We Built This City

It’s hard to pick a favorite among the sparkling profiles that appear in Julie Scelfo’s recently published anthology, The Women Who Made New York. There are over one hundred of these subjects – I won’t refer to them as “town mothers” as that suggests they were simply an auxiliary to the “town fathers.” And they were so much more than that.

Scelfo’s volume includes the well-known – Shirley Chisolm, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amanda Burden, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mae West, Bella Abzug, Diana Vreeland among others who pored over blueprints, hoisted placards and trailed spangles. Then there are the quieter forces such as Mother Cabrini, Eliza Hamilton, and Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell who fought tirelessly to relieve the plight of  orphans, the elderly and the poor. One particular stand-out is Dr. Sara Josephine Baker who first made the connection between personal hygiene and the epidemics that ravaged New York each summer. Her sleuthing is credited with helping to isolate the Irish cook known as “Typhoid Mary.” According to Scelfo, a former correspondent for Newsweek, Baker chased the suspect through the streets, apprehended her and confined her to an ambulance where she sat on her until they reached the hospital.

One of the most enjoyable reads is Scelfo’s profile of A’Lelia Walker, an icon of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker’s mother, Madam C.J. Walker, was the country’s first black, female millionaire, having developed and marketed nationally a line of African-American hair products. Scelfo writes;

With phenomenal sums of money at her disposal, [a] love of the arts, and experience traveling around the globe in the world’s most elite circles, the younger Walker hosted a series of parties at her posh townhouse on 136th Street…where champagne flowed, nightclub quartets crooned, and urbanites of all backgrounds rubbed elbows in close quarters.

The country’s first black heiress, who cut a striking nearly six-foot figure…brought together downtown poets, financiers, enabling blacks and whites for the first time to socialize on near-equal terms.

And they socialized up close… Langston Hughes recounted in his autobiography an occasion when a royal personage (‘A Scandinavian prince, I believe’) arrived and found no way to get through the crowds into the actual party so he sent a message to the hostess; demonstrating both her wit and stature, Walker sent a message that she couldn’t find a way out either, but she would gladly send refreshments to his car…

Scelfo’s profiles are interspersed with whimsical portraits by the illustrator and stylist Hallie Heald. Seal Press took a  great deal of care with the art direction and it makes for  a beautiful package. The Women Who Made New York is a perfect gift for the NewYorkophile on your holiday list.

Judith Malina, 1926-2015

Judith Malina died earlier this month at the age of 88. Her appearance seemed not changed much over the previous four decades. That gypsy black hair and seductive gaze? Still intact. But an accomplished actress can sustain an illusion forever.

Malina and her husband, the late Julian Beck, both scandalized and revolutionized New York theater of the Fifties and Sixties when they founded the Living Theatre, referred to more commonly as “The Living.” Their experimental off-off Broadway productions blasted through the proscenium and pulled – sometimes literally, pulled – audience members into the performance.

The Beck/Malinas were self-proclaimed anarchists and pacifists who used their art as a weapon against authoritarianism in any form. And they did it with such joyous abandon. As Bruce Weber wrote in the New York Times. “In the name of art, they ran afoul of authorities on three continents.”

Judith was notorious for performing nude. Yes, as recently as 2011. She was in her mid-eighties when she appeared in Maudie and Jane. Perhaps that exhibitionistic quirk overshadowed her more substantial credits. She not only acted, but wrote and directed. She and Julian produced works by Gertrude Stein William Carlos Williams and Bertolt Brecht.

It was a production in the late 50s that brought the pair into direct confrontation with the U.S. government. She and Julian mounted The Brig, a play by about the brutal life in a Marine prison. The theater was shut down by the IRS, possibly retribution for its radical politics. At least members of the Living thought so. During the resulting trial, Malina remained defiant telling the judge, “You can cut out my tongue, but you cannot stop me from saying that I am innocent. I will not grant you that privilege, sir.”

She and Beck were found guilty and sentenced to some jail time, which appears to have been was waived when they agreed to a period of self-exile in Europe.

I first met Malina in 2011. I’d read her two published diaries – The Diaries of Judith Malina: 1947-1957 and The Great Despair – this with an eye to excerpting them for a Modern Library anthology. Her entries were wonderful, on par with those of that Ur-diarest, Dawn Powell. Judith’s life and art — she rarely made a distinction between the two – were given to sometimes convulsive self-examination. On November 11, 1953, she wrote:

Put my right hand through a pane of glass in a fit of fury and emerge bloody but only scratched. I take satisfaction in such violence and no little pride in the ability to be so reckless and unthinking, though I think of myself as a cautious person.

She was probably pretty high.

A gentler side of her nature emerges in her personal relationships. She recalls reading her son Garrick a Babar book in which an elephant dies from eating a poison mushroom. Garrick asked her to tear out the page with the “bad picture,” and he begins to cry.

“Julian and I,” she writes, “are amazed that our child knows the meaning of death.”

Malina and Beck had a frankly open marriage and Judith’s sexual questing was a constant. At a “small party” in 1952 she flirts with the “unsettlingly handsome” Joseph Campbell who encourages her to “experiment with the darker arts.”

I would not mind bewitching him [she writes] … but, no, the resplendent (choreographer) Jean Erdman is wearing a red dress. And I am quite powerless, even in my black satin, especially in black satin…

Malina had consistently better luck at the bar, San Remo, a hang-out for Greenwich Village theatrical types, She and Julian were regulars. One night she spots James Agee (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) Agee more properly belonged at the competing watering hole, the White Horse Tavern, which catered to a compagnie of writers, among these Norman Mailer. But Agee found the morose atmosphere of the San Remo more to his liking. Malina determines on the spot that he will be her lover. Theirs was a bittersweet relationship where most of the power is on his side. She comes when he calls. It doesn’t work the other way. But in the end, Agee’s demons, alcohol among them, causes her to write him off as “too torn for me to lean on.”

As a diarist, Malina’s careful observation of detail was extraordinary. She could reconstruct a scene with the eye of a dramatist. For instance, On June 21, 1953 she writes:

The Rosenbergs in their coffins. Their faces pale, like the divine masks of the Noh…
The bridal white in which they are shrouded adds to the unexpected look of composure that seems to belie the turmoil and anger and agony which surrounds their deaths. I think my impression of them hallucinatory; because the newspaper photographs have been so pitifully crass, but I am told that all corpses have this peculiar glow.

The Living Theater never had a permanent home, but Malina seemed to thrive on vagrant uncertainty and improvisation. In January of l964 she wrote:

These are the best rehearsals. In our living room where the furniture is disarranged to approximate a stage. .Every night after rehearsals we plunder the ruins for floorboards, dodging the ubiquitous police.

No matter how strapped the theatre was for rent money, Malina always paid her actors. Sometimes it was just a pittance, but enough so that they would experience the respect due professionals. She was especially generous to the young.

I visited her once while she still occupied the Lower East Side apartment above her last, lost theatre. Her living room was a cozy den of Bohemian Victoriana, with actors and production techs bustling about. There was a rehearsal in progress on a floor below. (The play was Korach, an original work written by Judith concerning an anarchist who bucks Moses on the flight from Egypt.)

And I remember as we were concluding the work of choosing excerpts for our anthology, a young actor approached her, mortified, abject and apologetic for having missed a cue during the previous night’s rehearsal.

“But darling,” she exclaimed, “you were magnificent!”

That kid looked like he’d been kissed by God.

Judith Malina is survived by her children, daughter Isha and son Garrick, by two grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.

This Holiday’s Read

May 20, 1948
Jack Kerouac

from New York Diaries 1609 to 2009. p. 163.

…The news that Jesse James is still alive is very thrilling news to me, and my mother too, but we’ve noticed that it doesn’t seem to impress the New York world at all — which does bear out, in its own way, what I say about New York, that it is a haven for European culture and not American culture. I don’t get personally mad at these things any more, because that is overdoing things in the name of culture and at the expense of general humanity, but still, I get personally mad at those who scoff at the significance of Jesse James, bandit or no, to the regular American with a sense of his nation’s past.

Reality check. Jesse seems to have been born in 1847 and died in 1882 at the age of 35. Kerouac’s calculations would make him about 101 at the time of his death – unusual longevity for an outlaw. As for his significance to the nation’s past, there’s some disagreement.

There can be no doubt that brothers Frank and Jesse James captured the popular imagination in the late 1800s when penny dreadfuls published in the East popularized the exploits of bandits in the West. Most of these accounts bore little resemblance to actual events, but it didn’t matter. Outlaw tales usually contained strands of truth and out of these, legends were spun. The James brothers, hailing, as they did from Missouri, a border state during the Civil War, claimed partisan loyalty to the South. They were, in fact, “bushwhackers”, who found it as convenient to rob Southerners as Northerners, depending upon the valuables at stake. Trains were the main prize as they carried payrolls, and the Jameses with their motley crew – the composition was ever-changing – were perceived by an alienated western public as striking at big railroad interests of the Northeast. Robbing banks was trickier to justify as the haul contained the life-savings of widows. Although the brothers styled themselves as modern-day Robin hoods, there was no evidence to suggest that they shared their loot with anyone.

A Missourian myself, I’ve had long-term familiarity with the basic legend. But an unfamiliar DVD on the stack by our TV. It was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt.  (A 2007 release.) Both my husband and son assured me that it was a “cult classic.” So I watched and, unexpectedly, it blew me away. What a socko set of performances! The film begins with the gang’s robbery at Blue Cut, just a hair above Independence, Mo. (My hometown.) And the rest of the film is a psychological contest between Jesse and the nervy, neurotic kid Ford who can’t decide whether he wants to be Jesse or kill him. Ford is played by Casey Affleck so perfectly, his mask-like face conveying passion and desperation with the twitch of a muscle, he haunted my dreams for a week.

Parts of the film are voice-over, usually annoying, but the writing seemed so evocative that I looked up the author, Ron Jansen, and bought his book, by the same title, available in paperback. It is a rich and satisfying read. In fact, I wish I had tapped the book first, because once you see Brad Pitt as Jesse, you’ll never be able to imagine the outlaw as anyone else. In written form, it’s the peculiar details that fascinate. The historical Jesse, who lived under the alias “Howard”, was actually a good-looking guy, if his photos are any indication. But he reportedly remedied the odor of rotting teeth with licorice and candy. Possibly TMI. There’s a perception gap between gritty literary history and a film with the production values of Days of Heaven. In this case, each works so well on its own terms, I think may be one of the best adaptations I’ve come across in a long time.

Anyway, I’m putting my money where my enthusiasm is and am scooping up as many hardcopies as I can lay my hands on as Christmas gifts for Missouri relations who still live in James Country: St. Joseph, Kearney, Independence, Kansas City. It was at their knees after all, that I first heard the lyrics:

That dirty little. coward that
shot Mr. Howard
Has lain poor Jesse in his grave

Jesse James and Robert Ford, respectively. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Thanks Given

I am happy to begin another book with the account of Grant’s victory over Bragg at Chattanooga, and the release of Tennessee….Phil [her brother] is at Knoxville with the Ninth Army Corps. He gives a sad picture of his accommodations (five in a tent), and when he is thus uncomfortable, what must be the condition of the private soldiers? . . . The news came on Thanksgiving Day. It is quite remarkable how often good news has arrived on festival days.

Maria Lydig Daly
November 24, 1863

Entry from Diary of a Union Lady, republished in New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. p. 381.

Another Day. More Whatever

Outside on 23rd St. the din of the thoughtless celebrating “Election Night” filled the air and penetrated our walls. Henri and I walked out a few minutes to buy cigarettes for Mrs. H. . . . Bryan is defeated for the third time in his attempt to be President. . . . I voted for him for I feel that some stop must be put to the rottenness in the Re-publican administration. But, as usual, I’m on the losing side. “Bill” Taft, a jolly looking fat man designated by Roosevelt as his success-sor, gets the office—and the cancerous growth is to have four more years. I’m not a Democrat, I am of no party. I’m for change—for the operating knife when a party rots in power. I am certainly ashamed of the cowardice of the American voters.

John Sloan
November 3, 1908

New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 p. 361

41st Village Halloween Parade, Comin’ Atcha

New Orleans may own Fat Tuesday, but on Halloween, it’s New York City that kills. I make a point of catching some  of the annual Greenwich Village H-ween Parade as it storms up Sixth Avenue, partly because there’s a viewing station within a stone’s throw of my house, but more particularly because  it offers an impious recap of the Year that Was.  Who will the Lords of Misrule have  chosen to drub this time? Big Oil? Big Pharm? Big Hedge Fund? Spare the rod; spoil the CEO. The latex favorites in the costume store two doors up, are largely presidents. Obama, Clinton, and Reagan, Kennedy (before assassination) Lincoln (after). Rush Limbaugh is, for some reason, tossed into this mix, but he’s truly not looking his best.”

The mayhem is “themed”. Meaning as spontaneous as it appears, it has a producer and a Grand Marshal ( This year Whoopi Goldberg.)  Last year’s theme was “Revival” –  the parade had been cancelled the previous season due to the havoc of Sandy — but everyone did pretty much as she or he pleased, which was spookily upbeat in the interest of – well – revival.  This year it’s Garden of Earthly Delights, a nod to Hieronymus Bosch’s phantasmagoric triptych. It’s good to get back to basics.

The Parade has a mission statement but only one rule. You may not cross the parade route except at Sixth and Canal and only between 6:30 and 8:30. No exceptions. Seriously. I don’t care if you are dilated to seven centimeters, you are not getting past that police barricade.

Garden of Earthly Delights Museo del Prado Madrid

The Roosevelts Revisited

I spent last week — as did an estimated nine million other viewers — watching Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate History on PBS. This whopper delivered big-time. The Franklin and Eleanor episodes were the strongest probably because their personalities are more recent and accessible. Also, there is an abundance of action film from the era. The earlier Theodore Roosevelt segments had to rely upon still photos, rigorously panned in the best Burns tradition. The take-away is that these two presidents, fifth cousins, saw the rural world of our forefathers passing and by the sheer force of personality they reinvented the United States as a modern nation. Tell that to the originalists.

Above is the famous Unfinished Portrait of FDR. This preliminary likeness was sketched by the artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff at Roosevelt’s retreat in Warm Springs in April of 1945. During the sitting, FDR complained of “terrific” pain at the back of his head and had to be carried to bed. He died shortly thereafter.

The series is subtitled in Spanish. You might also want to check out the companion book by Geoffrey C. Ward. It contains more material than is found in the documentary.

Fragments Caught and Kept

3:19 PM * watching television after walking 75 blocks home, it feels so distant. i turn from the tv to my computer monitor to not look at it.

i’m scolding myself for being desensitized by an hour of television footage, replaying collapse timelessly. it is not like a movie and i scold myself more than that by saying i saw a plane hit the world trade center today and remembering that i was surprised a second plane came out of the bay and that i had instinctively stepped back from the windows, afraid of a shockwave that would break the windows i was looking through. it only happened once, horribly once. it is not surreal my fellow architects and i knew that without fire suppression systems and help, there was no way the structure was going to survive (structural steel melts after being burned for an hour) and knew exactly how it would fail. you saw several hundred people falling a hundred storeys. each of them fell only once.

Chad the Minx
(Chad Smith)
September 11, 2001

Chad Smith is a New York architect, writer, martial artist, and club team rugby player. This 9/11 entry was published originally published on the website www.nycbloggers.com. It appears on p. 288 of New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009.

All Roosevelts, All the Time

For years I’ve been walking past a tastefully recessed brownstone on East 20th Street, discovering just recently that it is the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. TR was the only American president born in New York and “the birthplace” is one of the city’s most overlooked museums.

The house was one of two identical brownstones built by paterfamilias, Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt. CVS, as he was known to family and friends, gave them as wedding gifts to sons, Robert and Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., AKA “Thee” and father of the future president.

Thee’s original, at 28 East, was demolished in 1916, a casualty of commercial development. But after TR’s death in 1919, his wife, the former First Lady Edith Roosevelt, and other female relations raised funds to have it rebuilt and restored, using its twin as a model. The latter now houses a museum, which displays, among other memorabilia, the shirt that Roosevelt wore during an assassination attempt on the campaign trail. Bullet hole visible. Also, the uniform he wore during the Cuban campaign. It was tailored to his specifications by Brooks Brothers.

Theodore and his three siblings were all born in same front bedroom on the second floor, shown below.

Nestled behind it is a nursery where the current baby-in-residence was deposited; then sent packing upstairs when the next infant arrived. The back end of this room was reconfigured to provide for an outdoor space for the children to play. This “piazza” had no doors leading onto it so the Roosevelt brood had to reach it by climbing through the windows.

The “great rooms” – the family room/library, dining room and formal parlor — are high-ceilinged but, by Millennial standards, a tad too narrow for comfort. Where did anyone living here find privacy? They didn’t. Not enough of it, at least, to accommodate the volatile personalities within. Possibly why TR found the inexhaustible expanses of the West so inviting.

The Birthplace was modeled after the rowhouses of Amsterdam where the steep stoop was meant to surmount flooding canals. These could come back into style as ocean levels rise.

The walk-through, curated by a very knowledgeable ranger of the National Park Service, takes about an hour and is free. It’s also a solid backgrounder to documentarian Ken Burns’s upcoming PBS series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History that will air in two-hour segments over seven successive nights this coming September. It runs a total of fourteen hours and follows the Roosevelt clan from its arrival in New Amsterdam in the Sixteen Hundreds through Franklin and Eleanor.

Alfred A. Knopf has published a companion book co-authored by Burns and Roosevelt historian, Geoffrey C. Ward. The latter is one of this blog’s favorite author/editors. Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley is cited in two posts below: “Driving With Daisy”, January 17, 2013, and “Bo! Bo! Bo!”, December 7, 2012.

NOTE: Approximately 60% of the furnishings are deemed to be original. The remainder are contemporaneous period pieces.

Arctic Update

New York choreographer, Jody Sperling, has now reached Arctic waters. (See Jody’s Sense of Ice. April 28, 2014) She is shown here performing in the open air, on what is — hopefully — thick ice, as her ride, the Coast Guard cutter Healy docks near a floe. Her billowing costume was designed to represent “the blanched ridges and wind-swept surfaces” of that stark landscape. The work itself is an “elegy” to the disappearing sea ice. Sperling is believed to be the first dancer to perform on an ice cap. And she is certainly the first to earn the designation “choreographer-in-residence to the U.S. Coast Guard.” You can follow her progress at Timelapsedance.com

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