Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City's  Mayoral Residence by Ellen Stern

Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City’s Mayoral Residence by Ellen Stern

To move, or not to move, that is the question, for the de Blasio family.  They have not yet decided whether or not they will move from their Park Slope home to the Upper East Side where the official New York City Mayor’s residence stands overlooking the Hell Gate Channel in the East River, and they will probably not make any decisions until Chiara deBlasio, the mayor-elect’s daughter, comes home from college for Thanksgiving later this month.

Gracie Mansion was home to New York City’s mayors for most of the twentieth century, beginning with Fiorello H. LaGuardia in the early 1940s, but it has not been used as a residence since 2000, when Mayor Giuliani moved out so that he could live with his then-girlfriend Judith Nathan, who could not live in the mansion due to a stipulation stating that the tax-payer funded house may be used only for official business and only house public officials and the mayor’s family, even for one night.  Giuliani’s successor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg never resided in Gracie Mansion.

Brochure for the Museum of the City of New York in Gracie Mansion, which opened in 1923 (page 31)

Brochure for the Museum of the City of New York in Gracie Mansion, which opened in 1923 (page 31)

The mansion has not always been the Mayor’s official residence, however.  In Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City’s Mayoral Residence, author Ellen Stern recounts the history of the residence.  The merchant and shipowner Archibald Gracie built the house in 1799 as his country estate until he sold it in 1923 (for $20,500), after which it was still occupied as a residence until 1896, when the City integrated the house and the land surrounding it into Carl Schurtz Park.  From 1924 until 1936 the building housed the Museum of the City of New York, after which it was shown as a historical house until 1942, when the house began being used as the official mayor’s residence after a major renovation.  The house was recently restored by Mayor Bloomberg, who dubbed it the “People’s House” in 2002.

From the book’s preface:

Gracie Mansion, an exquisite relic and unique political showcase, has come full circle.  Built over two hundred years ago by Archibald Gracie as a country retreat in which to entertain the noble and notable of his day, it has been splendidly restored by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as a place in which to entertain the people of today, including the many city workers who contribute so much to New York’s well-being. (page 11)

Gracie Mansion, ink on cardboard by Abram Hosier, ca. 1830-1883 (page 112)

Gracie Mansion, ink on cardboard by Abram Hosier, ca. 1830-1883 (page 112)

A good portion of Stern’s lavishly illustrated book is dedicated to the Mayors themselves, beginning with Fiorello H. Laguardia and ending with Mayor Bloomberg, and their relationships to Gracie Mansion.  These very telling stories reflect the different and varied characters of each mayor.  A few excerpts:

Fiorello H. Laguardia

As the first mayor of New York to occupy an official residence, LaGuardia relished the grit of his job but chafed at the nobility of his home.  From the day he moved in to the day he moved out, he persisted in calling it not Gracie Mansion, but the Mayor’s House or Gracie Farm. (page 49)

John V. Lindsay

To celebrate the fiftieth birthday of the mayor and his twin brother, David, Mrs. Lindsay and her sister-in-law threw a surprise party.  “John loved belly dancers,” so they hired a belly dancer.  But first there was a small dinner for close friends in the dining room, and the birthday boys got cowboy hats. (page 72)

Edward I. Koch

“If you’re the mayor,” he says, “everybody wants to come [to Gracie Mansion], so it wasn’t hard to get some of the brightest and most interesting people in town.”  One of these was Woody Allen, who in 1989 cast Mayor Koch as Mayor Koch in “Oedipus Wrecks,” his segment for New York Stories.  Another was Mother Teresa, whom he sent home with a freshly baked batch of his chef’s chocolate chip cookies. And then there was John Cardinal O’Connor, who, upon the death of Koch’s father, came to sit shivah at Gracie Mansion. (page 81)

Michael R. Bloomberg

Today’s mayor has much in common with yesterday’s merchant.  Both men came to New York from out of town to make their success in business and then, with deep pockets and bountiful inventions, to make changes for the common good. (page 95)

 

Mayor Bloomberg reading in the library at Gracie Mansion (page 95)

Mayor Bloomberg reading in the library at Gracie Mansion (page 95)

The question remains, will Mayor Bill de Blasio continue the tradition that began at the dawn of this century of New York City mayors living in their own private residences (as they did before LaGuardia moved in)?  Or has the past 13 years been an aberration in a longer standing tradition of Gracie Mansion as the White House of New York City?

According to at least one New Yorker, Kyle Smith of the New York Post, the answer is clear: Anybody running for mayor of this town is already living in New York. Why uproot mayors from the streets and send them to live in Green Acres? They should have to walk around the garbage mountain at the curb just like the rest of us.

 

Further reading on Gracie Mansion:

Black, Mary, and Joan R. Olshansky. New York City’s Gracie Mansion: A History of the Mayor’s House. New York: Published for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, 1984.

London, Mitchel, and Joan Schwartz. The Mitchel London Gracie Mansion Cookbook. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989.

Stern, Ellen S. Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City’s Mayoral Residence. New York, NY: Rizzoli, 2005.

The Bowery Boys: Gracie Mansion: How a bucolic summer home survived a couple wars, a society feud and a few live-in mayors

Huffington Post: Gracie Mansion Slideshow

Gracie Mansion in popular culture (from Wikipedia):

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BMC-Logo

We love books. We wish there were a bumper sticker that says; I’d rather be reading. We really love it all—thrillers and mysteries, literary novels, histories, biographies, cookbooks, how-to’s, self-improvement, science and more. We started this book club years ago because we wanted to share our passion and let people know about great new books. We’ve changed and evolved over the years—some of our books would probably make the founders blush. Bottom line, our editors still want to make sure devoted fans get the latest books by their favorite authors. And we like nothing more than to introduce exciting discoveries that readers will recommend to their friends. What inspires us to do it? Simple, we love books.

—from the Book of the Month website

 

To “read” a “book” these days can mean many things.  The definition of a book can mean so many things.  But there was a time when a book was a book, and for a book to be chosen as the “Book of the Month” was to be given the book-keeping seal of approval, so to speak.

The Book of the Month Club (BOMC) was founded in New York City in 1926 by Harry Scherman, former copyrighter for J. Walter Thompson and co-founder of the “Little Leather Library,” a mail order service for miniature reprints of “great books.”  Scherman, along with partners Max Sackheim and Robert Haas, established the Club as its own household brand, going from 4,000 subscribers to 550,000 in twenty years, where they became seen as a sound selector of good books and sold titles by means of its own prestige.  A title or author did not need to have an existing reputation before being chosen as a Book of the Month, as the act of being chosen in itself was the barometer of success.

According to the list of “Privileges of Subscribers,” the Club works as follows:

Every month the best book of the month, chosen by the Selecting Committee, is sent to each subscriber (unless he specifies some other preference) and is billed at the current price set by the publisher in each case, plus the few cents for postage.  The book sent each month ranges in price from $1 to $3, but in no case more than $3.

A 1965 magazine advertisement for The Book of the Month Club

A 1965 magazine advertisement for The Book of the Month Club

When it was launched, one of BOMC’s key selling points was free access to its “selection service,” where a Selecting Committee of five members determined each month what was the “best” book to read, leaving the subscriber the peace of mind that the choice had been made democratically and thoughtfully by a committee of qualified members by secret ballot.

The original members of the Selecting Committee were:

Henry Seidel Canby (1878-1961), Chairman, a critic, editor, and professor at Yale University. He edited the Yale Review and then the Literary Review supplement of the New York Evening Post, the most influential literary weekly in the United States in its time.

Heywood Broun (1888-1939), a journalist and founder of the American Newspaper Guild best remembered for his writing on social issues and his championing of the underdog.

Dorothy Canfield (1879-1958), a best-selling author as well as an educational reformer, social activist, and best-selling American who supported women’s rights, racial equality, and lifelong education.

Christopher Morley (1890-1957), journalist, novelist, essayist and poet and the the well-known author of many books including Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop.

William Allen White (1868-1944), a renowned editor, author, and leader of the Progressive movement.

This is indeed an impressive group of referees, although how much variation in taste and opinion one can find in any group of five individuals is questionable.  According to the BOMC brochure, “In order to be chosen as the “book-of-the-month,” a majority of these five individuals has to give a book first place among all the books considered.”   The Committee members decided what titles and authors would be read by the Club’s thousands of members and could create a literary success in an instant.  The brochure does go on to point out that:

It should be clearly understood that this combined judgment is not set up as being either final or infallible.  The judges themselves would be the last ones to consider it so.  It is simply a practical method of arriving at the most outstanding book each month.  The theory is—and it works!—that any book appealing strongly to five individuals (of such good judgment and such differing tastes themselves) is bound to be an outstanding book.

Enough subscribers agreed with this theory to ensure the lasting success of the BOMC into the twenty-first century.  Its status as arbiter of literary taste has diminished significantly over the years as new technologies brought new ways of bringing books to the public.  In the age of the big box stores, Amazon, Audible, iTunes, and Abe Books, not to mention sites such as Goodreads and Shelf Awareness, individual readers make informed choices based on industry recommendations and audience reviews and can “consume” their reading material in a plethora of media, only one of which is the good ol’ fashioned printed book.

Further reading:

  • The Hidden Public: The Story of the Book-of-the-Month Club by Charles Lee (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1958) provides a history of the club, the book selection and membership procedures, and a list of all selections, dividends, and alternates from 1926 to 1957.
  • The Books of the Century, a website compiled by Daniel Immerwahr, lists the Club’s main selections from 1926 until the mid-1970s.
  • Janice Radway, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill, 1997) offers a cultural analysis of the BOMC and its readers.
  • William Zinsser, A Family of Readers; An informal portrait of the Book-of-the-Month Club and its members on the occasion of its 60th Anniversary. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1986. 74 pp.

 

A letter inviting readers to subscribe to The Book of the Month Club

A letter inviting readers to subscribe to The Book of the Month Club

 

The Book of the Month Club enrollment form (1927)

The Book of the Month Club enrollment form (1927)

View a PDF of the 1927 Book of the Month Club brochure here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The following are a few NEW New York books that caught out attention, in no particular order:

RNPicking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City

By Robin Nagle

Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
304 pages, $28.00

From the NY Observer:

Once upon a time, in a world before the Department of Sanitation, New York City’s streets flowed with raw sewage. Slaughterhouses and farms dumped animal waste in the drinking water, and the number of yellow fever-driven deaths and exiles stretched into the tens of thousands. By the 1850s, New Yorkers were up to their necks in an accumulation of rot and bodies that became known as “corporation pudding.”

That’s the cautionary tale behind a new book out this month, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks With the Sanitation Workers of New York City, in which author Robin Nagle reminds readers that we ought to be a little more appreciative of the men and women who clean up after us, lest we tempt such a fate—or, God forbid, have to deal with our own trash.

For the last 12 years, Ms. Nagle, a New York University anthropology professor, has been studying and advocating for the city’s “garbage faeries,” the vital yet largely invisible work force whose labor gets noticed only when it hasn’t been done. Sanitation workers have a higher on-the-job mortality rate than any other uniformed department in the city, she writes—including police officers and firefighters—yet their duties aren’t remotely as revered.

 

9780060882389_custom-c735802ed61fa746973aa6d2f8518c1bea5cbef5-s6-c30Miss Anne In Harlem

By Carla Kaplan

Harper
576 pages, $28.9

From The Daily Beast:

When Etta Duryea, the white wife of black prizefighter Jack Johnson, killed herself in 1912, contemporary newspapers reported it as “the logical outcome for a ‘woman without a race.’” The boundaries were clear, the consequences of crossing the color line dire in the years before World War I, when American assumptions about everything from patriotism and class to gender and race were secure, bigoted, and unchallenged. But in the 1920s and ‘30s, a small but dauntless group of white women flung down a gauntlet to these assumptions, declaring their alliance with African-American culture during the height of the Harlem Renaissance.

In Miss Anne In Harlem, Carla Kaplan’s clear-sighted, empathetic assessment of a half-dozen of these women, she casts a fresh eye over people and relationships too often reduced to stereotypes. She explores the complicated reality of individual lives to illuminate our collective struggle with fraught questions about race and identity that are as uncomfortable and unresolved today as they were in the 1920s and ‘30s.

 

pb3485-300x450Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space: Class struggle and progressive reform in NYC 1894-1914

by Joseph J. Varga

Monthly Review Press
269 pages, $18.95

Hell’s Kitchen is among Manhattan’s most storied and studied neighborhoods. A working-class district situated next to the West Side’s middle- and upper-class residential districts, it has long attracted the focus of artists and urban planners, writers and reformers. Now, Joseph Varga takes us on a tour of Hell’s Kitchen with an eye toward what we usually take for granted: space, and, particularly, how urban spaces are produced, controlled, and contested by different class and political forces.

Varga examines events and locations in a crucial period in the formation of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, the Progressive Era, and describes how reformers sought to shape the behavior and experiences of its inhabitants by manipulating the built environment. But those inhabitants had plans of their own, and thus ensued a struggle over the very spaces—public and private, commercial and personal—in which they lived. Varga insightfully considers the interactions between human actors, the built environment, and the natural landscape, and suggests how the production and struggle over space influence what we think and how we live. In the process, he raises incisive questions about the meaning of community, citizenship, and democracy itself.

 

lost synogoguesThe Lost Synagogues of Manhattan: Including Shuls from Staten Island and Governors Island

by Ellen Levitt

Avotaynu Press
204 pages, $26.00

From the Lost Synagogues Press Release:

Ellen Levitt completes her trilogy of books about former synagogues throughout the five boroughs of New York City, with the publication of The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan. It describes existing buildings in Manhattan (as well as Staten Island and Governors Island) that once housed synagogues but are now being used as churches and other houses of worship, private residences, schools and community centers, even restaurants and an art gallery. Her first book The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn was published by Avotaynu in 2009; her second book The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens was published by Avotaynu in 2011.

Each of the 83 featured formerly Jewish houses of worship in the new book includes one or more photographs showing how it appears today with a narrative that explains the history of the building and, in some cases, interviews with former and current congregants and occupants. Many of the facades still have Jewish symbols. Some buildings have been faithfully preserved, while others are in disrepair. This is supported by extensive research and stirring stories.

 

9780195099881From Pariahs to Partners: How Parents and Their Allies Changed New York City’s Child Welfare System

by David Tobis

Oxford University Press
$29.95, 336 pages

From Publishers Weekly:

After being approached by an anonymous donor, Tobis, who has worked in New York City’s child welfare system since 1979, used the donation to co-create the Child Welfare Fund, which aims to help children and families in need and reform the city’s welfare system. His account begins with a brief history of child welfare efforts in N.Y.C. before 1995. Many reform efforts were doomed before they began, despite good intentions, due to institutional inertia and limited social services. Tobis details his efforts, and those of his allies, to make parents and foster children more aware of their rights within the system, and provides statistics that highlight flaws in the system. Whether the efforts to transform New York’s child welfare efforts into something more effective and humane will survive rotating agency heads and funding issues remains to be seen, but Tobis, at least, seems optimistic. This potentially important book, however, is hampered by an over-reliance on anecdotes. While a useful and engaging introduction to the subject, the treatment remains cursory, leaving the reader yearning for a more thorough text.

 

9780813558684_p0_v1_s260x420Pizza City: The Ultimate Guide to New York’s Favorite Food

by Peter Genovese

Rivergate Books
200 pages, $22.95

From the NPR website:

New York City’s Lombardi’s Pizza opened its doors in 1905, marking a special centennial for a food that has become an American staple.

Food writer Ed Levine is a regular contributor to the Dining pages of The New York Times and is the author of New York Eats and New York Eats More. His new book is Pizza, a Slice of Heaven: The Ultimate Guide and Companion.

Levine and a host of other writers weigh in on questions that liven up tables of pizza eaters daily. From style distinctions — New York vs. Chicago vs. gourmet — to comparing the U.S. version to pizza’s Italian roots, Pizza dishes facts and opinions of a cultural force.

 

NotoriousCoverMy Notorious Life

by Kate Manning

Scribner
448 pages, $26.99

From the author’s website:

Based on a true story from the scandalized headlines of Victorian New York City, My Notorious Life is a portrait of Axie Muldoon, the impoverished daughter of Irish Immigrants who becomes an enormously successful—and controversial—midwife. Separated from her siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, Axie parlays the sale of a few bottles of “lunar tonic for relief of female complaint” into a thriving practice as a female physician known as “Madame X.” But as she rises from the gutter to the glitter of Fifth Avenue, Axie discovers that the right way is not always the way of the law, and that you should never trust a man who says, “trust me.” But what if that man is an irresistible risk-taker with a poetical soul? Soon, Axie’s choices put her on a collision course with one of the most zealous characters of her era: Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and it will take all of her power and wealth to outwit him and save herself and her family from ruin.

A love story, a family saga, and a vivid rendering of a historical time and heated political climate, My Notorious Life is the tale of one woman making her indomitable way in a difficult world. Axie Muldoon is a heroine for the ages.

9780618859900_lresThe Big Crowd

By Kevin Baker

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
424 pp., $27.00

From the Houghton Mifflin website:

From “the lit world’s sharpest chronicler of New York’s past” (Rolling Stone), a novel of two Irish brothers who travel from the gangland waterfront to the halls of power.  Based on one of the great unsolved murders in mob history, and the rise-and-fall of a real-life hero, The Big Crowd tells the sweeping story of Charlie O’Kane. He is the American dream come to life, a poor Irish immigrant who worked his way up from beat cop to mayor of New York at the city’s dazzling, post-war zenith. Famous, powerful, and married to a glamorous fashion model, he is looked up to by millions, including his younger brother, Tom. So when Charlie is accused of abetting a shocking mob murder, Tom sets out to clear his brother’s name while hiding a secret of his own.The charges against Charlie stem from his days as a crusading Brooklyn DA, when he sent the notorious killers of Murder, Inc., to the chair—only to let a vital witness go flying out a window while under police guard. Now, out of office, Charlie lives in a shoddy, Mexico City tourist hotel, eaten up with regrets and afraid he will be indicted for murder if he returns to the U.S. To uncover what really happened, Tom must confront stunning truths about his brother, himself, and the secret workings of the great city he loves.Moving from the Brooklyn waterfront to city hall, from the battlefields of World War II to the beaches of Acapulco, to the glamorous nightclubs of postwar New York, The Big Crowd is filled with historical powerbrokers and gangsters, celebrities and socialites, scheming cardinals and battling, dockside priests. But ultimately it is a brilliantly imagined, distinctly American story of the bonds and betrayals of brotherhood.

For a general appreciation of where you are, it helps to know who came before you and what was done.  Especially if it helps you now.
—Philip Copp in “One Track Mind”

Copp-bowlinggreenIn 1978, Philip Copp intended to spend a month working on an article about the art in New York City subway stations that he hoped to sell to a magazine.  Today, thirty-four years later, Copp, also known as Philip Ashforth Coppola, a nom de plume of sorts, has probably not spent a day during which he did not work on this “article,” now a multi-volume collection of books, some self-published in limited edition and some in manuscript form.

As he discovered the artistic riches displayed in each station, Copp was overcome by the need to record what all the engineers, architects, artisans, and artists had done, before their work faded and they were forgotten forever.  The environment underground, vandalism, and, most of all, time is eating away at the intricate mosaic designs that adorn the walls of each and every station, and many are being replaced by plain white tiles that forever erase any trace of what was once there.

Phil Copp (image: Jeremiah's Vanishing New York)

Phil Copp (image: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York)

Jeremy Workman, a filmmaker who recently made a documentary about Copp entitled “One Track Mind,” describes his subject in an interview with Jeremiah Moss of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York:

Phil is a subway historian extraordinaire. He is a regular guy from New York and New Jersey who works at a printing press. A kind sweet man. A bit on the quiet side. An avid church-goer. But he’s had this lifelong obsession with the decor and design of the New York City subway stations. He’s spent most of his adult life creating a study called “Silver Connections,” a massive homemade, self-published, illustrated encyclopedia of the decor in the stations. He’s studied it historically, artistically, and sociologically. It’s like a billion pages and it has literally thousands of amazingly detailed hand-drawn sketches and diagrams.

In the same interview, Copp describes his own work:

My study has two purposes. First, to record the art & architecture of the NYC subway stations in word and picture. Second, to reveal the persons who designed or crafted the decor. Both subjects of my study were neglected and unheralded (especially in the late 1970′s, when I began this undertaking).

Volumes from Copp's SILVER CONNECTIONS (image: Jeremiah's Vanishing New York)

Volumes from Copp’s SILVER CONNECTIONS (image: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York)

It seems Copp is adding to Silver Connections every waking moment that he is not at work or church.  All day on weekends and most evenings, sometimes into the night.  He is a man obsessed, possessed even, single-mindedly cataloging the disappearing artwork of the 496 stations, according to his count, of the New York City subway system.

In addition to “One Track Mind,” Copp has been featured in The New York Times, on New York 1, the BBC, and even on Japanese television.  He says he enjoys getting media attention and is willing to take a day off to do interviews, but you can tell what he really wants to do is to get back to work on his magnum opus, his epic love letter to New York City.  “The city cannot be what it is without rapid transit,” he says.  “Buses are great, subways are better.”

 

Silver Connections

Silver Connections

We are very pleased to be the distributor of the newly revised 2013 edition of Silver Connections Volume I (Books 1 & 2), as well as  Silver Connections Volumes III & IV.  For more information and to purchase copies, please visit our Silver Connections page.

Watch “NYC Subway Buff Chronicles Past In Full Detail,” Jose Martiez’s piece on Phil Copp in NY1 here

To watch the film One Track Mind directed by Jeremy Workman on Amazon Instant Video, click here.

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“I learned long ago that if I go out somebody I’ve been wanting to see very badly is sure to come in.  I’ve missed so many I’ve grieved about.”

—Frances Steloff

wisemenfishheresignThe Gotham Book Mart (GBM) was an institution in literary New York for 87 years.  Founded on West 45th Street in 1920 by Frances Steloff, the shop was frequented by writers such as Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, Arthur Miller, John Updike, J. D. Salinger and Eugene O’Neill, and its customers included a host of prominent New Yorkers —George and Ira Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, Alexander Calder, Stephen Spender, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, John Guare, Katharine Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to name only a few, as well as numerous high-profile visitors who would make sure to drop in when they were passing through town. At various points, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Tennessee Williams, and Patti Smith worked as clerks there.  The shop also exhibited the works of the artist Edward Gorey and is credited with launching the artist’s career.

gotham40317Steloff is credited with supporting the careers of major writers back when they were unknown or unaccepted, including James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Although censored, Steloff sold James Joyce’s Ulysses.  She also sold D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover in the 1920′s and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer 1930′s, which led to lawsuits and landmark decisions on censorship.

Despite its renown, GBM was a very personal bookshop, as Steloff put her heart and soul into the store, working long hours and hand picking stock.  A beloved figure, Steloff was also very exacting and an economizer, and many who worked for her did not or could not meet her high standards.  She was also known to be extremely generous, sending money to writers needing to make rent or pay bills without any guarantee of repayment.

Steloff lived a childhood of abuse and poverty in Saratoga Springs and then Boston. She eventually made her way to New York City where she worked in a department store, starting in the corsets department and later moving on to the magazine subscriptions counter.  Using the connections she made, she secured several clerk positions in bookstores, the last of which was Brentano’s, a major New York bookseller.

On her way to work, Steloff often passed Sunwise Turn on Thirty-Fifth Street.  Founded by Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray Clarke in 1916, this bookshop specialized in quality publications, particularly fine art books.  Taking Jenison and Mowbray as inspiration perhaps, Stelhoff took a chance and rented a 15 by 12 foot ground floor room with a window and named it Gotham Book & Art.

gotham20315W G. Rogers, in his book Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart muses that it was Steloff’s difficult and deprived childhood that propelled her toward a successful life in bookselling:

…The Gotham Book Mart, sanctuary of the written word, did in fact originate in the unliterary vacationland of Saratoga Springs.  A perceptive girl learned key lessons from hardships, developed a love for all living creatures, and grew up to have an irresistible passion for the very things she was deprived of: books and education.  Given plenty of reading matter, books might never have become a necessity and she might not have felt driven to her long-sustained efforts.  She was teased and tantalized into success.  Young Steloff and books were donkey and carrot.  (23-24)

Though a slow and an uphill climb at first—the store was open from 9 AM until midnight and Steloff alone performed all tasks, from cleaning to bookkeeping to clerking—she eventually cultivated a loyal clientele.  Her very first customer was a Broadway idol of some note who was performing in a show in the theater next door.  More theater people from the neighborhood began coming to her for books, as well as acquaintances from Brentano’s and other bookstores.  No doubt Steloff exuded an air of determination and dedication that attracted her customers and made them want to return.

Steloff’s specializations came to her by chance: theater books because she was in such close proximity to so many theaters, and art because she once bid on a collection of hunting images, only to be given Japanese woodblock prints when she went to claim her purchase.  Duped and dispirited and knowing nothing about Japanese art, she put the prints out for a dollar a piece with the hope of recouping her expenditure.  It turned out, through the tips of collectors who bought pieces from her, that the prints were true collectors pieces and could fetch much more.

After a move to Forty-Seventh Street, a divorce, and a name change to Gotham Book Mart, Steloff’s shop began taking on its identity as a place that nurtured both writers and readers.  She began stocking “Little Magazines” that printed artistic work that was not money-making for larges presses. She began her career in magazine sales, and she later supported them by displaying magazines in her shop’s window, buying magazine advertisement space, and listing the magazines in her catalogs.  Rogers explains in Wise Men Fish Here:

As editor and writers commenced to urge the untried, untested, and often inscrutable avant-garde writings on GBM, it stocked more and more of them.  The proprietor describes her role modestly: “Perhaps it would be more flattering to believe that we were prophets about the great new writers who were then emerging in these little reviews.   But on the contrary I was led step by step by opportunities, and I simply responded to the needs and requests for an outlet.”  Her customers were still educating her.  (113)

Steloff went far beyond stocking obscure literary magazines to help authors.  She often lent or even gave them money when they were in need.  She cashed checks for them found them rides and places to stay and even once tried to begin a fund for poets to give money to those most in need but found that need greatly outweighed available funds.

gothambookmart

Steloff became friendly with the writer Christopher Morley, who brought his friends Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller and W.S. “Bill” Hall to the shop where they turned the back yard of GBM into an art gallery and hangout.  Although many of the great minds of New York spent time there, it was not an intellectual salon but more of a place to have fun with like-minded peers.  Rogers explains:

It was good-fellows-get-together, laughter in the cloister, wit and fun spiced with learning.  Some of the decade’s best minds relaxed in congenial company; they dashed off doggerel, quipped in ancients and modern languages, and recited limericks that were for reciting only, not for printing. (160)

In the mid-1940s, Steloff almost went out of business, but through Christopher Morley she was able to buy a building owned by Columbia University.  After two decades at #51 she moved to #41 Forty-Seventh Street on the same block.  She continued to be exacting and and frugal in the postwar era but fewer people were willing to earn a living on her terms anymore, hard work and low pay in exchange for the opportunity to be among books.

GBM’s stock was divided into three sections, new, secondhand, and rare.  It also stocked magazines, regular and “little.”  Steloff lived in an apartment above the store and was therefore able to continue to work long hours devoting herself to the bookstore.  When Steloff turned 80, she finally decided to “retire.”  She sold the shop to Andreas Brown, a devoted customer and book lover, in 1967 on the condition that she could continue living in the apartment above the shop for the rest of her life and work at the store.  Frances Steloff died in New York in 1989 at the age of 101.

lss+april+1975

Steloff with Andreas Brown

A New York Magazine listing for GBM describes the shop in its later years under Brown:

Owner Andreas Brown and his flock of charming misanthropes are happy to help—or engage in fiery intellectual debate—when called upon, but they’re also just as content to read in a corner and leave browsing customers alone. (Sometimes, they don’t even look up when you walk in.) While the store stocks a little bit of everything, its specialty is 20th Century Arts and Literature, so if you need a signed play by Samuel Beckett or the complete works of James Joyce, you’re in the right place.

In 2007, GBM closed its doors for good.  Brown, who had major financial difficulties, was forced to close the store, and its stock was sold in a general sale, its inventory going to The University of Pennsylvania Libraries after an anonymous donor purchased over 200,000 items worth millions of dollars and donated it to the library.

Gotham Book Mart was an icon in a particular tradition of bookselling in New York.  Like the back room of Charles Wiley’s bookshop on Reade Street in the 1820’s, known as the “Den,” and Jenison and Mowbray Clarke’s Sunwise Turn, as well as Jeanette Watson’s Books & Co. and the 21st century Greenlight Books and McNally Jackson Bookstore, GBM was always more than just a store.  To quote Rogers once again:

It is significant that she always refers to the Gotham Book Mart as a shop, not a store.  Even more in the 1920s than now, there was a distinction.  A store was for selling, a shop was for building and creating.  She always did more than sell.  If salesmanship has satisfied her, corsets would have, too.  If selling just any book had satisfied her, she would have stayed on Vesey Street where she had earned more than she did now. (78)

Yes, Frances Steloff was a builder and creator and Gotham Book Mart was most certainly a shop in the true sense—a place where writer, reader, and proprietor harmoniously coexisted and commingled, a place where the written word came alive.

***********************

The history of the store is covered in the documentary film, Frances Steloff: Memoirs of a Bookseller, directed in 1987 by Deborah Dickson.

Rogers, W G. Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. Print.

Tannenbaum, Matthew. My Years at the Gotham Book Mart with Frances Stelloff, Proprietor. S.l.: Worthy Shorts, 2009. Print.

 

 

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Today’s guest post by Benjamin Feldman of The New York Wanderer describes, step by step, one of his many journeys through the streets and archives of New York City in search of, what?- a pot of gold, buried treasure, the lost ark—call it what you wish.  In the tradition of Indiana Jones, he is driven to uncover the past, or, in his words, he seeks veracity.  A chance encounter with a de-accessioned lantern slide leads him down a windy road that leads uptown and  back down again, to the Bowery.

 

lantern-slideA Miner’s Lantern

By Ben Feldman

 

Why?

People constantly ask me this question: Why are you learning modern Hebrew? Why did you learn Yiddish? Why is it so enticing to you, that old newspaper article, that strange lantern slide? I listen, and then I stare off into space, speechless. All I can think of is that corny phrase my superannuated Yankee torts professor, Willis Livingston Mesier Reese, taught us at Columbia Law School. Res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself. These people ! I meet their Why? with equal vigor: I have no idea how anyone with a brain in their head could not be fascinated by the things that enthrall me. And it’s not as if I expect universal interest in my pursuits. What amazes me is the rarity of passion itself. It’s the least common denominator of intellectual fanatics, this overarching symptom of a wonderful disease. I hope to die from it.

As a child, and now as a so-called grown-up, the prospect of finding buried treasure continues to thrill me. Whether it’s a wind-blown bank note on the sidewalk or hardware scavenged in the street as I bike my way through New York, whether salvaged furniture from Yorkville trash piles or scouted-out scuz bars on the Brooklyn waterfront, I’m always up for a casual encounter with windblown wealth.

At Green-Wood Cemetery’s History office, I’ve stumbled upon a mother lode. You might think that working among the dead would be creepy. Quite the contrary. Imagination grows best in a quiet room. There among gentle, living souls I’ve found my looming mill, factory of dreams and recollection. High above Gowanus rooftops, threads spin tightly on whirring bobbins, shuttles shooting back and forth. Memory and anticipation, warp and woof, I weave a precious psychic cloth.

Wednesdays are my special days. I work mid-week in a hyper-chilled room with a view out over one of the “Public Lots” where hundreds of unrelated folks lie peacefully. In a locked cage I sort and catalog paper ephemera and random objects. My deal as a volunteer is unbeatable: there’s one for the boss, and one for me. I take my sweet time, reading and dreaming, enveloping myself in a comforter of knowledge. At the end of the day, I leave the storied brownstone gates laden with gifts, my mind overflowing with new-found riches. Six weeks ago, though, I got extra-special lucky. Opening a bubble-wrapped tiny parcel, I held in my hand an object unlike any I’d seen before.

Wherein lies the power of a simple piece of tinted glass? Some ink, a bit of silica, a century old, it was plucked from the refuse by an E-bay entrepreneur and sold for a pittance to my hungry historian friend Jeffrey Richman. After a cursory inspection, the questions began to flutter in my mind like feathers spilling from a bursting old bed-pillow:

What is that big fat stone in the foreground ?
Where was this taken and what year was it?
Who are these window-shoppers?

One question encircled all the others. In it perhaps lies an answer to the complained of Why? Embedded in the passion that drives me is a core of curiosity, the desire for something more than knowledge. It’s veracity I seek. With every query I repeat, How can I know? How can I be sure?

Excitement’s flammable vapors are invisible and odorless. One dasn’t light a match when I get in this state. Some people race Harleys, their pipes blazing, cylinders roaring. Others head straight for the gym. Flexing and spinning, they push their limits, seeking to conquer, finding out just how far they can go. I’ve a different Nautilus contraption, though, albeit inchoate, one more akin to the littoral kind. In each of my finds lies a swirling darkness, crustacean mystery. I hold them close and hear briney whispers. They’re as common as sea-shells, these gilded invites, cleverly disguised as chance encounters. They’re free for the taking. Who needs a Benz?

*****

Lantern slides are small glass plates, positive images that were projected in auditoriums in the 1800s in Europe and America by traveling showmen. In Harrisburg and Lower Podunk, Carlsbad and Yukhupetz-ville, lantern slide shows offered the masses the Eight Wonders of the World, theatrical tableaux. In the days before motion pictures, scenes that only the wealthy and well-traveled could experience first-hand were brought to life for common people, first with oil-lamp projectors, and then electricity.

After I blinked to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, my eyes focused on my new treasure and the search for answers began. Look at the clothing the man and boys wear. When was it stylish and who could afford it? Knickers: there’s the very first clue. And a bowler on the man, his jacket short and snug. With that I could bracket things, narrow the window. Experience told me, it’s the turn of the 20th century. But where are they standing and what is that stone, stuck in the sidewalk in the foreground?

A faded label on the edge of the slide got me off to a healthy start. The Museum of the City of New York somehow de-accessioned this slide: the label marks it as part of a collection once maintained there. So it must be New York City, this funny old scene. That tan stone column looks like a milestone, but where in New York did such a thing stand, as late as maybe 1900?

Some bell went a-ringing deep in my cranium: I’d heard of these stones and seen one, I thought, up on the 7th floor at New York Historical Society. Two minutes on the internet confirmed my memory. And then came an historian’s choicest moment: The original site of this particular stone, which I now could fix in front of 216 Bowery, I found misidentified in authoritative texts.

The Boston Post Road dated from early colonial times, and at least nine milestones marked the Manhattan portion of its route. Three of them are on display at NYHS, where the audio guide claims that they date from the early 19th century. I’ve no reason to contest this information (the stones at NYHS may not be the originals, which were in all likelihood placed along the Road during the previous century) but the lantern slide tells me that unless milestone #1 was relocated before the photo was taken, its home was different than the placement along the Bowery, south of Canal Street, that I found quoted in several research sources.

Fever erupted in my brain, so I hopped on my bike and raced downtown. I had to see where the stone once stood. 216 Bowery lies far north of Canal Street; on the west side of the Bowery between Rivington and Prince. How the apparently erroneous location of milestone #1 came to be accepted is anyone’s guess. I’ve got the goods on it now I think…

Like wrestling a slippery, angry hog, it’s best to come at the dating question for this slide from as many angles as possible. “I. Silverman – Picture Frames” gleams from inside the showcase window on the right hand side of the image. What can we know from these simple block letters? The shabby storefront and modest use had screamed Bowery to me even before I checked out the milestones. An hour at the NYHS’ hushed library yielded the story for me forthwith.

Trow’s Directories are a cornucopia, and they led me straightaway to the truth. I can see him now, Mr. Israel Silverman, making his way to his fancy new frame shop. There Silverman was in Trow’s in cold hard type, starting in 1902, living and working on the Lower East Side for almost a decade. He made his home on East Broadway, then on Eldridge, with his shop on Chrystie in ’02 and ’03. In 1908 Silverman’s shop made it over to the Bowery. Probably a step up, better foot traffic, more out-of-towners. I blew the image up on my computer. Just look at that rolling vitrine, out on the sidewalk, holding its stock of framed prints of hunting scenes and other genteel images. Even cold-water tenement walls in sweatshopper’s walk-ups could use a bit of goyish class. The Bowery in those days was also the center of a low-class entertainment district. Think of Times Square in recent decades. Storefronts beckoning to the unsuspecting; “Art Treaures” and “Antiques” vying for window space with the latest in electronics gray-goods deals.

It’s the left-hand window in the slide that truly grabbed me, though. Despite the slides’s tattered paper label that mentioned the milestone as the object of interest, the theater broadsides you see in the window of what must be 214 Bowery are the reason I stumbled upon this gem. My buddy Jeff bought this slide on e-Bay when he searched for items with a connection to Henry C. Miner, one of the many eminences entombed in Green-Wood in ornate mausoleums.

Giant block letters scream the message to passersby: MINER’S THEATER “The Bowery Hall of Fame” OUR PATRONS DEMAND WEEKLY AMATEUR PERFORMANCES EVERY FRIDAY NIGHT. MINER’S METHODS WIN. I had no idea what these words meant, notwithstanding their imposing scale. Down below, with blurry capitals, another line peers out from the glass. ENORMOUS ATHLETIC JUBILEE ! WEDNESDAY NIGHT ONLY APR. 15. It must have been fisticuffs: Jim Galvin vs. Young Sharkey is a featured match. Again bells rang: I knew the name Sharkey, so off I ran again to the internet. I’d no idea that arcane boxing history was so easy to find.

Sharkey, Sharkey: Jack Sharkey, that’s the name. My mind had not failed me: he beat Max Schmeling in ’31 for the world heavyweight title. Held it for one year ‘til Primo Carnera whipped him in ’32. Sharkey was the only guy to fight Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey. But wait a second… Wouldn’t Jack Sharkey have been too young at the turn of the century to be doing prize fights at Miner’s as “Young Sharkey?” Jack was born in 1902, so I guess it could be the same guy if the photo is from 1917 or so. But it seemed unlikely. Back to the salt mines.

Turns out that many, many fighters went by the appellation “Young” back in those days. “Young Sharkey” could have been one of several guys. Website boxing records are enormous. Date, ring site, combatants, decision after enumerated rounds: if you type in a name at Cyberboxingzone.com, you peek at a world that’s vanished today. Another site devoted to pre-WW II boxing in Britain lists 16 fellows by the name of Sharkey who boxed in the years 1913-4 and/or 1920-1939, three of whom went by the nickname “Young.” I fixated, though on someone else: one of the most famous American boxers in 1910, memorialized in cigarette and candy premium cards, was Tom Sharkey.

Tom-SharkeyI would have bet that this is the guy advertised in the Miner’s poster as “Young Sharkey,” but another internet source made me stop short. Tom Sharkey was born in 1873, hardly young even by 1900. And his fight career had a large hiatus during the years 1904-1923. Wikipedia and Cyberboxingzone.com make it clear that Tom Sharkey’s ringside moniker was “Sailor Tom,” so my best guess is that Miner’s put up a Sharkey wannabe against Jim Galvin, another pug whose modest turn of the century fight career is verifiable.

Joe Wagner, also a featured pugilist at Miner’s that week, is an easier case: Wagner was active in New York during 1908-17, fighting in the Bronx, Albany, and Brooklyn. Another 1910 collectors card I found on e-Bay shows Wagner in classic pose.

Joe-WagnerThe funnel narrows on the date of the lantern slide photo when you look at the date advertised for the “Athletic Jubilee” in which Wagner and Sharkey (Young or not) went a few rounds. Wednesday April 15th. Reverse perpetual calendars are handy things. 1903, 1908, and 1914 had such a date. Wagner’s career probably didn’t start ‘til 1908. Israel Silverman’s frame store is not listed in the 1914 editions of Trow’s directories. QED, we have a winner: 1908 is the date of the lantern slide, in all likelihood.

Miner’s Bowery Theater touted in the broadside as “The Bowery Hall of Fame” was perhaps the most famous of the Miner performance halls in New York. Harry C. Miner got his start in New York after Reconstruction, managing theaters for other owners as well as owning and operating eponymous establishments. His Bowery hall at #165 (the number varies a bit over the years) appears in Trow’s by 1879, and the structure still stands on the east side of the boulevard, just south of Delancey Street. Home today to a carpet store and known as #169, Miner’s Bowery was soon joined by Miner’s Eighth Avenue Theatre at 312 8th, and by the People’s Theatre, erected by Miner at 201 Bowery in 1883.

English-language productions were a fixture on the Bowery starting in the late 1820s, but tides of Germans, Jews, Italians and Chinese changed the tongues heard on local stages as these immigrant swarmed into the neighborhood later in the century. By the end of the 1800s only two English language houses remained. German theater had already folled the wholesale exodus of its fans from the Lower East Side’s Little Germany to Williamsburg, Bushwick and uptown Yorkville. An unquenchable thirst among “nativist” Americans for low-class vaudeville and risque tableaux kept the box-office humming at the oldest Miner establishment with devotees from throughout the metropolitan area. Though its second Bowery location closed and moved to the Bronx, Miner’s Bowery remained a neighborhood staple, with amateur nights showcasing future legends well into the 20th century.

amateur-night-at-miners-rt-sizeGeorge M. Cohan, Al Jolson, Weber and Fields, and Eddie Cantor all made their debuts at Miner’s Bowery, where one Friday night in 1903 “give ‘em the hook” was heard for the very first time. Long periods of darkness and foreign languages finally took over the house, and Miner’s tenure on the street ended ingloriously when the building burned in 1929.

Walk down the Bowery now day or night; it’s hard to imagine all that once was. The screech of the Third Avenue elevated drowned out even the heartiest calls from the masses of sailors and drovers, gamblers and pimps who swaggered and staggered from Park Row up and back to Cooper Square. Even the drunks and the whores are mostly gone, their empty bottles of cheap wine and sorry trade now supplied elsewhere. Nowadays, an eerie quiet descends on the post-rush hour Bowery from Canal north to Houston, after traffic down to the Manhattan Bridge plaza slackens. Things get slow and sometimes still, though hipsters have started a small rebirth. Out at Green-Wood’s Dell Water shimmer, Henry Clay Miner sleeps in peace. The roar of the greasepaint makes the only sound.

Henry-Miner-rt-sizeWhat can you find when you turn a rock over? Worms by zillions live under the loam. Why would you do it, kick that stone over? You see some mud, some dirt and bugs. I see rubies, sparkles of gold.

Why? they ask me. I just stare. It’s pointless to try, I can’t explain. Res ipsa loquitur, close your eyes. Come with me, I’ll show you where…

 

This post was originally published November 22, 2006 on The New York Wanderer

 

Benjamin Feldman has lived and worked in New York City since 1969.  His essays and book reviews about New York City, American history, and Yiddish culture have appeared online and in print in CUNY’s Gotham History Blotter, The New Partisan Review, Columbia County History and Heritage, and Ducts literary magazine.  Read more about Feldman and his work on his blog, The New York Wanderer.

street book coverDid you ever wonder after whom Bleecker Street or Abingdon Square were named?  Is Union Square named so after Civil War soldiers?  Was there a spring running down Spring Street?  New York’s history can be gleaned from the history of its street names as outlined in Henry Moscow’s The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins, one of several books available about the namesakes of our city’s streets.

Here are excerpts from a few of many interesting ones:

Abingdon Square

The Namesake: Charlotte Warren, a pre-Revolutionary War Greenwich Village belle, who became the bride of the Earl of Abingdon.  Here father was Admiral Sir Peter Warren, a naval hero and New York social lion, and her mother was the beautiful and wealthy Susannah de Lancey. (page 20)

Bowery

The Namesake: Peter Stuyvesant’s farm, bouwerij, to which the road led from the more settled parts of New Amsterdam,  The farm’s main house stood between 15th and 16th streets, just east of First Avenue.  (page 29)

The mansion of Sir Peter Warren, through whose property Bleecker Street ran.

The mansion of Sir Peter Warren, through whose property Bleecker Street ran.

Bleecker Street

The Namesake: Anthony Bleecker, an early 19th-century Greenwich Village literatus.  The street, the land for which was deeded to the city in 1807, already ran through the Bleecker family farm.  … Bleecker was a friend of Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant. His prose poetry appeared in a variety of periodicals during some thirty years, and Bryant once reported that Eliza Fenno had left town in 1811 simply to get away from Bleecker’s puns. (page 29)

William Bedlow Crosby (1786-1865) painted by Samuel Lovett Waldo

William Bedlow Crosby (1786-1865) painted by Samuel Lovett Waldo

Crosby Street

The Namesake: William Bedlow Crosby, early 19th-century philanthropist.  When both of his parents died two years after his birth in 1786, Crosby was adopted by his mother’s uncle, Henry Rutgers.  Crosby inherited the Crosby wealth and devoted his life to good works. (page 42)

Rivington Street

The Namesake: James Rivington, publisher of the pro-British newspaper Royal Gazette in New York during the Revolutionary War. …Because the paper printed both sides of every poitical issue, an unprecedented practive, its plant was wrecked by patriot extremists and put out of business.  Under British occupation of the city, Rivington resumed publication, and supported the King.  Rivington Street was named for him during thewar.  The street name was retained and Rivington himself was allowed to stay after British evacuation because he publicly repented his Tory sympathies and because, it was said, he had secretly aided Washington’s spies in the city.

Spring Street

The Namesake: a spring that originated there, at West Broadway, and once served as a source of water for residents.  (page 96)

Union Square

The Namesake: the junction of many roads and streets there. The square was named Union Place in 1808, when the commissioners who were laying out the city onthe grid plan decreed that the area should remain open.  It was renamed Union Square in 1832. (page 102)

 

This and other books about New York street names:

Feirstein, Sanna. Naming New York: Manhattan Places & How They Got Their Names. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

McNamara, John. History in Asphalt: The Origin of Bronx Street and Place Names, Borough of the Bronx, New York City. Harrison, N.Y: Published in collaboration with the Bronx County Historical Society [by] Harbor Hill Books, 1978.

Moscow, Henry, and Thomas Tracy. The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins. New York, N.Y: Fordham University Press, 1978.

Rogerson, Don. Manhattan Street Names Past and Present. New York: Griffin Rose Press, 2013.

Ulmann, Albert. A Landmark History of New York: Also the Origin of Street Names and a Bibliography. New York: D. Appleton and Co, 1906.

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City Notebook by McCandlish Phillips

City Notebook by McCandlish Phillips

Earlier this year, New York lost one of its all-time greatest chroniclers.  Mclandlish Phillips, a reporter for the New York Times who later left journalism to spread the Gospel, became known for his local reporting, as well as his lyrical articles about vanishing institutions in an ever-changing New York.

In his 1962 collection of writings, City Notebook: A Reporter’s Portrait of a Vanishing New York, Phillips remembers “Book Row,” the area just south of Union Square centered on Fourth Avenue that used to be New York’s used book center.  He recalls a conversation between Jack Biblio and Jack Tannen, founders of Biblio & Tannen at 63 Fourth Avenue:

“We came from a slum neighborhood—East New York in Brooklyn,” Mr. Biblio said.  “In those days, a penny was a lot, but a bunch of us were terribly interested in books and the rental of a Tarzan book in a store on Pitkin Avenue was ten cents for three days.

“Five of us kids each chipped in two cents, and all five of us read that whole book in three days.  We didn’t need a quick-reading course.”

“To work for one dollar a day in a bookstore—just to be in a bookstore—that was Nirvana,” Mr. Biblio said.  “Kids today won’t start for ninety dollars a week.  It’s nothing today for a boy ten years old to come in and pull out a ten dollar bill.  It’s quite a different world.”

“We started the business in 1928,” Mr. Tannen said.  “We slept in the back room and we worked eighteen hours a day and we each took a dollar-a-day out for the first three years.”

“We didn’t have hours.  As long as a customer was in the place, we stayed open,” Mr. Biblio said.

“If a customer came in and spent one dollar—big sale—we’d go out and have coffee and,” Mr. Tannen said, implying Danish.

Phillips’ book is chock full of anechdotes such as these, that only a seasoned reporter, who was also a seasoned New Yorker, could amass.

McCandlish Phillips getting the lowdown from a highly placed circus source (image: Librado Romero/The New York Times)

McCandlish Phillips getting the lowdown from a highly placed circus source (image: Librado Romero/The New York Times)

The breadth of Phillips’ coverage is also evidenced by the headlines to which his byline is attached, such as: “City Surlpus of Elks, Rams and Yaks Declines: High Bids Totaling $793.50 Accepted for 34 Left-Over Animals from Zoos,” “In Van Cortlandt: Bodies Washed Up on Lake Shore—Park Aide Says Silt Cut Off Oxygen,” “Singer Takes Charm to Rikers Island,” and “Aged Wait in Stony Solitude, But Not for Buses.”

Phillips’s most renowned article appeared on Page 1 on Sunday, Oct. 31, 1965, under the headline “State Klan Leader Hides Secret of Jewish Origin.”  In this article, that won him widespread praise and notice, Phillips reveals that Daniel Burros, a 28-year-old Queens man who was the Grand Dragon of the New York State Ku Klux Klan, a chief organizer of the national Klan and a former national secretary of the American Nazi Party was also a Jew — a former Hebrew school student who had been bar mitzvahed at 13.

While still working at the Times, Phillips helped found The New Testament Missionary Fellowship, a Pentecostal congregation.  In 1973, Phillips left the Times and journalism to preach the Gospel on the Columbia University campus and to work with the fellowship.  Phillips died in April of this year at the age of 85.

McClandish Phillips in 1962 (image: John Orris/The New York Times)

McCandlish Phillips in 1962 (image: John Orris/The New York Times)

Phillips will be remembered by fans of New Yorkiana for his unique flair for New York writing and his commitment to getting the story straight.  The  New York Times obituary for Phillips quotes his 1969 article about the closing of Lindy’s Delicatessen, a New York institution:

“What kind of a day is today? It’s the kind of a day that if you wanted a slice of cheesecake at Lindy’s, you couldn’t get it.”

Near the end of the article, he wrote, with plain-spoken, impeccable logic:

“The locusts stripped the place of menus and ashtrays and other mementos. There were conflicting claimants to possession of the last bagel. As a souvenir, a bagel is not much good. It is perishable and it also lacks proof. Anyone can hold up a bagel and say, ‘This is the last bagel from Lindy’s.’ ”

Phillips, McCandlish. City Notebook: A Reporter’s Portrait of a Vanishing New York. New York: Liveright, 1974.

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golemandjinni_pbkTHE GOLEM AND THE JINNI
By Helene Wecker
486 pp., Harper, $26.99

From the Harper Collins website:

In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free

Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

 

riddle of the labyrinthTHE RIDDLE OF THE LABYRINTH: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
By Margalit Fox
Illustrated. 363 pp, Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, $27.99

From the back cover:

The Riddle of the Labyrinth is the true story of the quest to solve one of the most mesmerizing riddles in history—Linear B—and of the three brilliant, obsessed, and ultimately doomed investigators whose combined work would eventually crack the code. There was Evans, who had discovered the script but could never unravel it; Alice Kober, the fiery American scholar whose vital work on Linear B never got the recognition it deserved; and Michael Ventris, the haunted English architect who would solve the riddle triumphantly at the age of thirty only to die four years later under circumstances that remain the subject of speculation even now.

For half a century some of the world’s foremost scholars tried to coax the tablets to yield their secrets. Then, in 1952, the script was deciphered seemingly in a single stroke—not by a scholar but by Ventris, an impassioned amateur whose obsession with the tablets had begun in childhood. The decipherment brought him worldwide acclaim. But it also cost him his architectural career, his ties to his family, and quite possibly his life.

That is the narrative of the decipherment as it has been known thus far. But a major actor in the drama has long been missing: Alice Kober, a classicist at Brooklyn College. Though largely forgotten today, she came within a hair’s breadth of deciphering Linear B before her own untimely death in 1950. As The Riddle of the Labyrinth reveals, it was Kober who built the foundation on which Ventris’s decipherment stood, an achievement that until now has been all but lost to history. Drawing on a newly opened archive of Kober’s papers, Margalit Fox restores this unsung heroine to her rightful place at last.

 

topsyTOPSY: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P. T. Barnum and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison
By Michael Daly
288 pp., Atlantic Monthly Press, $27.00

From Amazon.com:

In 1903, on Coney Island, an elephant named Topsy was electrocuted, and over the past century, this bizarre, ghoulish execution has reverberated through popular culture with the whiff of urban legend. But it really happened, and many historical forces conspired to bring Topsy, Thomas Edison, and those 6600 volts of alternating current together that day. Tracing them all in Topsy The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, journalist Michael Daly weaves together a fascinating popular history, the first book on this astonishing tale.

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HarrietSpy1When I grow up I’m going to find out everything about everybody and put it all in a book.

—Harriet M. Welsch in Harriet the Spy

 Harriet M. Welsch would have made an excellent blogger.  The title character in Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 young adult novel is a spunky Upper East Side kid with a constant burning desire to record her observations of those around her as well as her own feelings toward them.  She has probably inspired a generation of aspiring writers, including myself, to observe and record their worlds, no matter how small or mundane.

Harriet’s world revolves around her uptown neighborhood and the characters who inhabit it.  She wants to be a spy and a writer when she grows up.  And to this end, she fills notebook after notebook with notes gathered during her spy route, a series of homes she clandestinely visits each day, and snarky comments about her classmates.  Through Harriet’s eyes, we see the struggles of the local grocer’s family, the loneliness of a cat-loving bachelor, the neuroses of a bed-ridden hypochondriac, as well as many other characters, all through the eyes of an eleven-year-old child.

We also see Harriet’s life as an upper-middle-class New York kid as she is often ignored by her self-involved parents and left in the care of Old Golly, her wise and loving nurse and, after the nurse leaves the household, the cook.  When Harriet gets into a fix, she does not rely on lessons learned from her mother or father but, rather, tries to imagine what Ole Golly would advise her to do.

An illustration by the author from Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

An illustration by the author from Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet’s keen powers of observation get her in trouble when her classmates find and read one of her notebooks, revealing her many harsh criticisms (as well as compliments) about them.  Harriet later apologizes for her comments by printing a retraction.  The book quietly condones, within reason, eavesdropping as well as (white) lying and praises those who stick to their convictions even if it means talking back to elders.  In a letter, Old Golly tells Harriet, “Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. But to yourself you must tell the truth”

When the book was first published, some tried to have the book banned, stating that it “teaches children to lie, spy, back-talk and curse,” but this effort was unsuccessful and Harriet the Spy went on to become a juvenile classic.  It spoke to many audiences, but especially to readers who sympathized with Harriet’s status as an outsider at school.  An NPR report on the book explains:

Louise Fitzhugh, author of Harriet the Spy

Louise Fitzhugh, author of Harriet the Spy

These days, girls can read books about all kinds of kids, facing all kinds of real problems. But back in the 1960s, when Kathleen Horning, the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was growing up, the pickings were slimmer.

“There was a whole genre called the ‘tomboy story’ where a girl rebels in that way, but at the end everything is wonderful because she really is a girl and she gets very feminine,” remembers Horning.

Horning says she was a tomboy who didn’t want to reform. Later on, she realized she was a lesbian. What does that have to do with Harriet the Spy? A lot, says Horning. The book’s author Louise Fitzhugh, was also gay, and although Harriet’s sexuality is never touched on in the book, her boy’s clothes and bravado sent a message to some kids who felt different and didn’t know why.

“I have talked to so many adult lesbians who felt the same way about Harriet,” Horning says. “Particularly if you were growing up in the sixties when you really didn’t have any other people like you, Harriet was it. What the book told us is that we could be ourselves and survive.”

Harriet was a role model for all children who struggled with difference.  She shows readers, girls and boys alike, that belief in oneself, regardless of how others see you, is not only essential but liberating.  Although she apologizes publicly for what she wrote about others, she never apologizes to herself for being honest, boldly declaring, “I love myself.”  She is still the same Harriet we met at the beginning of the novel, only a bit older, and a lot wiser.

 

Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet, the Spy. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

 

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