Sunday, January 27, 2013

44. Robber Barons of Yore: Jim Fisk, Cornelius Vanderbilt


Jim Fisk in all his glory, hair slick, mustache waxed,
both physically and entrepreneurially expansive
           Jim Fisk bounced.  An oval man, short, rotund, and joyous, he had grown up in Brattleboro, Vermont, the son of a Yankee peddler, and bounced all over town telling jokes on himself that left the folks in stitches.  A-tingle with get-up and go, he bounced all the way to Illinois and back again as a circus roustabout in love with spiel and glitter -- a taste he would harbor all his life.  Joining his father in the peddling trade, he amiably informed Pop Fisk that Pop’s horses were played-out and shabby, his overalls dreary, and his wagon fit to be hauling manure.  Curbing an impulse to smack down his smart-aleck son, Pop allowed as how he knew a thing or two about peddling and dismissed his son’s fancy ideas, then watched in amazement as Jim Fisk set out in a high hat and a striped coat, atop a jingly wagon with yolk-yellow and flame-red wheels, to bounce over half of New England eyeing the girls, while he sold their mamas whiskbrooms, Jew’s harps, frying pans, and calicoes and silks by the yard.  From this first foray he returned with more cash in his pocket than Pop had seen in a year.

            Within months Jim Fisk had five more gaudy wagons on the road, each drawn by four smart-looking horses in a polished harness, and driven by a hired salesman into whose brain he had dinned his creed: “If you can’t sell ’em silks, sell ’em calicoes, and if that don’t work, sell ’em thimbles or tinware or thread.  Just make sure you sell!”  Soon known as the Prince of Peddlers, at the start of each season he paraded his flashy wagons down Main Street in Brattleboro to the strains of a cornet band; the whole town turned out to watch.

            When Jim Fisk saw he’d gone as far as he could go in peddling, he disposed of his business at a profit and bounced off to Boston to get a job in wholesale as a fast-talking salesman.  When the Civil War broke out, he bounced down to Washington to sell some mildewed blankets to the government.  As the war dragged on, he bounced down deep into Dixie, buying up contraband cotton from the Rebs that he smuggled through the lines to the North, distributing generous bribes right and left.  Selling the cotton for a whopping profit, he insisted this was a patriotic act, supplying uniforms to the Boys in Blue.  When the war ended, and with it this lucrative trade, to where else could he bounce but that mecca of hustlers, New York.

            Eager for a crack at the market, he opened a fancy office on Wall Street, plying all callers with fine champagne, bad jokes.  Within two months the greenhorn had been fleeced by the pros; Jim Fisk left town broke.  “I’ll be back,” he warned, “or I’ll eat bone-button soup till Judgment Day!”  Packing a carpetbag, he bounced up to Boston and back again, refinanced by friends.  “I’ll make things squirm,” he said.  “Damn ’em, they’ll learn to know Jim Fisk!”

            This time he went to see Dan Drew, the wiliest man on the Street (see post #42).   All snap and dazzle, Fisk talked railroads, steamboats, Wall Street, and most of all Jim Fisk, tossing ideas in the air like gold coins or the seeds of a money-green spring.  He tickled Uncle Daniel, whose steel-gray eyes cut deep, detecting beneath the jokes and puffery, and the reddish-yellow hair sleek with the scent of pomade, a bold schemer, a canny operator.  Quietly he set Fisk up on Wall Street with a brokerage house of his own, and through him bought and sold on the sly.  For twelve months no one on Wall Street realized Fisk was a front for Drew.  Waxing fat on Uncle Daniel’s commissions, plus some side bets of his own, Jim Fisk strutted in bold check suits, his thick fingers bright with diamonds, and sported a gold-headed cane.  “I’ll make Rome howl!” he said.

            Jim Fisk had a wife in Boston.  Lucy Fisk didn’t bounce around, she stayed put.  Neat and delicate, she had small hands, small breasts, small teeth, and nut-brown eyes, and wore dresses of bluebird blue.  Childhood sweethearts, they had married young.  “Now Jim,” she said on their wedding night, “let’s not be too carnal.  Some things are painful, gross.”  So with great effort Jim forbore; he didn’t want to hurt his Lucy.  She was his jenny wren, his cupcake, his star; he was her little boy. 

            When her husband bounced away on business, Lucy slept alone in a bed with a pink counterpane and puckered frills.  She played the piano, did needlepoint, went with lady friends to lectures.  On holidays Jim came home.  Every Christmas they held hands, sang carols, played house; he gave her canaries, pearls, and a jeweled music box from Tiffany’s that tinkled a waltz.  By New Year’s he was back in New York.  She didn’t mind; she loved her Jim, even liked him, but his big ideas wore her out.  In Boston she lived small.

            In New York City Jim Fisk met Josie Mansfield at the establishment of the notorious Annie Wood.  Josie wasn’t one of Annie Wood’s girls, just a friend of the madam. “Mind your manners, Jim,” said Annie.  “This here’s a lady.”

There was something about Josie that the boys liked, 
and Josie knew it early on.  In those days svelte was 
out; plump, abundant beauty was in.
            Miss Helen Josephine Mansfield admitted to twenty-two years.  Silken-sighed, abundant, she had eyes of smoked green, and a pure complexion set off by cascades of purple-black hair and the gold fire of her dress.  At one touch of her furry voice, and one glimpse of her snowy bosom and pearlike derriere, Jim Fisk was smitten into the eighth heaven of love.

            Learning that Miss Mansfield, an  aspiring actress whose delicate feet had yet to tread the boards, had but one good dress to her name, he paid the back rent on her flat, and over her mild protestations set her up in a fancy hotel, corsaged her, jeweled her, plumed her, then squired her to the Park.  Josie liked this gaudy talker; money and jokes gushed from him like ale from a spigot, or better still, champagne.  In the warmth of his fervor her virtue, such as it was, melted.

            Before he met Josie, Jim’s mustache had sprawled like a bramble; now he waxed it and twisted the ends knife-thin.  Scented, pomaded, he went at his Dolly, his Dumpling, all whack and merriment.  Together they bounced on the bed; it squeaked, pillows poofed, pictures on the walls hung crooked.  She nibbled his plump, ringed fingers, he tickled her; they laughed and whooped.  Night after night he devoured his candy-eared, peach-bottomed mistress, yearned for more.  

            When Jim Fisk bounced back to his office in the morning, his mind was sharp as a pistol crack, and he marched like a cornet band; he had big hopes, big plans.  Meanwhile in her boudoir Josie was counting her diamonds, while in Boston Lucy Fisk in starched white moved through a ruffled mansion on little bird-feet.



Known endearingly as Old Sixty Millions.
Later it would become Old Eighty Millions.
            When Cornelius Vanderbilt, white-whiskered, lordly, erect, drove on Harlem Lane, where the young bloods of the city (aged eighteen to eighty), racing in light-wheeled wagons, yelled  eeeaaow, yippee, and  yo yo yo yo yo, no man tried to pass him; he did a mile in just over two minutes.  One afternoon, riding with a banker friend beside him, he cocked his eye on an express train fast approaching, shouted “Giddap!” and with a whipcrack, raced it toward a crossing just ahead.  While the hurtling engine blew warning blasts on its whistle, team and wagon whisked across with seconds to spare.  Roaring a laugh, his bright blue eyes ablaze, he waved to the gaping fireman, then announced:

            “No other man in this city could have done that!”

            “And you never will again with me along!” spat out the ashen-faced banker.

            Of iron horses too, Cornelius was a swift, hard driver.  Some years back his heroic nose had sniffed in the wind the cindery smell of millions to be made in railroads.  Having sold his steamships, he marched into Wall Street, snatched up three weak lines, whipped them into shape, made them pay.  The result, the New York Central system, was an empire of rails stretching from New York to Buffalo.  Only one line competed: the debt-ridden Erie, which hadn’t paid a dividend in years.

            “A scandal!” announced the Commodore (not hitherto known for acute morality).  “That railroad should be cleaned up, made shipshape.”

            He began buying Erie stock.  But Erie was the pet of Daniel Drew, who over the years had jiggled its stock, made millions (see post #42).

            “By God,” said Vanderbilt, “I’m a-goin’ to boot that rascal out!”

            Dan Drew was, by most standards, a smaller man than Vanderbilt.  He shunned cards, whisky, sport, and profanity, in all of which Vanderbilt indulged freely.  Afternoons, when the Commodore and much of Wall Street were churning up the dust of Harlem Lane, Uncle Daniel lounged about in the snug back room at Groesbeck’s, drowsing, dozing off, his breath puffing in and out in little wheezes and buzzes that amused the tiptoing clerks.  Away from there he was most at home in dewy cattle pastures, pews, hearthside chairs.

Fast trotters on Harlem Lane, N.Y.
Fast trotters on Harlem Lane, 1870.  A Currier & Ives print.  Vanderbilt is in the left center
foreground, top-hatted.  The Commodore wanted to be the fastest as well as the richest man

in the country, but when it came to trotters a few friends took him on.
 Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

          “Dan Drew,” Vanderbilt had barked more than once, “hain’t got no spunk nor spine!”

            But when Uncle Daniel woke up from a nap, he fixed his eye on the ticker tape, ever ready to plant a rumor, hatch a panic, or fleece some cocky young lawyer or natty bank clerk duped by his spidery charm.  He was known as the wiliest man on the Street.

            When the Old Bear learned that Vanderbilt, his enemy and friend of forty years, was boasting of booting him out, his heart was pinched: from what other money tree could he shake down such sweet fruit?  Hurrying over to Vanderbilt’s brick residence on Washington Square, in a parlor where a full-length portrait of the Commodore stared down at him every bit as stern as the original, Uncle Daniel with a voice smooth as beech bark pleaded, whined, cajoled, bubbling his canny juices in spouts of sentiment.  Sentiment gushed scantly in the Commodore’s iron-bound breast, but it occurred to him that Dan’l inside as an ally might be less risky than Dan’l outside as an enemy.  His terms: Drew could remain on the board and even become treasurer, if he worked hand in glove with Vanderbilt.  Uncle Daniel agreed.

            At the Erie election in October old faces were swept out and new faces swept in, among them a Vanderbilt flunky and two unknowns likewise said to be partial to Vanderbilt: Jim Fisk, the bouncy Vermonter, and his new friend Jay Gould, a small man with black clipped whiskers and a piercing eye.  Uncle Daniel, elected treasurer, formed a pool with Vanderbilt cronies to “h’ist up Ayrie on the market.”  In all this the Commodore’s hand was nowhere evident, since he worked at a royal remove, leaving the daily chores to subordinates.  But from a distance he sketched out a smile.

           One month later in Madison, New Jersey, in a handsome Greek Revival mansion fronted by columns and ringed by noble oaks, Brother Daniel Drew witnessed the formal opening of the Drew Theological Seminary, attended by educators, the press, pious ladies, and all nine bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  That the West Point of Methodism, training young men to drive cohorts of evil from the world, should have sprouted from the seed of his money and bear his name, moved, awed Brother Drew, the man who couldn’t spell “door.”  Four orators adorned the morning and four the afternoon, mounting eulogies of the Christian use of money.  Proclaimed one: “Non timeo Danaos dona ferentes!” (I  don’t fear the Greeks bearing gifts).  Though no one thought to translate for him, when the whole audience smiled at him and applauded, Uncle Daniel pursed his lips, looked wise.  Later, in the company of bishops and college presidents, the old ex-drover kept mum, lest the genteel talk be salted with hisns and ain’ts.  But when, within his hearing, a young lady asked about the founder and was told that the quietest, kindliest, most unassuming gentleman present was Mr. Drew, his crinkled features beamed.
Mead Hall of Drew Theological Seminary (now Drew University),
where the seminary's formal opening was held.  It was named for
Drew's wife, Roxana Mead, whose stern portrait hangs in the

Main Hall beside a portrait of her husband, who looks 
uncomfortably distinguished and not the least bit wily.  

            “Never seen sich a queer performance,” Uncle Daniel, face puckered, announced to the pool, as soon as he had returned to Wall Street.  “After all this time, Ayrie still won’t h’ist on the market; seems there’s always more to buy.  But don’t be skeered, gents.  Keep a-buyin’, it’s sartain to rise!”

            For another month they bought.  Erie flipped, flopped, went nowhere; Uncle Daniel shook his head.  Meanwhile to the ears of the Commodore came dark rumors:  Erie, under the whispery leadership of Drew, was holding talks with other railroads.  And where in hell, he wondered, was all this stock on the market coming from?  Belatedly his brokers nosed about: it had come from Daniel Drew!

            Vanderbilt felt a quick, hot jab of ire.  Dan Drew, stooped, whiny-voiced, wrinkled, his whiskers as meager and straggly as Vanderbilt’s sideburns were ample, had tricked him, lied to him, mocked him.  Against Drew if not with him, he would have the Erie.  He summoned his brokers and lawyers for a council of war.

File:New York Stock Exchange 1882.jpg
The Stock Exchange, at 10-12 Broad Street, is the white
 marble building in the center background, not the one in
the left foreground.
            In Wall Street offices and somber parthenons of banks, vault doors clanged, stacks of greenbacks thumped on counters, bonded messengers scurried, quills scratched, rumors teemed.  For this epic locking of horns – this clash of might versus cunning to be fought out by two modern Colossi of Roads through the hard, jeweled fists of brokers brandishing certificates of stock within the cold marble confines of the Stock Exchange – hordes of money men braced.

          Note:  This story will continue in two posts entitled The Great Erie War, with a full cast of robber barons: Vanderbilt, Drew, Fisk, and Gould.  Expect high drama laced with farce.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder

Sunday, January 13, 2013

42. Robber Barons of Yore: Dan Drew

            Erie Railway stock jiggled in the market.  It leaped, dipped, bounced, fell flat on its face, picked itself up, soared, hovered, did little dances.  Every time it went up a bit, the bears were skewered; every time it went down a bit, the bulls were gouged.  Wall Street greenhorns were mystified, the old hands smiled; Uncle Daniel was up to his tricks.

Daniel Drew            Every morning at eleven the Old Bear arrived in a one-horse chaise at 15 William Street, the offices of Groesbeck & Company, his broker.  Lean, drab, stooped, his square face pinched with wrinkles and whisker-fringed, he had the air of a country parson or, some thought, a dishonest Honest Abe Lincoln.  Though most Wall Streeters could not imagine him as having ever been young, his gray eyes gleamed with vitality and cunning.  Passing through the busy outer rooms, he closeted himself in a small, snug room in back where callers flocked all day: “Grosy” and his clerks, messengers, directors of the Erie Railway, some big bug of the Street, or occasionally a fund-raising Methodist uneasy in the money-ridden atmosphere of Wall Street.  When the door opened, clouds of cigar smoke emanated, and Uncle Daniel could be seen on a sofa, legs crossed, or in winter with his feet stretched out to a fire.  At times he emerged to check stock prices on the ticker tape -- said to be the first such device on Wall Street -- which his broker had installed there especially for him, after which he retreated again to his snug little den.  In that cozy back room at Groesbeck’s, bear raids were launched, pools formed, corners schemed.  When news came of a slick coup succeeding, a hen-cackle laugh erupted that had given the occupant another name: the Merry Old Gentleman of Wall Street.

            “I got to be a millionaire afore I knowed it hardly,” the farm boy turned cattle drover turned steamboat operator turned financier once told a reporter; indeed, money just stuck to his fingers.  And he was rich in nicknames, too: Uncle Daniel, the Old Bear, Ursa Major, the Deacon, and among those he had diddled in the market – sore losers, he insisted -- various unprintable epithets.  But he liked “Uncle Daniel”; plain and homey, it fit him like a wrinkled old coat.  With his drab clothes and unschooled, twangy speech, he knew he came off as rural and quaint.  When dealing with upstarts new to the Street, he played it to the hilt.

            In these years after the Civil War Uncle Daniel’s chief endeavors were intimately entwined with the fortunes of the New York & Erie Railroad – or rather, the Erie Railway, in which guise the old New York & Erie, hopelessly insolvent and moribund, had been resurrected through the intricate miracles of receivership.  Marvelously, the new Erie’s operations were guided by the very spirits who had presided, mournfully but profitably, over the demise of the old.  As a longtime member of the board and the most inside insider, Dan Drew, known also as the Speculative Director, knew more about Erie than anyone; speculators dogged him for tips.

            “Them there Ayrie sheers,” he announced one day on the Street, “are a-sellin’ for more’n they’re wuth.  It costs a heap naow to run a railroad.  Coal an’ iron has riz, so has men.  Whar are dividends a-comin’ from?  You boys better not be too fond o’ your sheers.”

            Some speculators thought he was bluffing, but most of them rushed to sell.  When the stock dropped, Uncle Daniel, having sold it short, made a scoop in the market.

            Suddenly fresh rumors hit the Street:  Erie would soon pay a dividend; some distinguished European capitalists – the Duke of Salamanca, the Marquis of  Something-or-Other – were coming to New York to kick Uncle Daniel off the board.  The old man looked worried; speculators bought, the stock soared.  In the back room at Groesbeck’s, Uncle Daniel’s keen gray eyes twinkled out of crow’s-feet; having bought cheap, he could sell dear: another scoop in the market.  No duke arrived, no marquis; the railroad paid no dividend.  But at the annual election in October Uncle Daniel got himself reelected to the board.  Not for anything would he part from his golden-egg-laying goose.  Meanwhile a saying had been coined on the Street:  “Dan’l says ‘up’ – Erie goes up.  Dan’l says ‘down’ – Erie goes down.  Dan’l says ‘wiggle-waggle’ – it bobs both ways!”

            “Naow sonny,” Dan Drew told a natty young lawyer who had recovered a hefty sum for him at a fee he thought just a bit pricey, “as you have got some money, you oughter go into the market and buy some stock.  Buy Ayrie, it’s low and safe, very safe.  Be advised by an old friend of your father’s.  Naow sonny, do as I say.”

            Swayed by this fatherly advice, the young man bought some Erie, saw it decline, and learned too late that Drew himself had been selling him the stock.  Indeed, Wall Street was full of stories of how Uncle Daniel had caught operators both big and small, as well as greenhorns like the lawyer, in his web of wiles, yet with his cunningly benign appearance, the old man had never been given his comeuppance.  Like many a victim before him, the young lawyer may well have vowed that, the next time he saw Drew, he would plant a fist in his quaint rustic face.  But if he did encounter him, the Old Bear would have seemed so homespun, so charmingly quaint, that the rage would have whiffled out of him.  How could a young man assault his elder, especially one who looked so kindly?  So for all his cunning misdeeds on the Street, year after year Uncle Daniel remained immune to physical rebuke.
            But the story was also told how Uncle Daniel, on leaving the Erie office once, had changed the combination of a safe.  The next morning a clerk came to his home saying they needed to open it, what was the combination?  He had set it, he said, at the letters that spelled “door.”  An hour later the same clerk returned; they had tried it, the safe wouldn’t open.

            “Door!” Uncle Daniel insisted.  “A house door, a barn door, any blamed kind of a door!”

            They tried again, it still wouldn’t open.  Exasperated, Drew went to the office himself, opened it  with ease.

            “There, sonnies, jest like I said:  D-O-A-R-E!”

            This story ran the rounds of Wall Street; clerks snickered, brokers guffawed.  When his son informed him how the rest of the world spelled “door,” Uncle Daniel was chagrinned.  From then on he gave more and more money to the Methodists to fund schools, a female seminary, the Drew Professorship of Greek.

             Even while engaging in Wall Street shenanigans, this homespun semiliterate whose handwriting was illegible, and who spoke with a rustic twang, was building and operating the most luxurious steamboats in the world: floating palaces designed in egalitarian America to give Everyman (and Everywoman) luxury hitherto reserved for the princely castes of the Old World.  No expense was spared in their furnishings, which included ebony and satinwood paneling, grand saloons in the "Pompeian" or "Alhambric" style, Corinthian columns, mahogany balustrades, satin damask chairs, and bronze statuettes.   Not only were they sumptuous and swift, but plying from New York to Albany they ran so smoothly that passengers were unaware of any motion.  Speed-obsessed Americans flocked to the trains, but for comfort and ease they took the boats, enjoyed a fine meal in a dining room rivaling the best restaurants in the city, followed by a good night's sleep in a cabin, and in the morning, if their schedule permitted, a leisurely breakfast before leaving the boat.  Meanwhile railroad passengers were jolted constantly and, before the advent of the dining car, were allowed limited time at periodic stops for a hasty meal in a greasy spoon.

 The Daniel Drew, a day boat, made quite a splash -- literally and otherwise -- when it 
appeared in 1860, beat a rival in a race, and was proclaimed the fastest boat in America.

The stateroom saloon of the Isaac Newton, a floating palace named for Drew's partner 
in steamboating.  A night boat, with staterooms opening off the saloon.  (Saloon: a large 
cabin available to passengers for social purposes.  No liquor here, only gentility, though 
all the boats had a bar elsewhere.)  In democratic America there were also palace hotels
 and, in time, palace railway cars likewise available to the public.

            Every Sunday, spruced up in a cinder-black suit, the steamboat operator and financier  worshipped with his wife at Saint Paul’s, a marbled mass of Methodism on Fourth Avenue at Twenty-second Street, where he bowed his head in prayer and twanged out good old hymns.  At prayer meetings and love feasts he became again the boy of fourteen who from a sulfurous preacher had heard the hot crackle of hell and leaped into the arms of Jesus.  Often he would tell again the story of that first conversion, or relate how back in his days as proprietor of the Bull’s Head Tavern, the city’s cattle market, when he had backslidden and drifted from the means of grace, a farmer asked him to look at some cattle. 

            Driving out of the city in a gig, they had hitched the horse under a whitewood tree and walked over to the cattle in a pasture.  Suddenly black clouds smirched the sky, thunder rumbled.  Hightailing it back to the gig, they got in, saw a blinding flash, then nothing.  They came to sprawled on the ground, unscathed, the horse lying dead in its harness.  “What a lucky escape!” said the farmer, but Dan Drew knew better.  God had warned him with the fire of lightning: Dan, you’d better mend your ways.

            When, after telling these stories, he stood up, his features wet with tears, and implored God’s mercy, veteran preachers and penitents, themselves teary, discerned the true coin of repentance, the bitter conviction of sin. 

            But when a Methodist minister, a close friend of long standing, urged him to give up Wall Street and devote his fortune to the service of God, Drew replied honestly, “I cain’t.  It ain’t for the money but the game.  I love to fight, to win.  I must have excitement, or I should die.”  Which worried the minister no little; for his old friend he sent hot prayers to heaven.

            Yet even for the godly, the fruits of Mammon had their uses.  When the Methodists planned to celebrate the Church’s hundredth year in America – a time for great awakenings and massive gifts – church leaders decided to approach Brother Drew.  Tact would be required, since in matters of giving he was known to have a mind of his own.  Asked once by the Chamber of Commerce to help sustain the market in a panic, he was said to have replied, “Gents, I’d luff to, but I’ve sporn as much money as I kin.”  And at a meeting of church trustees seeking funds to finish a chapel, when a fellow trustee had suddenly addressed him, “Brother Drew, I put it to your conscience: can’t you give us ten thousand dollars?,” he had answered flatly, “No!”  Decidedly, tact was in order.

            When the bewhiskered trio of notables called on the prospective benefactor at his Union Square mansion, he received them in a modest, kindly way.  And when they asked discreetly, hopefully, what offering he was minded to give, he replied without hesitation that he would give two hundred fifty thousand dollars for a new theological seminary, and another quarter million to endow it.

            The committee gasped; never before had a living donor offered such largess.  They showered thanks on their benefactor, and promised that the seminary would train young men to spread terror to the haunts of wickedness, bring the Word to benighted heathen the world over, and glorify the Church.  Of course it would be named for him.

            After the committee left, over and over again the old man whispered to himself, “The Drew Theological Seminary ... ”  He felt like clean sheets.

            The next day, in the back room at Groesbeck’s, where a grate of coal glowed in the fireplace, the Old Bear slouched down in a chair with his feet propped up on the mantel, and smiled his crinkly smile.  The last several years had been juicy.  He had skinned both bulls and bears, kept Erie stock dancing to his fiddle, and promised lavishly to found a theological seminary.  All his eggs had two yolks.

Source note:  The posts entitled Robber Barons of Yore are based on my unpublished fiction and therefore are slightly fictionalized, but they adhere closely to historical fact.  All the Drew quotes in this post, for instance, are taken from contemporary accounts; none is invented by me.  A full account of  Drew is found in my out-of-print biography, The Money Game in Old New York: Daniel Drew and His Times (University Press of Kentucky, 1986), available used online.  Bouck White's Book of Daniel purports to be a memoir by Drew, but really is a pastiche of secondary sources put together with completely fictionalized material; caveat emptor.  In Drew University's short bibliography for the university's history, my work, the only book-length treatment of Drew, is conspicuous by its absence.  Even today they can't face up to the fact that their generous founder was a bit of a rascal on Wall Street.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder

Sunday, January 6, 2013

41. Rubbing Elbows with the Great and the Famous

         Some people are drawn to celebrities like moths to the proverbial flame.  But I am not a moth; when informed that there is a celebrity in my immediate vicinity, I am inclined to run the other way.  I simply can’t imagine what I could say to them, or what they could say to me.  But if you live in Manhattan long enough, sooner or later you’re bound to encounter a celebrity.  And if not you, then your friends and neighbors.  Here are accounts of such encounters.
         My friend Ken grew up in South Carolina, but from an early age he was reading The New Yorker and acquiring a smattering of New York sophistication before ever setting foot in the city.  Fascinated by Gypsy Rose Lee, who was then at the peak of her career as a stripper, he put together a scrapbook of clippings about her appearances and sent it to her.  Flattered, she wrote back and invited him to look her up, should he ever come to the city.  In time he did; I knew him as another graduate student in French at Columbia University.  Unlike me, Ken adored celebrities and sought them out.  By waiting patiently at a stage door for a glimpse of such luminaries, he was rewarded with a shared taxi ride with Gertrude Lawrence, and a rose from Margot Fonteyn.  A devoted balletomane, he once asked Rudolph Nureyev for an autograph and was answered with a resounding “Nyet!”  Which discouraged him not a bit; he recounted the incident with a dose of humor.
          Ken’s great experience among the famous came when Gypsy Rose Lee invited him to a cocktail party.  Finding myself in Midtown with him, I went with him to her townhouse in the East Sixties and saw him to the door.  He promised to give me an account of the party and did so the following day.

File:Gypsy Rose Lee NYWTS 1.jpg
Gypsy Rose Lee, being her usual modest self.
Library of Congress
         She lived lavishly; on the walls of her residence were paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Miró, and Max Ernst, reportedly given to her by the artists. Among the guests were a showbiz mother and daughter from Hollywood; a representative of Harper, the publisher about to publish her memoir (which would inspire the musical Gypsy); Gypsy’s sister June Havoc; and the one and only Ethel Merman.  Gypsy introduced him with enthusiasm as the young man from the provinces who had sent her a scrapbook of clippings and, nothing loth, he talked to each guest in turn.  The mother and daughter told him of amassing a collection of paintings, explaining, “They’re all back in Hollywood, of course.”  Where else? thought Ken, not too impressed; you wouldn’t tote them around on your travels.  The Harper’s representative was obviously out of his element and glad to talk to Ken, who came with no aura of fame.
         In the middle of the affair Gypsy got a phone call from someone who claimed to be an old friend.  “I have no old friends!” she declared and slammed down the receiver.  “How do these people get my phone number?” she then wondered out loud.  Later, Ken gave me the answer: “Because she gives it to them, that’s how.”  Clearly a formidable presence, a bit intimidating, and very ego-driven.  “They want me in Utica!” she announced with contempt, a theater there having invited her to perform.  That she should get such an offer showed that she was long past the peak of her career and coasting on memories.  “She’ll go,” Gypsy’s secretary told Ken on a later occasion; “she’ll do anything for money.”  And go she did.
         Gypsy’s sister June Havoc was more approachable.  When Ken told her that there were many histories of burlesque with fine illustrations, but none with a literate text, and said he would like to write such a history, she encouraged him warmly, as did Gypsy herself, when apprised of the project.  Alas, it never got done.
         The climax of the occasion was his brief chat with Ethel Merman.  “Miss Merman,” he said, “I’ve seen you many times on stage.  You’re a marvelous success, a great performer at the height of your career.  I don’t know what to say to you.”  Merman then smiled and said quite simply and, I’m sure, sincerely, “You never get tired of hearing it.”  A reminder that if fans need celebrities, celebrities likewise need their fans.

Even in her years at Viking and Doubleday,
she was a remarkably handsome woman.
         Another friend of mine, Ed, was an editor at Viking Press, where in 1975 he made the acquaintance of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who came to work there as an acquisitions editor following the death of her second husband, the shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.  New to the editing game, to which she brought stellar contacts and a famous name but no editing experience, she came more and more to depend on Ed as a mentor and they became good friends.  At times she invited him to her fifteen-room Fifth Avenue apartment, where they quaffed Dom Perignon champagne.  And whenever she wanted to go to a movie and needed an escort, she would phone Ed and ask if he was willing; he always was.  He described walking down the street with her and seeing heads turn, as people realized who had just passed; one man even exclaimed, “Fabulous!”  In the dark anonymity of the movie house she was offstage at last, no longer a celebrity , just a moviegoer.  She would scrunch down in her seat, munch some goodies, and watch the film like any teenager.  She seemed to need such moments, savored them.  These encounters continued until she left Viking in 1977 for a job at Doubleday.

         Opera singers were also in demand.  My partner Bob’s mother, a veteran opera goer, once quite by chance encountered the famed Yugoslav singer Zinka Milanov in the ladies’ room at the Met, and took advantage of the situation to get her autograph.  Bob himself met Zinka in more formal circumstances, after her retirement, at an autograph session at the Met.  “I’ll never forget your singing,” he said, as she supplied the autograph.  She smiled and said with a touch of accent, “It is good to remember.”  Bob also snagged an interview with Marlene Dietrich in Washington, and Tennessee Williams's autograph on a paper napkin, now framed above his desk, when he heard that the renowned playwright was present in a back room of a gay bar here in the Village.  Why on a paper napkin?  Because it was the only thing handy for an autograph.
Pavarotti the celebrity in full bloom.
But many said that -- alas! -- his voice
was not what it once had been.
         Our downstairs neighbor Hans worked for many years for Herbert Breslin, a publicist and manager who had dealings with many singers and is credited with propelling the tenor Luciano Pavarotti to celebrity status.  Hans got to know many famous singers, and when Pavarotti went to China, Hans went along, as did Breslin and his wife.  “He doesn’t really need me,” Hans explained.  “He just wants to have a familiar face around.”  Breslin himself somewhat soured on his protégé in later years; in a published memoir he described the tenor's youthful voice as so beautiful it gave him goosebumps, but said that in his later years as a superstar Pavarotti was vain and lazy, with an appetite for money, women, and food. 
         Other singers whom Hans came to know included the Brazilian singer Bidú Sayão, whom he visited in Maine for many years after her retirement; Renata Tebaldi, whom he often saw in Italy; the Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi; and the Spanish soprano Pilar Lorengar.  He has anecdotes about all of them, and also about the renowned Hungarian-born conductor Georg Solti and others, and knows of rare performances and rare recordings as well.  I have urged him to initiate an opera blog and tell these highly entertaining stories, but I doubt if he ever will.

Jerome Robbins, a terror on Broadway
but a cordial and timid partner at bridge.
         Our friend John tells how he terrorized a man who was known as the terror of Broadway.  Invited over for bridge by a dancer friend and his partner, John was presented to another guest whose name he caught as Jerry Rubins, a smallish and very elegant man, very composed, with a trim white beard, who would be the fourth at bridge.  The three others were novices at bridge, so John, though no expert, became the de facto authority of the occasion.  Later in the evening Jerry Rubins, who at the time was John's partner, looked at his hand, didn't know what to do, and exclaimed, "I'm scared!"  Then he giggled, as if savoring an emotion unknown to him; the others giggled too.  
         At the end of the evening John and Jerry were waiting for a taxi they would share uptown.  
         "Jerry," said John, "I gather from the conversation that you're in the theater." 
         "Oh yes," said Jerry, "director, choreographer, and stuff like that." 
         A creeping awareness began to take hold in John's mind.  "What did you say your name was?"
         "Jerome Robbins."
         John screamed from shock.  The mild-mannered and friendly "Jerry" was the brilliant but forbidding director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, a winner of multiple Academy and Tony Awards, who because of his demanding nature was known as the terror of Broadway.  But it all ended well; after that the four of them often played bridge.  
         (A personal aside:  I saw many of Robbins's ballets in New York, loved them all.  But my favorite ballet of all time was his "Illuminations," inspired by the poetry of Rimbaud; he caught the spirit of Rimbaud beautifully, and the final scene haunts me to this day: Profane Love, with blood running down his forearm from a gunshot wound, stares in wonder and regret -- biting regret, I suspect -- as Sacred Love, a female dancer in white, does arabesques back and forth, back and forth, upstage, embodying all those supreme aspirations that we all have and rarely fulfill.  Rimbaud, of course, had been shot by his enraged lover Verlaine in Brussels, during their adventurous wanderings together, after Verlaine had deserted his wife and infant daughter.  How I wish I could have met Robbins and thanked him for this memorable theatrical experience!)

It wouldn't be easy, being the sensitive
young son of this man.
         My own fleeting contact with celebrities include no such luminosities as Gypsy Rose Lee or Jackie Kennedy.  My first experience was at one remove from grandeur.  When I was teaching French at Columbia College,  Arthur MacArthur, the young son of the famous Douglas, turned up in one of my classes.  He was a sensitive, intelligent kid whose near flawless French accent implied close work over time with a private tutor.  One sensed about him that, through no fault of his own, he had been raised too much in the company of women (his mother, his amah in the Philippines), with little contact with boys his own age.  Even at Columbia he stood apart, would never be one of the gang.  Later on I learned how, under paternal pressure, he had tried on the uniform of a West Point cadet, but wisely knew it was all wrong for him.  Still later he shed the burden of his famous name, which came to him from Douglas’s father Arthur MacArthur, another general who had served in the Philippines.  I hope that, with his new persona, he has been able to at last be himself and find the fulfillment he needed.
File:Actors-studio crop.jpg
The Actors' Studio, within whose walls theatrical
wonders and horrors have been perpetrated.
         My other celebrities are not internationally known figures, but gifted directors in the world of the theater.  Long ago, during the folly of my attempts to be a playwright, I was invited to join the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio, the citadel of method acting, nested then as now in a former church on West 44th Street.  In those once hallowed premises I attended writers’ classes where Harold Clurman presided, and directors’ classes where Lee Strasberg reigned supreme.  The Studio was then a bit past its peak, having hatched any number of renowned actors who had gone on to fame and fortune: Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Paul Newman, James Dean, Shelley Winters, and countless others.
Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl 
(1957), five years before her suicide.  This photo, 
with its touch of naiveté, conveys exactly what 
the photo at the Studio demonstrated.
         On the wall was a photograph of members sitting scattered about the vast room where classes were held; one's eye went immediately to a young blond woman sitting apart from the others: Marilyn Monroe.  Her radiant beauty was such that you simply could not not notice her.  A veteran member of the Studio told a bunch of us just when the photograph had been taken.  If you had any doubt about what is known as star quality, this photograph dispelled it.  Some people simply exude a magnetic charm.
         Lee Strasberg was a brilliant but savage teacher, quite willing to reduce to tears a young director whose work he relentlessly criticized, continuing with no notice of the tears till she dried them and listened to his critique.  Nothing fueled his sadism more than to sense – or imagine – a young director’s presumption that he could reveal the values of some time-honored piece of theater that had already seen scores, if not hundreds, of productions; such presumption he delighted in chewing up.  His taste for young women was also blunt and obvious.
Thumbnail for version as of 23:35, 2 May 2010
Lee Strasberg, teaching.
         I recall in particular two comments Strasberg made in the course of a class.  A very imaginative young director had presented a scene from Macbeth laden with special effects and symbolism.  When those present were invited to comment, I said that everything I had seen was fascinating, but the story of Macbeth had gotten lost.  When Strasberg critiqued the scene, he said that the Weird Sisters weren't weird enough, they were too human, too approachable.  "Imagine this," he said.  "A young man goes out on a cold winter day and sees a beautiful woman dancing naked in the snow and the cold.  She has to be a witch."
         The other comment concerned Marilyn Monroe, who was going to appear in the movie Some Like It Hot.  She would be playing with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag, whose real identity in the story she wasn't at first supposed to know.  She didn't know how to relate to them and therefore consulted her mentor, Strasberg.  
         "Marilyn," he said, "you've always told me that you'd like to have women friends, but you never have.  Here's your chance.  They can be the women friends you've always wanted."
         She must have absorbed this advice, for she played with the two actors in drag beautifully.  But if Marilyn Monroe lacked women friends, it's easy to see why.  Her beauty was such that it would eclipse any other woman.  When she committed suicide in 1962 at age thirty-six, Strasberg gave the eulogy at her funeral.
         Harold Clurman, unlike Strasberg, was not a true teacher.  If someone seemed to disagree with him he simply pulled rank, declaring that he knew more about it than they did, rather than gently leading the offender to realize the error of his ways.  In some of his comments there was a sense of a deep hurt; for all his professional success, something was lacking.  When the subject of transmigration of souls surfaced once, he declared emphatically, “No thanks!  Once is enough!”  So unlike Strasberg, who seemed impervious to hurt.
         When the Studio got a grant, they mounted two memorable productions on Broadway.  Strasberg did Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which I recall vividly, and Clurman did the French playwright Giraudoux’s Tiger at the Gates (La Guerre de Troye n’aura lieu), a witty and moving account of the beginning of the Trojan War.  When the curtain first went up, there was a haunting tableau showing Hector’s wife Andromache and the doomed visionary Cassandra momentarily frozen in place.  One knew at once that this was a story steeped in legend and myth.  No question, these were brilliant directors.

 Courtesy of The Villager
        Another director whom I had more contact with was Gene Frankel, a former pupil of Strasberg’s, whose school’s classes for writers I attended in an upstairs studio on MacDougal Street here in the West Village in the 1950s.  The Gene Frankel of that time was not the bearded patriarch of later years, but a cleanshaven man in his forties with a high forehead, dark hair and heavy dark eyebrows over dark eyes, robust features that showed great character, and an expressive voice capable of many modulations.  Attending writing classes there included the privilege of sitting in on Frankel’s directors’ classes, where he held forth from a thronelike central seat, smoking steadily in violation of the city’s fire regulations.  An intensely serious man, he seemed rarely to smile.  I marveled at his understanding of human nature, of the words and gestures that we use to express ourselves.  Frankel saw my first one-act play and gave valuable criticism before letting it be done in his workshop theater; above all, it needed pruning.  A young actor I met there told me that he had learned more in one month of Frankel’s classes than he had in a year or two elsewhere.  
         Although he was a brilliant teacher and director, Frankel was always a bit on the fringe of the theater world, preferring the greater freedom of Off Broadway.  Among his directorial successes were Jean Genet's The Blacks, which ran for far longer than he had anticipated, and Arthur Kopit's Indians; I saw them both, they were memorable.  But at times he could be ruthlessly candid, telling of being invited to go off somewhere in the Midwest to work with a director who was “very inexperienced and very stupid.”  And he was quite capable of telling an unduly presumptuous young director in his class, "The theater has no place for you -- get out!"  
         At times he also exhibited a touch of homophobia.  Telling of a attending a performance of a play whose "author" -- probably an adapter at best -- was young, inexperienced, and flustered, he asked, "Who is he?  The director's lover?  If we must have homosexuals in the theater, let them at least be like Oscar Wilde!"  But what did this mean?  A preference for polished brilliance over inexperience and fluster?  He said this without seeming to be aware of a gay contingent in his classes.  Unlike Strasberg at the Studio, who, though himself resolutely heterosexual, clearly knew that his classes included just such a contingent.
         But despite these occasional outbursts, Frankel was usually quiet and contained.  If one entered his office, one generally found him staring with great concentration at a chessboard; it took a few ahems and other subtle or not so subtle hints to indicate your humble presence and take counsel of his wisdom.  
         Asked in later years if he would like to retire, Frankel replied, "How can I retire?  Directing is in my blood, and teaching is in my bones!"  He died in 2005; a theater bearing his name has long existed on Bond Street and strives to keep his name and legacy alive.  I wish them well in their endeavors.

Thought for the day:  Silence, the undersong of life.

(c)  2012  Clifford Browder