Archive for the ‘New York’ Category

She Saw Hitler

Eleanor Roosevelt with Dorothy Thompson in 1942

New York, N.Y.

Dorothy Thompson house

237 East 48th Street

Dorothy Thompson (1894-1961), one of the most intrepid foreign correspondents of her day and the author of I Saw Hitler, was once married to writer Sinclair Lewis, but the great love of her life was Christa Winsloe, author of the novel upon which the classic lesbian film Mädchen in Uniform was based. After the break with both of them, Thompson lived alone in this three-story brownstone in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of Manhattan from 1941 to 1957. She spent more than $20,000 for renovations to make it, as she wrote, “the most perfect small house I have ever seen.”

Thompson’s “small” home included a library with more than 3,000 books, five fireplaces, and a third-floor study for writing. In the drawing room, a wine-colored satin sofa could hold, she bragged, five of “the most distinguished bottoms in New York.” When the renovations were complete, Thompson invited a reporter from Look magazine to inspect the final product, and he remarked admiringly on the many telephones, intercoms, and labor-saving devices throughout the house.

In the front door were eight painted glass panels showing Thompson in medieval attire performing various tasks – writing, lecturing, greeting guests. There was also the house’s motto: “Gallus in sterquilinio suo plurimum potest.” (“The rooster on his own dunghill is very much in charge.”) New York’s Historic Landmark Preservation Center placed a medallion on Thompson’s brownstone in 1995.

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“The Larky Life”

S.I. Historical Society

Staten Island, N.Y.

Alice Austen home

“Clear Comfort”

2 Hylan Boulevard

When photographer Alice Austen (1866-1952) lived there, Staten Island was a quiet, bucolic, upper-middle-class suburb of picturesque “cottages.” The Austen family home, Clear Comfort, was a 17th-century Dutch farmhouse purchased by Austen’s grandfather in 1844 and renovated and added on to over the years. When Austen’s father abandoned them, she and her mother came to live at Clear Comfort, where Alice was surrounded by a family of supportive relatives, including an uncle who presented her with her first camera when she was 10 years old. One of the country’s earliest female photographers, Austen was also the first woman to take her camera into the streets of New York City, producing an invaluable record of life at the turn of the 20th century. Her earliest documentary photographs predate those of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, whose work is now renowned while that of the gifted Austen, who died in obscurity, is largely forgotten.

Austen frequently focused her camera on the upper-class world she knew best, recording what she referred to as “the larky life” – tennis matches, bicycling, swimming, amateur theatrics, auto races. But her subjects also included the poor of lower Manhattan – street vendors, immigrants in Battery Park, shoeshine boys, ragpickers – who were far removed from her comfortable life. Austen took photographs almost every day, at a time when cameras and photographic equipment were heavy and bulky and glass plates cost about two dollars each. During her lifetime, she produced about 9,000 photographs, and the extant glass plates and negatives are today part of the collection of the Staten Island Historical Society.

Austen shared more than half of her life with an intimate companion, Gertrude Tate, who came to live with her at Clear Comfort in 1917. Not surprisingly, the curators at the historic house steer away from “the L word.” Visitors at Clear Comfort view an introductory video that labels Austen “a personality” who led “an unconventional lifestyle” – code words that attempt to explain why, as the video puts it, “Alice Austen was never to marry.”

Austen’s home is a National Historic Landmark. The first floor is open to the public, but only one room, the downstairs parlor, looks much as it would have in Alice’s time. As her finances dwindled after the Crash of 1929, Austen began selling furniture and art objects to New York museums, and some of these have been retrieved for exhibit at Clear Comfort. Fortunately, Austen, for posterity, left a complete record of both the interior and the exterior of the house, which made the restoration process much easier.

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I know, I know…  there’s been lots of New York City on this blog recently. But things just keep presenting themselves to me, and hey, I did live there for two decades. Here’s an article I just found in the New York Times in which biographer Joan Schenkar talks about novelist Patricia Highsmith’s comings and goings in Manhattan.

And while you’re reading about Highsmith, check out an interview my friend Jill Dearman recently did with Schenkar.

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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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