Sunday, November 18, 2018

383. Luscious Lillian and the Great White Way

                         A Note on the Weather

Last Thursday, in mid-November, a predicted snowstorm hit with fury.  More snow fell than anticipated, streets were blocked, subway service on some lines was suspended, and branches of trees overloaded with wet snow came crashing down.  Motorists were stranded in their cars for hours, and school buses were so delayed that kids got home five, six, and eight hours late.  Neighborhoods with tree-lined streets like my West Village were especially at risk.  A great snow-laden branch came crashing down but a block from my building, and on another street a falling branch hit a car and dented it; fortunately, the woman inside wasn't hurt.  Villagers were warned online to walk close to buildings and listen closely for the telltale creaking of a branch about to break.  I stayed inside and watched the falling snow; by late morning Friday, thanks to sun and milder weather, I was able to go out on errands and saw huge fallen branches sealed off with yellow caution tape, pending removal. The city is back to normal, and the blame game has begun.  The city was woefully unprepared.  Who is responsible?  The weather forecasters, the mayor, the governor, Nature, God, bad Karma, or Donald Trump?  New Yorkers love to argue, so a hot debate should follow.

                          Coney Island:
     Summer Frenzy and Winter Desolation

I have finished my deceased partner Bob’s other work of fiction set in Coney Island, The Coney Island Memoirs of Sebastian Strong.  If The Professor conveys the mutterings of age and experience, this novel is a song of youth.  The time is 1951 to 1961, long before AIDS, but when everyone drank and smoked too much.  Young Sebastian Strong, the narrator, falls in love with Coney Island, knows it in all seasons, connects there with a string of young male lovers.  And just when I, as a reader, was  getting tired of these connections, the author surprised me.  With a heavy snowstorm predicted, Sebastian bundles up and heads for Coney, catching the last train for Stillwell Avenue, which creeps ahead through the snow, preceded by a plow clearing the tracks ahead of it.  He goes, knowing there won't be any train coming back, and takes refuge in the shabby little Surf Hotel where he often rents a room.  Jake, the very femme and flamboyant manager, is surprised but delighted to see him, offers him a scotch, and since the room Sebastian usually rents is taken, lets him share his room for the night.  The walls of that room are plastered with pin-ups of Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, the Hollywood glamour girls of another day, whose images, Jake insists, are holy and should be pasted to the altars of churches.  

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          The book is full of weird but fascinating urban characters like Jake, who are seen in an atmosphere of summer frenzy with roaring roller coasters and beach-strutting sun worshippers, alternating with the silence of winter desolation. Sister Zora, a no-nonsense lesbian in engineer's jeans, reads palms for a dollar fifty, then disappears when the cold weather comes.  Jessye, a heavy black woman, tough and assertive, sells beers to gay boys in her under-the-boardwalk bar, and with an eye out for the cops, lets the boys dance with each other to music from her jukebox.  And many more.  No wonder Sebastian quits college, comes to live year-round at the Surf Hotel, and gets a job at a bingo parlor patronized in all kinds of weather by older Jewish ladies who are charmed by his youth and his looks.  Sebastian is held fast by "these juxtaposed beasts of land and sea," the "old Dragon" that is Coney, facing defiantly the force of the ocean.

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Coney Island in summer.  Sebastian loves this.

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Coney Island beach in winter.  Sebastian loves this, too.

          Paperbacks are available in very limited numbers from me for $15 plus postage, and hardcovers for $20 plus postage.  The book is also available in various formats and at various prices from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Xlibris.  For my own books, see BROWDERBOOKS below.
Image result for the coney island memoirs of sebastian strong

    Luscious Lillian and the Great White Way

         Let’s imagine that we’re visiting New York in the late 1890s and want to have a look at the city’s high life.  No, we don’t mean Mrs. Astor, the Four Hundred, and Society, for that would bore us, and we’d never get invited by her anyway.  We want to see the fun-loving, free-spending crowd, celebrities like Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell, whose fame has reached us even in Omaha and Kokomo and Des Moines.  Having done some homework in the provinces, we know to look for them at night along the legendary Great White Way, Broadway from Madison Square at 23rd Street north to Longacre Square (now Times Square) at 42nd Street, a brightly lit two-mile stretch of Broadway, the most famous street in the world, crammed with forbidden pleasures we have dreamed of for years.  But first, to do it right, we have to have cocktails, dinner, and a show – stuff we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do at home.  We’ve saved up some money – quite a lot, in fact -- for this adventure, the most exciting thing we’ve ever done.  So let’s get started.  Come along.  It should be fun.

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Hoffman House bar.  The Bouguereau painting is on the right.

         We start with cocktails at the Hoffman House, a marble palace on Broadway between 24th and 25th Streets.  (Sorry, ladies, the bar is males-only, so we’ll have to leave you in a fancy parlor near the entrance.)  In the crowded Grand Saloon (a fancy name for “bar”), with one foot on the brass-plated foot rail like a regular, we sip this new thing called a martini, plenty strong, while trying not to gawk like a rube at the famous Bouguereau painting on the wall opposite, which of course is why we came.  The huge painting, Nymphs and Satyr, shows four scandalously nude young women prancing around a lecherous half-goat male.  Our minister back home cited the painting in a sermon, calling it blatantly immoral, typical of Babylon on the Hudson.  Which of course kindled in us a burning urge to see it.

         All around us is a multitude of top-hatted gentlemen whose indifference to the painting identifies them as blasé New Yorkers who have seen it a thousand times and shrug off the charge of immorality.  We look among them for Ned Stokes, famous for having shot and killed the financier Jim Fisk over the affections of the notorious Josie Mansfield.  Having served four years in Sing Sing, Stokes has long since been out and, as part owner of the Hoffmann, is often seen in the bar, but not tonight, it seems.  But we do get a glimpse of Buffalo Bill Cody in a wide-brimmed Western hat, and ex-president Grover Cleveland, portly and mustached, both of them regulars at the bar when in town.  A great beginning for our night on the town!

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Here it is, seen from the front.  Naughty, naughty.

         For dinner, of course we go to Delmonico’s at Fifth Avenue and 26th Street, facing Madison Square.  We knew to make a reservation, are seated promptly. Elegance all around us, the women wearing outsized hats.  The menu has hardly a word in English, but thanks to our high-school French, we decipher potages, hors d’oeuvres, entrées, entremets, and desserts.  A fabulous dinner follows with cream-of-something soup, oysters in some kind of sauce, asparagus so delicious we marvel, mouth-watering canvas-back duck, and cooked peaches – yes, that’s right, cooked!  And served by waiters who never hurry and never make noise, but always turn up just when you need them.  At the tables near us, sprinkled in among the well-mannered regulars, are hog kings from Chicago, makers of thingamabobs from Pittsburgh, cattle barons from Texas, and other nouveaux riche (a term we learned for our trip). Burdened with money, they now flock here with their wives, speak the twangy argot of the provinces, botch the French of the menu, spend conspicuously, and hope to be taken for regulars.  (Thank God we had French in school!)  Of course the meal cost plenty – I won’t say how much.

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Dining at Delmonico's.

         Next, the show.  Luckily, we have tickets to the hottest show in town, Floradora at the Casino Theater, a Moorish Revival monstrosity at 39th Street and Broadway.  The story is too silly to go into in detail, but we are there, like everybody else, for the Floradora girls, six stunningly beautiful chorus girls who appear in a double sextet with their top-hatted partners in the second act.  Coming onstage in pink dresses with frilly parasols, they sing the hit song of the show, “Tell Me Pretty Maiden,” while the audience – especially the males – gaze and sigh and gasp.  When the number ends, a lot of gentlemen sitting around us get up and leave.  Some of them, I learn later, are the millionaire boyfriends of the girls who have seen the show many times. We stay to the end, but no other number can top that stunning sextet.


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The double sextet that drove males crazy.

         Not that Floradora is the peak of the evening – no, we’ve just begun.  Next, on to Rector’s, where anybody who is anybody is going: a whole flood of hansom cabs and carriages are now jamming their way uptown to a long, low, yellow building on the east side of Longacre Square between 43rd and 44th Streets,  the uptown or northern limit of the Great White Way.  Since we exit the Casino at 39th Street, we can walk there, and in doing so have the fun of mixing with the denizens of this very special stretch of Broadway.  We’re in the company of Wall Street financiers, nabobs of industry, playboys, journalists, famous actors and actresses, gamblers, jockeys, pugilists, chorus girls and kept women with their boyfriends, staggering drunks, pickpockets, panhandlers, and whores, which is about as New York as you can get.  And for a final touch, just before we arrive at Rector’s, we hear blaring trumpets, clashing cymbals, and the tinkle of tambourines, as the Salvation Army marches by, singing hymns and bringing their message of redemption to fun-loving sinners and the lost.

         Rector’s, at last.  To have a table there for a post-theater supper or snack, shows that you have arrived and are in the company of the Broadway elite.  Rector’s is to Broadway and the Great White Way what Mrs. Astor is to Fifth Avenue and Society.  We enter under an awning through the strangest contraption we have ever seen.  It's a turning kind of door where you have to squeeze into a compartment and then push your way through; it's called a revolving door, and this is the first one in the city.  Once inside, while waiting for a table, we see Charles Rector himself, a jovial fellow who boasts of having started out driving a horsecar on Second Avenue, before running a sea-food restaurant in Chicago, where he parlayed a fifty-cent oyster stew into a million dollars.  We might have been relegated to the second floor, but a discreet and generous tip to the maître d’ gets us a table on the ground floor, reserved for the smart set of Broadway.

         It’s midnight, the place is jammed.  Mirrors go from floor to ceiling, and diners dine and gab under the mellow light of crystal chandeliers.  In spite of our heavy dinner at Delmonico’s, we manage a consommé followed by a chicken fricassee cooked in wine, while sipping the requisite champagne.  But we are here to gape discreetly and see notables, and we are not disappointed.  That tall, slim young man over there, dining with a beauty said to be his wife, is Florenz Ziegfield, a young producer believed to have a future in theater.  Women say he has a “Mephistophelian” look, which surely guarantees his theatrical success.  Several young women accompanied by elegant young gentlemen are said to be from the cast of Floradora, but we can’t be sure.  Easily recognized by his monstrous dark mustache, which looks like it was pasted onto his face, is Stanford White, the famous architect, sitting at another table with a dazzling young woman, barely twenty, at his side.

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Stanford White

         A gentleman at a table next to us, recognizing us as first-time diners at Rector’s, greets us graciously and gives us his card: 

Augustus Taylor III
Inventor of the New America Shirtfront
A Patented Detachable Bosom
No Tuxedo Complete Without It
Buffalo,  New York

A veteran of many business trips to New York, where he promotes his shirtfront, Mr. Taylor no. 3 knows the scene and offers to helps us identify our fellow diners.  After pointing out several beauties and their escorts, and deprecating the presence of some unmannerly self-made millionaires, he directs our gaze to a solitary diner at a table not far away, his puny body sheathed in mortician’s black and topped by an egg-shaped head.  “Abe Hummel,” he says, but the name rings no bells with us.  “The most notorious criminal lawyer in America,” he explains, “and a veteran first-nighter.”  Even as we gaze at him, a string of glittering young beauties come, one after another, to greet him, while their escorts wait patiently nearby.  That this balding little worm  should get so much feminine attention puzzles us, but our informant explains.  Hummel’s specialty is breach-of-promise suits brought by rising young actresses, alleging seduction under promise of marriage by the playboy sons of the wealthy.  Approached discreetly, the families pay prodigious sums to settle the case and avoid a scandal bound to be blazoned in the press.  “That sounds like blackmail,” we venture, and our informant smiles: “It is.” 

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         Suddenly, a hush.  Preceded by a beaming headwaiter, and followed by a gypsy fiddler playing a hit tune of the day, a woman of radiant beauty enters, her dark hair crowned with a huge wide-brimmed hat hanging aslant, her stylish figure tapering to the waist and out again, her daringly low-cut gown studded with diamonds.  Our forks are suspended in midair, as in stunned silence we watch her walk slowly toward us, her long train flowing behind her.  She bows to left and right, and her layered silks rustle as she passes close by, bestowing on us a warm, heart-tingling smile.  From a hundred photos in the papers, we recognize Lillian Russell, the beauty of beauties and the star of stars, making her usual spectacular entrance.  Such an entrance is the dream of every aspiring young chorus girl and actress, including those who have benefited from the wiles of Abe Hummel.  Now that we have seen her performance, all our wildest hopes in making this fabulous but costly visit to New York are gloriously and lavishly fulfilled.

         Only when Queen Lillian is ceremoniously seated at a table, do we observe the escort in her wake: a jowly, red-faced gentleman, triple-chinned, with a carnation in his buttonhole, his massive frame swelling outward and glowing with a profusion of sparklers: Diamond Jim Brady, Broadway’s night-loving master of revels, famous for his flagrant display of diamonds.  ("Them as has 'em wears 'em," he has quipped.)  Him too we recognize from photographs and accounts in the press, a prodigious diner known to down four dozen oysters, a dozen crabs, a large steak, four gallons of orange juice, and a tray of pastry at a single sitting.  As Charles Rector himself has observed: “The best twenty-five customers we’ve ever had.”  By day he sells equipment to the slew of railroads now spreading throughout the country, but at day’s end he is drawn to the lights of the Great White Way.  Now, seemingly oblivious of the many eyes upon him and upon his lovely companion, he is devouring a multitude of dishes set before him, a huge napkin tied around his bulbous neck.

         It’s late now, we’re deep into the dark early hours of tomorrow, but our experience of the high life isn’t over, not quite.  For a night-ending breakfast, once Rector’s begins emptying out, we know to head over to Jack’s on Sixth Avenue, a big place with a minimum of ornament, where burly Irish waiters serve hearty food and drinks to the night’s survivors.  (Drinks?  At this hour?  Isn’t that illegal?  Of course, but Jack Dunstan sluices a good bit of his earnings to Tammany Hall.  Need we say more?)  Clams, chops, and steaks are available, but not being Diamond Jim Brady, we settle for scrambled eggs with Irish bacon and champagne – yes, champagne! -- followed by a huge pot of steaming black coffee. 

         Thus fortified, we’re prepared to call it a night.  Outside Jack’s on Sixth Avenue, dawn is breaking, milk wagons are clattering down the street, and a line of hansom cabs are offering their services.  Even if we're just a bit out of it, we know to look sober and alert, since the drivers are amiable outlaws known to overcharge the wealthy, the unwary, and the drunk.  Given a choice among Gas-House Sam, Tenderloin Bill, and Frank the Gyp, we choose Tenderloin Bill, decline his offer to show us the sunrise in Central Park, and clipppety-clop back to our hotel without being too flagrantly fleeced.  

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Back to the hotel in a hansom.

Collapsing on the bed as thousands of sober New Yorkers stride meaningfully to work, we doze off dreaming of naked nymphs, cooked peaches, a puny black-draped gnome, and luscious Lillian yielding to us her ample, fabled charms.  How we feel on waking many hours later, I leave to your imagination.  But we have tasted, and tasted fully, the high life of 1890s New York.

Source note:  This post, like the one preceding it, is indebted to Lloyd Morris, Incredible New York: High Life and Low Life from 1850 to 1950 (Syracuse University Press, 1996; first published, 1951).  A great read; I heartily recommend it.

Coming soon: Five Tips for Coping with Rejection.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017 and 2018, and at the Brooklyn Book Festival 2018.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

"To read No Place for Normal: New York is to enter into Cliff Browder’s rich and engaging sixty years of adult life in New York. Yes, he delves back before his time – from the city’s origins to the 19th Century that Ms. Trollope and Mr. Dickens encounter to robber barons and slums that marked highs and lows of the earlier Twentieth Century. But Browder has lived such an engaged and curious life that he can’t help but cross paths with every layer and period of society. There is something Whitmanesque in his outlook."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Michael P. Hartnett.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  What price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?


"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, but women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

5.  Fascinating New Yorkers: Power Freaks, Mobsters, liberated Women, Creators, Queers and Crazies (Black Rose Writing, 2018).  A collection of posts from this blog.  Short biographical sketches of people, some remembered and some forgotten, who lived or died in New York.  All kinds of wild stuff, plus some stuff that isn't quite wild but fascinating.  New York is a mecca for hustlers of every kind, some likable and some horrible, but they are never boring.

Fascinating NYers eimage.jpg


"Fascinating New Yorkers by Clifford Browder was like sitting down with a dear friend and catching up on the latest gossip and stories. Written with a flair to keep the reader turning the pages, I couldn't stop reading it and thinking about the subjects of each New Yorker. I love NYC and this book just added to the list of reasons why, a must read for those who love NYC and the people who have lived there." Five-star NetGalley review by Patty Ramirez, librarian.

"Unputdownable."  Five-star review by Dipali Sen, retired librarian.

"I felt like I was gossiping with a friend when reading this, as the author wrote about New Yorkers who are unique in one way or another. I am hoping for another book featuring more New Yorkers, as I couldn't put this down and read it in one sitting!" Five-star NetGalley review by Cristie Underwood. 

©   2018   Clifford Browder   

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