Sunday, April 13, 2014

122. Exiles in New York, part 3

     This is the third post on Exiles in New York.  Originally I anticipated only one post, but I found such interesting characters that it soon become two posts, then three, and now four, but four, I insist, is the limit.  New York has always been a refuge and new home for those fleeing oppression – or  scandal or debt or irrelevance – in the Old World.  It is the gateway to the New World, a land of opportunities where people can try out new lives, new identities, new ideas.

Marc Chagall

File:Marc Chagall, 1911, I and the Village, oil on canvas, 192.1 x 151.4 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York.jpg
I and the Village, 1911.
    A giant cow’s head with a milkmaid inside it, a trudging peasant with a scythe, upside-down houses, a sprig of flowers, and a huge green human face.  Or a floating couple above a bright red floor, the husband kissing his wife who holds a bouquet of flowers.  Or a winged fish with a violin above a pendulum clock drifting in midair, against a blue riverscape and, on one bank, a pair of clasping lovers.  These are some of the Chagall paintings that I have seen at the Museum of Modern Art, often labeled Surrealist, whimsical, primitive, dreamlike, or Expressionist, though none of these terms conveys fully and accurately the unique quality of his art.

File:Portrait of Marc Chagall.jpg     Born to a family of observant Hasidic Jews near the city of Vitebsk in imperial Russia, all his life Chagall would express in his art the memories and impressions of his childhood, the very images that I would see here in New York.  The 1917 Revolution offered Chagall opportunities denied him as a Jew under the Czars, but in time he moved to France, where he was recognized as a major Modernist artist.  Inevitably, his work was denounced as degenerate by the Nazi authorities in Germany, but after the Fall of France in 1940 he and his wife Bella remained in Vichy France, unaware at first of the threat there to Jews.  With the help of a forged visa supplied by an American vice-consul in Marseilles, they finally left France in May 1941 and arrived in New York in June. 

     A celebrity in a country whose language he could not speak, Chagall lived at 4 East 74th Street, visited galleries and museums, and became friends with other exiles like Piet Mondrian and André Breton.  He especially relished visiting the Lower East Side, where he could have Jewish food and read the Yiddish press, his main source of news, since he hadn’t mastered English.  Yet contemporary American artists had little appreciation of Chagall’s art until Pierre Matisse, the painter’s son, sponsored exhibitions of his work in New York and Chicago in 1941.  Asked by the choreographer Leonid Massine to design the sets and costumes for his new ballet Aleko, he did so with such success that at the premiere in September 1942 he was included in the curtain calls, to tumultuous applause. 

     Chagall’s life in New York was not altogether happy, since he yearned for Paris and Vitebsk, and felt guilty for having abandoned his people in a time of persecution.  To convey his anguish at the Nazi extermination of Jews, his art began to show Christ as a Jewish martyr next to a burning shtetl, a new phase of work contrasting sharply with the childlike and fanciful works preceding it.  In 1944 he was stricken by the news that his beloved Vitebsk, long occupied by the Germans, had been destroyed in fighting between the Germans and Russians, and later that same year his wife Bella died suddenly from an infection, following which he couldn’t work for months.

     Grateful to America for providing him with a wartime refuge, he returned to Paris in the fall of 1947.  He is well remembered here, and two immense paintings of his adorn the front lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.

     Me and Chagall:  When I first encountered Chagall’s works here in New York, I was charmed.  Then, over the years, I decided that he was offering a bag of tricks – floating lovers, the fiddler uncle, upside-own houses, the Eiffel Tower, flying clocks – that were repeated far too often; I was tired of them.  Too folksy, too childlike, too naïve or pseudo-naïve.  It all seemed just a bit flimsy, an impression I never got from Picasso, Matisse, or the German Expressionists.  A gifted illustrator and set designer, perhaps, but not a great artist.  Now I find that many critics agree, though just how critical of him they are varies greatly.  It seems a commonly accepted conclusion that early Chagall is good, and late Chagall bad.  And when I see a reproduction of Praying Jew, a 1914 work in black and white showing its subject, bearded and hunched, in a prayer shawl, I am again impressed: no flying figures, no blasts of color, but instead a very solid figure devoid of fantasy and whimsy and engrossed in prayer.  Yes, Chagall had his moments.  I just wish there had been more of them.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

File:Sergei Rachmaninoff LOC 33968 Cropped.jpg    If the Russian Revolution created new opportunities for Chagall, it did just the opposite for Rachmaninoff, since his family were impoverished members of the old Russian aristocracy.   His status as a world-famous composer, pianist, and conductor could not prevent the loss of his estate, his  way of life, and his livelihood.  At age 44, in December 1917 he left Petrograd (soon to become Leningrad) for Helsinki, Finland, with his wife and two daughters on an open sled, taking with him only a few notebooks with sketches of his own compositions and some other works.  After giving concerts in Scandinavia for a year, he decided that the U.S. might offer the best financial opportunities and came to New York in November 1918.  He was soon giving concerts and signing contracts, and in 1921 bought a five-story house at 33 Riverside Drive, near 72nd Street, where he recreated the atmosphere of Ivanovka, his summer residence in Russia, hiring Russian servants, entertaining Russian guests, and observing old Russian customs.  Homesick, he struck some of his friends as a melancholy aristocrat yearning for a past that could never be recovered.  In 1925 he sold his house and moved into an apartment building at 505 West End Avenue, near 86th Street, which remained his New York residence till the end of his life. 

     Capitalist America was good to the exiled pianist.  In the years that followed, his towering presence (he was 6  foot 6) was seen often in the concert halls of the U.S. and Europe giving concerts of dazzling virtuosity, and he prospered to the point that he acquired a home in Beverly Hills also, and a villa in Switzerland where he spent his summers from 1933 to 1939.  His favorite piano was a Hamburg Steinway, of which he had two for his New York residence, two for his home in Beverly Hills, and one for his Swiss villa.  When he published a letter in the New York Times in 1931 condemning the Soviet regime, that regime banned his works as “decadent.”  He and his wife became U.S. citizens in 1943, and soon afterward he died of melanoma in Beverly Hills, just four days before his seventieth birthday.  He wanted to be buried at his villa in Switzerland, but wartime conditions made this impossible, so he was interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

Quentin Crisp

File:Quentincrisp1.jpg      Admittedly effeminate from an early age, Quentin Crisp (an assumed name) survived schoolyard bullying to work briefly as a male prostitute in London (looking for love, he found only degradation), and attracted both admiration and hostility because of his bright make-up, dyed hair, and painted fingernails and toenails.  During World War II he cruised about the streets in the blackout picking up G.I.s, whose kindness and tolerance inspired his love of all things American.  His autobiography The Naked Civil Servant was published in 1968, but it was the 1975 TV version, broadcast by both British and U.S. television, that made him famous.  After that he toured Britain with a one-man show comprising an entertaining monologue and a question-and-answer session with the audience.

     For Quentin Crisp, New York City was love at first sight: “When I saw Manhattan, I wanted it.”  He brought his show here in 1978, his stay at the legendary Chelsea Hotel coinciding with a fire, a robbery, and the death of Nancy Spungen (see post #121).  Finding Britain homophobic and parochial, and New York more open, friendly, and welcoming, in 1981 he moved  here permanently at age 72, arriving with few possessions and finding a tiny one-room apartment on East 3rd Street in the East Village, where he lived contentedly in squalor.  (“There is no need to do any housework at all.  After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.”)  Listing his phone number in the telephone directory, he talked with anyone who called him.  Dinner invitations poured in, and he accepted them all on condition that his dinner be paid for.  In recompense, he entertained his hosts with colorful stories about his life, so that dining with him was soon said to be one of the best shows in New York.  To support himself, he performed his one-man show, wrote movie reviews and columns for U.S. and British newspapers and magazines, acted on the stage and on TV, and of course dined out.  By accepting every invitation to a cocktail party or premiere, he insisted, one could exist on peanuts and champagne.  Easily recognized by his tilted hat and painted face, he was soon a venerated celebrity on the Lower East Side, where people waved at him on the street, bums greeted him, and deferential young men asked for his autograph.

     Unpredictable and provocative, he outraged the gay community by calling AIDS a “fad,” and homosexuality “a terrible disease,” remarks that could be seen as self-hating and arrogant, or as a tongue-in-cheek bid for attention.  Even as the gay lib movement swept America, he never spoke out for gay rights or endorsed campaigns against homophobia; his role, he felt, was simply to be himself.   By now, for him sexual adventures were irrelevant.  For many in gay life, he was too old-style camp, too flamboyant, not “cool.”  Some critics saw him as jealous: gay liberation meant that he was no longer unique, the most visible queer in town, and he resented it.  Be that as it may, he was certainly a loner, not a joiner.

      Returning to England in poor health to tour with a revival of his one-man show, he died of a heart attack in a Manchester boarding house on November 21, 1999, one month before his 91st birthday; he was cremated there and his ashes were flown back to New York to be scattered over Manhattan.  Some thought his return to “merciless” England (his phrase), a trip obviously beyond his strength, was deliberately suicidal, based on the calculation that if he died in the U.S. he would get an obit on page 10, whereas if he died in England on the eve of a farewell tour, and with a play about him running in London, his death would be front-page news.  To the surprise of many, his estate was valued at over $600,000. 

     His wit was proverbial.  Planning to move to the U.S., he was interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in London and asked if he was a practicing homosexual.  “I didn’t practice,” he replied.  “I was already perfect.”

Other instances:
·      Never keep up with the Joneses.  Drag them down to your level.
·      Life was a funny thing that happened to me on the way to the grave.
·      An autobiography is obituary in serial form with the last installment missing.
·      To know all is not to forgive all.  It is to despise everybody.

     He is now revered for simply being himself, for not hiding his homosexuality but flaunting it, for making the outrageous acceptable.  Kathleen Egan in the New York Times called him “an anarchist armed with a compact.”   His credo:  Be yourself, whatever the cost.  To which one might add:  Above all, do it with flair.

Louis Napoleon

File:Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte 1836.JPG     After a failed coup d’état in Strasbourg in October 1836 and a resulting short stay in prison, Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the great Napoleon and future Emperor Napoleon III of France, at age 29 felt a sudden urge to visit the New World and, disembarking in Norfolk on March 30, 1837, proceeded to New York.  Installed in a hotel here, he is said to have met some of the best French and American society in the city, as well as Washington Irving, who invited him to his country estate.  Already he was sporting the deliciously waxed mustache with its tips curled upward, and the tuft of beard below it, that would characterize his later glory days and become known as an impériale.  His favorite topics of conversation were his uncle the Emperor, the reasons for the coup at Strasbourg, and his conviction that he was destined to rule France.  Perhaps in imitation of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose influential work Democracy in America first appeared in 1835, he planned to tour the country so as to know American institutions better, but when informed that his mother was dying in Switzerland, he left the U.S. in haste so as to be with her until the end, which, after some delays en route, he managed to do. 

     As for his reception here by the French community, I suspect that he was welcomed warmly by the Bonaparte faction and greeted less warmly by the legitimists who wanted a Bourbon restoration, and the supporters of the then current regime of Louis Philippe, the “roi bourgeois.”  Not to mention those who yearned for a republic.  In those days the French, being politically versatile, had many options. 

     Be that as it may, Louis Napoleon was destined to influence fashion in this city and nation.  Once he finagled his way into becoming, like his uncle, the Emperor of the French, his impériale was much imitated by the hirsute faction on these shores.  And his consort, the Empress Eugénie, is said to have launched the vogue of the hoopskirt – a dubious claim to fame, given the difficulty stylish women had in maneuvering its ample proportions.  There are at least three theories as to why she favored this outlandish innovation: (1) she wanted to hide her pregnancy (she would give birth to the prince impériale); (2) her couturier wanted to promote the French fabric and trim industry; (3) though acclaimed as a beauty, she had bad legs and wanted to hide them.

Lorenzo Da Ponte

File:Lorenzo da Ponte.jpg     Jewish by birth, and a Catholic convert who became a priest unburdened by his vow of chastity  (he hung out with Casanova), Lorenzo Da Ponte, known today as Mozart’s librettist, achieved a rare distinction by getting himself banished from  sensual, easy-going Venice, his native city, for immoral conduct -- specifically for “public concubinage” and “abduction of a respectable woman.”  Among his misdeeds were a mistress who bore him two children, and, so the story goes, his living in a brothel and organizing the entertainments there.  His priestly duties, it seems, were a sideline, or maybe nonexistent.

     Forced to leave Venice in 1779, he moved to Austria and finally turned up in Vienna, where he made the right connections and became the court librettist, working above all with Mozart on his best-known Italian operas.  These, his glory days, ended when his patron, the emperor Joseph II, died in 1790 and was succeeded by a monarch who was quickly prejudiced against Da Ponte by his enemies at court.  Da Ponte then transferred his talents to London, where he engaged in various theatrical and publishing activities, until debt and bankruptcy forced him to flee to the U.S., where he had already dispatched his wife and children (yes, he seems to have actually married this one), since she had relatives there.  When, at age 56, he disembarked in Philadelphia in 1805, he possessed a violin and little else, having gambled his scant funds away on the voyage.

     In America he settled first in New York, where he briefly ran a grocery store, then decamped for Pennsylvania, where he may have run a millinery and a distillery (accounts differ).  Returning to New York, he opened a bookstore and a rooming house where the roomers, many of them students at Columbia College, savored his sophisticated talk about the arts, Mozart, and Italian cooking.  He also taught Italian, primarily to young women, which, given his past, might make one fear for their chastity, though by now his sexual misadventures had probably come to an end.  White-haired and toothless, he still managed to ooze an Old World charm that won him many friends, though his tales about himself and his accomplishments were such as to inspire mistrust.  In time he taught Italian literature at Columbia College, where he had no fixed salary but was paid for each student enrolled.  Alas, after the first year he had zero students and therefore zero pay.  But he remained on the college faculty for thirteen years, and so became the first Jewish-born professor and the first Catholic priest to teach there, though by now he passed for an Anglican.

     His two great passions were opera and Italian literature, and he was determined to make them both better known in this raw, vital city in this raw, vital land.  In 1825 he mounted a performance of Don Giovanni in New York, then introduced Rossini’s music to the U.S. through a concert tour with his niece.  In 1833, at age 84, he founded the New York Opera Company, the first opera house in the country, but his financial acumen had not improved, and after two seasons the company was disbanded and the theater sold to pay its debts.  A U.S. citizen since 1828, he died here in 1838 and was honored with an enormous funeral ceremony in the Catholic cathedral on Mulberry Street.  What became of his remains is unknown, since the cemetery where he was buried was closed soon afterward and the graves relocated elsewhere.

      An astonishing life, or maybe one should say lives, since he kept reinventing himself and tried his hand at everything, a Venetian Jew turned Catholic priest turned Anglican with a talent for seduction and debt.  Still, he  initiated the teaching of Italian literature and induced an interest in opera in a city and nation that up till then were blissfully ignorant of both.  Though the location of his remains is uncertain, a tombstone was belatedly put up in 1985 in the Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

Lorenzo da Ponte
One tombstone could hardly hold all the man's accomplishments.


     So spoke Harold Clurman, when commenting long ago on the characters in a scene presented in the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio.  (A very good scene, incidentally, and well acted.)  His words often come to mind when, returning from errands, I notice the cigarette butts and stray bits of paper tossed in the small front area of the building next door.  That area is well kept by my neighbor, who plants things there.  But Americans, alas, think that every garden is an ashtray, and every park a trash dump.  At times, in the course of my hikes, I have walked for a short distance beside a highway and noticed the litter there: plastic cups and utensils, brown paper bags, cigarette butts, bits of paper, even whole newspapers.  People seem to think that, if they toss trash out a car window, it will somehow disappear.  But it doesn't.  Yes, Americans are pigs.  One welcome exception is the state of Maine, which really strives to keep its highways clean.  Billboards are limited, and there is almost no litter at the sides of roads; you can actually enjoy the landscape, and the landscape there is well worth looking at.  But New York State, like most states I have visited, is strewn with trash.  Yes, alas, Americans are pigs.

This  is  New  York

File:Times Square at Night (7823232238).jpg
Stuart Sevastos

     Coming soon:  To celebrate Easter and the miracle of the Resurrection, next Sunday’s post will be Wonder: Our Need of It, with comments on Mount Canigou at dawn, Chartres, opening buds, brain coral, the first flaring forth, the beauty of mathematics, the wisdom of the body, and related matters.  After that, one more glance at exiles, another at famous deaths in New York, and probably a post on Remarkable Women (I have a juicy trio in mind).

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder


Sunday, April 6, 2014

121. Famous Deaths, part 1

     New York is a place people come to in order to have fun, to find themselves, to make their way in the world, to live.  But, as chance or fate would have it, it is also a place where people – often famous people – die.  This post is about the last years and death here of four people famous in their time.  Three died in the West Village, where I reside. To a considerable extent they were all responsible for their demise.

Alexander Hamilton

File:Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806.jpg     A Founding Father and influential supporter and interpreter of the Constitution, Secretary of the Treasury in George Washington’s cabinet, and founder of the Federalist Party, Hamilton had had to leave the cabinet following the revelation of his involvement in an adulterous affair.  (Yes, it happened back then, too.)  Living in a villa in Manhattan just north of New York City, he was still involved in the vituperative politics of the day, and  had incurred the enmity of Aaron Burr, whom he viewed as an unscrupulous opportunist. 

File:Aaron Burr-2.jpg

     Burr is a fascinating character about whom opinion differs to this day.  A brave soldier and shrewd lawyer, he had polished manners and magnetic charm, and was immensely attractive to women, but he was also ambitious and scheming in politics, and not one to endure a slight.  He and Hamilton had long been political rivals, and Hamilton had often thwarted his ambition.  Now, alleging insults in print, Burr, who was Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, challenged Hamilton to a duel.  Dueling was outlawed in both New York and New Jersey, but with milder consequences in New Jersey.  Hamilton, who was illegitimate, was touchy on the subject of honor and so declined to defuse the situation. 

     At dawn on July 11, 1804, the most famous duel in American history took place on a deserted rocky ledge in Weehawken, just across the Hudson in New Jersey.  Both fired, and almost simultaneously, but who fired first is unclear.  Hamilton seems to have intentionally missed Burr with his shot, but Burr was a crack marksman and his shot tore through Hamilton’s liver and shattered his spine.  Hamilton, who knew he was mortally wounded, was ferried back to New York and taken to the home of a friend at what is now 80-82 Jane Street (but a few doors down from where I lived in the 1960s).  After great suffering, on the following afternoon he died there, age 49, surrounded by weeping family and friends. 

An old print with some inaccuracies.  Only the two seconds were present.  The clothing is typical of the 18th century, not of the early 19th.

     Hamilton’s funeral two days later was a municipal event, for he had long practiced law in the city and was well known to the citizens.  Business was suspended, and muffled bells tolled from dawn to dusk.  At noon the long funeral procession, which included military officers, students, merchants, lawyers, politicians, tradesmen, and ordinary citizens, wound through the streets toward Trinity Church, where he was to be buried, while warships in the harbor fired guns, and merchant vessels flew their flags at half mast. 

     Fearing a mob attack on his house, and charged with various crimes, including murder, in both New York and New Jersey, Burr decamped for fairer pastures; the charges were eventually dropped.  But the duel ended his political career, since he never ran for office again after his term as Vice President ended in 1805.  In 1807 he would be tried for treason on questionable charges regarding an alleged conspiracy on the Western frontier, but he was acquitted.  For a while he tried without success to regain his fortunes in Europe, after which he returned to the U.S. and resumed his law career in New York.  In 1833, at age 77, he married the wealthy widow Eliza Jumel, no doubt with an eye to her fortune; that fortune was greatly diminished through a speculation he undertook, and she soon filed for divorce.  Burr then suffered a stroke and died in a boarding house on Staten Island in 1836, on the very day the divorce was granted. 

     Gore Vidal’s historical novel Burr (1973) is an interesting interpretation of the man, whom he depicts as an honorable eighteenth-century gentleman while disparaging Hamilton and others.  Burr has his defenders, who suggest that Hamilton fired first, and when Burr heard the bullet whiz by his ear, he thought Hamilton had meant to hit him and so fired in self-defense.  But the majority opinion is that he meant to kill Hamilton.  Late in life, though, he said, “Had I read [Laurence] Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

     As for Madame Jumel, whose mansion in upper Manhattan survives and is open to the public, she rates a post, or at least a good part of one, all her own.

     Decades after Hamilton’s death his aged, white-haired widow, garbed in widow’s black and living quietly in Washington, worked hard to rescue her husband’s reputation from slanders by his political enemies.  Showing visitors about the house, which was crammed with faded memorabilia, she would pause reverentially before a marble bust of Hamilton, the work of an Italian sculptor who presented him as a Roman senator with a toga draped over one shoulder.

     In 2004, the bicentennial anniversary of the duel, descendants of the two opponents staged a re-enactment of the duel near the Hudson River before more than a thousand spectators.

Stephen Foster

File:Stephen Foster.jpg    Though he has been hailed as the “father of American music,” Stephen Foster derived little income from his music, since publishers often printed editions of his songs without paying him a cent.  Struggling with alcoholism, depression, and debt, in 1860 he moved to New York, the center of musical publishing, but his wife and daughter soon left him – as they often had before -- and returned to Pittsburgh.  He published many songs here, but they were mediocre and sold poorly.  Living at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery on the Lower East Side – some have called it a flophouse -- he became impoverished.  Still composing, he would pick out tunes on an old piano in the back room of a German grocery on the Bowery.  In January 1864 he was stricken for days by ague and fever, then fell while washing and dashed his head against the wash basin; the chambermaid found him lying in a pool of blood.  Taken to Bellevue Hospital, he died there in the charity ward on January 13, age 37.  His wallet contained a scrap of paper that only said, “Dear friends and gentle hearts,” plus 38 cents in Civil War scrip and three pennies.  He was buried in his native Pittsburgh.  Ironically, one of his most acclaimed songs, “Beautiful Dreamer,” was published soon after his death.

Dylan Thomas

File:Dylan Thomas photo.jpg     Another victim of alcoholism who died in New York was the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, but unlike Stephen Foster he went out with a bang.  His demise was well observed and well recorded.

     I first heard of Thomas when, in my senior year at college, he came to our campus to do a reading.  This was his first American tour and, like so many Europeans before him (Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde), he came here to make money.  He was lauded to us by our English teachers as a great poet who had renewed English poetry with his rich lyricism and imagery, and we flocked to the campus’s concert hall to hear him.  Thomas was alcoholic by now, and the faculty had been warned that he was marvelous on the stage, but impossible off.  We would learn later that, following a dinner with the English faculty before the reading, he had roundly cursed the Dr. Strathman, the head of the English Department, when, eyeing his watch, Strathman had dragged the poet away from his last beer. 

     The reading was indeed marvelous.  His rich, resonant voice projected clearly as he read poems by Yeats and others, and then his own.  I couldn’t begin to untangle the lush Celtic tapestry of words, so I just let it flow over me.  Then, at the end of the reading, Dr. Strathman announced that Thomas would be glad to talk with students and answer questions.  We all gathered diligently around him, and he got things off to a vibrant start by turning around to confront the pipes of a large organ behind him. 

     “Good God!” he exclaimed.  “I didn’t know there was an organ bigger than mine in here!”

     Questions followed, with answers more arch than frank.  I was too inhibited to venture any, but a girl said, “Mr. Thomas, I didn’t hear what you said that one poem was about.”

     “That’s the first time anyone has said they couldn’t hear me,” he resonated.  “I said it was about masturbation.”

     Dead silence.  Hip, with-it college students that we were, we weren’t prepared for this.

     “Oh,” said the girl, flustered.  “Well, uh, masculine or feminine?”

     “Masculine or feminine?” he boomed.  “Does a woman go off like a rocket?”

     There then followed a sonorous explication as to why it had to be masculine.  We listened in stark silence, stupefied.

     So ended my first and only encounter with Thomas, though the campus crackled with accounts of the reading for days afterward.  And when I went into the English Department the next day for a bit more enlightenment, Dr. Strathman, a serious scholar, announced that, if Thomas continued drinking, he would cease to develop as a poet.  Which subsequent events bore out.  “And I noticed that when he got the check for the reading,” he added, “it went into an inside pocket.  At that moment, at least, he knew what he was doing.”

     After that I went to France and for two years immersed myself in the writings of the Gauls, which enticed me away from Thomas and other English-language writers.  And when I came to New York in the fall of 1953 to pursue graduate work in French at Columbia, I was so preoccupied with my studies far uptown, and with discovery of the fascinating, distracting, and baffling city of New York, that I barely noticed the sad last chapter of the Welsh poet’s life, which played out right here in the West Village, where I would reside from the 1960s on. 

     This was the fourth time Thomas had come over here to make money, and to drink.  When he arrived by air on October 20, those welcoming him were shocked by how pale and shaky he looked; he was obviously in poor health.  He checked in at the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street, where many writers, artists, musicians, and actors have lived.  He then attended a rehearsal of his radio play Under Milk Wood at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y, following which he made a beeline for his favorite bar, the White Horse Tavern, at the corner of Hudson and West 11th, just one block from where I now live, a bar long popular with writers and artists.  During subsequent rehearsals he was obviously sick and on one occasion collapsed. 

File:White Horse Tavern NYWTS.jpg
The White Horse in 1961.  A hangout for writers and intellectuals,
real and pseudo.  One short block from my building, but I never
took to it.
     On November 3 he spent most of the day in bed, drinking.  Late that night he went again to the White Horse, drank heavily, then returned to the Chelsea, where he announced, "I've had eighteen straight whiskies.  I think that's the record."  (The White Horse's barman and owner later observed that he couldn't have had more than half that amount, which for most of us would still be a record.)  After more drinking on November 4, his breathing became labored and his face turned blue.  Alarmed, at midnight November 5 his friends summoned an ambulance.

     He arrived at Saint Vincent's Hospital in a coma.  Informed, his wife Caitlin flew at once to New York and was taken to the hospital.  "Is the bloody man dead yet?" she asked upon arriving there.  Returning later that day, drunk, she threatened to kill John Brinnin, who had organized Thomas's tour; when she became uncontrollable, she was put in a straitjacket and committed to a psychiatric detox clinic on Long Island.  It is said that the young Beat poet Gregory Corso, who had been born at Saint Vincent's, tried to get into Thomas's room so he could see how a poet dies, but was chased away by the nurses.  Still in a coma, Thomas died at noon on November 9.  Surprisingly, a post-mortem gave as causes of death pneumonia, brain swelling, and a fatty liver, with no mention of alcoholism.  Caitlin's autobiography states, "Our only true love was drink.  The bar was our altar.”

     Thomas had long been buried in the churchyard of Laugharne, the fishing village in Wales where he resided, when, stealing time from my French studies, I read the slender volume of his poetry, and reread and reread it, until I at last got a take on it, separating out the mediocre stuff from the good stuff, and the good stuff from that handful of truly great poems on which his reputation, I was convinced, would rest.  He wasn’t easy – in fact, he was obsessively and needlessly obscure, a thick tangle of words and images – but I fought through until I found something solid, something that would last.  Alone of all my friends I became, always with reservations, a devotee, and still am to this day.  As for Under Milk Wood, the radio play he wrote for the BBC, I have seen it done here in a stage version and found it richly rewarding.  It takes place in the fictional Welsh town of Llareggub, a name that sounds convincingly Welsh, until you spell it backwards and discover, once again, a trace of the poet’s whimsical humor. 

Sid Vicious

      Another resident of the Chelsea Hotel was the English guitarist and vocalist Sid Vicious (needless to say, an assumed name), who in 1978 was touring the U.S. with the punk group Sex Pistols (a name that, when I first heard it, struck me as the ultimate in protracted adolescence).  He had been with the group since 1977 and was described as having the “iconic punk look,” his nails painted with purple nail polish, his hair wild.  What he lacked in musicianship – and he evidently lacked a lot -- he is said to have made up in “unmatched punk charisma,” which evidently involved spitting and hurling insults at the audience; he had already been arrested in Britain for assault.  Vicious’s mother, an addict herself, had been supplying him with drugs and paraphernalia for years, which goes to show that mother love hath no limits.

     A new chapter in his life opened on the morning of October 12, 1978, when he awoke from a drugged stupor to find his American girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, herself an addict and onetime prostitute, dead on the bathroom floor of their room in the Chelsea.  She had received a single stab wound to the abdomen, causing her to bleed to death.  The knife used had been bought by Vicious on 42nd Street.  Arrested and charged with her murder, Vicious admitted that they had fought that night, but gave conflicting versions of what then happened.  “I stabbed her, but I never meant to kill her,” he confessed, but then said he couldn’t remember, and also said that during the argument she had fallen on the knife. 

His mug shot, when arrested for Spungen's murder in 1978.

     Released on bail, ten days after her death Vicious attempted suicide by slitting his forearm, following which he was hospitalized at Bellevue.  In December he was arrested again for smashing a beer mug into a friend’s face during an argument and was sent to Rikers Island jail, where he was detoxified but otherwise languished for 55 days before being released on bail on February 1, 1979.  That evening his release was celebrated by a party at the apartment of his new girlfriend Michele at 63 Bank Street.  His obliging mother was present and arranged to have some heroin delivered.  Vicious overdosed on Mom’s heroin, but the others present got him up and walking about so as to revive him.  At 3:00 a.m. he and Michele went to bed.  There have been different accounts about the events of that evening, but what’s certain is that he was found dead late the next morning.

     Vicious was only 22 when he died.  In a 1977 interview he said, “I’ll probably die by the time I reach twenty-five.  But I’ll have lived the way I wanted to.”  His mother claimed to have found a suicide note in the pocket of his jacket a few days later: “We had a death pact, and I have to keep my half of the bargain.  Please bury me next to my baby.  Bury me in my leather jacket, jeans and motorcycle boots  Goodbye.”  Since Spungen was Jewish and buried in a Jewish cemetery, and Vicious wasn’t Jewish, his wish could not be realized.  So he was cremated and his mother says she scaled the wall of the Philadelphia cemetery where Spungen was buried and, against the wishes of her family, scattered his ashes over her grave.  But another account has Mom tipping over the urn in Heathrow Airport, sending most of the ashes into the airport’s ventilation system.  Either way, requiescat in pace.  Vicious’s friends blamed his death on Spungen, who, herself suicidal, lured him into a morbidly codependent relationship that became a dance of death.  On her deathbed in 1996, Mom confessed that she had deliberately injected him with a lethal dose of heroin, to spare him from going to prison for Spungen’s death.  If so, the silver chord again.  So ended the family saga.

     Vicious died only a few blocks from where I was living (and still am) in the West Village, but the punk scene had so little purchase on my psyche, I was sublimely unaware of the whole to-do.  Of course I come off as an old fogy in commenting on the antics of these young fogies.  I once saw some kids in the subway with green or pink hair and a sign IF YOU THINK PUNK IS DEAD YOU’RE CRAZY.  It wasn’t dead for me.  How could it be, since it had never been born?

     The Chelsea Hotel:  One might think that Thomas’s drunken stay and Nancy Spungen’s murder would have tainted the Chelsea’s reputation as a residence for creative types of all persuasions, but they probably enhanced it.  A massive twelve-story, 250-room red-brick building with ornamental cast-iron balconies overlooking West 23rd Street between 7th and 8th avenues, it opened in 1884 as an apartment coop, later became a luxury hotel, declined after that, but is now a New York City landmark.  By the 1950s much of the original lavish décor had been torn out, and the large suites divided into tiny rooms, as the hotel became something close to a flophouse, with low rents sure to entice needy writers and artists, and junkies, pimps, and prostitutes as well.

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The Chelsea in 2010.
Beyond My Ken

     From the early 1970s on the manager was Stanley Bard, who tried hard to keep the rents for writers low, and let impoverished artists pay with art works and a promise to settle the balance in cash when their circumstances improved.  In Bard’s time the Chelsea was a very special place, like no other hotel in the city.  There might be prostitutes and pimps on one floor, and the black-sheep kids from wealthy families on another, mixed in with budding writers clattering their typewriters, and residents talking poetry or theater.  The elevator was notoriously slow, and a naked girl might run into it and out again, no explanation given.  Occasionally someone committed suicide by jumping down the grandiose stairwell, or an angry lover would set fire to a partner’s mattress or fancy shirts, sending black smoke swirling up the stairwell, and everyone would have to get out of the building.  Some residents were downright crazy, and one tenant kept a small alligator, two monkeys, and a snake.  Short of murder and mayhem (both of which at times occurred), no one was too far out, too weird, as long as – sooner or later – they paid their rent.

     Among the writers who resided there at one time or another were Mark Twain, O. Henry (each time with a different false name, since he was dodging the police), William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller (before and after Marilyn), Quentin Crisp, Gore Vidal (who reputedly had a one-night stand there with Kerouac), Tennessee Williams, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Thomas Wolfe, Charles Bukowski, Brendan Behan – but why go on?  Who, for that matter, didn’t live there?  And these are only the writers.  One could do a similar list for actors and film directors, and another for musicians, and still another for artists.  Andy Warhol’s 1966 film Chelsea Girls provides a glance at the life of some of his stars at the hotel, which has been featured in other films as well and in novels.

     In the 1990s Bard refurbished the common areas and many of the rooms, so as to restore some of the Chelsea’s old grandeur, and junkies and prostitutes were expelled.  With the beginning of the 21st century gentrification overtook the neighborhood, rents went up, and well-heeled tenants moved in.  To the dismay of residents, in 2007 the new owners replaced Bard as manager, and things began to change.  In 2011 the owners announced that the hotel would take in no more guests, pending desperately needed renovations.  The paintings and collages that had always adorned the lobby, hallways, and wrought-iron staircase have now been put in storage, doors to empty rooms stand open, and the noise of construction reverberates.  Long-time residents remain in the building, some of them protected by rent regulations, but they fear that the new management may want to drive them out.  Yet even with the closure looming, on a given Saturday night in 2011 hip-hop blared from one of the rooms, the police rushed in to forestall a reported suicide attempt, and the arrival of a punk girl guitarist with her head shaved on both sides and her Mohawk dyed blond and blue didn’t raise an eyebrow at the front desk, while a longtime resident photographer gave an end-of-an-era party to cheer his neighbors up.  “Never a dull moment,” the front-desk clerk observed.

     Yes, the Chelsea in its heyday was unique.  It could only have happened in New York.

This is New York

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Joe Mazzola

     Coming soon:  Exiles in New York, part 3: a begetter of floating lovers and upside-down houses, a pianist with five Steinways, an anarchist with a compact, a future emperor, and a renegade priest with a talent for seduction and debt.  After that, one more batch of exiles, and at least one more batch of famous deaths in New York, some of whom may surprise you.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder


Sunday, March 30, 2014

120. Exiles in New York, part 2

     This post is the second about exiles in New York.  It will deal with the Scarlet Sisters and a dragon lady.

The Everleigh Sisters

     Exiles of a rather special kind were two sisters who came to New York and in 1913, using the name Lester, bought a brownstone at 20 West 71st Street and resided there for many years.  Neighbors had no idea who Minna and Ada Lester really were: the Everleigh sisters who from 1900 to 1911 had run the fanciest brothel in the country on the near South Side of Chicago.  As they told it, their father was a prosperous lawyer in Kentucky who had sent them to private schools and given them lessons in elocution and dancing, following which they married two brothers named Lester and left them after a year, Minna complaining that her husband was a brute who tried to strangle her.  They then joined a traveling theatrical troupe, performing in melodramas as they toured the country, until, in Omaha in 1898, they came into an inheritance that let them quit acting and launch a new venture: a bordello to accommodate visitors to the Trans-Mississippi Exposition opening there that year.  According to the sisters, they were strictly madams and had never offered their charms to the patrons.  When the exposition closed and business fell off, they took their earnings and moved to Chicago to establish the fanciest bagnio on the continent, which they were sure would lure customers from far and wide.  There, from 1900 to 1911, the Everleigh Club on South Dearborn Street flourished as the most luxurious and profitable house in the country, patronized by men of great wealth and pliant   morals, of whom there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply.

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Ada in 1895.  She achieved the wasp waist.
     Such was their story, prior to coming to New York as the Lester sisters.  But in many respects they had stretched the truth, even mangled it.  The 1870 census reveals that they were the daughters of a farmer named James Montgomery Simms of Greene County, Virginia.  That they attended private schools and had lessons in elocution and dancing I find doubtful.  Feminists have hailed them as liberated women of their time, which they certainly were, but recent scholarship suggests that they were never married.  Stranded by a theater company in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1895, they opened a brothel there, then opened a second one for the 1898 exposition.  Portraits commissioned by them in 1895 are suggestive, and publicity for the 1898  exposition includes a print showing Minna posing in a corset on an ornate brass bed and looking much less like a hard-nosed madam than a seductive courtesan offering her charms to whoever could afford them.  Just how two respectably raised young Southern ladies transitioned to this profession remains a mystery that even their nephew, with whom I once corresponded, could not explain.

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Minna in 1895.  Just a madam??? 
The Everleigh Club, 2131 and 2133 South
Dearborn Street.
     What is not in doubt is their having operated the luxurious Everleigh Club in Chicago and its immediate success.  The club had twelve soundproof parlors (the Gold Room, Moorish Room, Red Room, etc.), an art gallery featuring nudes in gold frames, a dining room, a ballroom, a music room where a “professor” fingered the keys of a $15,000 gold-leaf piano, and even a well-furnished library where, to the sisters’ surprise, some of their patrons settled down comfortably with a book, probably glad to be away from their wife and kids.  There were silk curtains, damask easy chairs, oriental rugs, mahogany tables, gold cuspidors, and perfumed fountains, and in the girls’ rooms upstairs, luxurious divans, gilt bathtubs, and warbling canaries.

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The Japanese Throne Room, as shown in the brochure.

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The Blue Bedroom, as shown in the brochure.

     The Everleigh “butterflies” had to be attractive and healthy, free from drugs and drink, adept at small talk, and experienced but ladylike.  The patrons had to dress and act like gentlemen; rowdy behavior was not tolerated.  To get in, they needed a letter of recommendation from an existing client or an engraved card, and once in they had to spend freely, sometimes as much as $200 or even $1,000 a night; the club was no place for the budget-minded.  The sisters were said to gross $15,000 a week, a generous amount of which went to corrupt aldermen and state legislators to guarantee their continued operation.  Among their reputed guests were J. Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, Ring Lardner, and Prince Henry of Prussia, the Kaiser’s brother.  In 1905, when Marshall Field II, heir to his father’s vast department store fortune, died of a gunshot wound, allegedly while cleaning a gun at home, rumor had it that he had been shot by a girl at the Everleigh Club, following which the sisters had the body smuggled out to his residence, or he himself, unaware of the seriousness of his wound, managed to get home by himself.  This story some have dismissed, while others even today deem it credible.  Yet another theory is that his death was a suicide.

     What happens when the census taker comes to a whorehouse, especially the plushest one in the nation?  Because I once did considerable research on the sisters, in preparation for a biography that I later gave up on, I can answer precisely, having combed the census records of 1900 until I found the entry for 2131 South Dearborn.  When the enumerator called on June 6, 1900, Minna gave her age as 29 and Ada as 26, thus shaving 5 and 10 years off their ages respectively.  As for the twelve “boarders” counted, not one confessed to being over 29.  And their occupations?  Artist, bookkeeper, cashier, seamstress, dressmaker, dry-goods clerk, milliner, saleslady, actress, cashier, and cook, plus one blank, probably the most honest answer of the bunch.  Did the census taker know he was being lied to?  Almost certainly , this being the city’s red-light district, with numerous “boarding houses” with only female boarders. 

     The Everleigh Club achieved national, even international, fame, but in time all good things come to an end.  Anti-vice crusaders had long campaigned to close not just the Everleigh Club but the entire Chicago red-light district, but the Club’s reputation, and the sisters’ generous pay-offs to  local politicians, had protected it.  Then, in 1911, the sisters published a brochure entitled The Everleigh Club Illustrated, describing the club and illustrating it with photographs of its sumptuous interior.  The brochure came to the attention of Mayor Carter H. Harrison, who took offense at it and ordered the police chief to close the Club once and for all.  Having amassed a fortune, the sisters accepted his decision and threw a wild closing-night party to end things with a bang.  They then sold the place, traveled a bit, and in 1913 moved to New York, taking some of the furnishings with them.

     Many people come to New York in search of opportunity and excitement, but the Everleigh/Lester/Simms sisters came to it for a quiet retirement and theater.  And so, having left their glory days behind in Chicago, they lived quietly on West 71st Street for years, attending theater, joining some women’s organizations, presiding over a poetry reading group, and visiting relatives in Virginia once a year.  Perhaps the only one who knew of their past was Charles Washburn, a Chicago Tribune reporter whom they had known back in Chicago, and who would visit them once a year to share a bottle of champagne and reminisce.  Drawing on information gleaned from these sessions, in 1934 he published Come into My Parlor: A Biography of the Aristocratic Everleigh Sisters of Chicago, a readable but undocumented biography that presents uncritically whatever they told him and is therefore not too reliable a source.  When Minna died in 1948 at age 82, Ada sold the brownstone and went to live with her nephew, James W. Simms, in Charlottesville, Virginia, taking with her some of the furniture from the Everleigh Club – “beautiful furniture,” the nephew assured me later in a letter.  She died there in 1960 at age 96.  When we corresponded in 1981, Mr. Simms assured me that his aunts, whom he had visited in New York, were “two of the kindest, most caring people I have ever known.”

     And how did I first hear of the “Scarlet Sisters” and their posh establishment?  The way any son of the Midwest would have heard of them: discreetly, from his father, in the absence of any women.  Long after their Club had been closed, its legend was passed on from father to son for decades. 

Dragon Lady

     The next exile to be mentioned here was a woman who cast an exotic spell not easily resisted.  According to those who had dealings with her – diplomats, generals, statesmen – she was the brainiest, sexiest, most charming, and most ruthless woman they had ever encountered: Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

     The daughter of Charlie Soong, a wealthy Chinese businessman and former Methodist missionary, she had been raised a Methodist and educated in this country, graduating from Wesleyan College, and so spoke fluent English and had a good grasp of American society.  As the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang, with whom she had a long but stormy relationship, she was viewed and celebrated here as the First Lady of China, especially when Japan invaded China in 1937, and even more so after we went to war with Japan in 1941.  Indeed, she and her husband, the Generalissimo, were embraced by us as the heroic leaders of China in the war against Japan, with little awareness of their opponents, the Chinese Communists.  If the Generalissimo, standing stiffly in official portraits with his chest bemedaled, struck us as a Great Stone Face, distant and reserved, his wife exuded charm and used it skillfully in enlisting support for her husband.  From first to last, svelte, well-tailored, and possessed of a seductive smile, she was into politics up to her lovely ears.

     Her fame in the U.S. peaked in 1943, when she came to this country to get more support for the Chinese Nationalist cause.  She drew crowds of thousands, appeared for the third time on the cover of Time magazine, and became the first Chinese national and second woman to address a joint session of both houses of Congress.  There was then great sympathy for China, our wartime ally long ravaged by the Japanese invaders, and she personified that ally, masking her husband’s authoritarian ways with her charm and her talk of democracy.  The Methodist church in Evanston that I then attended was especially supportive of her, a fellow Methodist, there being many Methodist missionaries in China, and the daughter of our local Congressman told a group of us of meeting and talking with her personally.  What I chiefly remember of her account was how, when Madame Chiang dropped something, she quickly picked it up herself, not wanting others to do it for her.  Needless to say, the girl was absolutely charmed by Madame Chiang.

With the Generalissimo, Roosevelt, and Churchill in Cairo, 1943.
The Generalissimo rarely left China, but this conference was important.

     After the war things changed.  The Nationalists, locked in a losing civil war with the Communists, were compromised by corruption; some of the money meant for the war against Japan had gone into the pockets of the Chiangs.  When, in desperation, Madame Chiang came again to our shores to plead her husband’s cause, she was not as well received; her presence, in fact, was an embarrassment.  When the Nationalists lost the mainland in 1949, she and her husband went with them to Taiwan, where they continued their struggle against the Communists.  When the Cold War developed, they regained favor in this country as allies against the Soviets and Communist China, inaugurating a relationship that would have many ups and downs.

     My own attitude toward the Nationalists and Madame Chiang changed when, in Evanston in 1950, I met a longtime friend of my mother’s, the YWCA’s official observer at the U.N. in New York, who viewed the Chiangs as despotic and corrupt.  She told of a conversation with Madame Pandit, Nehru’s sister and India’s ambassador to the U.S., who recounted a meeting with Madame Chiang.  Madame Chiang had stressed the importance of appearance; every morning, when she was dressing, Madame Chiang said she thought about what she would be doing that day, whom she would meet, and what impression she wanted to make.  For her, clothing and appearance were an integral part of politics.  Madame Pandit felt a bit overwhelmed by this unsolicited advice, and one suspects that Madame Chiang considered Madame Pandit just a bit dowdy.  (How any woman in a sari could be dowdy I can’t imagine; personally, I find saris superbly elegant and attractive.)

     As the Grande Dame of Taiwan, Madame Chiang made several trips to the the 1950s to lobby the U.S. government against admitting Communist China to the U.N.  As the Generalissimo’s health deteriorated, control of the Nationalist government passed to Chiang Ching-kuo, his son by a previous marriage.  Madame Chiang and her husband had no children of their own, and she was not on good terms with his successor.  When the Generalissimo died in 1975, Madame Chiang left Taiwan and established herself in New York in an Upper East Side apartment overlooking Gracie Square, and on an estate on Long Island.  Though she lived here in semi-seclusion, when Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, she returned to Taiwan to support her old allies, but her influence had waned and she soon returned to New York.  Here she was guarded by a team of black-suited bodyguards who cleared the lobby of her apartment building whenever she entered or left.  She received few visitors, grew flowers, did calligraphy and drawings, read.  Though hard of hearing as she aged, she was still quick-witted and read the Bible and the New York Times every day.  She died in her apartment in 2003, age 105, having lived in three centuries, and is buried in New York State.

     The Everleigh sisters lived quietly here, seemingly without regrets.  How Madame Chiang felt while residing here, now wielding a pen and brush, when she had once manipulated statesmen and generals, I do not know.  Surely she nursed some bitterness toward this country, once her staunch friend and ally, whom she blamed for the loss of China.  She was a fascinating woman, a nest of contradictions, an enigma.  We won’t see her like again.  Regrettably, she never wrote her memoir.

     A note on Chester Kallman:  A viewer of this blog informs me that he briefly knew Kallman (post #119) in Athens in the 1960s or early 1970s.  Invited for dinner, he and two friends arrived at Kallman’s apartment to find Kallman unprepared for guests … at least, dinner guests.  After a delay Kallman emerged from the bedroom, disheveled and “quite messed up,” with two burly and surly young men.  Embarrassed, Kallman explained that he had forgotten about the dinner date and asked his guests to come back the following evening.  Kallman, it seems, had a liking for “rough stuff” from the junior ranks of the military junta then in power.  The guests returned the following evening and a good time was had by all.  But I hold to my personal conclusion that Kallman’s life was not, on the deepest level, a happy one.

This is New York

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Kris from Seattle

     Coming soon:  Two more posts on Exiles in New York: a pianist with five Steinways; an anarchist with a compact; a future emperor; a renegade priest with a talent for seduction and debt; a would-be proletarian who loathed the capitalist U.S.; and a keeper of the flame with orange hair.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder