The other day I went to my overflowing, sagging bookshelves looking for a book to read on the subway. I almost randomly chose Christopher Morley’s New York, a collection of delightful essays and poems about the city, and I rediscovered a passionate and prolific celebrant of New York who dropped off New York’s literary map. Two of his most captivating novels, Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, may be familiar to some—they are truly classic New York titles that are often read and reread. These books were written early in Morley’s distinguished career as a newspaper columnist, essayist, novelist, playwright and enthusiastic bibliophile.
Morley muses in his 1933 book, Internal Revenue, “I had a queer thought the other day, that the two subjects most worth thinking about, for me, are Shakespeare and New York City.” (Internal Revenue. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1933.) Indeed, he was a self-described bard of New York:
Mark all these things: her generous reckless moods,
Proud, spendthrift, swift, assured, and terrible:
And make interpretations of your own.
But just one caveat:
She is not always merely what she seems:
I’d like to have you see her as I do –
The greatest unwrit poem in the world.
(Parsons Pleasure. 1933)
Morley wandered about the city, through its nooks and crannies, in search of topics for his essays. One of his favorite stops was to a bookshop, from the most rarefied establishments to the rough and tumble Fourth Avenue stalls. Morley also once reverentially described McSorley’s saloon, which was later immortalized by Joseph Mitchell, another great New York observer.
In his 1939 novel, Kitty Foyle: The Story of a Woman, Morley took on the highly controversial and verboten topics of abortion and the love affairs of unmarried, working women. The novel was an instant hit, selling more than one million copies, and was made into a movie the following year. It starred Ginger Rogers, who accepted the part only after the abortion was rewritten as a stillborn birth and some other ticklish features were changed. Rogers received the Academy Award for Best Actress, beating out Katherine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story), Joan Fontaine (Rebecca) and Bette Davis (The Letter). The movie was also nominated for best film and best director. Life Magazine did a spread on the movie with Ginger Rogers wearing a decidedly unglamorous working girl’s dress on the cover. That dark dress with white collar and cuffs, worn by Rogers in the film, is still known today in the garment trade as a “Kitty Foyle Dress.”
I mention Kitty Foyle to illustrate the breadth of this talented, spirited multifaceted man who offered much more than the whimsical pieces for which he is best known. I implore everyone to explore Morley’s work (see list below). Readers will not only delight in his writings, but will learn about New York in the 1920s and be touched by Morley’s life-affirming, wholesome philosophy of life. But there is no need to rush, according to advice from Morley himself:
Epitaph for any New Yorker
I, who all my life had hurried,
Came to Peter’s crowded gate:
And, as usual, was worried,
Fearing that I might be late.
So, when I began to jostle
(I forgot that I was dead),
Patient smiled the old Apostle:
“Take your Eternity,” he said.
(From: Parson’s Pleasure)
Christopher Morley’s New York. Illustrated by Walter Jack Duncan. New York: Fordham University Press, 1988.
The Haunted Bookshop. Garden City, Doubleday Page and Co., 1918.
Reprint____________ Illustrated by Douglas Gorsline. Phila: J.B. Lippincott, 1955
Kitty Foyle. Phila: J.B. Lippincott, 1939
Parnassus on Wheels. Garden City, Doubleday Page and Co.: 1917
Reprint___________ 1955. Illustrated by Douglas Gorsline. Phila: J.B. Lippincott, 1955.