Monday, April 29, 2013

In Central Park, heated reactions to the assassination of Martin Luther King, while business booms at movie theaters

WARNING The article contains a couple light spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC.  If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode.  But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all.  You can find other articles in this series here

The 1960s were obviously momentous for American culture and for New York specifically. But that decade was especially strange for Central Park.

Olmsted and Vaux's urban oasis was a well-trodden destination for protest in the 1960s, a haven for "be-ins" and demonstration (with a little free love thrown in, I imagine).  In December 1967, agitated anti-war protesters even burned a Christmas tree.  Two years later, the first gay pride parade would also culminate here. (Here's some video of the second pride celebration in Central Park the following year.)

Almost 24 hours after DrMartin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, angered New Yorkers -- mostly students -- gathered for a rally in Central Park at the Naumberg Bandshell to honor the man's extraordinary life and to cope with the sudden, inconceivable loss.

At right: The unusual headline from the New York Daily News. This particular front page popped up on last night's show. Did you catch it?

The city was in a veritable lock down throughout the day, with many businesses and schools closing early on April 5.  In case you couldn't make it into the city that evening -- and given reports of rioting, many chose to stay home -- the ceremonies were actually broadcast by WBAI.  (You can download a recording of the broadcast here, courtesy Pacifica Radio Archives.)

Those invited to speak at the gathering were friends and admirers from a variety of fields.  Looking at the list of speakers, perhaps the most unusual one that jumps out is Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famed pediatrician and best-selling novelist. Spock was an ardent, high-profile protester of the Vietnam War and a friend of Dr. King's, frequently seen at his side in 1967 at war protest events.

Others who spoke at the rally included actor Ossie Davis and activists Florynce Kennedy and James Forman.  Perhaps the most damning words were spoken by Jarvis Tyner, chairman of the DeBois Clubs of America, who declared that Mayor John Lindsay was poised to send armored tanks to Harlem.

Below: Crowds cross 23rd Street on their way to City Hall. Picture courtesy NYT

Things got rather out of hand once the rally turned into a march down Broadway to City Hall.  According to the New York Times, throngs of students filtered down the streets, occasionally breaking windows along the way.  Trying to stem the violence among their number, others were heard shouting. "Let's keep order for Martin Luther King."

The following day, mourners marched from Harlem to an all-faith rally held by local religious leaders in the park.. (It seems likelier that this was the event attended by Megan and her step-children!)

On last night's episode of 'Mad Men', we see Don's own reaction to the tragedy -- going to see 'Planet of the Apes' with his son!  According to the same article, this was not an unusual reaction after the tragedy.  While other forms of entertainment saw a notable decrease in attendance, movie theaters saw no such effect, even with fears of a possible riot awaiting moviegoers when they left the theater.  "Times Square movie theaters reported either normal or better than usual crowds and both the Baronet and Coronet Theaters on Third Avenue at 59th Street said they had long lines of people waiting to buy tickets for the early evening shows."

The April 5th rally for Martin Luther King wasn't even the most unusual thing to happen in Central Park that day.  That distinction would go President Lyndon B. Johnson, who planned a surprise trip to the United Nations that day and touched down his helicopter in the park!

Friday, April 26, 2013

The many mysterious and tragic events that befell the Woolworths after constructing the Woolworth Building

The dramatic Woolworth mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery 

With completion of the Woolworth Building in 1913, the leader of the five-and-dime retail craze Frank W. Woolworth had his grand declaration of success in New York, widely feted and proclaimed.  His hundreds of stores would go on to define the shopping experience around the world over the coming decades.  (Their lunch counters would also unfortunately typify racial segregation in the 1960s.)  While there are no more Woolworth stores in America today*, you can still find many outlets with that brand as far away as Germany and South Africa.

But life took a few unexpected, frequently tragic and often bizarre twists for the Woolworth family over the next few decades following the completion of the Woolworth Building:

Above: The 'new' Winfield Hall in 1925. Courtesy Old Long Island

1) Fire at Winfield Hall:  While the family enjoyed a very luxurious residence at Fifth Avenue and 80th Street across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his wealth was better displayed in the mansion out in Glen Cove, Long Island, where his wife and daughters lived most of the time.  But this house -- a wooden, columned manor named Winfield Hall -- mysteriously burned down in November 1916.

And just as oddly, Woolworth had almost instantly on hand new plans for a colossal marble palace,  more in keeping with the many gigantic homes along Long Island's Gold Coast.  Think The Great Gatsby of the five-and-dime; in fact,  Glen Cove is just a few minutes over from Manhasset, fictionalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald as 'East Egg'.

The estate is reportedly haunted due, according to sources, to Woolworth's interest in the occult.

2) Single White Mogul:  In 1892, in the early days of Woolworth's business, he hired a young Brooklyn man, Hubert Parson, as a bookkeeper.  By the 1910s, Parson was Woolworth's right-hand man, thought of as a part of the family and as the son Frank never had.  In 1916, Woolworth shocked many by promoting the relatively young assistant to the role of general manager.

It then appeared that the notoriously vain Parson was attempting to actually outdo his boss, first building a bigger Fifth Avenue mansion than his boss, then, in 1918 purposefully buying a house in Long Branch, New Jersey -- named Shadow Lawn -- that was far larger than Woolworth's own Winfield Hall!  "If Woolworth bought a brand new automobile," writes author Karen Plunkett-Powell, "then Parson would, too -- complete with uniformed chauffeur."

After Frank's death, Parson would become president of the company.  Later in life, he would be criticized for his "extravagant personal lifestyle" during the Great Depression and was eventually forced to retire.

3) Death at the Plaza:  Woolworth's daughter Edna was a tragic and very tormented woman, marrying an associate of her father's who ended up drinking heavily and cheating on her. In 1917, at the Plaza Hotel, after reading a letter confirming yet another mistress, Edna put on her loveliest lace dress, sat by a window and ingested a lethal dose of poison.  Unfortunately, her body is discovered several hours later by her daughter Barbara.

4) Why You Should Go to the Dentist:  Frank Woolworth had an absolute hatred of going to the dentist, a prejudice that led to his death in April 1919, when he died suddenly due to a tooth infection.  Unbelievably, he died with his will unsigned, and all the money (about $30 million) went to his wife Jennie.

However, Jennie was having problems all her own, having been declared 'mentally feeble' and legally incompetent by this time. Of the will, "DEMENTED WIFE GETS ALL," said an unsubtle New York Times headline.  It's not clear to me from the reporting of the day, but it appears from description that Mrs. Woolworth was suffering from Alzheimer's when her husband died.

5) Gem Theft at the Plaza:  In 1926, the youngest Woolworth daughter Jennie, living the good life at the Plaza, had over $683,000 worth of jewels stolen from her room while she was in the bathtub.  "The thief displayed a shrewd knowledge of pearls," said the Times. "Alongside the genuine ones in the drawer were four ropes of imitation pearls .... [T]he robber scorned them."  The crime kept the Woolworths in the paper for an entire month.  The jewels mysteriously reappeared a week later and the man who purloined them -- a private detective! -- was arrested.

Five years later, Jennie's husband would then poison himself (another suicide) and die in his office at the Woolworths' Fifth Avenue residence.

6) Poor Little Rich Girl:  Barbara Hutton (above), who had discovered her mother dead in the Plaza, grew up to become something of an infamous party girl, thanks to an over-the-top debutante ball held in her honor during the Great Depression.  She was dubbed the 'poor little rich girl', fodder for gossip columns and, later, made-for-TV movies.  The heiress, never shying from an extravagant lifestyle, married seven times -- most notably to Cary Grant in 1942 -- in a life often marred by tragedy and physical abuse.

Most of the people mentioned above are buried in the ornate Woolworth Mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  The mausoleum is a tribute to vast wealth and self-importance, designed like an Egyptian temple by John Russell Pope, best known for designing the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.!

*The remnants of the Woolworth company are now organized as Foot Locker Inc.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Woolworth Building at 100: How they partied in 1913, with the "highest dinner ever held in New York"

The Woolworth Building at night in 1913. This extraordinary photo is courtesy of Shorpy, my favorite website of all time. Click here to see the whole spectacular version and to search their their archive of cleaned-up vintage photos. (You can find the original picture at Library of Congress.)

This is how they turn on the lights at the tallest building in the world in 1913:

At some time after 7 pm,  according the New York Sun the following day, "President [Woodrow] Wilson pushed a button in Washington last night, a bell tinkled in the engineer's quarters far below the street level in the Woolworth Building and thousands of lights [80,000, by contemporary accounts] flashed out ... to signal that New York's newest heaven kissing tower was opened formally for service."

As normal New Yorkers stared up in wonder at this glowing candle near City Hall, an electric vision that lorded over the dark hulk of the unloved Post Office across the street, a collection of wealthy men were gathered up on the 27th floor for a lavish banquet in honor of the building's architect, Cass Gilbert (at right).  The Tribune called it "the highest dinner ever held in New York." (The building is 57 floors; dinner could have been much higher but for tenants who had already moved in.)

Holding court this evening was, of course, Frank W. Woolworth, the man whose retail empire inspired the building's construction. Also presiding over the gala was Francis Hopkinson Smith, a close friend of Gilbert's who, several years earlier, just happened to built the foundation for the Statue of Liberty.

People toasted a true American entrepreneur. They toasted his visionary architect and his world-class achievement.  Many toasted the fact that both men, after years of arduous work, were still talking to each other.

It was a celebration of the filthy rich, possibly one of the most indulgent dinners of the Gilded Age.  In attendance were governors, dozens of congressmen and military men, judges, the police commissioner  and at least seven of Woolworth's early business partners.  A letter from William Howard Taft, a month into his post-presidency, elicited enthusiastic applause.

But nothing like the reaction when Gilbert stood up to honor his benefactor, who paid for the entire building from his lucrative retail profits. "I asked his bankers about it and they told me that the Woolworth Building is a structure unique in New York, since it stands without mortgage and without a dollar of indebtedness."

At this, the 37th floor erupted into "the big noise of the celebration."  Gilbert was then presented with a bronze foot-high cup -- a literal trophy earned for building one for Frank Woolworth.  Following the dinner, Boy Scouts -- patient ones, apparently -- then raced downstairs ten floors to the Marconi wireless station, where an honored greeting was sent back to President Wilson.

Below: The Woolworth and lower Manhattan in 1919, lit from a building in Brooklyn.  Specifically this was the Sperry Spotlight. You can read my article on 'the world's most powerful searchlight' here.

The Woolworth Building was an achievement of American capitalism and a fabulous symbol of limitless New York real estate.  Its technical achievements, impossible to imagine a decade prior, only reinforced the themes of the day -- money could defy gravity.

On the day of the official opening, the following ad ran in the Evening World (While April 24th was the ceremonial first day, May 1st was the beginning of the building's leases.):

Nobody would "forget about you" -- provided you took out a lease at the Woolworth -- but most importantly they certainly wouldn't forget the name affixed to this building. The Woolworth continued the trend of business owners who created skyscrapers as a show of business dominance.

Newspapermen popularized the trend -- for instance, The World Building, offices for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, was also a world's-tallest at one point -- and insurance companies and retailers would perfect it.  In fact, three decades later, the crown for world's tallest building would be taken by a structure in midtown Manhattan named for a car company -- The Chrysler Building.

The Woolworth was considered a vertical super-city, in an era before anybody ever dreamt of Rockefeller Center.  "You can deposit and draw money at the bank on the first floor; in the basement there are barber shops and a swimming pool, one of the largest in New York .... There is an arcade lined with attractive shops whose fronts are entirely of plate glass. Then there is a luncheon club, library and gymnasium on the 28th floor and an observatory station on the roof."

Woolworth's own businesses took up only two floors.  The rest were filled with such premiere tenants as Fordham University (its law school and dean's offices were here), Irving National Bank and even Columbia Records.

Below: A study for Woolworth's private office in the Woolworth Building.  Frank Woolworth was obsessed with the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, and his office was fashioned on a room from Napoleon's castle in Compaigne, France.  (Pic courtesy LOC)

Today, we might consider the Woolworth Building to be a rather elusive monument.  You can't regularly tour it, and its style, before New York's zoning laws, makes it a unique stranger within New York's skyscraper population.  You can't interact with it like Grand Central, and it doesn't have the personality of the art-deco Chrysler or the Flatiron.

But even if its nightly mystical posture on the skyline somehow fails to ensnare you, the Woolworth Building stands alone as an influence to almost every skyscraper that has come afterwards, from the Empire State Building to the Woolworth's old neighbor the World Trade Center.  Of the many grand visions born in New York before the 1910s -- the Erie Canal, Central Park, the Croton Aqueduct, the Brooklyn Bridge -- the Woolworth Building is easily the most effortless in execution.  And arguably the most duplicated.

Or as the Sun prophesied a week after the building opened: "The Woolworth Building is unique, it was explained. Its style of architecture is original in office buildings and there were no precedents or rules upon which to go.  The proportions have now been ascertained and will be available for the guidance of architects in the future."

 Photo by Alan Miles/Flickr

A couple other Woolworth Building themed posts in the past week: Cass Gilbert's three stunning prequels to the Woolworth Building and Before Woolworth: The early towers of lower Broadway at the birth of the skyscraper boom.

Interested in learning about the history of the Woolworth Building? It's our Episode 76. You can download it from here, find it on iTunes, or just play it below!


 And finally, I found this in a July 1919 copy of the New York Evening World -- the Woolworth Building as a possible air dock for dirigibles! (This never happened of course.)


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What a resume! Cass Gilbert's three stunning prequels to the Woolworth Building

From this angle, you can see two of Cass Gilbert's creation, the West Street Building and the Woolworth under construction.  View of his Broadway-Chambers Building is obscured by the building to the left. (LOC)

It's Woolworth Building week here in New York City!  The lights of Frank Woolworth's treasured office tower were turned on in an official ceremony on April 24, 1913, and the building opened for business on May 1.

The five-and-dime mogul reached for one of America's leading architects in planning his namesake tower. Cass Gilbert had distinguished himself in Minnesota before arriving in New York City in 1899 where he immediately went to work transforming the skyline.

Why was he given such a prestigious assignment to create the world's largest building?  Judging from his work in New York prior to the Woolworth job, there would have been few more qualified than Gilbert to create on a grand scale something so innovative, distinctive to Woolworth's vision and in keeping with Beaux-Arts values of the day.  Unlike another great architect of the day like George Post -- whose greatest works have almost all completely vanished -- all three of Gilbert's early New York buildings survive.

Here's the three buildings that helped him snag the commission for the Woolworth headquarters:

The Broadway-Chambers Building
277 Broadway

Gilbert's designs for this sturdy tower with a lovely copper top (now, of course, oxidized to green, just like Lady Liberty) featured a mix of brick and terra-cotta, some polychrome, a rarity for its day.

The building's new tenants required changes to Gilbert's original plans. The Domestic National Bank on the second floor, who happened to employ a great number of women, required an increase of accessible women's bathrooms.  And the United States Life Insurance Company demanded several large safes be transported to upper floors and installed.  Despite the changes, the structure was completed in a staggering four months.

Alexander Hamilton Custom House
One Bowling Green

The competition to replace the old Custom House at 55 Wall Street was the impetus that brought Gilbert to New York to create one of America's finest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture.  He was a heavily contested choice, as his designs beat those of New York firms like Carrere and Hastings (later to create a similar building for the New York Public Library).

The seven-story office -- more like a monument, really -- sits atop the location of old Fort Amsterdam, giving the location a sense of import with its four representative sculptures (by Daniel Chester French) of Africa, America, Asia and Europe.  Today the structure houses the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

West Street Building 
90 West Street

But it may have been his 1905 commission to design a waterfront office building on West Street for ferry operator and asphalt king Howard Carroll that secured his reputation as a virtuoso of the skyscraper age.  The building, to serve port and railroad industries of lower Manhattan, had Manhattan's highest restaurant on its top floor.  At the time, this was shorefront property; today it stands across from Battery Park City.

Gilbert would dabble in themes and styles with the West Street Building that would be further explored with the Woolworth Building.  No other building shares as many features with the Woolworth Building as this one.   Former rival John Carrere admitted, "If my opinion counts for anything I think it is the most successful building of its class."

Below: the West Street Building, the side facing into Manhattan. 

Pictures courtesy NYPL.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Recollections of the Electric Circus: "If you remembered much of what happened, you weren't really there."

The interior of the Electric Circus on St. Mark's Place. Pic courtesy Christian Montone/flickr

WARNING The article contains a couple light spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC.  If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode.  But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all.  You can find other articles in this series here

Almost predictably, a couple characters from 'Mad Men' finally interact with a psychedelic temple of Andy Warhol, in this case the nightclub Electric Circus at 19-25 St. Mark's Place, today the site of a Chipotle and a Supercuts.

As I wrote back in an article from 2007: "It became the East Village fuse box for Warhol's talents and those of his entourage, in particular the Velvet Underground and Nico.  The dazzling synthesis of psychedelica and glamour, of the Velvet's strange atmospheric music and Warhol's performance displays of lights and costumes, immediately attracted the scenesters to this odd little street -- according to the New York Times, "everyone from hippies to Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton" -- way before St. Marks would make its reputation in the 1970s with the punk scene."

An original ad from the Electic Circus, summer of 1967 (courtesy butdoesitfloat)

Since I wrote that article, many people have chimed in within the comments section to relive their memories of Electric Circus.  Here are a few of my favorite comments from those who were actually there:

"What memories.  I started working at the E.C. as a ticket taker.  I say working, but in reality we didn't get paid, we got let in for our work.  Like Woodstock, if you remembered much of what happened at the E.C. you weren't really there." - Being the Best

Below: Headline from the Village Voice, July 6, 1967

"I worked at the Electric Circus, 67-68-ish.  I was the fire-eater, and mime/clown, working with another mime named Michael Grando.  Larry Pizoni was the director of the circus show.  We had a trapeze artist named Sandy [Alexander], and security was a biker club called the Aliens (which worked, unlike Altamont).

Everytime I'm in New York, in the East Village, I stop on St Mark's and bow my head.  I wanted to have someone put up a plaque, but nobody in the stores knew who to call." - Richard Bluejay

"I was one of 5 or 6 people who worked at Limbo* for number of years across from the Electric Circus.  I was there at the opening night, and then on for a long time I remember we use to give discounts to the Circus employees so we get in free. Can not tell you how many times I was in there but it was a lot!!!!  It was great time back then.  Fillmore East was around the corner and Max's Kansas City was not far away.  East Village was where it was at back then " - Anonymous

A freakout-indusing video from Electric Circus, scored to the music of Frank Zappa: 

"I remember two things about the electric circus from my one visit in 1969. One was the fact that the walls were not at a right angle to the floor, which combined with the strobe lights and swirling crowd, made for a delightfully disorienting experience. The other was a dark room off to the side where couples -- or even strangers I suppose -- could sit and smooch. In addition to all kinds of nooks and crannies for this purpose there was a rotating upholstered carousel in the middle of the room, divided into sections, one per couple." -- Anonymous

Below: A typical crowd on the stairs outside the Electric Circus (pic courtesy Old New York)

"I'm so excited, after all these decades to hear from people who got to experience the the most amazing Electric Circus, as I did.  By far dancing myself into a dazed, psychedelic trance, while absorbing the magical energy of the Chambers Brothers sing 'Time', was right up there in my top ten of life altering experiences.  I was a runaway, living with new friends in the Village.

I used to panhandle on St. Marks Place, and spend all my money on clothes at the Limbo, pizza, and tickets to hear my fav bands, except for the times I used to get in for free." -- Sonny

Below: Sonny's jam from the floor of the Electric Circus:

"I can't remember exactly how I arrived at St. Marks Place that first night.  I had never been to St Marks Place and I certainly didn't know about Electic Circus.  I was just following a friend of mine who was interested enough in the new culture to find out where to go and what to do.

There must have been some kind of happening that night because the streets were full of people.  People were hanging all over the stairs leading up to the Circus.  And, you didn't have to pay.  We just walked in. I still remember it emotionally.

The big room was completely decorated with fabric amorphously draped on walls and spanning corners and cornices.  Projectors behind the fabric ran continuous short loops of films. Of course it was dimly lit so as not to wash out the films.  People were everywhere and moved mysteriously in the smoky dim light.  I was born in Brooklyn and had already lived a few years in Manhattan, but I never saw anything like this before.  The next time I saw EC the decor had changed. I never paid to get in because I was a member of the PABLO Light** show." -- Anonymous

* Limbo was a famed 'hippie clothing' boutique where today's Trash & Vaudeville sits today.

** That would be Lights By Pablo, a leading 'liquid light show' exhibitor of the late 1960s, frequently here and at Fillmore East.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Before Woolworth: The early towers of lower Broadway at the birth of the skyscraper boom

Next week is the 100th birthday of the opening of the Woolworth Building.  The classic skyscraper designed by Cass Gilbert changed everything about perceptions of tall buildings in Manhattan -- for good and ill.  Suddenly, towers could be as graceful and important as monuments, and as playful and enigmatic as castles.

New Yorkers were anxious to fill their downtown with glorious towers for business, to best their rivals in Chicago (where many of the finest architects worked) and to prove the city's grandeur to the world.

To that end, the New York Sun on April 13, 1913, ran this curious map in their real estate section, under the header "Rebuilding of Lower Manhattan Progressing Slowly."  The point of the section is clear;  lower Manhattan was filled with useless old, rundown buildings that needed to be replaced at once!

It was this push at the start of the 20th century that gives lower Manhattan its unusual character, with few buildings before 1890 still standing.  The 'canyon' of lower Broadway was beginning to develop by 1913, only to be further dramatized with taller, more dramatic structures in the coming years.  The height of the structures along Broadway and around Wall Street soon eclipsed those structures on Park Row and most of the early skyscrapers built further up Manhattan, around Madison Square.

Some of the buildings lining Broadway before 1913 included:

The Singer Building (149 Broadway), the tallest building in the world in 1908 (at left, with St. Paul's Chapel in center, photo from 1910):

The Manhattan Life Insurance Building (64-70 Broadway), the tallest building from 1894-99 (pictured here in 1895) There's an entire blog devoted to his building. Pic is from there.

The building being constructed in the photo above is the American Surety Building (100 Broadway) which is still standing today.  The building was constructed in 1896.  In the background you can also see another mighty skyscraper, the very Venetian-styled Bankers Trust Company Building (14 Wall Street), finished in 1912. (Pic courtesy LOC)

And the Trinity Building (111 Broadway), completed in 1907, also still around today.  It replaced a five story office building from 1853 that had been designed by Richard Upjohn. (LOC)

I love that most of the above buildings can be seen in relation to Trinity Church (79 Broadway), once the tallest building at 284 feet.  (Pictured below completely surrounded by skyscrapers by 1916, picture courtesy LOC)

All of these buildings pre-date the Woolworth Building and, of course, the 1916 Zoning Resolution that required architects to build setbacks into their designs.  In fact, in the photo of Trinity above, you can see the principal reason the zoning law was enacted -- the colossal Equitable Building, finished in 1915.

Next week: More on the 100th anniversary of the Woolworth Building!

You can read the New York Sun section from April 1913 here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dueling 'perfect babies' in Brooklyn and Manhattan, pageantry in support of healthy infants in New York

The exaltation of fat, plucky babies via beauty contests stems from a rather grim origin -- American infant mortality rates of the 19th century.  During the 1880s, as swelling immigrants and overcrowding in New York created harbors for disease and malnourishment, over one in five infants would die in America, with higher occurrence among poor or minority populations.

Although people have always adored looking at cute babies, the criteria for a 'perfect baby' in 1913 involved body form, fat and general disposition.  Baby pageants were a common place feature in Coney Island parades, with stunned and perplexed infants laid in small floats and pulled along the avenue to great acclaim.  (This second place winner from a 1923 parade doesn't look too pleased.)

Below: Annoyed babies on display in a June 1914 Grand Automobile Baby Parade.  (This is obviously a photo montage, and, by the way, the original caption for it is super depressing. Read it here if you want.)

In 1913, with New York City relishing the results of two decades of City Beautiful architecture, so too did they honor the beauty of their offspring.  It even offered an opportunity to rekindle the famous Manhattan-Brooklyn rivalry that so made the Consolidation of 1898 so contentious, when, on April 17, 1913, the New York World declared that the winner of a Manhattan Perfect Baby contest had been challenged by a Brooklyn tot.

Young nine-month-old Joseph Keller (at right), residing with his German-Irish family at West 136th Street in Manhattan, won a contest held by a local public school, in a culmination of the city's Better Babies Week, an effort by public health advocates to promote infant health, providing 'milk stations' and doctor consultations throughout the city.

The unabashed celebration of gorgeous children -- with a mind towards public education -- electrified the city.  The program was such a success that it was greatly expanded the following year.  "Baby week has done to New York's attitude towards babies what a large, active firecracker placed under the chair of a dozing grandfather might be expected to do," said one journal in 1914.

Keller was chosen from dozens of babies whose mothers showed up at a milk station during Better Babies festivities. Babies were evaluated based on precise guidelines, almost as one judges an animal at the Westminster Dog Show.

According to the New York Times, the scorecard used to judge Keller and the other babies in 1913 included the following criteria:  height, weight, circumference of chest, circumference of abdomen, symmetry, quality of skin and fat, quality of muscles, bones, length of head, shape and size of lips, shape and potency of nose, disposition, energy and attention.

Another article makes note, to the detriment of Mr. Keller, that "it was not the prettiest baby that got the prize" but rather one with the healthiest and most ideal physique.

But the mother of Bernard Lipschitz, of 1526 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, begged to differ.  "In Brooklyn, there are babies that can equal if not excel the record set by the prize winner Joseph Keller," she said to the Evening World in an article on April 17, 1913.

"He certainly looks like a prize winner!" the Evening World remarked of Lipschitz, regaling his superior qualifications.  In every aesthetic but one, baby Lipschitz was the superior candidate, with Keller's only saving grace being his number of teeth -- 6 to Bernard's 2 . "Let Joseph hug that consolation to his soul." [source]

And now, one hundred years later, what say you -- Joseph vs. Bernard?

Below: From the 1914 baby drive, heavily supported by new mayor John Purroy Mitchel.

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library, except for images of Joseph and Bernard.

Monday, April 15, 2013

'Mad Men' notes: New York City on January 31, 1968

A press photo from Hair, the hottest show in town in early 1968, photographer Kenn Duncan

WARNING The article contains a couple light spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC.  If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode.  But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all.  You can find other articles in this series here

Don Draper and the gang were too busy with their mistresses and their 'self-immolating' pitch meetings to properly react to the headlines of the day on January 31, 1968.  Word of the U.S. military's devastating setback -- today called the Tet Offensive -- only briefly interrupted dinner conversation; by the time Draper's dinner companion ordered steak diavolo, the subject had floated to another table.

In the year 1968, it will be become increasingly difficult to tune out the world.  Pete Campbell, with blank eyes, tunes into Johnny Carson, who has devoted his entire show that evening debating New Orleans district attourney Jim Garrison regarding the assassination of JFK.  Garrison was readying a case against Clay Shaw for conspiracy to kill the president (he was acquitted):

The most vibrant movements in the city involved protest and aggravation. The hottest show off-Broadway, Hair, was prepping for its official Broadway opening that April.  Hair was the very first musical to ever transfer from off-Broadway to Broadway.

What else is going on in January 31, 1968?

--  The finishing touches are placed on the new Madison Square Garden which will open a couple weeks later, on February 11. A few seasons ago, the admen of Sterling Cooper took to wooing the organizers of MSG who were prepping the destruction of Penn Station.  All traces were gone by 1968, replaced with the  drab concrete cylinder which presently sits at 34th Street.

-- And things were brewing below it as well.  The following day, New York's two largest train companies -- Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central Railroad -- announced their merger to form the eventually-named Penn Central.  This would eventually incorporate other services, including Pete Campbell's favorite train. And it would all go bankrupt by 1970!

-- The number one song that week? The parody number 'Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)" by John Fred and the Playboys.

-- The number one film that week was the throwback Western Firecreek.  This was a rare lapse into the traditional, as most filmgoers were talking about two other big releases -- Planet of the Apes and The Graduate.

-- In a sign of protest (and grim foreboding), the head of the city's anti-poverty programs George Nicolau resigned out of frustration with lack of support from the federal government.  [source]

-- Has somebody shown this to Betty? The cover of Life Magazine that week presented an expose on 'dangerous diet pills'. The picture below grandly illustrates the problem.  (This issue from the week before is actually seen on a coffee table in this episode.)

-- But never fear. The New York Times fashion section announces a fabulous trend -- dress the entire family as cosmonauts, courtesy Pierre Cardin! "The era of the fully fashion-coordinated family is at hands," they declare.  You could buy this extraordinary set of garments at Bonwit Teller at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street

(Edit: A prior version of this story listed the address at Fifth Avenue and 38th Street, next to the still-surviving Lord & Taylor. It was indeed there for two decades, but by 1930, it had moved to the tonier uptown address.) [source]

Friday, April 12, 2013

A chat with Matthew Goodman, author of 'Eighty Days'

So how do you follow two journalists around the world, in opposite directions and from the vantage of almost 125 years in the future?  I asked Matthew Goodman, the author of "Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World," this month's Bowery Boys Book of the Month, about the two competitors and the challenges of Victorian era travel.

Bowery Boys: So just how insane was it for a woman to travel alone around the world – not to mention two women, going in the opposite direction? How many traditions of propriety were they shattering by accomplishing this?  

Matthew Goodman:  By 1888 Nellie Bly had established herself as a star reporter for The World, Joseph Pulitzer’s widely read newspaper.  But when she went to her editors to propose a solo race around the world to beat Phileas Fogg’s eighty-day mark, the idea was soundly rejected.

This was a time, after all, when male newspaper editors didn’t feel comfortable sending their female reporters across the city, much less around the world.   Editors didn’t think it was appropriate for a female reporter to go out by herself out night, or in the rain, or into tenements or dancehalls or barrooms or wherever else a story might lead them, much less consort with criminals and policemen and other unsavory characters.  Such behavior was considered improper, undignified, unseemly – in a word, unladylike.

Moreover, any woman attempting to travel around the world would surely require a battery of steamer trunks, to carry all of the ball gowns and so forth that, of course, she would require. And so, when Bly proposed her trip, The World’s business manager told her firmly, “Only a man can do this.” (To which Bly just as firmly replied, “Very well, then. Send your man, and I will start the same day for some other newspaper and I’ll beat him.”)

A year later, when The World’s circulation had started to decline, Bly’s editors finally gave her permission to set out around the world. To do so, Bly insisted on carrying everything she would need for her trip in a single handbag, measuring sixteen by seven inches at its base. Not only did she want her travel to be as efficient as possible, she also wanted to give the lie to the time-worn notion that a woman required more luggage to travel than did a man. (That leather bag would eventually become iconic, and today it is on public display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.)

BB:  Nellie Bly is of course a classic figure of the Victorian era but Elizabeth Bisland is relatively unknown. Were there any challenges in bringing Bisland’s tale up to the pace of Nellie’s – the more familiar of the two tales?

MG:  I knew right from the beginning that I wanted this to be a double narrative – half of it told from Nellie Bly’s point of view, half of it from Elizabeth Bisland’s. Which meant that Bisland’s story would need to be just as richly detailed and compelling as Bly’s – a challenge, as you point out, given that no one had ever written any substantial account of her life and she is today almost entirely unremembered.

So I set to work attempting to learn everything that there was to know about Elizabeth Bisland. Fortunately, Bisland had written a book about her race around the world (as had Bly), so I read that first.  Then I read everything else she had ever written – which included a novel and several collections of essays, as well as many dozens of newspaper articles. On the Internet I tracked down a number of her descendants, and they generously shared with me unpublished family histories, letters, photographs, and newspaper clippings about their beloved ancestor.

At left: Elizabeth Bisland, from her book written about her journey called A Flying Trip Around The World

At Tulane University I discovered a little-known trove of Bisland’s letters from the last years of her life, which filled in a lot of details that even her family members didn’t know. Over time I was able to develop a very strong sense of who this remarkable woman was; as it turned out, she was this incredibly erudite, cosmopolitan poet and essayist who had grown up on a ruined Louisiana plantation (where, for instance, she taught herself French as she churned butter so that she could read Rousseau’s Confessions in the original language!), who wrote gorgeously but whose books are all, sadly, out of print.

She is someone who deserves to be far better remembered than she is, and if Eighty Days can bring her to the attention of a new generation of readers, then I’ll be extremely gratified.

Above: One of dozens of issues of the New York World that used Bly and her adventures to sell papers -- before, during and after the race!

BB:  The two travelers take nearly the very same path across the world, from opposite directions of course. I love the exact moment in the book where their paths cross (although of course they never realize it). Were Bly and Bisland driven by similar desires – competition, fame, or the chance to make history perhaps? 

MG:  One of the things I loved about writing this book was that the two main characters – while both pioneering young female journalists – were so different from each other.  Nellie Bly was this scrappy, ambitious, driven investigative reporter from coal country in western Pennsylvania, who always sought out the most sensational news stories; Elizabeth Bisland was a genteel, elegant poet from New Orleans who derided most newspaper reporting as “a caricature of life.” Bisland hosted literary teas in her little apartment on Fourth Avenue; Bly was a regular at O’Rourke’s saloon on the Bowery!

And their very different personalities were reflected in their attitudes toward the race itself.  Bly was deeply competitive (it was part of what made her such a good newspaperwoman), and she was desperate to win the race – she was constantly worrying about schedules and departure times, and was constantly urging ships’ captains to make more speed. On more than one occasion she was heard to say that she would rather die than return to New York behind time.

For Bisland, on the other hand, the trip became an opportunity to see the world, which she would not have had otherwise. She fell in love especially with Japan, to which she returned twice later in life.  In her subsequent book about the trip, she never once used the word “race” to describe it, preferring the word “journey.”  Bly sought out the celebrity that came from the race, immediately embarking on a forty-city lecture tour; Bisland, wanting to escape the public’s attention, sailed to England, where she lived for a year.   She later wrote that she wanted to live the rest of her life in such a way that her name would never again appear in a newspaper headline.

Above: The New York World Building, completed in 1890, the year Bly completed her trip around the globe.

BB:  Your last book The Sun and The Moon was about a fabulous New York media hoax.  In Eighty Days, the publications in question are in fact recounting real events.  But I cannot imagine, given the ethics of the day, that everything you were discovering in them about Bly and Bisland was completely accurate.  Did you find anything unusual in your research about these publications’ treatment of the race? 

MG:  Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of the initial coverage of the race was rife with mistakes, as New York’s newspapers, caught unawares by the story, tried to pin down just who these two young women were.

For instance, one newspaper claimed, confusingly, that both reporters were being paid by The World (why that paper would send two competitors around the world was not explained). The Tribune even ran a story that claimed that not two but three reporters were racing around the world!

The more substantial inaccuracies, though, were to be found in The World’s own stories about Nellie Bly.   Bly and The World jointly participated in a kind of mythologizing of their star reporter, creating an air-brushed portrait of a plucky, independent, light-hearted, pretty, energetic young American woman – just the sort of heroine the paper’s readers wanted.  Indeed, the most egregious rewriting of Bly’s history came in a story – surely approved by Bly herself – that promised “an authentic biography of The World’s globe-girdler.”

BB:   There should be a side project where you yourself trace the steps of Bly and Bisland, approximating their forms of transportation (no airplanes!)  Is that technically possible and how long do you think it take you – or would you have the stamina of your two heroines? 

MG:  My sense is that it would be technically possible. (I seem to recall a PBS series of some years ago in which Michael Palin, of “Monty Python” fame, traveled around the world in such a manner and accomplished the feat in just under eighty days.)

It would be possible, however, for someone other than I.  I do love to travel, and would very much love to go to many of the places Bly and Bisland visited – such as Hong Kong or Sri Lanka, not to mention Jules Verne’s estate in Amiens, France – but after a few weeks spent aboard ship or in a railway carriage, I’m pretty sure I’d start planning my return to dear old Brooklyn.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Amazing Race: In 'Eighty Days' Nellie Bly tries to outdo Jules Verne while a New Orleans writer vows to beat both

Greetings from Columbo, Ceylon, one of the many glamorous destinations you'll visit in Matthew Goodman's new book.

BOWERY BOYS BOOK OF THE MONTH Each month I'll pick a book -- either brand new or old, fiction or non-fiction -- that offers an intriguing take on New York City history, something that uses history in a way that's uniquely unconventional or exposes a previously unseen corner of our city's complicated past.  Then over the next month, I'll run an article or two about some of historical themes that are brought up in the selection. 

Eighty Days: 
Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around The World
by Matthew Goodman
Ballantine Books

One under appreciated facet of the Gilded Age is Western civilization's almost addictive need to push its innovations past their upper limits within the framework of a literal competition -- not just in mere quest for improvement, but in a tangible victory over its lessers.  Beauty, in a machine, meant winning.

The value of human life became secondary in the furious race of locomotives crossing vast plains of the United States, or of cross-country automobile competitions over terrain hardly suited for rubber tires, or later the famed air races of early aviation daredevils.

Speed was perfection, but it also came attached with cash prizes (from newspaper moguls or sponsors who benefited from the technology), ticker-tape parades and instant fame.

In 1873, well before the first automobiles and airplanes, one well-noticed gauntlet was thrown by the French writer Jules Verne, who created the character of Phileas Fogg, then sent him "Around the World In Eighty Days."  The hugely popular novel celebrated both primitive and modern forms of transportation, but a principal theme was the value of speed and modern man's victory over distance.  The world, already prevailed over by the interests of empire, could now be circumnavigated.

But could this feat be performed by an actual human? And, more daring still, could it be done by a woman?

In Matthew Goodman's breathless, exotic new history Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around The World, two extraordinary woman attempt to meet Verne's challenge.  Or rather, challenges made by their New York editors, inspired by Verne's best-selling novel and dazzled by the possibilities of an impossible quest creating splashy headlines to sell newspapers in 1889.

You are most likely familiar with Bly, the vanguard young journalist best known for her daring exposes for the New York World.  Posing as a patient in Blackwell's Island's lunatic asylum in 1887, Bly revealed deep-seeded abuses within the system.  Almost as importantly, Bly helped define investigative journalism along the lines of stunt work.  She was a Victorian era reality star of sorts, fearlessly defying conventions.

On November 14, 1889, Bly began her quest to beat Phileas Fogg, boarding a steamer for England on her way around the globe. What she did not know then is that the race to beat a fictional character had now been joined by somebody quite real -- the journalist Elizabeth Bisland (pictured at left).

A native of New Orleans and a habitue of New York literary salons, Bisland was assigned to take a similar journey by her editor at The Cosmopolitan (precursor to today's Cosmopolitan magazine).  With less than a day's notice, he sent Bisland on a trip around the world on the same day -- and going in the opposite direction.

Eighty Days is a tale of stops and starts, of telegraph offices and train stations, of foreign places narrowly observed by its two competitors.  Luckily, Goodman doesn't leave you sitting with the two women, who are sometimes too tired, too rushed or too incurious to explore their surroundings.

With beautiful prose, like a craning camera, Goodman provides sumptuous detail to these fantastic and sometimes mysterious worlds -- Hong Kong, Brindisi, San Francisco, Yokohama, the towns along the Suez Canal.

It becomes very clear that this is indeed a trip around the world, but along a fairly narrow band anchored by British ports.  Bly cannot stand the British;  Bisland comes to adore them.  Their personalities are reflected in their empathy.  Bisland mourns a nameless Chinese man who has died aboard her ship.  Bly, at times surprisingly unconcerned of certain conditions, buys a rowdy monkey who accompanies her for the last leg of her trip, to the great alarm of baggage handlers.  Bisland seems the more introspective, Bly the more entertaining companion.

I hate to conjure reality television for a second time in this review, but the competition within Eighty Days, so well paced by Goodman, really comes down to making connections, as often illustrated in CBS's "The Amazing Race."  Again, it comes down to the alleged speed of certain vessels, whether they arrive on time, and the abilities of Bly and Bisland to maneuver through foreign countries -- many times unaccompanied -- to arrive at their next destination.

At right: Nellie Bly, ready for action!

Eighty Days is a romp around the planet, but it returns periodically to Park Row in New York, where Bly's newspaper has turned her journey into a best-selling sensation.  Thousands enter a contest to guess the exact time that she will finish her trip.

Like those many newspaper readers, you'll be scrambling to guess which competitor will arrive in New York first -- and, more importantly, what unfortunate event might prevent the other from victory.

Goodman's latest tale expands upon themes he conjured up in his last book, The Sun and The Moon, another tale about fantastical journalism, regarding the Great Moon Hoax perpetrated by the New York Sun in 1835.  Newspapers are perhaps more accurate in 1889 but no less sensational.

Jules Verne himself makes an appearance too, hosting one of the competitors at his home in Amiens, France.  "She is trim, energetic, and strong," remarks Jules' wife Honorine.  "I believe, Jules, that she will make your heroes look foolish. She will beat your record."

COMING FRIDAY: An interview with Matthew Goodman, the author of Eighty Days!

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library. Book cover courtesy Ballantine

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

'Arctic blasts', union rousers and hunchbacks: Ten bits of trivia about Ebbets Field's opening day, 100 years ago today

Inside Ebbets Field, 1913, Library of Congress

The first-ever regular season baseball game at Ebbets Field was played 100 years ago today.  The legendary field, once located in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, was home to the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1913 until the team left for Los Angeles in 1958.

Here are ten interesting facts about the opening game, played on April 9, 1913:

1)  The Dodgers were thirty years old by the time their lavish new field opened. The team was originally formed under the name the Brooklyn Grays in 1883 by real estate speculator Charles Byrne.  Like many early ball fields, their first home, Washington Park in today's Park Slope neighborhood, was frozen over during the winter to become Brooklyn's leading skating rink.

2)  They were originally nicknamed the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, for the treacherous skill exhibited by their fans crossing rail-covered streets to get to the ball field.  There were still a great many streetcar lines near their new home of Ebbets Field, but by 1913 the team was more affectionately known as just 'the Dodgers'.

However several names would be casually attached to the team by fans and local journalists -- the picture above calls them the Brooklyn Nationals -- until 1933, when the name DODGERS would finally be added to both their home and road uniforms.

3)  As a nod to its first-ever day, Ebbets Field was allowed to open one day before everybody else in the National League.  One of their most popular players, first baseman Jake Daubert (at right), was presented with a golden bat and a floral horseshoe in a ceremony before the game and would, by season's end, go on to win the league's Most Valuable Player honor.

"Gentleman Jake," as he was called, is better known today as being one of the founders of the baseball's unionization movement.   This did not make him popular with the namesake of Ebbets Field, owner Charles Ebbet, who traded Daubert in 1917 after a salary dispute.   His union connection may also explain why this unique, well-liked and exemplary ballplayer is not currently listed within National Baseball's Hall of Fame.

4)  The ceremonial first ball was thrown in by Brooklyn Borough President Alfred E. Steers, a resident of the neighborhood Ebbets Field made its home -- Flatbush.   However, at an exhibition game played just a few days earlier, Ebbets' lovely daughter Genevieve Ebbets tossed out the first pitch.

5) The Brooklyn Dodgers played the Philadelphia Phillies that day, which should have boded well for the team in their new home. The Phillies weren't yet considered a formidable team and were more associated with constant injury. Despite this, the Phillies beat the Dodgers that day, 1-0.

6) Why did the Dodgers lose? Uh, it was unseasonably cold? The Tribune reported that the frightful chill kept the brand-new grandstand partially empty. From the New York Times, April 10, 1913: "It was so cold that the attendance was seriously affected, about 10,000 spectators braving the arctic blasts to see the Phillies win a well-played game by a score of 1 to 0." [source]

7) The Phillies also had with them an unusual mascot -- a hunchback teenage dwarf.  The Phillies home rival the Philadelphia Athletics had a hunchback mascot of their own named Louis Van Zelst, and owner Connie Mack wanted to emulate their success. By, apparently, finding his own young man with a hunchback. Unfortunately, this boy's name is unknown, but he appears in a 1913 picture with the team:

NOTE: The Tribune infers that this may have been Mr. Van Zelst himself and not another teenager. As the name of the boy in the picture above has not been reported, it's quite likely that this is the Athletics 'mascot'.  Note that in the article, the Dodgers are called by yet another name -- the Superbas.  

Courtesy the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society

8) As you could imagine with a 1-0 game, the first-day crowds at Ebbets Field were hardly cheerful.  One might even described them as bored.  The upper seats were barely filled, and the crowd didn't exactly "wax enthusiastic until the eighth inning" when the Dodgers finally got somebody on base.

9) The first Dodger to ever score a hit in the new field was second baseman George Cutshaw who had only been with the team one year when he scored a single in the first inning.  Ironically, the second basemen was called out when he was caught trying to steal second base.

10) The Dodgers would fare poorly in their first season at Ebbets Field, eventually placing sixth out of eight teams. The winning team that season were their rivals across the East River -- the New York Giants.  They would finally bring Ebbets its first pennant victory in 1916.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Queens boundary line, some amazing New York City trivia, and a clarification to our latest podcast

 Reaction to the Bowery Boys podcast on the Consolidation of 1898 has been tremendous!  But I do have one clarification, and provided by a very excellent source.

The accurate placing of the boundary line between Queens and the newly created Nassau County was a source of frustration for a great many months after consolidation.  I recounted one such tale involving a schoolhouse in Hempstead, included within New York City's border after a revised survey was completed. (You can read the complete tale here.)

But that is only one part of the story, specific to the area around that particular building.  It may have gained a schoolhouse, but in fact, overall, New York City lost land in the revised survey, and quite a bit of it too!

According to Manhattan borough historian Michael Miscione:  "When the NYS legislature created Nassau County on Jan. 1, 1899 out of that portion of Queens County that was not part of Queens Borough, they almost entirely redrew the Queens Borough line. In the process, Greater New York did NOT gain territory as you state; though it may have acquired an extra sliver of real estate here and there in the resurvey, NYC ultimately LOST about 12 square miles.

Check out the Queens Borough border on an 1897/8 map versus a map from 1899 or later, and the difference is obvious. As a consequence, NYC was the largest it has ever been during the 12 months from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 1898! (A very cool piece of trivia that might come in handy some day.)"

Thanks for that great information, Michael!   If you enjoyed our podcast, you'll have to check out Miscione's upcoming lecture on the most malleable neighborhood in the history of New York -- Marble Hill, the Manhattan neighborhood that's really in the Bronx:


Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione will describe the peculiar and complex status of Marble Hill, a neighborhood that is attached to the Bronx but is legally a part of Manhattan. (Or is it?)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013
6:00p The General Society Library
20 West 44th St. (Between 5th & 6th Aves.)
 $15 general admission / $10 General Society members / $5 students
Advanced registration is suggested.
Call 212.840.1840 ext. 2, or email .

Above: A map of the town of Hempstead in 1876.  Part of its western border was affected by the re-surveying of the border with New York City.