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. 

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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

File:Phagwah 2013 parade, New York City Holi.jpg
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



  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hamilton was the “big dog” in New York state politics, at least until Burr came along. The former allies became rivals when Burr ran for the U.S Senate against Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler. Burr won the election and he later became associated with the Tammany Society, the forerunners of the infamous Tammany Hall. Burr then surpassed Hamilton as a political force within New York