Thursday, September 29, 2011

Podcast recommendations: Scamps and Stewardesses

NEWSIES: The Disney film 'Newsies' is notable almost exclusively for giving us a singin', dancin' Christian Bale. But the glowing reviews for the new musical version, which debuted this Sunday at the Papermill Playhouse in Milburn NJ, suggest this version has more to shout about.

Suggested Listening: The original story is based on events which occurred on July 1899, a story we discussed in episode #105, The Newsboys Strike of 1899. [Direct download here]

PAN AM: Hopefully you caught at least one scene in ABC's pastel-colored drama 'Pan Am', the one where the hipster flight attendant (played by Christina Ricci) is whisked off the top of the Pan Am Building over a faithful recreation of Manhattan in 1963. Also lovingly reproduced is the space-age Worldport, Pan Am's UFO-like terminal at Idlewild Airport. If they keep giving us these exacting and glossy reproductions of 1960s New York, then I'll overlook some of the cheesier elements of this low-fat 'Mad Men'.

Suggested Listening: Pan Am World Airways wanted a little glamour to midtown Manhattan, but settled in one of the most controversial buildings to ever set in the skyline. We explore the saga of this much reviled building in episode #61, The Pan Am Building. [Download the special illustrated version of this podcast here.]

Afterwards, check out the history of Pan Am's unusual terminal in our recent show, episode #124 , Idlewild/JFK Airport. [Download here.]

PROHIBITION: The latest Ken Burns mega-documentary series may drive you to drink, for all the right reasons this time. Prohibition begins this Sunday on PBS, the first of three parts exploring one of America's worst ideas ever. Those with an interest in Prohibition-era 'Boardwalk Empire' should make sure they have Tivo.

Suggested Listening: We don't have a podcast on Prohibition yet! However we do discuss the effects of Prohibition on New York's trendiest restaurants and 'lobster palaces' in our history of Times Square, episode #118. [Download here.) And if you want to hear a tale about a very bawdy speakeasy fit for the fall (Halloween) season, give episode #91, Haunted Tales of New York, a listen. One of the 'true' ghost stories features some boozy Greenwich Village revelers who haven't quite left the party....[Download here.)

All of these podcasts are available on iTunes for free download. Look for our two feeds there -- the regular Bowery Boys: New York City History page and the illustrated-episodes feed Bowery Boys Archive, which features our early shows.

Pictures above: Newsies and Prohibition cover courtesy New York Public Library; Idlewild picture courtesy Life Google images.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Opium heaven! Fears of Chinatown, immortalized in print

Reading about Chinatown in classic books like 'Gangs of New York', one gets a sense that certain mysteries and legends about the neighborhood were already firmly in place. And nothing of these gauzy preconceptions arose to the public consciousness more than the problem of Chinatown's opium dens. In fact, no other feature of American Chinatowns would resonate more negatively -- or in the case of 19th century dime novels, more thrillingly.

The sale of opium may been centered in Chinatown, but it wasn't new to New York. It's believed that John Jacob Astor himself, a major trader with the Orient in the 1810s, probably brought Turkish opium to New York. (Edwin G Burrows and Mike Wallace even call him "America's first large-scale drug dealer.") But it was mostly associated with the Chinese that arrived in the 1850s and 60s, men from American western territories who brought it with them among their other unique wares.

Opium was a vice of choice for many white New Yorkers, and many became 'hop fiends', as described by the scandalized press. It was particularly enjoyed by New York's small, continental 'bohemian' class. By the 1890s there were more opium dens outside of Chinatown than in. Many others experienced the drug via its inclusion in laudanum, prescribed for various medical ills but frequently abused. But no matter; the drug's foreign, sinister qualities had turned the Chinatown of popular imagination into a devil's playground.

This was reflected most colorfully in the dime novels of the day. A precursor to the pulp novel and the comic book, the dime novel was obtainable entertainment for regular New Yorker, cheaply written and made, filled with adventures that leapt from the stands due to flashy, often brightly hued covers.

The first of these publications was produced a little over 150 years ago with Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. That first story also set the standard for using 'strange' ethnic lifestyles as the backdrop for adventure.

One of the most enduring characters of late 19th century dime-novel industry was Old King Brady, who cracked down on crime in New York's most vicious and dangerous neighborhoods. Naturally that brought him into contact with Chinatown's opium world.

In many issues of 'Secret Service', Brady and his young companion would rescue helpless women taken captive in an opium den, with chase scenes through the streets of Chinatown. As you can see from the examples below, depictions of Chinatown were broad, racist and wildly inaccurate. The phrase 'heathen Chinee' is often used.

These samples are from the Stanford University collection of dime novels and penny dreadfuls. I highly recommend checking out their website, searchable by themes, including New York street scenes. I've chosen a few below which recognizable place names, but there are literally a couple dozen that are specifically set among the 'Oriental opium world', often in basements or thickly draped parlors. For some reason, there seems to be a trap door in every story!

NOTE: Be careful before reading some of these captions. Needless to say, there's some racially insensitive language included within these old books.

This one in particular seems to revel in the highly stereotypical and sensational image of the 'tong' member with their wielded hatchets. Below it, a depiction of what may be some variation of the Hip Sing Tong (called 'ling' for some reason).

And I won't even hazard a guess to figure out what is happening here!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Notes from the podcast (#129): Manhattan's Chinatown

Casual posing at the opening of Doyers Street, circa 1900. (LOC)

I'm so relieved that we finally got to cover a proper New York neighborhood on the podcast. Since reviewing the historic shifts and events of a neighborhood are better covered topically, we hope there wasn't too much confusion regarding the chronology. Manhattan's Chinatown was a point of curiosity by the 1870s, but it wasn't until after the Exclusion Act in 1882 that the community really became a force in the Five Points neighborhood and a destination for some of New York's better known vices.

We pretty much hammer home that late 19th century Chinatown was a veritable 'bachelor's society' with few Chinese women. But that does not mean there were no Chinese women. Or for that matter, children, as evidenced in this photograph from 1913. [source]

The caption reads, "Sunday school after a visit to Chatham Square, showing Chinese children lined up by size." I'm fairly confident this was taken at the Mariner's Temple at Henry Street.

Pronunciation Proclamation: I'm a New Yawker by way of the Ozarks, so clearly my tongue had a challenge properly pronouncing many early Chinese names. (And Tom had a cold, adding to his difficulty.) Still, I think we did a pretty good job. For certain, I mispronounced Yung Sun Restaurant, the base of operations of one Sister Ping, when I said it the first time, but got it right the second.

For More Information: Speaking of Sister Ping, the best book on modern Manhattan Chinatown history is easily Patrick Radden Keefe's "The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream." It is a must-read for anybody interested modern New York organized crime.

A perfect summation of late 19th century Chinatown can be found in Tyler Anbinder's 'Five Points'. There are many great books on the early American Chinese experience, the friendliest to read being 'American Chinatown' by Bonnie Tsui.

Of our older podcasts, this show would be greatly complemented with a visit to our two most popular podcasts ever: Five Points: Wicked Slum and Five Points: The Fate Of Five Points. If you haven't listened to them, I recommend downloading the 'illustrated versions' of each of these shows, featuring pictures of the things being discussed that pop up on your listening device. You download on iTunes or straight from here and here.

Below: What wares await you at Quong Yee Wo and Co., at 36-38 Doyers Street, corner of Pell Street? [courtesy Library of Congress]

Friday, September 23, 2011

Manhattan's Chinatown: a tribute to the old neighborhood, and to the temptations of rich delicacies and basement vices

Doyers Street or 'the Bloody Angle', a street you might not want to find yourself on in the 1900s -- unless you were an opera buff.

PODCAST Manhattan's Chinatown is unique among New York neighborhoods as its origins and its provocative history can still be traced in many of the buildings and streets still in existence. Two hundred years ago, the sight of a Chinese person would have astonished New Yorkers, and the first to arrive in the city were either sailors or the subjects of tacky exhibition.

But with the first Chinese men setting on Mott Street, a new community was born, with thriving variety shops, cigar businesses and gambling dens alongside establishments of a more sensuous nature -- opium dens and brothels. This mini-economy produced social clubs and secret societies (the legendary ‘tongs’), and rival gangs soon spilled blood along the neighborhood's quirkiest lane.

And still today, modern Chinatown hides a few dark, startling secrets of its own.

ALSO: We give you a rundown of addresses along Mott Street and other places nearby. You can use this podcast as your official walking tour of the neighborhood!

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: Manhattan's Chinatown


For a lot more information on the Chinese experience in America, I urge you to visit The Museum of the Chinese In America, located at 215 Centre Street. It's free on Thursday and close to Chinatown. (Photo courtesy CUNY)

And here's the addresses of places we mentioned in the podcast, as well as a couple other locations of interest. There are other places on these streets of great interest, so please meander freely:

1. 50 Spring Street - Quimbo Appo's tea shop
Quimbo, an early Chinese success story in New York was in and out of prisons and mental wards later in his life. His son George Appo (below) was an equally notorious presence in the Five Points slums.

2. 62 Cherry Street - Ah Sue's tobacco and Chinese Candy shop
The East River docks stretching to Corlears Hook, where the first Chinese men (sailors) stayed in boardinghouses. This image is from 1876; Ah Sue's waterfront business was at 62 Cherry Street, near Catherine Slip.

3. Corner of Catherine Street and East Broadway
New York's first Chinese laundromat

4. Chatham Square
In the 1880s, the open area was consumed with elevated railroad tracks, quite a

5. Confucius Plaza
Built in 1975 and one of the largest buildings in downtown Manhattan outside of the Financial District. (Picture courtesy the pretty fabulous blog Iconic Facades)

Not mentioned in the podcast, Port Arthur Chinese Restuarant, at 7-9 Mott Street, circa the 1900s, one of the first banquet halls of Chinatown

6. 11 Mott Street - the brothel owned by Tom Lee
7. 16 Mott Street - original home of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association
8. 18 Mott Street - the first Chinese-owned building, and one of the earliest Chinese gambling dens

9. 25 Mott Street -- Church of the Transfiguration
Easily the oldest structure in the neighborhood, and home to early congregations that weren't exactly welcoming to Mott Street's early Chinese residents.

10. 62 Mott Street -- current home of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the unofficial 'town hall' of Chinatown

Mott Street in 1942: (Courtesy the Charles W. Cushman Photography Archive)

11. Columbus ParkMany of Five Points most decrepit tenements were eliminated to make way for this park created by Calvert Vaux. The park is a lively part of Chinatown today, particularly on the weekends. [source]

12. 5-7 Doyers Street - Chinese Theater
A regular source of entertainment for locals and the sight of more than few altercations between rival tongs. Bodies were allegedly buried in the basement.

2 Doyers Street -- Chinese Tuxedo Restaurant
Chinese had a powerful allure to the non-Chinese and to 'bohemians'. This restaurant attracted businessmen looking for an 'exotic' night on the town. It helped that the Tuxedo was near the elevated train. (Courtesy Flickr/straatis)

13. 9 East Broadway - Former home of the Golden Star Bar
14. 47 East Broadway - Yung Sun Restaurant, once operated by Sister Ping

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The sad tale of New York's first Asian female 'celebrity'

Meet Afong Moy, the Chinese teenager who became the most famous Asian person in America in the 1830s. I would not exactly call her notoriety enviable.

There's a strong likelihood that Moy (in the illustration at right) was actually the first Asian woman to ever step foot in New York. Early trade with China, beginning in 1784, would have brought New Yorkers in contact with the Chinese for the first time, but the traders and sailors manning the trading vessels would have been male. By the 1830s, it would have been rare but not extraordinary sight to see a visiting Chinese sailor in the boatyards and taverns of Corlear's Hook.

Moy arrived in New York by boat as well, on a trading ship called The Washington, owned by brother traders Frederick and Nathanial Carne. But she arrived in New York ostensibly as a possession, an exotic companion to a set of rich Oriental objects brought over by the Carne's for exhibition.

Moy, between 16 and 19 years of age, was brought to the United States as part of a national tour of Chinese treasures, debuting on November 6, 1834. She was garbed in traditional fashion and displayed among a collection of imported finery and trappings brought over by the Carne brothers. It's no surprise that her presentation was at New York's American Museum. P.T Barnum wouldn't own the holdings of the museum until the 1840s, so the museum, housed in the old almshouse in City Hall Park, was still in the hands of the Scudder family. (Listen to our podcast on Barnum's American Museum for more information.)

Above: Scudder's American Museum, in City Hall Park (Picture courtesy NYPL)

For fifty cents, the curious could observed Moy in her fabricated 'authentic' chamber; "[T]he simple foreignness of Afong Moy was deemed sufficient novelty to warrent her display," according to author James Moy. Of particular fascination to New Yorkers were her "little feet". (The New York Times called them "monstrous feet.") In an ad for a later exhibition at the museum of Rubens Peale, ad copy exclaimed, "Afong's feet are four inches and an eighth in length, being about the size of an infant's of one years old. And, to add to the interest of the exhibition, the shoe and the covering of the foot will be taken off."

Moy would speak to audiences via an interpreter, entertain with a traditional Chinese song, and, at regular intervals, would circle the room and allow people to observe her 'little feet' in action. Newspapers made note of her reactions, including her fit of giggles at seeing something so unusual as a left-handed person.

Although she did indeed tour various American cities, she seemed to hit every major New York venue of the day, including Niblo's Garden, the Brooklyn Institute, and Barnum's own American Museum, when it opened in 1842.

Not much is known of Afong Moy, which was not her real name. (One thing I'm pretty sure of, her name was not "Juila Foochee ching-chang king, daughter of Hong wang-tzang tzee king," as was listed in the New York Daily Advertiser.) She toured the country from 1834 to 1847, then disappears from the record. There does not appear to be a single record of an interview of Moy, or any letters or diaries. What we know of this singular woman is seen only through the twisted kaliedoscopic lens of mid 19th century public astonishment.

Top picture courtesy NYPL

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hamilton Grange: Alexander's home finally stops moving

After years of being planted in the wrong place and a lengthy moving process that literally plucked it out of a city block like a slice of cake, Alexander Hamilton's home -- known as Hamilton Grange -- is finally ready for visitors at its new home in St. Nicolas Park. The last home of New York's own Founding Father was opened this past weekend a few years after it was lifted from its old location near St. James Church. The house first moved four blocks in 1889 when the church purchased the famous house and squeezed it against St. James' main church building.

Visit the National Park Service's website for more information on tours and visiting hours. As an unabashed Alexander Hamilton fan-geek, I'm thrilled to see it back.  You can read my original 2008 blog post about the move here.

Picture courtesy NYPL

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mayor LaGuardia's former home and its sci-fi, erotic past

Above: Mayor LaGuardia presenting his weekly WNYC radio show from Gracie Mansion. He would carry on the tradition at his Riverdale home.

Fiorello LaGuardia, among the greatest mayors ever in New York history, died on this date, September 20, 1947, at his home in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx. He arrived at the lovely four-story Tudor home directly from Gracie Mansion, where he served three consecutive mayoral terms. This mansion at 5020 Goodridge Avenue, constructed in 1914-15, was built for famed magazine illustrator Arthur I. Keller.

Retiring from politics, LaGuardia resided at the quiet mansion with his wife and two teenage children, broadcasting a weekly national radio program from his office and occasionally playing host to visitors like Robert Moses.

Less than 15 years later, the old LaGuardia home fell into some very curious ownership.

Prolific science fiction author Robert Silverberg crafted pulpy space fiction like Revolt on Alpha C and The Dawning Light right out of graduating from Columbia University in 1956. But he also spent those early years churning out stacks of cheap erotic novels for quick cash, so many and so successfully apparently that, at just age 26, he was able to purchase LaGuardia's last home in 1961 and transform it into his own inspiration point. He penned several more sci-fi fantasies from this house, including the notable (and sexually charged) Thorns.

The author also wrote (under a pen name) the manual Sophisticated Sex Techniques in Marriage while living here.

Silverberg gave a little nod to the neighborhood in his 1972 novel The Book of Skulls: "How unreal the whole immortality thing seemed to me now, with the jeweled cables of the George Washington Bridge gleaming far to the southwest, and the soaring bourgeois towers of Riverdale hemming us on to the right, and the garlicky realities of Manhattan straight ahead."

Friday, September 16, 2011

A swanky, hip hop to New York's provocative Playboy Club

Manhattan's Playboy Club, at 5 East 59th Street

NBC's saucy new series 'The Playboy Club' starts this Monday. I believe it's set in Chicago, however I thought this was a fine time to revise and reprint an article I wrote last year on the Manhattan branch of the Hugh Hefner club, which was featured in an episode of 'Mad Men' last year. The original article is

In 1964, a salacious pulp novel was published with the title 'I Was A Negro Playboy Bunny," billed with the tagline "The beautiful woman you see on this cover was once a Playboy the startling story (in her owns words) of what goes on behind the doors of the wildest sex palace in the world - the New York Playboy club - and behind her own doors!"

The author, Anna English, worked at the New York Playboy Club, a Manhattan branch of the successful swanky lounge franchise started by Hugh Hefner in Chicago in 1960. The Manhattan venue was located at 5 East 59th Street (between Fifth and Madison), and, like those in Chicago, Miami and New Orleans, was famously a members-only club; you gained admittance by possession of an exclusive key decorated with the Playboy logo, described by comedian Dick Gregory as "a status symbol, like a Mercedes is now."

You would think Manhattan would have gotten its own Playboy Club earlier than December 1963, but Hefner had troubles getting his liquor license. "It is a shame that the biggest city in the country should have this sort of problem," Hef lamented. Due to the political content of the magazine (yes, this was back when people read Playboy), Hefner also had problems with the FBI, which he faced with aplomb, sending J. Edgar Hoover the following letter:

"Dear Mr. Hoover,
Hugh Hefner, Editor-Publisher of Playboy Magazine and President of the Playboy Clubs, has asked me to welcome you back to New York, and to make certain that whenever you wish, the facilities of the New York Playboy Club will be made available to you and your guests.

Therefore, at Mr. Hefner's request, we are enclosing a special Celebrity Key which will make it possible for you and your friends to visit the Club anytime during your stay. . . ."

(No word on whether Hoover used his gift.)

When the $4 million club finally opened, even some naysayers fell prey to the club's charming opulence. "The skeptics came to scoff and left singing the praises of the most singularly successful night club operation of our time," Hefner wrote, rather immodestly.

After checking in their coats, businessmen were greeted by sexy cocktail waitresses, dressed in the trademark Playboy bunny ears and cottontail. A young Gloria Steinem went 'undercover' at the New York location for a magazine expose*, revealing some of the more unsavory requirements in the 'Playboy Club Bunny Manual'. ('Bunnies are reminded that there are many pleasing means they can employ to stimulate club's liquor volume'.) You can read the sad, hilarious, thoroughly bizarre article here, featuring the excerpt: "'My tail droops,' she said, pushing it into position with one finger. 'Those damn customers always yank it.'"

Another notable employee of the Manhattan club? Deborah Harry, making ends meet in a bunny outfit in the late 1960s. Believe it or not, that's her in the picture, at right.

Yet the women who played the Bunnies often used the seemingly demeaning roles to their advantage. According to one New York employee, Kathryn Lee Scott,: "These were college girls and girls trying to launch careers and work their way through school ... These girls loved what they were doing and that came across. They weren’t bad girls. They were having a walk on the wild side in a very safe environment."

The upscale club also featured live performances, often male comedians whose schtick fit snugly alongside the club's racy dynamic (Bill Cosby) or ran hilariously counter to it (Woody Allen and Bob Newhart). The clientele was sometimes more famous than the talent; Tony Bennett, God bless him, was a regular here, and later one, one might see a Beatle or two.

The shimmery glitz and respectability of the Playboy Clubs (and the misogyny it embodied) faded with the 1970s, and by the following decade, New York's tattered hotspot was a joke that even People Magazine took a moment to poke fun of: "A large illuminated rabbit's head glows over the door. It seems impossible now to look at the logo without thinking of an automobile air freshener."

A revamped version of the club moved to Lexington Avenue and renamed itself the Empire Club, discarding the antiquated Playboy brand and its relevant costume accessories. Most shockingly, the enterprise hired both male and female wait staff! The club closed in 1986.

However, the coney-inspired erotic brand has made a comeback of sorts, recently re-opening in London, Las Vegas and other locations.

*Steinem's article was called 'I Was A Playboy Bunny'. I believe Ms. English's book was most likely a play off this title. A 1963 issue of Jet Magazine ran a picture of Anna with a blurb about the club.

Top photo courtesy Life Google images; bottom photo from Marlene44

Thursday, September 15, 2011

William Seward: a park in his honor, while sitting in another

Mr. Seward, with the best seat in the park in 1934. He does seem awfully thin though, almost like a certain president. (At least, some people thought so.)

This month marks the 135th anniversary of an extraordinary gift endowed to Madison Square Park -- the statue of William Seward. the former New York governor and Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, he's easily one of the most influential New York politicians ever upon the national stage. A master of backroom politics and a proponent of American expansion (best known for negotiationg the purchase of Alaska from the Russians in 1867), Seward died a revered figure, and monuments to his legacy sprouted up throughout the nation, from shore to shore.

In New York City, there are two key landmarks named after him, and they could not be more different.

The aforementioned bronze statue at the southwest corner of Madison Square Park was presented with the maximum of pomp and circumstance in September of 1876. The work, by Randolph Rogers, depicts Seward in a seated, almost languid pose, with unusual proportions. As has been frequently speculated, Rogers might have adapted an earlier seated statue of his, depicting Abraham Lincoln, and simply slapped Seward's head onto it. This is unproven, of course, but since Lincoln was Seward's old boss, it makes for amusing symmetry.

But the gathering admirers on the afternoon of its unveiling scarcely seemed to notice. Present at its debut was future U.S. president Chester A. Arthur, who would be graced with his own statue in Madison Square Park 23 years later.

Further downtown, in the Lower East Side, at the convergence of Essex Street, Canal Street and East Broadway, lies Seward Park, also named for the venerated politician. In 1897, in a neighborhood desperate for breathing room, the city condemned a cluster of tenements lining the east side of Essex Street. The fenced-in park was pretty much developed by private groups until the city intervened in 1903, equipping the grounds with a sporting pavilion and leveling areas for a playground.

But the real jewel of this park came in 1909 when the Carnegie Foundation placed one of its most stunning libraries here. By the way, Jefferson Street used to separate the library from the park (as evidenced in the picture above). Today, the road has been closed off and the space has been become part of the park itself.

So the development of this park came well after Seward (or the head of Seward, on Lincoln) was placed uptown. And really, they weren't going to place so a lavish memorial in the midst of so many tenements, were they?

However, Seward himself might have considered Seward Park the far greater honor. During his years as governor (1839-42) and many years following as a New York senator, he supported many pro-immigration policies that were considered extraordinarily progressive for the day. Naming the park after him was a tip-of-the-hat to these early risky political stances.

Pictures courtesy NYPL. (link to top photo here)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

An evening of cocktails, with tales of quirky characters

Thanks to everybody who came out on Saturday for our reading at Swift Hibernian Lounge, as part of the 4th Annual Lit Crawl. Swift makes for a incredibly atmospheric place to spin tales of New York history. Or possibly preach the gospel. Or hold an occult ritual. (Above: That's me behind the massive podium.) And it was really fantastic meeting afterwards with some of the listeners! We love coming out from behind the microphones, and I promise more live events in the near future.

And a special thank-you to Ed Hamilton, who followed up my tale on notorious mayor Fernando Wood with two terrific pieces about Dee Dee Ramone and Harry Smith (an icon of American music scholarship and, apparently, a budding Satanist with fabulous hair). Check out Ed's blog Living With Legends: Hotel Chelsea and his book on the famous place.

And thanks to the crew at Swift for the Gothic-inspired setup!

Monday, September 12, 2011

New York's oddest tourists: the Chinese delegation of 1911

Above: Chinese naval officers, with Mayor William Jay Gaynor, mounting the steps of Grant's Tomb, 9/11/11.

Workers at the Hudson waterfront awoke on September 11, 1911, to catch quite a curious sight in the water that day. It wasn't the size of the ship that struck gathering crowds or its loud, rumbling engines; after all, the Chelsea piers hosted the largest ships in the world, and military vessels frequently traveled up and down the harbor. But this exotic, 4,300 ton cruiser was from a world away -- the Hai Chi (or 'Flag of the Sea') from China, the first ever to enter American waters.

As the vessel sailed into harbor, greeted with cannon salutes from Fort Wadsworth and Fort William on Governor's Island, New Yorkers were most captivated by the bright yellow flag held aloft by the breeze, emblazoned with a "huge blue dragon, with big black eyes, a flaming red tongue and white claws a foot long," according the New York Times.

Docking nearby the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument at 89th Street in Riverside Park, Chinese naval officers met with city officials, as well as 150 Chinese New Yorkers and "a lusty-lunged contingent" of the Chinese Boy Scouts of America.

This dignified ceremony contrasts with American view of the Chinese during 1911. The Chinese Exclusion Act was well in effect, barring immigrants from China from entering the United States. Most New York Chinese residents moved here from the West, where they had worked just a generation before, building America's vast networks of railroads and Southwestern towns. And most were men; in 1911, there were perhaps no more than 500 Asian women living in New York.

The Chinese officers remained in New York for several days, finding entertainment and even meeting with Mayor William Jay Gaynor. The New York Times article specifically mentions that the Exclusion Act restrictions were 'waived' for the benefit of the Hai Chi officers.

Photos courtesy Library of Congress

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Bowery Boys live event this Saturday at Lit Crawl! "Scalawags, Scoundrels, and Satanists"

Come join The Bowery Boys this Saturday, Sept. 10, at Swift Hibernian Lounge (34 East 4th St.) as part of this weekend's fourth annual Lit Crawl, a combination literary festival/pub crawl taking place throughout the East Village and the Lower East Side.

The Lit Crawl is a free event featuring almost two dozen readings throughout the neighborhood, from 6 to 9 pm. Each event is about 45 minutes, then you go to another bar, grab another drink and listen to another performer! The entire schedule can be found here. I'll be starting with the first shift at 6pm.

Tom will be hanging around to join in the madness, but I'll be behind the podium, doing a short reading about some scandalous New York history. I'm honored to be paired for our little segment called "New York's Scalawags, Scoundrels and Satanists" with Ed Hamilton, basically the historian of the Chelsea Hotel and author of the excellent book Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living with the Artists and Outlaws of New York's Rebel Mecca. 

By the way, Swift Hibernian Lounge -- one of my favorite East Village taverns with a great back room -- is right across the street from the Merchant House Museum. If you heard our Haunted Tales of New York podcast from a couple years back, you may remember our discussion of certain ghostly events that allegedly occur there at night. Perhaps we'll invite the ghost of old Gertrude Treadwell over for a cocktail?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The first Miss New York, B-list beauty of the silent film era

Ninety years ago today, the Miss America pageant debuted on the Atlantic City boardwalk. New York's entrant was minor silent film actress Virginia Lee (at left). Although she didn't win the ultimate sash, she was given some kind of runner's-up 'professional' prize (the Endicott Trophy) on account of her celebrity.

In her later years, Lee claimed to have actually won the pageant, but had the honor stripped from her because a well-connected property owner on the Atlantic City boardwalk had promised the prize to his girl -- and she got it.

Regardless, the attention garnered Lee magazine covers. And catty scorn. Following the contest, "Lillian Russell called me up to tell me I would never be the beauty my mother was." [source] That would be the Lillian Russell, once the arm candy of 'Diamond Jim Brady.

Lee made a slew of films in the silent era but could not make the transition into sound. One of her most successful films, the Fox production Luck and Pluck (1919), was filmed in Central Park. According to Turner Classic Movies, in that film, "[m]aster crook "Velvet" Joe Grim nervously passing time in Central Park before robbing the Wall Street subtreasury, chases a squirrel up a tree when it steals his bag of peanuts, and there sees Laura White (played by Lee) on a runaway horse."

Virginia proudly proclaimed her lineage to Civil War general Robert E. Lee and claimed to keep a cabinet of his old uniforms with her. She lived to be 94 years old and died in Florida in 1996.

Picture courtesy the New York Public Library

Monday, September 5, 2011

Notes from the podcast (#128): The Conspiracy of 1864

A depiction of Central Park from 1864. The conspirator's cottage hideout would have been near the southeast corner. (Courtesy NYPL)

The year 1864 wasn't as pivotal to New York City as 1863 (with the Draft Riots), but it is one of the stranger years I've ever come across in studying the city's history, culminating in the failed attempt by Confederate spies to burn Manhattan's hotels.

There is one important context about the attempted burning that we failed to mention. You couldn't just walk around New York City in late fall 1864 if you were a Southerner. Because if intelligence claiming a potential attack on the city, any resident of the South had to register with the city. Our eight Confederate spies, of course, neglected to do this, and although they did indeed wear disguises and shuffle among different hotels to avoid detection, there is no evidence to suggest they disguised their voices.

A few other non-war events from 1864 that were not mentioned in the show:

Central Park was open to visitors but was far from completion. The new public space still felt remote to some New Yorkers -- of the human kind, that is. People had begun abandoning unwieldy pets or livestock by securing them in one particular area of the park, in the southeast corner. In 1864, it became an officially chartered menagerie of animals, one of the first official American zoos.

Also that year -- and quite against the original designs of Olmsted and Vaux -- Central Park received its first statue. The honoree? William Shakespeare.

The area surrounding Gramercy Park was well established by Manhattan's elite. Years after the disgrace of having a brother by the name of John Wilkes Booth, famed actor Edwin Booth would open his Player's Club here. But further down on Irving Place, on 18th Street, a modest grog shop opened in 1864 on the ground floor of a building called the Portman Hotel. Drinkers there were certainly gossiping about the war and the Confederate attack on New York. The tavern has survived through various name changes and more than a few drunken artists and writers (including, most notably, O. Henry). You may know better today as Pete's Tavern.

Some young men spend 1864 holding baseball bats, not rifles. The Brooklyn Atlantics were certainly one of the most well-known ball teams of the mid-19th century and one of the founding members of America's first baseball league. And in 1864, the team played an undefeated season to capture national championship. (To be fair, to the team they bested was Eckford, also a Brooklyn team.)

For More Information: For a nice overview of New York City during the Civil War, seek out the out-of-print The Civil War and New York City by Ernest A. McKay. Nat Brandt's The Man Who Tried To Burn New York takes a closer look at Robert Cobb Kennedy, one of the Evacuation Day conspirators. For a look at the conspiracy from the larger context of the war, check out Clint Johnson's A Vast And Fiendish Plot. And of course, the excellent website Abraham Lincoln and New York, presented by the Lincoln Institute, is worth a look.

The Show Must Go On: And finally, in full, here is P.T. Barnum's letter to the New York Times regarding the attempt by Robert Cobb Kennedy to burn down his American Museum.

"To the Editor of the New York Times:

In view of the announcement in the morning papers of the attempt to fire my Museum last night, as well as other public buildings, I wish to state the following facts:

Everyday from sunrise until ten o'clock P.M., I have eleven persons continually on the different floors of the Museum, looking to the comfort of visitors, and ready at a moment's warning to extinguish any fire that might appear. From 10 o'clock at night until sunrise, I have from six to twelve persons in the Museum engaged as watchmen, sweepers, painters, &c.

I always have a large number of buckets filled with water on and under the stage, and a large firehose always screwed on to be used at a second's notice. I never allow an uncovered light in the Museum, and I heat by steam from a furnace in the cellar.

As a proof of the efficiency against fire, I submit the fact that instead of "slight damage" being done to the Museum last night, as reported by a morning paper, so speedy was the extinguishment of the flames arising from the liquid ignited on the stairs, that not even a scorch is visible.

My own sense of security is proved by the fact that I never insure for one-third the value of the Museum property.

For the safety of visitors in the lecture-room, I long ago opened nine different places of egress, so that the lecture-room, if filled with visitors, could be emptied in from three to five minutes, and the spacious openings to the street in Broadway and Ann street, render mine, I think, as safe a place of amusement as can be found in the world. The Fire Marshal and insurance agents will corroborate this statement.

Very Respectfully,

AMERICAN MUSEUM, Nov. 26, 1864"