outside across the street that cold February evening, awaiting Michael's appearance at the special black-tie event; the lucky ones who got to go inside clutched invitations made from single white gloves.

Inside the museum, Jackson was presented with a letter from Ronald Reagan: "You've gained quite a number of fans along the road since 'I Want You Back' and Nancy and I are among them."

Michael took several occasions that evening to step outside and meet his fans, staring bewilderedly from barricades in Central Park. According to Susan Blond, who organized the event: "It was unbelievably exciting. Even to this day, I don't think anyone has become as big a star as he was at that moment."

Michael's date that evening was Brooke Shields, but cameras were also focused on another guest that evening -- 8-year-old Sean Lennon, making a rare appearance without his mother Yoko.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mistresses and misnomers: the story of Gay Street

There are few streets in Manhattan as beautiful as Gay Street, that preciously bent path in the West Village that's been the home to speakeasies and scandals, linking Waverly Place to Christopher Street. Due to its proximity to Christopher, the original heart of New York's gay and lesbian culture, it also happens to have one of the most photographed street signs in the city.

A huge misnomer hangs over the origin of the name of Gay Street. To expose it, we need to go all the way back to Wouter Van Twiller's ownership of the land back in the Dutch days. Van Twiller reportedly had his very own brewery which stood on this very spot. Much later on, as part of the estate of Sir Peter Warren, a morgue allegedly stood here as well. Beer and death -- the roots of Gay Street! (See yesterday's story on the early origins of Greenwich Village and our prior article on the history of Christopher Street).

Before 1800, nearby Christopher Street was called Skinner Road and the area still retained a bit of its rural quality. But things were getting fancy over on Waverly Place.

(W.A. Rogers illustration above from 1894, courtesy NYPL)

The eastern stretch of Waverly is actually the northern border of Washington Square. Because of that, it became the hottest street in town when the city built Washington Square in 1826, and the street became lined with attractive Greek Revival Style homes. The birth of Fifth Avenue culture really starts here, home to the city's wealthiest well-to-do families of the 1820s.

Their horses had to go somewhere! And so Gay Street was built, not as a place for homes, but as a row of horse stables for people living on Waverly Place and other elegant homes nearby. Soon however, with the natural growth of the city, some of the stables made way for lower-income housing, mostly for servants employed in some of these same elegant homes. And in most cases these were African-American servants.

That's where the misnomer about the name comes in. The city officially named it Gay Street in 1833, although it may have been called by that name unofficially many years previous. It's popularly supposed that it was named after Sidney Howard Gay, a vanguard Boston abolitionist and editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard newspaper. However, Gay was born in 1818 and came to prominence in the 1840s and 50s. Although I'm sure he was an outstanding teenager, no way did the city of New York name a street after a 15-year-old boy.

Theories abound as to the real identity of Gay. The closest anybody's come to the truth is a classified ad found in a newspaper from 1775, an advertisement placed by one R. Gay who was selling off his gelding (i.e castrated male horse). The evidence is circumstantial, but does link to Gay Street's early history as a stable alley.

The first homes were built in as early as 1827 and the street was officially widened for residential use in the 1830s. Many black residents stayed on the street and it became a home for black musicians. Given the general artistic bent of Greenwich Village as a whole, it's no surprise then that Gay Street developed into a mini-haven for artists and writers by the turn of the 20th century.

With its secretive, arched appearance and deceivingly quiet demeanor, Gay Street also became a natural location for speakeasies during the 20s, including one at 12 Gay Street called the Pirate's Den, and possibly another on the corner called the Flower Pot.

That address 12 Gay Street has a hoppin' history. The building was owned by mayor Jimmy Walker, who kept his girlfriend Betty Compton here. A bit later on, the creator of Howdy Doody, Frank Parris, built his famous puppet in the basement here. It's even, reportedly haunted by an entity called the Gay Street Phantom.

Author Ruth McKenney lived in nearly 14 Gay Street best known for the book My Sister Eileen. Eileen, who was living with Ruth, died in 1940 in a car accident with her husband, writer Nathaniel West, a few days before a stage production of My Sister Eileen was to open.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Greenwich Village, when it was green and a village

Above: Macdougal Alley in 1936. The plantation home of New Amsterdam director-general Wouter van Twiller would have been situated very close to where this picture was taken. (Find the alley here.)

NAME THAT NEIGHBORHOOD Some New York neighborhoods are simply named for their location on a map (East Village, Midtown). Others are given prefabricated designations (SoHo, DUMBO). But a few retain names that link them intimately with their pasts. Other entries in this series can be found here.

Greenwich Village has been the heart of New York's cultural identity for over 150 years, the birthplace of city bohemia, where the upper and lower classes collide, the iconic outsider neighborhood between midtown and the financial district. It's been New York's home for counter-culture, gay liberation, artistic inspiration, musical innovation and groundbreaking urban renewal. No surprise that it was named New York's very first historic district in 1969, even as some of its greatest moments were yet to come.

But why do we even call it Greenwich in the first place? And was it ever really a village at all?

I should preface this early history of the Village by saying that the information below deals with Greenwich Village and its sub-neighborhoods the West Village and part of the Meatpacking District (which actually extends farther north). Despite its name, the East Village is actually considered separate from Greenwich, being part of the Lower East Side.

In the wild days of early Dutch occupation of Manhattan, the area of today's Village district lay 2-3 miles outside the border of the primary Dutch settlement New Amsterdam. That border is approximately Wall Street today.

Imagine the distance between it and 14th street (the generally accepted northern border of Greenwich Village today) as a gradually populated area of hills, swamps and streams, with only a few dirt pathways cutting through the meadows and dense foliage to lands beyond. There was enough farm land to go around if you were brave enough to settle outside city walls, with fears of attacks from both Indians and other Europeans.

To get an idea of how green Greenwich Village used to be, head on over to the Mannahatta Project and type in any Village street name (start with Washington Square North or any listed below).

Back in the day the shore of Manhattan's west side approximately lay along today's Greenwich Street; the rest is landfill from later in Manhattan's development. Near the location of Gansevoort Street today (yes, the Meatpacking District) lay the first village within the Greenwich Village area -- the Lenape Indian settlement Sapokanikan or 'land where the tobacoo grows'. Sapokanikan was essentially a trading settlement and docking point for many traveling native American tribes.

The Dutch took the tobacco reference to heart. The second director-general of New Amsterdam, the colorful Wouter Van Twiller, built a large tobacco plantation ostensibly for the Dutch West India Company but, Wouter being Wouter, mostly for his own personal profit. Wouter's plantation occupied most of the West Village; his own home sat on plantation ground, at around the area of 8th Street and MacDougal Street. The plantation would be named for the old indian village and also referred to as Bossen Bouwerie ('farm in the woods').

Below: Wouter Van Twiller's farm is marked #10 on this map by Johannes Vingboons from 1639, one of the earlier attempts at mapping the territory of New Netherland

Van Twiller was later dispatched from his duties as the colony's leader, but he did grant some of his slaves certain freedoms to build their own smaller farms, defenseless along the Minetta Brook (a vital stream that coursed through the region) and on the southern part of today's Washington Square Park.

Meanwhile, other Dutch companymen came to the region, including two brothers, Jacob and Paulus Van Der Grift, who moved from old Amsterdam to New Amsterdam in 1644 and into this lush area, "co-patroons" of an area that would become known as Nortwyck or Noortwyck (simply 'north of the city').

Below: from an 1874 water map designed by Egbert L. Viele, you can see the old Minetta Brook, which formerly cut through the Village district

By 1664, the year of the British takeover of the island, the area was essentially dominated by a handful of landowners who had carefully cultivated their property, but had not changed the general properties of the land.

With the British came further development, as well-to-do English citizens began scooping up property for their own lavish mansions. In fact, it became quite fashionable for the wealthier of British citizens, too refined to deal with the growing and quite crowded New York, to situate just outside the city. This is where Nortwyck, a loose assemblage of farms, becomes Greenwich, the domain of idyllic estates.

I've seen reference to the name change as reflecting that of the London district of Greenwich, a very tony British resort in the 17th century. But the name may have first come to the area long before the British elites did. According to the New Netherland Institute, a settler in the 1670s, Yellis Mandeville, bought a farm here and named it for an old Long Island Dutch town -- Greenwijck, or Pine District.

Once the wealthy British came, it must have seemed natural to simply alter the name to Greenwich, with all the upper-class and luxurious implications that came with it.

There were several principal British landowners of the Village area at this time. One of note, Thomas Randall, would own the area around Washington Square; later, his son Robert Richard Randall would bequeath the area to the city as a respite for retired sea captains and sailors. The city, seeing far greater value to this land for residential townhouses, instead moved the sailors rest home to the northern shore of Staten Island and called it Snug Harbor.

Another, Captain Thomas Clarke, would retire on property further north and call his mansion Chelsea, also named for a London neighborhood (or specifically for a hospital there).

Below: an engraving of the Greenwich Village home of Peter Warren (courtesy NYPL)

But the real forebear of the Village was an Irishman. Sir Peter Warren, vice-admiral of the British Navy and commander of its New York fleet, who amassed a vast land tract here in the 1740s, almost the entire 'Green Village'. Warren was without a doubt one of New York's more renown British citizens. Like the great old New York families that would influence society in the 19th century, Warren's presence assured that other British clans would race to buy up countryside to create Manhattan's first suburbia.

By the 18th century, these massive lots would be divvied up and sold off, as demand grew from New Yorkers fleeing the city to escape disease and overcrowding. In these years before far-thinking city planning, the Greenwich lots were haphazardly divided with unorganized streets. This urban chaos was preserved by the 1811 Commissioners Plan, which chopped most of the entire island into uniform blocks but left the Village in its uniquely confounding geography.

Still today, after so many years of living in the city, I routinely get lost there.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009

Underground: Pre-Stonewall gay and lesbian New York

Girls will be girls: lesbians in the 1920s

For the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the New York Blade asked me to do a brief article on the history of New York's gay and lesbian scene in the years before the riots.

You can read the article, entitled STONEWALL 40: Our History Before Pride and Rainbow Flags directly at their website. A couple paragraphs are excerpted below:

"The good times stopped rolling in October 1929 with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Forty years before Stonewall, a different kind of gay life emerged in New York City.

Prohibition was abandoned in 1933, but with the introduction of the New York State Liquor Authority, restrictive laws made selling liquor to homosexuals illegal. No longer hidden in a shuffle of illegal speakeasies, the viable gay underworld could have withered if not for an unlikely savior and curse: the mafia."

If you happen to find a print edition, there's a full page map detailing some old New York gay hotspots from as far back as the mid-19th century, including Cercle Hermaphroditis, the Pansy Club and the Slide. A PDF version of the entire issue can be found here.

(Picture above courtesy the History of Gay Bars in New York, a highly recommended website if you're interested in this secret and almost forgotten world of mafia-run, underground establishments.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Shakespeare in the Park: the drama behind the drama

What started in a tiny East Village basement grew to become one of New York's most enduring summer traditions, Shakespeare in the Park, featuring world class actors performing the greatest dramas of the age. But another drama was brewing just as things were getting started. It's Robert Moses vs. Shakespeare! Joseph Papp vs. the city! ALSO: Learn how the Public Theater got off the ground and helped save an Astor landmark in the process

PODCAST Listen to it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or click this link to listen to the show or download it directly from our satellite site

Looking down over both Delacorte Theater and Belvedere Castle. Joseph Papp didn't have much say in the construction of the theater, but he probably couldn't have asked for a more picturesque, more perfectly situation location.

Papp at the Delacorte: within a handful of years, he was able to tranport his vision from a basement in an East Village church to the world's most famous park. Not without a few speedbumps, however.... (pic courtesy New York Public Library)

Robert Moses had been one of New York's most powerful men for almost 30 years by the time he confronted the Shakespeare Festival. At first a supporter of the outdoor program, he soon turned on Papp and refused his permit to perform in Central Park.

One of several performances of Hamlet, this one from 1964, starring Julie Harris and Stacy Keach.

If I could take a time machine back to see one show, it would probably be the 1964 version of Othello with a spry James Earl Jones in the title role.

The old Astor Library, built over a hundred years before the Public Theater made it home. Our New York Public Library podcast details how the volumes once stored at this Astor institution were used to build the collection for the new public system.

From the 1972 production of the musical version of Two Gentlemen Of Verona, starring Public Theater regular Raul Julia. Like many Delacorte productions, Verona went on to play Broadway and win Tony Awards. Papp is kneeling far left. (Pic courtesy

Papp with actor Eli Wallach in 1983. With the Shakespeare festival and later with regular programming at the Public Theater, Papp was able to draw New York's finest actors and cultivate new stars in the process.

Patrick Stewart rehearses for the 1995 version of The Tempest.

The winding ticket line, quite a treat on a lovely day (and less so when it's not). These days, for those who can't or don't wish to wait, there's a limited virtual line as well. (Pic courtesy Flickr)

Visit the Public Theater website for more information about upcoming shows and how to get tickets. They also have a nicely detailed section on all their past productions.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How Erin Brockovich saved the East River ampitheater

I've always been a little fascinated by that small ampitheatre that's located in Manhattan's East River Park (near Corlear's Hook). For years it just seemed so hopelessly abandoned. In the past few years though it's been making a comeback, featuring the occasional live concert and offering a unique, leafy respite for joggers.

The East River Park is a rather unusual thing, a Robert Moses original from 1939 that features 20 blocks of artificial concrete extension to connect the original land purchase (too narrow to be a useful park) with the East River shore. It's the largest park in downtown Manhattan, larger in acreage than Battery, Thompkins Square or Washington Square parks.

Among its many Moses staples -- ball fields, paved playgrounds and paved picnic areas -- is the amphitheater constructed in 1941 as a nod to the neighborhood's most famous former resident, New York governor Al Smith, who had pursued acting in his youth.

However, nothing much exciting blossomed from its curiously designed proscenium until the late 1950s, which Joseph Papp first launched his series of free Shakespeare performances. That's right, the Public Theatre's annual outdoor tradition of Shakespeare In the Park began here -- at East River Park, not Central Park.

Once they left uptown for their permanent home, however, things became quite grim for the ampitheatre. By 1973, the city couldn't even afford to keep it open. It was fenced up, closed down and heavily vandalized. For those living in the city at the time who came upon it, it did in fact seem like a modern ruin, Robert Moses' very own Acropolis.

The park itself was slowly renovated throughout the 1990s, but relief finally came to the beleaguered stage in December 2001 thanks to, curiously enough, to reality television and Erin Brockovich -- the real Brockovich, not the Julia Roberts version.

In the months following 9/11, many restorative projects began popping up throughout downtown. Brockovich, rising to national prominence thanks to the Roberts film, was filming an urban makeover program Challenge America for ABC. Brockovich and her producers chose the amphitheater for renovation, done over the course of a week, using the donated services of Tishman Construction and HLW Architects. Why this place exactly? I'm not sure, but Rudy Guiliani assigned the project to the program during a telecast of Good Morning America.

I didn't catch the one-shot show, but I'm picturing Ms. Brockovich in one of her signature ensembles directing workman while standing on the stage. Truly one of the stranger stories of renovation that I've ever heard.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sarah Bernhardt's favorite New York landmark

Sarah Bernhardt may be the most famous and most mysterious actress who ever lived and certainly "the greatest celebrity of her era." Working mostly in the days before recorded medium (there are exceptions), Bernhardt crafted a legend matched by outrageous behavior and provocative stage performance. Naturally, she brought both with her when she came to New York City for her first American tour in 1880 to present the first of many signature roles, Adrienne Lecouveur.

The French actress, lauded as one of Europe's greatest commodities, didn't exactly crave a visit to America. Leaving for New York on October 1880, Sarah "was in utter despair, weeping bitter tears, tears that stained my cheek," according to her autobiography. New York had no such hesitation. When her boat arrived two weeks later into a strangely frozen New York harbor, it was greeted with smaller steamers, filled with fans and decorated with French flags. They feted her onboard in a lengthy, drawn out ceremony of admiration.

Her response? Feeling slightly woozy, "I decided therefore to faint." She fell gently into waiting arms, people rushed to her attention until "it was time to come to my senses again."

She stayed that evening at the luxury Albermarle Hotel at Broadway and 24th Street where she blocked her door with furniture to keep other well-wishers and journalists out.

Bernhardt's auto-biography is so steeped in extremity that you assume she must be exaggerating. Alexandre Dumas did call her a "notorious liar", but the fact that it took Alexandre Dumas to make that proclamation underscores the exotic circles and experiences in which she traveled.

She greatly distrusted the press who she believed willfully printed lies about her (even when the lies were fed to them by Bernhardt's own management.) At a press conference at the Albermarle later that day, she dismissed even the simplest questions, especially bristling when she was asked about her religion. "Oh Heavens! Will it be like this in all the cities I visit?"

Two days later, she arrived to rehearse at Booth's Theater, the tony stage built by theatre legend Edwin Booth (John Wilke's brother) and located near her hotel, at 23rd and 6th Avenue. Her reaction at seeing fans gathered outside to greet her: "These strange-looking individuals did not belong to the world of actors....with their white neckties and their questionable looking hands."

Inside the theater, she was finally reunited with her 42 trunks of gowns and costumes -- briefly and offensively seized by customs, a "chiffon court martial" -- and ordered her underlings to open and inspect each container. So horrified was she at the lowly people opening her possessions that she could only grit her teeth and stand in a state of utter mortification. In fact, the experience exhausted her so much that she failed to even rehearse at all that day.

She would later go on to interact with every strata of New York culture, some more friendly than others, appealing more to liberal minded (and daring) social elites than the stalwarts of Mrs Astors storied Four Hundred. Which seemed fine with Sarah; she didn't want to meet them either.

But for all her condescension that week, for all the superiority and righteousness, there was one thing that stopped her in her tracks. Believe it or not, something actually gave the legendary imperious actress pause.

It was Bernhardt vs. the Brooklyn Bridge, and the bridge won. In 1880, it wasn't even fully completed, yet in her recollection, it was as if it were bustling with traffic. "Oh, that bridge! ... One is proud to be a human being when one realizes that a brain has created and suspended in the air....that fearful thing." The magnificence of the bridge, its extraordinary scale, filled her with "a strange, undefinable sensation of universal chaos."

Yet she was able to sleep peacefully that evening, "reconciled with this great nation." And all it took was for something to make the mighty actress feel small.

She would come many, many times to New York and onward to other major cities. By 1910, her tolerance of America was enough that she endeavored to perform future productions in English. (Up until then, all of her performances were rendered in French.)

I highly recommend peeking into her pompous, overblown autobiography My Double Life (well out of print, although Google Books has a copy to review). Simply flip to any random page and get a whiff of her powerful perfumed prose. They seriously do not make them like Sarah Bernhardt anymore.

Below: the spectacular Booth's Theatre, where Sarah Bernhardt made her U.S. debut on November 8, 1880. It was located on the southeast corner of 23rd and 6th. Today the building there contains a Best Buy and an Olive Garden.

P.S. It appears that Sara and Sarah were interchangable back in the day. You'd think this discrepancy would have driven the poor thing to the fainting couch.

Lady Liberty loves her lucky charms

The Statue of Liberty, circa 1930, with its lawn decorated in some rather unusual symbols.

Have you got your tickets to visit Lady Liberty's crown yet?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Toots Shor's and the art of celebrity male bonding

So make it one for my baby, And one more for the road

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, every other Friday we'll be featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.

NIGHTCLUB Toots Shor's Restaurant
In operation: 1940-1959; 1961-1971; 1972-73

They really don't make them like Toots Shor anymore. A stout, gregarious man, back-slappingly friendly with a child's face, Shor reigned over one of midtown's legendary martini scenes, his very own eponymous nightspot that attracted the most iconic mad men of music, movies, journalism, and sports. (In fact, Mad Men, the 50s Manhattan throwback TV series, is often set here.) Shor's was where the world's most famous alcoholics of the 50s and 60s tippled.

Toots is a bit of a tragic figure today in that he really became a self-branded institution of a simpler time, an old-school, double-breasted nightlife dominated by rich white men. When times became less simple, he foundered and faded.

This Jewish-born Philadelphian made his entry into New York nightlife in the most obvious way for a man of his frame -- as a doorman to some of the city's most famous speakeasies during the dry 1920s. "A kid on the hustle," in his own words, Shor made 40-50 dollars a week in several places like the Five O'Clock Club and the Napoleon Club, where he would "flatten a guy a day, maybe two." Along the way, he befriended celebrities and journalists alike; most importantly he also made connections with the influential mafia figures who owned the night spots.

He eventually moved on to a management position in 1936 at a popular tavern owned by Billy Lahiff (158 W. 48th Street), acquiring from his famous clientele the confidence and ease of a celebrity himself. He even married a Ziegfeld girl, nicknamed Baby, who was a virtual pixie next to him.

(By the way, just three years earlier, Lahiff's served the last meal to Fatty Arbuckle, the embattled silent film star who died in bed that night.)

Shor moved on to his own establishment in 1940. Toots Shor's Restaurant (51 W 51st Street) would be an instant success, ruling for two decades as the neighborhood lounge for some of New York's biggest lushes. Most associated with the early years was Jackie Gleason, who would spend the day there drinking, go home and take a nap, then return to Toots for the nighttime crowd.

BELOW: Toots and Jackie and the ground breaking of his second restaurant in 1960 (Bob Gomel, LIFE archives)

You could eat at Toots -- it was a restaurant -- but, as the 1996 documentary Toots makes clear, it was all about the "whiskey and beer."

Shor would befriend many of his clientele, calling them 'crum-bums' upon entry, joking with them, creating an inner circle for some of the most closely observed men in New York. In particular, the restaurant was quite popular with sports icons (and, by extension, sports writers); for this reason I would describe Toots as one of New York's greatest sports bars ever. It didn't need memorabilia on the walls; the memorabilia just walked in through the front door.

If you were a Yankee, you came to Toots. Mickey Mantle was his most recognizable regular; Joe Dimaggio came in for awhile, until Shor called his wife (you know, Marilyn Monroe) a whore, a slight Joe never forgave.

Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra would frequently enter to applause. Supreme Court justice Earl Warren would enjoy a drink at one end of the bar, while the most notorious gangster in New York, Frank Costello, would be dining on the other side.

When it wasn't filled with icons, regular businessmen would hit Shor's for a lingering martini lunch. Few places in the city fostered such a tightly closed fraternity.

Mickey Mantle and his bespecled wife Merlyn, not exactly the most loving of couples, pull it together for master of ceremonies Toots Short, at right (1965, photographer John Dominis, courtesy of Life archives)

Along the way, Shor became quite well-known, a television star even. (That 2006 documentary features footage from his appearances on 'What's My Line?' and 'This Is Your Life'.) However his penchant for gambling and comping thousands of dollar of beverages for friends took a toll on his finances. Shockingly, he announced in 1959 that he had sold his restaurant. By the next year, it was demolished.

He tried again in 1961 at 33 West 52nd Street, closely copying his old formula. Some of his old friends even came back. But this type of nightlife was swiftly fading from view in the city. How could Shor coexist in a neighborhood with places like the Peppermint Lounge enticing people with the vibrations of counter-culture? It didn't help that Shor continued to have financial problems; his celebrity and mafia connections couldn't help him this time.

His new restaurant was unceremoniously closed in 1971 due to income tax evasion. He tried once more in October 1972 in a smaller place on 54th Street; it was closed within a year. Strapped for cash, Shor then sold his name to the Riese Corporation, who opened a small chain of Toots Shor bars throughout the city. Today, Riese operates such chains as TGI Fridays, Dunkin Donuts and Taco Bell. The bars had nothing to do with Toots, and what's a Toots Shor establishment without Toots? Eventually the notoriety of his name would soon fade and even those knockoffs would close.

Shor died in 1977, living with his family at the Drake Hotel at Park and 56th Street.

Luckily, Shor is fondly remembered today as a vestige of old midtown Manhattan, a starched precursor to today's more colorful party promoters. I highly recommend the Toots documentary, lovingly made by his granddaughter. Anybody interested in 1950s New York would be remiss not to spend a few minutes over a stiff martini this weekend in his memory.

By the way, his real name? Bernard.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

It's Belmont Park....by a nose!

And they're off: Belmont racetrack in 1913(Photo by Shorpy)

Two separate horses, almost sixty years apart. Today in New York history, two different horses won the Belmont Stakes out on the Belmont Racetrack, and became triple crown winners (i.e. victors of the Belmont, the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby). The first, Sir Barton, won all the way back in 1919. Many, many years later, in 1977, the thoroughbred Seattle Slew repeated the triple-crown victory, but with a twist -- he is the only undefeated horse to ever win the coveted title.

You may be thinking --- what does this have to do with New York City? The Belmont Stakes are held at Belmont Park, in Elmont, New York.

Here's the trivial truth: most of Belmont Park does indeed lie in this pleasant suburb, a quiet farmland before the Belmont racetrack was built here in 1905. (The similarity to the town's name and the name of the park and its namesake, August Belmont, is strictly coincidental.)

But a small portion of the park extends over into Queens, including the train station. One source I read said that this was done purposefully, in case laws on one side of the border or the other tighten in regards to betting on horse racing. Presently, there's talk of Belmont becoming a Native American-owned casino.

The Belmont Stakes were first held all the way back in 1867 at the long-gone Jerome Park Racetrack in the Bronx.

This year's Belmont Stakes, held last Saturday, were won by Summer Bird.

Below: regal Sir Barton

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mayor Daniel Tiemann, colorful man of Manhattanville

KNOW YOUR MAYORS Our modest little series about some of the greatest, notorious, most important, even most useless, mayors of New York City. Other entrants in our mayoral survey can be found here.

Mayor Daniel F. Tiemann
In office: 1858-1859

Once upon a time there was a village called Manhattanville, a small, originally Quaker community that planted itself between a bustling but still bucolic section of Bloomingdale Road (later Broadway) and the Hudson River. A remnant of the old village remains in the small neighborhood that shares its name today, north of Morningside Heights between 122nd and 135th streets on the west side.

Founded in 1806 the village grew due to its proximity to a major artery that led to the city of New York, but its fortunes really multiplied due to a developing port industry along the water. Together with its sister village Harlem, they grew into healthy rural communities.

In 1850s, the most powerful man in Manhattanville was Daniel Fawcett Tiemann. He was actually born down in New York, at a house on Nasssau and Beekman to German immigrants; he would later return to govern the city from City Hall, just two blocks away from his birthplace.

Daniel was the paint king of New York, a trade he learned from his father, working in the original Tiemann paint factory at 23rd and 4th Avenue (today's Madison Square park). He and his brother Julius eventually inherited the family business and moved it into the rural pastures of Manhattanville. Soon D.F. Tiemann & Company Color Works took up a dozen buildings and dominated the industrial character of the village.

Notably, Edward Leslie Molineux, later to be both a Union general and the father of convicted (and famously acquited) 19th century murderer Roland Molineux, was a clerk in Tiemann's firm and later a close political associate.

Tiemann had his eyes quite literally set on City Hall even at a early age. "I saw them building the present City Hall and we all thought that it was too far away from the business centre," he once recollected. Young Tiemann frequently reminsced of his glorious youth, skating on Collect Pond and later fishing in the newly dug canal.

BELOW Color me impressed: the Manhattanville paint empire of New York mayor Tiemann

Luckily he had very strong ties to one of New York's most prominent families, the clan of Peter Cooper. In fact Tiemann married Cooper's niece and would eventually became a founding trustee in Peter's pet project, Cooper Union, in 1859. (Marrying into the Cooper clan is always good for one's prospects, as Abram Hewitt also found out.)

His family background, business acumen and solid nativist appeal recommended him for public office, particular in the years when corruption and chaos seemed to reign supreme in City Hall, namely the administration of wily Fernando Wood.

In 1857 a coalition of different parties united behind unblemished, teetotaling Tiemann, including the 'People's Union Party' (composed of merchants), the American Party (a nativist, anti-immigrant party) and even Tammany Hall -- who had kicked Wood out just the year previous.

That October 1857, Tiemann handily beat Wood by 22,000 votes. It should be noted, however, that Tiemann's support was as much anti-Wood as it was pro-Tiemann. "If I succeed in the business of the Mayoralty as well as I have in making paint...I should be satisfied," Daniel proclaimed at his victory.

Tiemann inherited a nearly bankrupt city government, tapped dry with graft and unable to sustain itself. In fact, by October 1858, City Hall itself was actually put up for auction, and the wealthy Tiemman had to personally buy it (for $50,000!) and eventually gave it back to the city.

The new mayor did bring a modicum of reform to city government throwing out a few corrupt officials, including the laughably crooked street commissioner Charles Devlin. But Tiemann was fighting upwind and his political coalition immediately fractured.

Below: Tiemann's home in upper Manhattan

Much happened in the city under his watch, including further development of Central Park and the ground-breaking of new St. Patrick's Cathedral. But his greatest contribution is something we take for granted today. In a burst of common sense one night, Tiemann proposed that street names be attached onto lampposts for better visibility, as opposed to being stuck to the face of corner buildings.

His greatest claim to fame, however, was as one of the first voices that traveled the newly laid Atlantic cable, which connected North America to Europe for the very first time. "Mayor Tiemann to the Lord Mayor of London. Enthusiastic Celebraton of the Event of the Age. A UNIVERSAL JUBILEE. NEW-YORK IN A BLAZE. Grand Exhibition of Fireworks in the Park," boasted the Times headline.

Wood's supporters had never warmed to Tiemann and staged a comeback. And the paint king had even expended Tammany's good graces; in the election of 1859, they backed William Havemeyer who was mayor of New York before and would become mayor of New York again, 13 years later. But he would not become mayor of New York today. After keeping the seat warm for two years, Tiemann was replaced by Fernando Wood. It would be the start of a tumultuous tenure.

Tiemann would later become a state senator but his heart would always be in the family business. He settled for the rest of his days in a beautiful home (pictured above) built near his paint plant. He finally died in 1899 at age 95, a staple of New York life who had seen it from bottom to top grow from a port town into the biggest, most important city in the world.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Prospect Park: suicide hot spot in the 19th century?

Cue the organ: Prospect Park can be a lonely place at times

As I was doing my research for this week's podcast, I happen to come across a alarming number of news articles reporting grim and often grisly suicides that occurred in Prospect Park during the late 19th century.

What about Prospect Park made it such a magnet for numbers of suicides throughout the late 19 century? In the decades following the opening of the park, people came here to shoot, stab, hang, drown and generally do vicious harm to themselves, due to depression and despair brought on by illness, heartbreak or unemployment.

The reasoning is actually less suspicious. Parks were often the only place people could go in the 19th century to be alone and would have provided a peaceful respite for a troubled soul. Central Park probably has equally macabre statistics.

What I particularly loved about these early New York Times newspaper accounts is the sense of drama the writers give the stories, as if writing a mystery novel, not a news article.  The brief descriptions behind each death, however, give you enough of a window into each of these people's life to feel empathy for their depressing situations. This, sadly, is only a sampling from that era:

1877 Polish journalist Edward Kulikowsky, editor of a weekly Brooklyn paper and a "finely educated man," was found "lying sick in the grass," the victim of self administered poison. "A note was also found in his pocket setting forth that he had taken poison one hour previous, that he has smoked his pipe since then with the greatest satisfaction, that if the poison did not kill him he would take another poison."

1878 A man was found shot in the head one warm May evening at the 3rd Street entrance of Prospect. The victim still had the gun clutched in his still-warm fingers. "In his pockets were found 67 cents, a package of cigarettes and a copy of the morning newspaper of yesterday's date. On the margin of the paper were written the words, "I know I have to die, and I shoot myself."

1878 It's believed that distraught German immigrant Ludvig Von Stein eventually died from his gunshot suicide attempt at Prospect's Lookout Hill, his reason for ending it all being "that he had been unable to procure work and could not bear the complaints made by his wife on that account."

1878 Yet another "unknown man of respectable appearance" tried offing himself this year, only this time with a razor. Found with his arm and throat cut, he also had a box of rat poison in his pocket.

1883 An unknown man was found hanging from a tree at the southeast entrance of the park, "with a gray beard, a deeply-pockmarked face, and dressed in a blue flannel coat and brown trousers and vest." His body had been hanging from the tree for a couple days before found.

1883 A "young and respectably dressed woman" was seen wandering aimlessly around the park on December 11. Hours later her body was found floating in Prospect Park lake. On the bank nearby lay a "pocket-knife, covered in blood." Officers on the scene believe she tried to cut her wrists first, then more expeditioiusly tried to drown herself. Her identity remains unknown. The article takes note to point out, "she had no money, but in a pocket of her dress was found a lady's open-faced gold watch bearing the number 16,636."

1889 Another young man shoots himself in the head, this time in the East Dale Shelter. I find it interesting that the news report included this information: "His linen was clean and new, and his underclothes of the best quality. On the sweatband of his hat was the name Peaslie.

1889 young David Moody follows that grisly example, a single gunshot, "sickly from childhood...suffered from an affection of the ear which at times made him almost crazy."

1893 That now frequent sound of gunfire echoes once again, as an unemployed truck driver and Prospect Park neighbor kills himself one summer day, 'despondent' over his lack of employment.

1895 One hot July evening, novelist George C. Kelly dramatically cut his throat and jumped into Prospect Park lake. The depressed writer wrote under the pen name Harold Payne and had recently published a story.

1897 H.W. Tobias took his life March 1897 under a tree at the archery grounds near Prospect's 9th Street entrance. He also held a suicide note in his pocket, declaring "he did not want to live any longer, as he was subject to too frequent and too severe attacks of rheumatism."

1899 Hanging, shooting, drowning. What next? Poor Emily Goodison came to Prospect Park and took her life by drinking a container of carbolic acid. Passerby "Morris B. Roy....found her dying on a knoll in the park." Her pocket also contained familiar souvenirs of grief: "two poems, clipped from the newspaper, both of which were in a melancholy strain."

Is this rather grim feature of Prospect Park's history making a comeback? Perhaps.

Just this February, a model hung himself in the playground of Mount Prospect Park, right next to Prospect Park. (The hill of Mount Prospect Park was originally within the proposed park grounds before Olmsted and Vaux got ahold of it.) Instead of a scrawled note along a newspaper found in his pocket, this unfortunate soul left his suicide note in the most 21st century of places: his Facebook page.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Prospect Park: Montgomery Clift's final resting place

One curious fact we mentioned in our Prospect Park podcast is that classic film actor Montgomery Clift is actually buried here, in a quiet Quaker cemetery near the southwest entrance of the park. As far as I'm aware, entrance to the tombstones is locked, and its so cloistered away in the woods that it's difficult to find.

So why would a movie star be buried here of all places? The handsome Nebraska-born actor came to prominence in such searing Hollywood films as A Place In The Sun and From Here To Eternity. In 1956, Clift crashed into a tree while leaving the home of Elizabeth Taylor. (Hollywood lore famously suggests Liz raced to the accident scene and fished out broken teeth that were lodged in his throat.) His career was never the same after reconstructive plastic surgery.

Hooked on pain medication and driven to drink, Clift was found dead in his Manhattan townhouse at 217 East 61st Street on July 22, 1966. Clift was allowed to be buried here, quietly and with little fanfare, because his mother Sunny was a practicing Quaker. Still, these were the film actors; actress Nancy Walker planted two hundred crocuses around his tiny tombstone, reportedly designed by the same man who made John F. Kennedy's marker at Arlington Cemetery.

The hidden cemetery of almost 2,000 graves, on this land long before Prospect Park, used to be larger. The city acquired only part of it however, and thus the graveyard remains the only patch of private land in the park.

Look here for a map of the area.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Prospect Park and the return of Olmsted and Vaux

Prospect Park, Brooklyn's biggest public space and home to the borough's only natural forest, was a sequel for Olmsted and Vaux after their revolutionary creation Central Park. But can these two landscape architects still work together or will their egos get in the way? And what happens to their dream when McKim, Mead and White and Robert Moses get to it?

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The area of Prospect Park in 1776. This spot, called Flatbush Pass (and later Battle Pass), was the scene of a violent clash between Continental Army soldiers and Hessians employed by the British army. Part of the reason the park was located here was to preserve this hallowed historical war spot.

Egbert Viele's proposed 'Mount Prospect Park' blossomed around Flatbush Avenue, which would be arched with pedestrian bridges. This plan would have retained Mount Prospect. But what kind of a park has a major thoroughfare cutting right through it.

Olmstead and Vaux, meanwhile, opted to eliminate one side of Viele's plan entirely, expanding it south and west with newly acquired land.

The home of Edwin Litchfield, as it looked back in the day...

An artist's depiction of Prospect's tableaux-style natural foliage. The landscape architects wanted to 'augment' the natural beauty of the area. That augmentation included over 70,000 new trees and shrubs.

Arches, bridges and overpasses weave throughout the park, often creating fairytale like settings. Photo, taken in 1887 by Wallace G. Levison

Grand Army Plaza in 1894. More would be added to the plaza, giving it that ornate, triumphal feel -- not exactly what Olmsted and Vaux had really intended.

Young adults hangin' around the park, circa the 1910s

One of Robert Moses' more beneficial additions: the Prospect Park Zoo (as it looked in 1943)

The old Leffert's homestead did not start out in Prospect Park. It moved there when it was sold to the city in 1918

A current map of the park.