Archive for the ‘New York’ Category

At Home on 26th Street

New York, N.Y.

Herman Melville plaque
104 East 26th Street

After giving up on farming in 1863, Herman Melville moved his family to New York City, into an apartment building at this address. Though the building is no longer standing, a plaque marks its location, and the intersection of 26th Street and Park Avenue South, which is just west of here, is called “Herman Melville Square.” From this address, Melville commuted daily to his job in lower Manhattan as deputy inspector of customs, earning about four dollars a week. In the evenings, he worked on Billy Budd, which remained in manuscript at his death and is the only known fiction he wrote during his time in New York.

In 1891, Melville died at home in relative obscurity. Many of his contemporaries thought he had died years earlier!

His brief obituaries labeled his first book, Typee (1846), his most famous. At Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, his small marble tombstone also has remarkably little to say about a man whose work has passed into the literary canon: it simply gives his name and dates.

A personal aside: I lived on East 26th Street from 1991 to 2003, just east of this plaque, and used to pass it every day on my walk across town to work.


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From the Dark Tower

New York, N.Y. (Harlem)

“The Dark Tower”
108-110 West 136th Street

This was the site of A’Lelia Walker’s (1885-1931) home and famous salon, “The Dark Tower,” which she hosted for writers, musicians, and other artists during the 1920s. It was named after a sonnet by queer poet Countee Cullen, which has been said to capture the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance (see below).

A’Lelia Walker’s fortune came from her mother, Madame C.J. Walker, an enterprising woman who created a million-dollar empire from beauty salons and hair-straightening products for black women, and who died in 1919. With her inheritance, A’Lelia purchased these two Stanford White-designed town houses on West 136th Street in “Sugar Hill,” combined them into one residence with a new façade, and furnished them lavishly. Here the woman dubbed “the Mahogany Millionairess” hosted cultural soirees for the Harlem and Greenwich Village “glitterati,” white and black, serving caviar and bootleg champagne and providing entertainment by queer performers Alberta Hunter and Jimmy Daniels. Langston Hughes later wrote that A’Lelia’s parties “were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour.” She herself was a striking figure, whom Hughes called “a gorgeous dark Amazon.”

Sadly, Walker’s historic home was demolished by the city in 1941. Appropriately, the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library now stands on the site.

We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made to eternally weep.

The night whose sable breast relieves the stark,
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.

– “From the Dark Tower,” by Countee Cullen

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Nyack, N.Y.

Carson McCullers home
131 South Broadway

This rambling, three-story house in the sleepy village of Nyack was home to the writer Carson McCullers (1917-1967) from 1945 until her death. The front of the grand Victorian house faces one of the main streets of Nyack, while the rear sun porch enjoys a stunning view of the Hudson River. It is still a private residence, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

After the death of Carson’s father in 1944, her mother, Marguerite Smith, didn’t have the heart to remain in the Georgia house where she and her husband, Lamar, had raised their family. At the time, Carson’s husband, Reeves, had gone into the army, and she, too, was faced with living alone. She loved the scenic village of Nyack, just twenty-five miles up the river from New York City, so she, her mother, and sister decided to take up residence there in the fall of 1944. Nyack reminded Marguerite of the small, friendly towns she had known in Georgia, so she felt immediately at home.

Carson’s family first rented a specious apartment at 129 South Broadway, and then in the spring of 1945, moved to the house next door, which Marguerite purchased with $9,000 from the sale of her Georgia home. When her mother’s funds dipped in the early 1950s, Carson purchased the house from her with the money she received from selling the screen rights to The Member of the Wedding.

Carson used Nyack as her base in between trips to the artists’ colony of Yaddo, where she did much of her writing, and speaking and teaching engagements all over the country. It was at this home that she gave a luncheon to honor her idol, Isak Dinesen, after the two met at a literary function in 1959. Other guests included Marilyn Monroe and husband Arthur Miller. The high point of the afternoon was apparently a spellbinding tale Dinesen related – in true Scheherazade fashion – about killing her first lion in Africa.

Plagued by ill health, depression, and alcoholism through much of her adult life, Carson suffered her final stroke in this house in the summer of 1967. According to her biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, the last words she spoke were to the young actor who rented living space in the basement. He stopped by her bedroom and told her he was appearing in the play Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. “Oh, darling, isn’t that a marvelous title,” Carson said. “Ahh, to get off. Wouldn’t that be something. Wouldn’t that be marvelous.” She suffered a massive brain hemorrhage twenty minutes later and died at Nyack Hospital.

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New York, N.Y.

Henry Street Settlement
265 Henry Street

Lillian D. Wald (1867-1940) was one of many women of her generation who felt the need to make a contribution to society rather than settle into a comfortable, middle-class life. After training as a nurse, an experience that brought her into contact with the dire health-care needs of the immigrant poor on New York’s Lower East Side, Wald and classmate Mary Brewster decided to start a settlement house in the neighborhood in 1895. International banker Jacob Schiff provided the red-brick building that became the Henry Street Settlement and Visiting Nurse Service, which is still standing and in operation today.

Like Jane Addams in Chicago, Wald attracted a group of dedicated women to live and work with her at Henry Street, providing low- or no-cost health care to the poor in their homes. Within the next dozen years, the Visiting Nurse Service included 100 nurses, who made almost a million house calls a year. One nurse recalled later that Wald was always “the first to hear a knock at the front door to respond to an incoherent stumbling appeal for a nurse.” But Henry Street became more than a health care facility; it acted as a community center, too, providing classes and cultural experiences.

Wald shared her life with a community of women and enjoyed intimate relationships with several. Among them were Mabel Kittredge, a wealthy donor, and Helen Arthur, a lawyer and theater producer, who once wrote to Wald of longing “to get back to your comfortable lap… instead of being solicitously hustled from your room at ten o’clock.” Wald’s intimate companions quickly discovered that her relationship with Henry Street Settlement would always be primary.

During World War I, Wald became actively involved in the peace movement, which made her work and travel schedule more hectic. She purchased a country house in Westport, Connecticut, in 1917, and periodically took time off there as a retreat. She finally retired from her settlement work in 1933 and spent her remaining years in Westport.

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Albany, N.Y.

Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Center
332 Hudson Avenue

One of the two LGBT community centers founded in 1971, Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Center has a unique distinction: it has been in this same location for all of its 38 years. (See photo above.) Executive Director Norah Yates wrote to me that:

We’ve been in this building since 1971; we were started in 1970 and had a storefront at one point, but then started meeting at our address when it was the home of one of our founders.

CDGLCC provides numerous services, including youth programs, cultural events, a café, an art gallery named after lesbian painter Romaine Brooks, an LGBT library, confidential AIDS testing, and a newspaper, commUNITY. The center also sponsors Albany’s annual Capital Pride celebration in June.

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Remsen, N.Y.

Baron Von Steuben Memorial Park
Starr Hill Road at Steuben Memorial Drive

I recently received an email from Lyle in L.A., informing me about a site I hadn’t heard of – the Baron Von Steuben Memorial Park in Remsen, N.Y., Oneida County. Here’s what Lyle has to say about the site:

…there is a monument, a log cabin with historical memorabilia, and huge park grounds.  (The information that I always heard is that while they were building a road on Starr Hill around there, … his body was discovered, and subsequently the park came into being.)  I first knew that Baron Von Steuben was gay from reading Randy Shilts’ book Conduct Unbecoming.

And here’s a bit more about the Baron: He was nicknamed “Drillmaster of the American Revolution.” (Hmm – no comment.) After the war and in recognition of his valuable services to the new country, Congress granted Von Steuben a large plot of land in upstate New York, where he spent summers in a two-room log cabin until his death. The cabin Lyle mentions in his email is a replica of Von Steuben’s original. The monument (see photo) that Lyle notes marks the Baron’s final resting place.

Finally, I think Lyle sums up the need for queer historic sites in one sentence:

To think that this park, which I frequented for twenty years while [I was] growing up in Remsen, was in honor of a gay man is truly fascinating, and I wonder if I had known that while growing up it would have made my life a bit easier.

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New York, N.Y.

Stonewall Inn
51-53 Christopher Street

This weekend marks a historic event in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history: the 40th anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, a popular gay bar and hangout in the late 1960s, a place to meet friends and lovers. But at a time when homosexuality was criminalized, police raids of gay bars were de rigueur. On June 28, 1969, when cops raided the Stonewall in the early morning hours and forced the patrons outside, drag queens, young queer people of color, gay men, and a crowd of supporters on the street began pelting the police with beer cans and rocks. The crowd then set the bar on fire, but the police extinguished the flames and “secured” the area within a few hours. A weekend of rioting ensued, during which gay people stood off city cops and claimed their right to live openly – “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad,” ran the headline in the New York Post.

The rebellion sparked a new movement that grew by leaps and bounds into the LGBT rights movement of today. The term “Stonewall” is now the international symbol of LGBT resistance and liberation, and the anniversary of the rebellion is celebrated around the world with marches, rallies, and parades. In 1999, the Stonewall Inn was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the only LGBT site on the list. Although the original bar has gone through many transformations since 1969 – in the early 1980s, for example, it was a bagel shop – it is once again a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn.


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Cherry Grove (Fire Island), N.Y.

The Belvedere
Bay View Walk

In 1956, set designer and graphic artist John Eberhardt visited Fire Island for the first time and fell in love with the barrier island just a few hours from New York City. He bought a plot of land and with his partner, Joe Fiorentino, built this imposing three-story Rococco guest house on the bay, in the heart of the country’s oldest gay resort. With its gleaming cupolas, Roman statues and columns, mirrors, fountains, and formal wisteria-draped arbors, the antiques-furnished Belvedere sits in sharp contrast to the simple, shingled beach cottages of “the Grove,” rising above them like a sort of Taj Mahal. In the early days, Eberhardt was famous for the elaborate parties he threw at the Belvedere. He and Fiorentino went on to become the Grove’s largest landowners, buying up much of the eastern end of the resort and building numerous gingerbread cottages through the late 1960s. Gay men can still stay at the ultra-campy, clothing-optional Belvedere.

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Baltimore, Md.

Billie Holiday home
219 South Durham Street

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) had a rough childhood. As a young girl named Eleanora Fagan, she cut school so often she was sent to live at the House of the Good Shepherd, a home for “colored girls” run by the Little Sisters of the Poor (Claverton Road and Franklin Street). There, she may have had her first lesbian experiences.

Returned to her mother after a year, the two took up residence at this address, one of dozens they occupied over the years. The house is still standing, but the original brick façade was covered over with Permastone in the 1950s. It was in this house, in 1926, that Eleanora was raped by a neighbor and subsequently sent back to Good Shepherd. But she was a handful, and the sisters refused to keep her for long.

At only 11 years old, Eleanora earned money cleaning for a whorehouse madam. The madam let her listen to the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, who had a combined influence on her singing style. Eleanora began singing at various storefront churches, but her first professional gig was at Buddy Love’s, a club located at Orleans and Wayside.

As a young teenager, Eleanora moved to New York with her mother, and pursued a singing career, transforming herself into Billie Holiday. After years of touring with Count Basie, she was offered her first steady job at Café Society in 1938, earning $75 a week. From that, she went on to be featured soloist at clubs all over the country, acquiring the nickname “Lady Day.” Her distinctive voice, which she used like a musical instrument, transformed jazz singing. “I don’t think I’m singing,” she once said of her style. “I feel like I’m playing a horn.”

Holiday had many affairs with both men and women, but was known as a “les” among many of her peers in the music industry. One of her female lovers reported that “Billie even got the name Mister Holiday, because she was seldom seen with fellas.” Holiday once told a colleague, “Sure, I’ve been to bed with women… but I was always the man.”

Sadly, by the 1940s Holiday was addicted to heroin and alcohol, and she was arrested on drug charges several times. Many club owners would no longer take the risk of hiring her because she was often high during performances. Her career went progressively downhill, and she finally died in 1959 of liver cirrhosis and other complications of substance abuse.

A commemorative statue of Holiday stands in Baltimore at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue.


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De Wolfe

New York, N.Y.

Elsie de Wolfe / Elisabeth Marbury home
“Irving House”
122 East 17th Street

Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950) had two careers, first as an actress and then as the first professional interior decorator. In 1892, she and her lover, Elisabeth (Bessie) Marbury, a theatrical agent and producer, made a home together at this address, a residence that had been built in 1830 for writer Washington Irving – hence called “Irving House.” (Today, a plaque on the building mentions Irving but not de Wolfe.) Though East 17th Street was not fashionable at that time, their block was situated firmly in the elegant Gramercy Park district, which held a certain cachet for the two women.

De Wolfe tired of touring in theatrical productions in the late 1890s and began spending more time at home. Marbury suggested that she focus her attention on the remodeling of Irving House, her first interior decoration project. De Wolfe removed the dark woodwork and wallpaper, velvet curtains, and heavy furniture that had marked the tastes of the mid-Victorian era. She had the walls painted ivory and light gray and the house completely refurnished in 18th-century French style.

When the remodeling was finished, “the Bachelors” – as de Wolfe and Marbury called themselves – established a Parisian-type salon at their residence. Each Sunday afternoon from 1897 to 1907, an eclectic assortment of guest met at Irving House for literary talk, gossip, tea and snacks, and an exchange of wit. Guests included such personalities as Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, Oscar Wilde, Nellie Melba, Henry Adams, and Isabella Stewart Gardner. “You never know who you are going to meet at Bessie’s and Elsie’s,” one salon-goer remarked, “but you can always be sure that whoever they are they will be interesting and you will have a good time.”

De Wolfe’s first public commission came through Marbury’s contacts. Marbury was the first successful theatrical agent, who represented many of the big playwrights of her era, including Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Marbury pulled some strings to land her partner a job redecorating the Colony Club in Manhattan, the first private club for women. (It’s now the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.) After that, more and more work came de Wolfe’s way, and a commission to decorate the mansion of Henry Clay Frick made her a millionaire.

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