New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Oddballs & Eccentrics

The Witch, the Wench & the Colonel

At her death, the Witch of Wall Street was worth more than J. P. Morgan, and nearly all of it was in cash. Yet Hetty Green had worn the same dress for thirty years and lived in squalor. The Witch’s son Ned was another matter, a six-foot, four-inch, 300-pound eccentric who tossed away $3 million a year on cars, coins, stamps, female “wards,” pornography, yachts, and Texas politics.

Henrietta Howland Robinson was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts on November 21, 1835. She inherited about $1 million outright from her father in 1865 and a life interest in $5 million. She was tall, full-figured, and handsome, with “a bosom full and high,” large, bright blue, intelligent eyes, regular features, and a fine, delicate, peach-blossom complexion that she retained into old age. Edward H. Green, a wealthy Vermonter, fell in love with her as she walked into the dining room in Boston’s Parker House.

With a pre-nuptial agreement under which each remained independent of the other in financial matters, they married in 1867. After eight years in London, the couple returned to America to live in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Here Hetty began to show an obsessive parsimony, spending half the night looking for a two-cent stamp she had mislaid, wearing wildly outdated clothes that were never mended or replaced, and not washing to save money on soap. (In later years, Mrs. Green’s economy led guests in hotel dining-rooms to ask for Hetty to be seated as far away from them as possible.) She became notorious and a favorite target for reporters with a satirical eye.

Mr. Green found Mrs. Green embarrassing. Relocating the family to New York, he took a bachelor apartment in an expensive men’s residential hotel, while Hetty, though wealthier than ever, lived with her children in cheap flats in Brooklyn and Hoboken, frequently moving to evade state taxes. They rarely paid more than twenty-two dollars a month for rent or five dollars a week for food.

In 1886, her son Ned was knocked down and dragged by a cart at Ninth Avenue and 23rd Street, severely injuring his right leg. She refused to pay doctors’ fees, instead making the rounds of free medical clinics in Manhattan and Brooklyn. She was recognized and turned away because she refused to pay although she could afford to. Eventually she had to take Ned to a doctor who, by then, could do nothing but advise amputation. It was that or death by gangrene, but Hetty would not—perhaps could not—pay for a doctor. Finally, her husband paid for the procedure, and the youth’s leg was cut off about seven inches above the knee.

Yet the boy remained loyal to his mother, who had begun to recognize his flair for business. Within months, Ned had become Hetty’s agent, first in Chicago and then Texas. During his stay in the Windy City, his lodge brothers, realizing the lad was an innocent at twenty-two, arranged an appointment for him at a house of mirth, ensuring first that the madam understood the guest of honor was a shy one-legged virgin.

The voluptuous redhead who entertained him, Mabel Harlow, was a thorough professional, skillful, tolerant, and kindly, who had learned her trade in Dallas and Houston before hitting the big time. Ned fell immediately in love but Mabel, uninterested in commitment, left town on the next train.

One of Hetty’s lesser enterprises, the Texas Midland Railroad, was fifty-one miles of unprofitable rusty rail connecting no place with nowhere. She sent Ned to make it viable. He stumped into the American National Bank of Terrell, Texas, bearing a cashier’s check for $500,000. This was then twice the bank’s capital. The bankers wired Hetty for confirmation. She replied that Ned had a mole on his forehead and a cork leg. He showed both to the bankers. They took the check. Then they made him a vice president.

Of those days, he later said, “I felt wonderful. I was fancy free.” Looking down at his cork leg, he added, “You might also say I was footloose.” Shortly after Ned’s arrival in Texas, the Governor made him an honorary colonel. Ned ordered gold-braided uniforms from Brooks Brothers for the next inaugural ball and used the title for the rest of his life.

He also became interested in Republican politics, befriending an unlikely but powerful state boss, William Madison “Gooseneck Bill” McDonald, a gangly black man with a bobbing Adam’s apple.

After working his way through Roger Williams College, Gooseneck Bill had returned to the Lone Star State as a teacher. This was no way to get rich, so he also sold insurance for fraternal orders and went into politics. Texas Democrats then banned blacks from membership. So McDonald joined the Republicans. While the GOP was then an electoral dead-end in a former Confederate state, the Texas Republicans sent delegates to their party’s national convention, where Presidential candidates wanted their votes.

McDonald was soon able to buy and sell jobs, do deals, get contracts, and begin making money. But no Negro could become State Republican chairman. He needed a white man to front for him, like the large, affable railroad president from Terrell. McDonald planted the seed of ambition: State Chairman, Governor, maybe…. In September, 1896, following McDonald’s advice (“Never bribe a man with a check. Always use cash.”), Ned overwhelmed the State convention in a tidal wave of babes, booze, and gold, winning the first of four terms as State party chairman.

In his private life, Colonel Green behaved as if he had just invented sex and couldn’t wait to spread the idea around. When the Texas Midland bought an opera house as its office building, Edward used its top floor as his apartment, where he received an ever-changing array of women, including occasional professional talent from Dallas. He and his friends enjoyed snapping photographs of each other flagrante delicto, perhaps foreshadowing his robust taste for pornography.

One day Ned and Mabel met by accident in the lobby of the town’s hotel. (She was in Terrell on business.) She said, “Hiya, Eddie,” and they fell into each other’s arms. This time, Mabel stuck around to become the Colonel’s “housekeeper.” As she was easily bored and her only friends were whores, Mabel occasionally bolted town after a few drinks to return to her trade. Gooseneck Bill repeatedly tracked her down, had her arrested, and ensured her return to Terrell on the next train.

In the meantime, Hetty, who referred to Miss Harlow as Miss Harlot, had been busy on the stock market. As Lucius Beebe observed in The Big Spenders, “The New York Stock Exchange had hitherto been a closely guarded present of purely masculine rapacity, but Hetty, in the guise of a sort of reverse Florence Nightingale, was soon stacking the maimed and dying like cordwood as a result of her ruthless operations, and bears and bulls alike were licking financial wounds that were pitiful to behold.”

But indulging the odd occasional bout of securities manipulation was merely a pastime. She made her real money as a loan shark, lending money to bankers and brokers at the highest possible rate of interest from her rent-free desk at the Seaboard National Bank’s Wall Street office, where she always had $40 to $50 million on deposit.

During the Panic of 1907, perhaps her finest hour, the Knickerbocker Trust Company failed for $52 million. There was no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation then: the depositors lost their savings. Hetty was not among them. Several weeks before the crash, she had told a friend to get her money out of the Knickerbocker. Hetty had already done so. “The men in that bank are too good-looking,” she explained. “You mark my words.”

Meanwhile, she continued to live in obscure and shabby boarding houses, sometimes in unfurnished rooms where she did her own cooking on a single gas plate. In April, 1916, while staying with a friend, the old lady suffered a stroke after arguing with the housekeeper over extravagance. The cook, Hetty claimed, was bankrupting her employer by using whole milk where skimmed would do. She died two months later: the Colonel had paid for round-the-clock care, the nurses dressing as maids lest Hetty have another stroke at the thought of the expense. She left $100 million to her two children.

At the time of his mother’s death, Colonel Green usually wore rimless spectacles, wing collars and, except on the very saddest occasions, a bemused smile. Thereafter, some say, his way of life became a protest against the penury that had cost him a leg. He collected stamps, coins, and pornography without restraint.

Hetty had been dead for less than a month when Ned married Mabel. To celebrate his nuptials, the Colonel wanted the world’s largest private yacht. With World War I raging, the Colonel was unable to order a vessel to his design. He inquired whether J. P. Morgan’s Corsair or Vincent Astor’s Nourmahal were available. They were not. Instead, he purchased a Great Lakes excursion steamer, the S.S. United States. It was only 195 feet long, shorter than Corsair. Green solved the problem by having the United States lengthened by sixty-one feet. When finished, the main cabin was 28 by 32 feet, with an open fieldstone fireplace. Here, the Colonel’s  imagination failed him and the boat’s interior was furnished by John Wanamaker’s department store

When the United States arrived at Round Hill, the Colonel’s residence in Buzzards Bay, he encountered an insurmountable obstacle. The steamer burned nearly two tons of coal a day just keeping up enough steam pressure to activate the showers and fire lines. In wartime, nothing like this was available for a single civilian’s use. Then, on August 21, 1919, the United States sank at its mooring in sixteen feet of water. Colonel Green’s pride took ten hours to go down in broad daylight. There were no casualties; the furnishings were recovered; and the boat was scrapped.

In any case, he was finding that the money now piled up without his help. Eventually, the only words he was uttering at directors’ meetings were the motion to adjourn. Respectable neighbors on the Cape only noticed him when the Goodyear blimp he loved to moor to a tree on his front lawn got loose and was pursued by its custodians over their immaculately groomed estates. But he was wildly popular as a prize spendthrift of the Miami winter season. He signaled his arrival by presenting a $20 gold piece to each traffic policeman and would repeat the gesture when he went back North.

Colonel Green usually carried sufficient pocket money for emergencies. Once, he was breakfasting at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas with Edward Harper, president of the Security National Bank. Just as the sausages were coming to the table, a shaken emissary rushed in to tell the banker of a run on his bank. Unwilling to see his guest inconvenienced, Green pulled out his wallet and counted out twenty $10,000 banknotes. As this might have been insufficient, Green sent a bellboy to his suite, instructing him to fetch a battered Gladstone lying on the bed. It proved to be almost entirely filled with $10,000 bills, from which the Colonel counted out another thirty and handed them to Harper, no receipt necessary. Half a million dollars proved sufficient to save the bank, and Green had the valise returned to his rooms instructing the bellboy to stow it safely in the closet.

Still, now and then his mother’s thrifty ways would surface in the Colonel too. When his estate foreman told him that fifty gallons of flat paint were needed for the outbuildings, the Colonel bought a carload, paying $1.00 a can instead of the retail price of twice that amount. Reportedly, the foreman never figured out what to do with the extra 3,000 gallons.

Ned’s right leg had been buried in the Green family plot of Immanuel Church, in Bellows Falls, Vermont. In 1936, the rest of him joined it. His last joke came during probate. Among the objets d’art that made up the appurtenances of the estate was one that resembled a crown: large, bejeweled, gilt and enamel. One lawyer finally picked it up and to inspect it. He suddenly wrinkled his nose. “Gentlemen,” he said, “it’s a chamber pot. And it’s been used.”

New York Press, April 28, 1999

February 14, 2015   No Comments

Wilson Mizner, Champion Wiseacre

Much to my embarrassment,” Wilson Mizner admitted, “I was born in bed with a lady.” His second passion was theft. One of his few heroes, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, the criminal boss of Skagway during the Gold Rush of 1898, observed, “When I see anyone looking in a jewelry store window thinking how they would like to get away with the diamonds, an irresistible desire comes over me to skin them.” Mizner never resisted such desires.

His third passion was the wisecrack. Mencken called him “the sharpest wit in America since Mark Twain” and said that he spun off more jests, as casually as a man tossing away a cigarette butt, than any other citizen of the United States. Our loss is that, as John Burke, one of his biographers, wrote, “many of his best quips vanished into a bellow of laughter…and a swirl of cigar smoke and whiskey fumes.”

Still, a few survived:

“I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.”

“A fellow who tells you that he’s no fool usually has his suspicions.”

“If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you copy from two, it’s research.”

“A dramatic critic is a guy who surprises the playwright by informing him what he meant.”

“The difference between talking out of turn and a faux pas depends on the kind of bar you’re in.”

“I hate careless flattery, the kind that exhausts you in your effort to believe it.”

“I can judge a man by what he laughs at.”

“I never saw a mob rush across town to do a good deed.”

“Hollywood almost made a good picture once, but they caught it just in time.”

Mizner had great presence: he was six feet, three inches tall, over two hundred pounds, and impeccably tailored (he patronized Bullock & Jones of San Francisco, whom he stiffed). He had left home at seventeen, twelve years before his 1905 arrival in New York. After playing piano in a whorehouse, he landed in the medicine show business. Dr. Silas Slocum, creator of Doc Slocum’s Elixir, needed a talker to reel off learned-sounding phrases in Latin. “Let’s hear you speak a piece of it,” Slocum commanded. Mizner thundered a string of Spanish curses and obscenities, picked up while his father was American minister to Guatemala. “You’re hired,” the doctor declared.

In 1898, Mizner headed for the Klondike with his girlfriend, Rena Fargo. A brunette singer and dancer, Rena proved useful among a horde of men deprived of female company. Guys would do things for her that they wouldn’t do for Wilson.

Mizner went to Alaska to prospect among the miners’ pockets. He believed the providers of essential services such as whores, pimps, dive keepers, madams, and gamblers, were far more likely to strike it rich. He became a faro dealer. He knew something about cards. (An assistant district attorney once asked how long he had been playing chemin de fer. “Since infancy,” Mizner replied.) Rena, pretending to be a stranger, had amazing runs of luck at his table.

“Once,” Mizner said, “I dealt the coldest of decks involving just fifty-two aces and I have never set eye on a more larceny-haunted set of faces than those before me when they picked up their cards. They were like gents with an uncomfortable chaw of tobacco at a funeral. Each one began a mental race to determine how to keep calm and get rid of the extra ace…Each one figured it was an imperfect pack, but the only interest was not in correcting it, but in making it work, once.” They all bet furiously then one-by-one discarded and drew. “As each one discovered he had drawn an ace,” Mizner continued, “I was afraid my appendix would burst, but I did not move a line of my conniving face. Every one of them believed he had picked up his own discard. Hope would not die.” They laughed—a little too heartily—when they realized they had been had.

Eventually, the time came to depart from the North: the local paper now had a society column and the red lights no longer blazed like fireflies on a July night. Lace curtains had gone up and signs like Ye Olde Whore Shoppe had come down.

His brother, Addison, had broken into New York society as a fashionable architect. Harry K. Thaw’s murder of Stanford White left a place Addison hoped to fill. (Addison himself was no slouch in the field of carnal recreation, and at least commentator observed, “Thaw shot the wrong architect.”) At a horse show, Wilson found Addison amid his friends from the Four Hundred.

“Where are you stopping, now that you’re in town?” Addison asked.

“In a cathouse at Broadway and Forty-second Street,” Wilson boomed truthfully. “I just sit there all day reading my beloved books and smoking opium.”

Wilson met Myra Yerkes, the estranged wife of Charles Tyson Yerkes, the traction magnate. Thanks to peroxide, she was still blonde. Her mansion, modeled after a Roman villa, was furnished in Imperial Bad Taste. She had the social style of a steam calliope.

Mr. Yerkes died in December 1905 before he could divorce Myra, and she married Wilson in January 1906. It lasted six months. Addison called to find Wilson lying on a rococo bed once owned by King Ludwig of Bavaria, wearing long woolen underwear and rolling a brown paper cigarette. “Why did you do it?” Addison inquired. “The service is good here,” said Wilson. He rang a bell and his valet, a former Barbary Coast bouncer, entered bearing a silver salver. On it were two whiskies, one for Addison and one for the valet, and a loaded hypodermic containing a soupcon of morphine to ease the pain of being a rich woman’s consort.

Myra paid Wilson’s bills but refused him folding money. She even hired detectives to keep him from stealing. (“It’s a damned unpleasant experience to be stopped by two Pinkertons when you’re walking out of your own house with a lard can full of jewels.”).

Yerkes had left his paintings to the city of New York. The city government, aware of Mizner’s reputation, let him know he would be personally responsible for any missing paintings. Mizner understood New Yorkers couldn’t resist a bargain in hot merchandise. After putting a small army of starving artists to work copying the masterpieces in Yerkes’s collection, Mizner set up the Old Masters’ Art Society at 431 Fifth Avenue. Then he circulated the rumor that “a bargain in genuine old masters was available to anyone who didn’t mind owning something which nitpickers might classify as stolen property.”

He never claimed the works on sale in his gallery were originals. Only his confidential manner, conspiratorial tone, and frequent glances out the shop window indicated the purchaser was joining a plot against the city treasury. He even managed to sell several copies of the Mona Lisa. A few years later, he would revive the gallery, but by then there was too much competition. He was outraged when forced to sell Leonardo’s The Last Supper for $65. (“I’ll be damned if I sell it for less than five dollars a plate.”)

After his divorce, he managed the Rand Hotel, which catered to crooks, whores, pimps, kept women and their keepers, and the card sharps working the Atlantic liners.

The card sharps were extraordinary. Even Mizner couldn’t beat them. Once, he spread out a hand containing four queens, “which had come into his possession by no accident.” His opponent, of whom Damon Runyon later said, “If you give him a box of soda crackers he can deal you four of a kind,” displayed four kings. “You win,” Mizner said, “but those are not the cards I dealt you.”

Mizner required his guests to observe a few simple rules: “No opium smoking in the elevators…Guests must carry out their own dead…Guests jumping out of windows will try to land in the net placed around the third floor.” A story in the New York Morning Telegraph said, “If a man named Butler or Francis subscribed himself as ‘Harrison’ on the register, Mr. Mizner never gruffly called his attention to the error, but with the courtliness of the old school affected not to notice it.”

Mizner then worked on Broadway. In 1909, with George Bronson Howard, he created The Only Law, perhaps the first hard-boiled play. A year later, he met Paul Armstrong, another graphomaniac. They squabbled over Mizner’s work habits and Armstrong’s plagiarism (after listening to the eulogy at Armstrong’s funeral, Mizner said, “If Paul was up and about, he’d say that speech was his.”) Yet their creations, The Deep Purple, The Ocean Greyhound, and Alias Jimmy Valentine, were all highly profitable.

Mizner’s companions created a number of informal societies out of their friendships. These included the Correspondence School of Drinking—which had as its slogan, “Learn to Cirrhose Your Liver in Six Easy Lessons”—and the Forty-second Street Country Club, where lifting a shot glass or a sucker’s wallet was an athletic event. Mizner claimed that the Club had nine holes. The first hole was an iron drive into the back room of George Considine’s Buffet. There were succeeding holes at Rector’s, Shanley’s, and Churchill’s, with the long fifth up to Pabst’s at Columbus Circle, where a flag was tied to the cash register, followed by a short pitch to Reisenweber’s, a magnificent straightaway to the Plaza bar, a dog’s-leg to Roger’s Restaurant on Sixth Avenue, and a short ninth into Jack’s, at Sixth Avenue and Forty-Third Street. Few finished the course, but a couple of foursomes started off every week.

He was fond of the Hong Kong flute, i.e. the opium pipe. In 1900, you could buy narcotics without a prescription over the counter of a drug store. Patent medicines containing opiates in some form were offered for relief of headaches, female troubles, general aches, various pains, and “that tired feeling.” Famously, even Coca Cola had a little cocaine blended in the original, true recipe. Mizner also used other poppy by-products. One winter’s night, when he was presiding over a faro game in a hotel, a newcomer entered, shaking the snow off his fur collar. Mizner turned to the bellhop. “Boy,” he said, “take my nose and hang it out the window.”

Later, he graced the Florida real estate boom, where, in the litigation that followed its collapse, he testified: “I did not tell this man that he could grow nuts on that land,” Mizner explained, “I told him he could go nuts on that land.”

And, when the time came to make like the faithful and depart, taking his ancient Packard limousine, he went to Hollywood, where he became a non-writing screenwriter.

He collaborated on Little Caesar and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. When Anita Loos, who loved him, wrote the screenplay for San Francisco, she based the antihero Blackie, played by Clark Gable, on Mizner and his “insouciance and illicit charm.”

He became the resident wit at the Brown Derby, “touching the cigarette of wit to the thin skins of the self-impressed.”

According to Edward Dean Sullivan’s The Fabulous Wilson Mizner, Wilson once appeared at a floodlit premiere driving a battered and rachitic Model T. “What shall I do with your, uh, car, sir?” asked one of the magnificently clad doormen. Mizner handed him a bill of sale. “Do with it?” Wilson bellowed. “That’s not my car. It’s yours. I’m giving it to you. And you can do with it whatever you like.”

On his deathbed in 1933, asked if he wanted a priest, Mizner replied, “Bring me a priest, a minister, and a rabbi. I want to hedge my bets.”

To this day, people are still stealing his best lines. He would have enjoyed that.

New York Press, January 6, 1999

January 30, 2015   No Comments

Our Dear Queen

The Royal Governors of the Province of New York, the men who ruled here in the names of Britain’s kings and queens before the Revolutionary War, are forgotten. Place-names recall some. Fort Tryon Park bears the last royal governor’s name. Staten Island’s Dongan Hills commemorates Col. Thomas Dongan, who granted the Charter of Liberty and Privileges that would have extended religious freedom to non-Anglican Christians.

One more remains on the fringe of popular memory because of an oil portrait, painted by an unknown artist. Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, hangs in the galleries of the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West at 77th Street. The captain general and governor-in-chief of the Province of New York and Territories depending thereon in America and vice admiral of the same from 1702 to 1708 has a faintly arch expression. The face is full, even bloated, with a double chin and heavy jowls, sensual lips and a suggestion of 5 o’clock shadow. The man whose choice of summer residence gave Governor’s Island its name toys with a delicate fan and wears, as one commentator observed, a woman’s exquisite blue silk “gown, stays, tucker, long ruffles, cap, etc.” If nothing else, the noble Lord’s taste in clothing adds a new shade of meaning to the closing line of Cornbury’s gubernatorial proclamations, proudly set in large type letters below his printed name: “God Save The Queen.”

The label affixed to the portrait’s frame bears a quotation from Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England, published in 1847: “Among other apish tricks, Lord Cornbury [the ‘half-witted son’ of ‘Henry, Earl of Clarendon’] is said to have held his state levees at New York, and received the principal Colonists dressed up in complete female court costume, because, truly, he represented the person of a female Sovereign, his cousin… Queen Anne.”

Only in the last decade has anyone questioned the identity of the person portrayed (Cornbury was also accused of tyranny, oppression and corruption, but those charges receive less attention). Perhaps there is only scandal rather than substance—if one considers crossdressing statesmen grounds for scandal at all. Patricia U. Bonomi’s delightful The Lord Cornbury Scandal (1998) notes that throughout Cornbury’s life and for some seventy-three years after, no one suggested the existence of his portrait dressed as a woman. In 1796, Horace Walpole and two literary friends were trading old gossip while visiting a country house. Walpole, a notorious gossip whose father had been prime minister, claimed Cornbury had once opened a session of the New York assembly dressed as a woman, defending his conduct because, as the representative of Queen Anne, a woman, he ought in all respects represent her as faithfully as possible. George James Williams, another guest, described a portrait of Cornbury dressed as a woman, which seems to have been the portrait on display at the Historical Society.

Bonomi argues that Cornbury’s historical reputation as a transvestite rests upon four letters written by three political opponents—Robert Livingston, Lewis Morris and Elias Neau—between 1706 and 1709. None claimed to be a firsthand witness or named a single witness of Cornbury’s crossdressing. Bonomi further notes that the Grub Street press, the scandalmongers of the day, apparently printed nothing that even hinted Cornbury was a transvestite. She further argues that as the lingua franca of politics at that time was defamation (charges of sexual misconduct and perversion were commonplace), exposing the Queen’s cousin as a transvestite would have received wild publicity.

Of these three agitators, Lewis Morris, lord of the Manor of Morrisania (now in the Bronx), seems the prime mover. Morris was money-honest. None denied it. He was also ambitious, manipulative, obstructive and vain. He had schemed for years to transform the proprietary colonies of West Jersey and East Jersey—in effect, two huge private developments—into a unified royal colony, directly under the Imperial government in London, with himself as royal governor. He was frustrated when Queen Anne appointed Cornbury governor of New Jersey. Within a short time, Morris began plotting Cornbury’s removal, motivated largely by his personal frustration. Yet Morris’s assessment of Cornbury, as “a wretch who by the whole conduct of his life has evidenced he has no regard for honor or virtue,” has prevailed.

Cornbury has been unkindly handled by American historians who, even today, seem more fascinated by his personal habits than his policies. Perhaps the greatest blot on his name is, as a political opponent claimed, that he dressed “publiqly in womans Cloaths Every day.”

Cornbury was born in 1661. His grandfather, the first earl of Clarendon, had been lord chancellor of England under King Charles II; his father, the second earl, had been lord privy seal under King James II. A paternal aunt was the first wife of James II; two future queens, Mary II and Anne, were his cousins.

After his matriculation at Oxford and his further education at Geneva, Switzerland, he entered the Royal Army and won a seat in Parliament, then an unsalaried post. As his ancestors’ extravagance had encumbered the family’s estates, he entered politics to obtain salaried offices, which was as common a practice then as as it is now.

In 1688, Cornbury’s uncle, King James II, a Catholic, was overthrown in the “Glorious Revolution” by his Protestant daughter Mary, who was also one of Cornbury’s cousins, and his son-in-law, Prince William of Orange, who would become King William III. Cornbury was a colonel commanding the Royal Regiment of Dragoons; he deserted James for William and Mary almost immediately, bringing part of his command with him.

In 1701, William appointed Cornbury governor of New York. Shortly thereafter, William’s successor, Queen Anne, another Cornbury cousin, with whom Cornbury had always been close, appointed him also governor of New Jersey. Most historians have argued this was mere patronage. Yet New York was too economically and militarily important even then, and neither William (who disliked Cornbury, as he did most people) nor Anne (who was prudish and incorruptible) would have given a responsible post on the fringe of the Empire to an incompetent.

Contemporary letters and journals indicate Cornbury was highly intelligent, literate and urbane; affable in public, with something of the common touch; a generous host; a good husband; a brave and competent soldier; and an Imperialist, which is to say he favored strong rule from London in the interests of the Empire as a whole, rather than the interests of the colonies themselves. He was passionate about political and religious questions. He was brusque with persons he believed dishonest or incompetent.

When Cornbury arrived in New York in 1702, the colony was still divided by Leisler’s Rebellion. Jacob Leisler had briefly seized power from the aristocracy in New York during the unrest stemming from the Glorious Revolution. The British government regained control and tried him for treason, and he was hanged and beheaded before a howling mob in 1691. His adherents, the Leislerians, were one of the two dominant parties in colonial politics. Although Cornbury found the Anglophile anti-Leislerians more sympathetic, as most royal governors had, he was conciliatory to all factions in distributing both public appointments and invitations to his receptions and dinners (no one denied Cornbury was a gracious and generous host).

In Cornbury’s time, religious toleration in New York meant merely tolerating religions other than the established churches, the Church of England and the Dutch Reformed Church. Cornbury freely entertained non-Anglican ministers at table. However, the law required that all preachers obtain a license from the governor before preaching to public assemblies and, while he granted a license to anyone who applied, he strictly enforced the law against all who did not. Nor did he permit the use of churches and chapels built with public money by unlicensed preachers. One Presbyterian minister, Francis Makemie, who had enjoyed Cornbury’s hospitality, refused to obey the law and was prosecuted for it: Cornbury’s enemies called his enforcement of the law an act of tyranny.

His record as governor was ordinary. He built a new fort at Albany and planned harbor defenses for the Narrows, which were left incomplete due to lack of funds. Local defense was locally financed, and in common with most royal governors in British America, as Cornbury’s term continued, he had progressively harder relations with the popularly elected provincial assemblies, who were unwilling to raise revenues for colonial defense against the French or the Indians.

Cornbury built a summer house on the high ground at the northeast corner of Nutten Island, several hundred yards off the Battery in Lower Manhattan. The cost of labor and materials was approximately £100, according to the records checked by Bonomi; Morris and his allies claimed that Cornbury had appropriated £1,500, all the money set aside for harbor defense, to build it.

In April 1707, the New Jersey assembly, controlled by Morrisites, opened an investigation of Cornbury’s conduct and drew up a list of grievances. The speaker of the house, Samuel Jennings, read the list in Cornbury’s presence, and the assembly sent a copy with supporting affidavits to London, petitioning for relief from “the oppressions they groan under by the arbitrary and Illegal Practices of his said Excellencie.” Cornbury presented substantial written evidence in opposition to the charges, which eventually were not sustained. However, they provided ammunition to Cornbury’s political opponents in London, who had gained power through a shift in the balance of parties in Parliament. Cornbury was relieved in 1708.

In common with most governors of New York until the early 19th century, Cornbury incurred personal debt to pay public expenses, such as military supplies. After 1706, the New Jersey assembly refused to pay Cornbury’s salary, and the New York provincial treasurer delayed payment of his salary and warrants. Accordingly, once news of his relief arrived in New York, his creditors had the New York sheriff arrest Cornbury for debt. This was fairly ordinary, too: Cornbury’s predecessor had also been arrested for debt, and his successor was threatened with debtors’ prison because he had borrowed money to feed refugees. However, the county sheriff permitted Cornbury to depart before discharging the debts he had incurred on behalf of the government.

Cornbury returned to London in July 1710. Queen Anne formally addressed him as her “Right Trusty and Entirely Beloved Cousin.” She granted him a residence and named him a privy councilor in 1711, first commissioner of the Admiralty in 1712, and envoy extraordinary to Hanover in 1714. He died on March 31, 1723, and was interred in Westminster Abbey. The media reported his death without comment on his character or reputation.

As noted above, Bonomi found only four contemporary documents attributing transvestitism to Cornbury, all written by political opponents, and no suggestions in contemporary journals or newspapers that the Queen’s cousin wore drag. The charges of corruption were vague and never proven.

Cornbury’s enduring reputation, then, indicts the laziness of historians over the last two centuries. Neither George Bancroft nor Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, ever thoroughly examined the original sources in describing Cornbury—the work historians are expected to do. Thus, the label on the portrait became the unquestioned truth, and the received knowledge—that Cornbury was a transvestite and a corrupt, incompetent governor—accepted at face value.

In 1995, the New-York Historical Society placed a second descriptive label by the portrait, admitting, “Recent research done on the painting has called the identity of the sitter into question.” The noble Lord is also commemorated in the Cornbury Society, of Vancouver, British Columbia, an organization of heterosexual crossdressers. Obviously, some of us still print the legend.

New York Press, October 16, 2001

January 30, 2015   No Comments

Honore Jaxon, Professional Rebel

I
n December 1951, a ninety-year-old man was evicted from 157 East 34th Street. The building’s former live-in janitor and furnace tender, his old age and ill-health had precluded satisfactory performance and the landlord had fired him. Out on the sidewalk, his books and papers, neatly tied and wrapped in brown paper, were piled six feet high, eleven feet across, and forty feet long.

Major Honoré Joseph Jaxon told reporters that he was a Canadian half-breed, born of a Metis Indian maiden and a Virginian adventurer. The rest of his story was a vague farrago of treason, rebellion, and Indian wars in the Canadian West, and apparently no one put much stock in it. His photograph in the Daily News showed a bearded, decrepit old man with a thousand-yard stare.

Jaxon moved to the offices of the Bowery News, Harry Baronian’s legendary paper of “the basement of society.” After Jaxon sold two tons of newspapers and magazines for scrap, the rest of his collection—mostly books and papers on Indian history, life, and customs—were carried to his new residence, according to The New York Times,  by “gentlemen of the Bowery, led by one called Bozo.” Less than a month later, Jaxon died at Bellevue Hospital. His papers went to a city landfill.

Some of his story was fudge. He was not half Indian, nor had his father been a Virginian. But nearly seven decades before he had fought in Louis Riel’s North West Rebellion, serving as Riel’s personal secretary. He had also been tried for treason. He had generally spent his life serving revolutionary causes, and the lost mountain of his books and papers had documented the colorful, tragic history of the old Canadian West. It may, as the Ottawa Citizen wrote a few years ago, “have contained some of the secrets of one of the blackest periods in the history of Canada.”

Most Americans have never heard of Louis Riel. Few Canadians have not. He was born in 1844 in Manitoba of French, Irish, and Indian heritage. Louis was educated for the priesthood and then the bar. Neither took, and so he returned home.

Manitoba then was part of Rupert’s Land, the vast territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Its people were Metis, descendants of French fur traders and native American women, whose distinct culture blended both traditions. In 1869, the Bay Company sold its lands to Canada. When the Dominion government sent in surveyors, the Metis believed their arrival signaled the loss of their farms and stopped them at gunpoint.

louisreiel_1878In a land of illiterates, a little education and a gift for mob oratory go a long way. Riel’s rise in late 1869 was meteoric. In October he became secretary of the Metis National Committee and by November had become such an irritant that Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s prime minister, discussed the possibility of bribing him into silence. By December Riel was president of Manitoba’s provisional government. He seized Fort Garry (now Winnipeg), where he established his capital. His troops closed the border. Riel then negotiated Manitoba’s admission to the Confederation as a self-governing province rather than a mere territory.

Things fell apart when Riel’s government executed Thomas Scott, a militant anti-Catholic, for inciting an armed uprising against Riel. Macdonald sent in the militia. Riel’s guerrillas drove them out. At Macdonald’s request, the Imperial government in London sent out Colonel Garnet Wolseley with British regulars. The model for General Stanley, W.S. Gilbert’s modern major-general in The Pirates of Penzance, Wolseley was idiosyncratic but effective: his dawn assault on Fort Garry in August 1870 found it abandoned and Riel riding for the border.

Though in exile and under indictment, Riel was elected to Canada’s House of Commons in October 1873. Parliament immediately expelled him. He was re-elected in January 1874, expelled again that April, and re-elected yet again the following September. This was becoming absurd. On October 15, 1874, Her Majesty’s government outlawed Riel for five years. It was merely the first-act closer.

Honoré Joseph Jaxon, who would be among Riel’s most fervent supporters, was born William Henry Jackson in Toronto on May 13, 1861. His parents were well-educated English-speaking Canadians. Jackson began his university studies at sixteen. When his father lost his business in a fire, the family took a homestead in the Northwest Territories near the proposed right of way of Canada’s first transcontinental railroad, the Canadian Pacific. Jackson joined them, helping his father sell farm machinery. He had a sentimental affection for Indians: he was moved by the thought of once-proud natives subsisting on mice and gophers, dependent on handouts from the very people who had destroyed their way of life. Yet his daily dealings with the white settlers made him aware of their grievances, too.

In 1882, in what seems to have been the kind of saturnalia of corruption more common in the New York State legislature than a British colonial assembly, the Canadian Pacific persuaded the federal Parliament to change its proposed route across the West. Suddenly, the Jacksons and other settlers who had purchased land along the proposed line found themselves 250 miles from the new route, leaving them unable to ship their products or import machinery and tools. Jackson started an anti-government newspaper, the Voice of the People. His firebrand editorials made his reputation: within weeks, he was acclaimed secretary of the militant Farmer’s Union. On July 28, 1884, Jackson issued his manifesto detailing the settlers’ grievances: unjust taxation, improper regulations and laws, government-subsidized monopolies, and high prices on imported goods.

canadian-pacific-trainThen, after fourteen years’ exile, Riel returned. He had been teaching at a mission school in Montana when a Metis delegation arrived. The provincial government had not kept Manitoba intact for the Metis, now outnumbered by white immigrants. The government’s procrastination over granting land to the Metis and its refusal to recognize them as a distinct people had revived discontent. Worse, Eastern speculators had been granted Metis-held lands and authorized to evict them.

In July 1884, Riel arrived at Batoche, Saskatchewan. He met Jackson, who fell under his sway. Jackson so identified with the Metis that he even converted to Catholicism. At Baptism, the English Canadian took the names Honoré Joseph Jaxon, thus reinventing himself as a French half-breed.

Riel began a speaking tour of the Metis settlements with Jaxon as his personal secretary. In December, Riel sent a petition to Ottawa. Even then, Macdonald still thought Riel could be bought off. But in March 1885, Riel was again elected president of a provisional government.  As the president’s personal secretary, Jaxon was the provisional government’s bureaucracy, generating exhaustive political, military, and government correspondence.

Riel’s troops cut the telegraph wires, stopped the mails, and seized government stores and ammunition. Then, on March 26, 1885 Metis soldiers, commanded by Gabriel Dumont, defeated the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Duck Lake.  Dumont, a forty-eight-year-old trapper and guide, was a born general.  He could neither read nor write, but spoke six languages and had been a warrior, horseman, and crack shot from the age of fourteen.

On the day after the defeat at Duck Lake, Major-General Frederick Middleton, CB, the head of the Canadian land forces, arrived at Winnepeg, having been sent West on the news of Riel’s return.  Middleton was stout, short, red-faced, and white-mustached; he had been a professional soldier for over forty years and had not expected active duty when he had taken command in 1882.  But behind the facade of a good-natured Colonel Blimp (he loved ice-skating) was a daring and imaginative officer who had been repeatedly cited for valor and recommended for the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Middleton realized that the North West Rebellion was no petty native uprising. He immediately ordered three thousand troops sent west and as they arrived began advancing on Batoche. Dumont fought him to a standstill with fifty mounted riflemen at the Battle of Fish Creek on April 24, 1885. Middleton’s troops, being at best half-trained militia, were shaky and he had to lead from the front, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire. At the end of the day, Middleton withdrew. It was the last and greatest victory of the Metis in their struggle against modern civilization.

Middleton calmly regrouped while awaiting reinforcements and supplies. Then he attacked Riel and Dumont at Batoche on May 9, 1885. As this made Jaxon’s paperwork irrelevant to the provisional government’s immediate survival, Jaxon went on active duty. He would later claim a cavalry major’s commission.

Despite overwhelming odds, the rebels held out for three days. After his surrender, Riel stood trial for treason as the sole cause and instigator of the rebellion. (Government policy clearly played no role in the Metis’s discontents.) Riel openly rejected his counsel’s argument that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. With fiery eloquence, he characterized the revolts as the acts of a people made desperate by political and corporate power: the Metis as a society were small but even so had rights; Canada, though far greater, “had no greater rights than them, because the right is the same for all.”

Riel was convicted. On November 6, 1885, he was executed at the Northwest Mounted Police barracks at Regina, Saskatchewan. The man hanged for a traitor is today honored as a freedom fighter, the Father of Manitoba, the People’s Hero. His life has inspired biographies, histories, novels, plays, and an opera.

Gabriel Dumont fled south across the border, where he was welcomed as a political refugee and—being between gigs—rode for a while with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. After he received the Queen’s pardon in 1888, he returned to Canada and resumed his life as a farmer and trapper. Major-General Middleton was knighted, received a purse of $20,000, and retired a lieutenant-general in 1892 to become Keeper of the Crown Jewels. He died in his headquarters in the Tower of London in 1898.

After the surrender at Batoche, Jaxon was detained incommunicado. At least one Canadian historian, Howard Adams, has argued that Jaxon was silenced to suppress the extent of support for the Rebellion among white settlers. Jaxon was an uncooperative prisoner: he almost escaped once after bathing, racing naked across the prairie with Canadian cavalry in hot pursuit. Finally, at a trial that lasted a half-hour, he was adjudged not guilty by reason of insanity. He escaped a Fort Garry insane asylum within weeks and re-emerged in Chicago, where, surprisingly, he spent the next two decades as a successful, politically-connected general contractor, building sidewalks and lobbying for the cement and construction industries at City Hall and the state Capitol. He also lectured before women’s clubs on life among the Indians.

The Battle of Duck Lane

Yet the contemporary press strongly suggests that Jaxon was active in the political fringe, too. According to The New York Times, he “narrowly escaped being arrested as a principal conspirator…” after the 1886 Haymarket Riot. In June 1894, he marched on Washington with Jacob Coxey’s army of the unemployed. Embrey Howson’s Jacob Sechler Coxey sketches Jaxon as a “Canadian half-breed complete with blanket and tomahawk.” The Times, which detested the whole notion of Coxey’s “petition in boots,” fingered Jaxon to be the leader of an “Anarchistic plot” to blow up the Capitol, the White House, and the Treasury, War, and Navy buildings at Washington. The paper went on to allege that since his escape into the United States, Jaxon had been “engaged in mysterious conspiracies against the English government.” As late as 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt blasted Jaxon for supporting the Industrial Workers of the World.

Later that year, Canada pardoned Jaxon. He returned to tour the West, photographing its vanishing ways of life, and began collecting books, documents, and letters on Riel’s rebellions, the Metis, and the Canadian Indian peoples.

Up until 1911, Jaxon was still dabbling in international revolutionary politics, delivering a spellbinding address to the British Trades Union Congress’s annual conference as the representative of a Mexican revolutionary party. At some point around World War I, he retired to New Jersey, where he briefly edited a left-wing newspaper. In 1919, he relocated to Staten Island and in 1922 to The Bronx. By now the old revolutionary was no more than a gadfly. (The Daily News called him  “a thorn in the side of authority.”) He lived at 1383 Eastern Boulevard, a granite outcropping on the Bronx River. There he built a “palace” out of ammunition boxes, orange crates, and scrap wood, fencing it with boards and corrugated tin.

In February 1942, City health officials hauled Jaxon into court on the grounds that his residence was a rat-infested fire trap without running water. Jaxon argued that it was a fort, perfect for defending against “enemy submarines that might travel up the Bronx River.” The old man had lost none of his genius for resistance: it took four years before the city was able to force him to move, whereupon he took the custodian’s job on East 34th Street.

In his obituary, the Times printed the legend: Jaxon had been born in Montana, the son of a French pioneer settler and a Metis Indian girl, father a fur trader sufficiently wealthy to send him to University, and so on. Jaxon’s reinvented self had overcome his reality.

January 29, 2015   1 Comment

The Gray Chrysanthemum

In his eight decades, Sadakichi Hartmann fried eggs with Walt Whitman, discussed verse with Stéphane Mallarmé, and drank with John Barrymore, who once described him as “a living freak presumably sired by Mephistopheles out of Madame Butterfly.”

Critic, poet, novelist, playwright, dancer, actor, and swaggering egotist, Hartmann might lift your watch (he was a superb amateur pickpocket) but his opinion was not for sale. Such a man evoked diverse opinions. Gertrude Stein said, “Sadakichi is singular, never plural.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens (whose equestrian statue of Sherman stands near the Plaza) wrote to him, “What you think of matters of art I consider of high value.” W.C. Fields said, “He is a no-good bum.”

Sadakichi Hartmann was born November 8, 1869 on Deshima Island, Nagasaki, Japan. His father was a German merchant, his mother Japanese. His father disowned him at fourteen, shipping him to a great-uncle in Philadelphia with three dollars in his pocket. Sadakichi observed, “Events like these are not apt to foster filial piety.”

While working at menial jobs, he educated himself at the Philadelphia Mercantile Library and published articles, poems, and short stories in Boston and New York newspapers. He crossed the Delaware to Camden to introduce himself to Walt Whitman. In 1887, he published a New York Herald article quoting Whitman’s opinions about other writers, which Whitman denounced for misquoting him. Undaunted, Sadakichi expanded the article to a pamphlet, Conversations with Walt Whitman. He later studied in Europe, meeting Liszt, Whistler, Mallarmé, and Verlaine, glimpsing Ibsen and exchanging letters with Anatole France. (He later sold France’s letter to an autograph hunter, exacting dinner for two at Maxim’s with two bottles of Pol Roger).

At twenty-three, he wrote his first play, Christ, drawn from Hartmann’s private non-historical and non-Biblical ideas, particularly a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. When Christ, which he claimed had been compared to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, was published in 1893, James Gibbons Huneker, the American aesthete, called it “the most daring of all decadent productions.” It was banned in Boston: the censors burned nearly every copy and jugged Sadakichi in the Charles Street Jail.

While working as a clerk for McKim, Mead & White, he described Stanford White’s drawings as “Rococo in excelsis. To be improved upon only by the pigeons, after the drawings become buildings.” White dispensed with his services. Thereafter, Sadakichi kept the pot boiling with hundreds of German-language essays for the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung.

In 1901, he published a two-volume History of American Art, which became a standard textbook. The History remains worth reading as an intelligent evaluation of American art’s first four centuries, marked by Hartmann’s insight into the modernist movements. His judgments are nearly clairvoyant: he analyzes the work of Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, all then nearly unknown. He also discusses Alfred Stieglitz as a photographer. Sadakichi was the first American critic to seriously discuss photography as an art form. Hartmann later contributed his most incisive writing to Stieglitz’s Camera Notes and Camera Work.

By 1906, he was famous, in Huneker’s words, as “the man with the Hokusai profile and broad Teutonic culture.” He stole a taxicab and somehow won acquittal in Jefferson Market Night Court by proving he did not know how to drive. When Moriz Rosenthal, a pianist who had studied under Liszt, enriched the Hungarian Rhapsodies by improvising a series of rapid scales during a Carnegie Hall concert, Sadakichi roared from the gallery, “Is this necessary?” As the ushers tossed him out, Hartmann shouted, “I am a man needed but not wanted!”

From 1907 to 1914, he lived intermittently at the Roycroft Colony, an artistic commune at East Aurora, New York, where he ghostwrote books for its founder, Elbert Hubbard, a soap salesman who had become rich by marrying the boss’ daughter. Hubbard had fallen in love with William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. Though utterly untalented, he saw himself as a Renaissance man just like Morris and attempted to recreate the Morris enterprises at Roycroft by spending money. Hubbard rationalized his ghostwritten books by arguing that all great art was collaboration.

In 1915, Sadakichi entered 58 Washington Square South, then known as Bruno’s Garret. Guido Bruno, its proprietor, was an exotically mustached émigré whose bluff, plausible manner and florid speech unsuccessfully concealed an instinct for the main chance. Bruno realized tourists would flock to gape at bohemians in their search for what some called Greenwich Thrillage. He promoted his Garret through flamboyant magazines, all featuring his name in the title: Bruno’s Weekly, Bruno’s Scrap Book, Bruno’s Review of Two Worlds, Bruno’s Bohemia, Bruno’s Chap Book, Bruno’s Review of Life, Love, and Literature and, simply, Bruno’s. In The Improper Bohemians, Allan Churchill described Bruno’s Garret as a layman’s dream of the artist’s life, where “artists’-model types of girls and hot-eyed young men who declared themselves poets, writers, and painters…behaved during working hours like artistic freaks,” declaiming verse and splattering canvases before tourists, herded from the Fifth Avenue bus, while Bruno collected admissions at the door.

The impresario proclaimed Sadakichi a genius. In Bruno’s Chap Book for June 1915, nine years before the Nouvelle Revue Française organized the first Western haiku competition, Sadakichi published “Tanka, Haikai: Fourteen Japanese Rhythms.” Five months later, Bruno proclaimed Sadakichi king of the Bohemians.

In 1916, Sadakichi went west. He revisited his first play’s subject in a novel, The Last Thirty Days of Christ, which envisioned Jesus as a mystic and philosopher misunderstood even by his disciples (anticipated Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ by a generation). It was praised by Ezra Pound and eulogized by Benjamin De Casseres as one of the most strikingly original works of American literature. He played the Court Magician in Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s Arabian Nights fantasy The Thief of Bagdad (1924) for $250 in cash and a case of whiskey every week.

In 1938, Sadakichi moved to a shack on an Indian reservation in Banning, California. He still swaggered despite age, asthma, and a bad liver. (“My ailments are exceeded only by my debts.”) After Sadakichi collapsed on a bus, a doctor asked his symptoms. Hartmann replied, “I have symptoms of immortality.”

Though he still contributed to Art Digest and several European reviews, he generally lived on handouts cadged from admirers as tribute to his increasingly outrageous personality. John Barrymore, when asked why women still found Sadakichi, “this fugitive from an embalming table, so attractive,” replied, “Because he looks like a sick cat. Women are nuts about sick cats.”

Sadakichi’s friends in Los Angeles centered around the Bundy Drive studio of John Decker. They included Barrymore and Hearst editor Gene Fowler, then enjoying a wildly successful stint as a script doctor. This audience welcomed Sadakichi’s stories, all told with sly self-mockery and perfect timing. Fowler, according to his valentine, Minutes of the Last Meeting, he first spoke with Hartmann over the telephone in 1939. A few days later, while Fowler was at his office, a studio policeman said a crazy old man was asking for him. “When I told him he smelled of whisky,” the guard reported to Fowler, “he said I ought to be smelling his genius.”

Fowler went outside. The old man stood nearly six feet tall and weighed 132 pounds. Despite the heat, he wore a threadbare, baggy gray overcoat with an old sweat-stained fedora pushed back on his shock of gray hair, which had inspired Barrymore to nickname him the Gray Chrysanthemum.

He announced, “Where I come from and where I go doesn’t matter. For I am Sadakichi Hartmann.” (I’m condensing Fowler’s version here. Fowler extended his hand, saying, “Sadakichi, I am happy to know you.” The critic replied, “Is that remark a sample of your brilliance? You may live another century, Fowler, but you will never meet another son of the gods like me. You have something to drink?”

Fowler stammered, “As a matter of fact, I’m not drinking and—”

“What have your personal habits to do with my destiny?”

“I hadn’t expected a thirsty guest,” Fowler explained.

“You should always have something on hand to offset the stupidity of this place.” As Sadakichi helped himself to Fowler’s scotch, he said, “Be careful that you do not fall in love with your subject—in love with my wonderful character and genius. It will blind you, and your writing will suffer.”

Later, when an automobile accident interrupted Fowler’s work on the biography—it left him with “two split vertebrae, three cracked ribs, a skull injury, and wrenched knees. Otherwise I was as good as new”—Sadakichi complained that Fowler was malingering so as “to avoid becoming famous.” (“He suddenly realizes that I am much too big a subject for his limited talents.”)

Once, Fowler took Sadakichi to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art. At the entrance, Sadakichi saw a wheelchair. He sat in it and motioned Fowler to push him about the gallery. He commented loudly on the paintings: van Eyck’s Virgin and Child (“Painted on his day off”) and a Rembrandt portrait of his wife Saskia (“Second-rate…he had begun to lose his mind when he painted it”). A curator bustled up, and Sadakichi asked him where the washroom was. The curator gave him directions. “Bring it to me,” Hartmann commanded.

Fowler recalled an attempt to have Hartmann examined by a physician. The doctor recommended that he be operated on for his hernia. Sadakichi resented this proposal—understandably, since in those days such ruptures could be repaired only by first removing the testicles. Decker urged the old man to bid the glands farewell. (“They have served their purpose and undoubtedly merit an honorable retirement.”) “Ghouls!” Sadakichi cried and turned his rage on the doctor. “Why don’t you men of medicine do something worthwhile instead of castrating a genius!” (Barrymore, weighing in, sustained Hartmann’s objections. “After all,” said he, “it is hard to cast aside comrades of happier times.”)

“Other people,” said Sadakichi, “talk and talk about dying. I’m doing it!” So he did, on November 21, 1944.

New York Press, May 1, 2001

March 10, 2009   Comments Off on The Gray Chrysanthemum

The Way of the Perfect Samurai

He wrote near the end that his life was divided into four rivers: writing, theater, body, and action. He memorialized all of it through photographs. Some were conventional. When Yukio Mishima came to New York with his wife for a belated honeymoon in 1960, they were photographed on the Staten Island ferry and before the Manhattan skyline, like any tourist couple.

A bodybuilder for the last two decades of his life, his love of self-display crossed into exhibitionism. Thus, the beautiful, homoerotic photographs: Mishima in a fundoshi, a loincloth, kneeling in new-fallen snow with a dai katana, the great sword of a samurai, or posing as Guido Reni’s St. Sebastian (complete with arrows). He even posed for Barakei (roughly, “Death by Roses”), a magnificently produced luxury book of extraordinary nude photographs, and somehow was disturbed by the consequent letters received from various admirers requesting still bolder portraits—after all, he was a family man with a wife and two children.

Perhaps the four rivers joined in his most famous photograph: Mishima stripped to the waist, his chest bulging with muscle and gleaming with sweat, his brows knotted and eyes glaring, wielding a massive, two-handed, three-foot-long dai katana. It was an elegant weapon, made by the legendary 17th-century swordsmith Seki no Magoroku, and kept razor-sharp. About his head is a hachimaki, a white headband bearing the Rising Sun and a medieval samurai slogan, “Serve the Nation for Seven Lives.”

Yukio Mishima first came to New York in 1951 at twenty-five. Within the previous two years, he had published two outstanding novels, Confessions of a Mask and Forbidden Colors. The critics hailed him as a genius. He spent ten days in the city, going to the top of the Empire State Building, seeing Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art, catching Call Me Madam and South Pacific. New York did not appeal to him: he found it, according to biographer John Nathan, “like Tokyo five hundred years from now.”

Mishima was born Kimitake Hiraoka, the eldest son of a middle-class family. Before he was two months old, his paternal grandmother took him from his parents and kept him until he was twelve. Her ancestors had been samurai, related by marriage to the Tokugawa, who were shoguns. She was chronically ill and unstable, yet she loved theater and took him to the great classics, such as The 47 Ronin, a magnificent celebration of feudal allegiance, of loyalty and honor even unto death, and perhaps the most stirring Kabuki play.

Through her family connections, Mishima entered the elite Peers’ School, and by fifteen he was publishing in serious literary magazines. He took the pen name Yukio Mishima to escape his father’s persecution (his father, a Confucian, considered fiction mendacity and destroyed his son’s manuscripts whenever possible). In 1944 he graduated as valedictorian and received a silver watch from the Emperor. His luck held: he failed an army induction physical and thus survived the Second World War.

From the beginning, Mishima’s productivity was stunning: in 1948, he published thirteen stories, a first novel, a collection of novellas, two short plays and two critical essays. On November 25, 1948, after retiring from a nine-month career at the Finance Ministry, he began his first major novel, Confessions of a Mask. Mishima brilliantly evokes his closeted protagonist’s awareness of being different and sense of unique shame. Within two years, Mishima revisited this theme in Forbidden Colors, now noting homosexuality’s ubiquity. Spending all that time in gay bars, taking notes, can do that to you. Besides, homosexuality occupies a different place in Japanese culture than it does in ours. During the two centuries before Japan reopened to the West, some of its most flamboyant heroes were bisexual picaros whose panache and courage on the battlefield were equaled by delicacy and endurance in a diversity of intimate situations.

In July 1957, after Alfred A. Knopf published his Five Modern Noh Plays, Mishima returned to New York. (He told his biographer John Nathan that Knopf dressed “like the King in an operetta, or a whiskey trademark.”) Mishima was interviewed by The New York Times, met Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams, and their friends, saw eight Broadway shows, and went several times to the New York City Ballet.

He returned to Japan to find a wife, which was not as easy as one might think. Although marriages were still often arranged, and he was one of Japan’s most distinguished men of letters, Mishima’s affect was apparently not particularly attractive. (A weekly magazine had polled Japan’s young women on the question, “If the Crown Prince and Yukio Mishima were the only men remaining on earth, which would you prefer to marry?” More than half the respondents preferred suicide.) Nevertheless, his marriage to Yoko Sugiyama proved successful. They stopped in New York on their belated honeymoon, where he saw two of his plays performed in English at the cutting-edge Theatre de Lys. They had two children and he was an attentive, devoted father.

The family lived in a house Mishima had ordered built in the Western manner. It has been described as Victorian colonial, perhaps because the language lacks words to better describe it. “For Mishima,” Nathan explains, “the essence of the West was late baroque, clashing colors, garishness…” He describes him assuring “his horrified architect,” that ‘I want to sit on rococo furniture wearing Levi’s and an aloha shirt; that’s my ideal of a lifestyle.'”

From 1965 to 1970, he worked on his four-volume epic, The Sea of Fertility (Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel). “The title,” he said, “is intended to suggest the arid sea of the moon that belies its name.” It is his masterpiece, as he knew it would be.

At first glance, in taking the theme of the transformation of Japanese society over the past century, Mishima is revisiting the tired, even trite conflict between traditional values and the spiritual sterility of modern life. One might better define this work as a lyric expression of longing, which he apparently believed the central force in life: that longing led one to beauty, whose essence is ecstasy, which results in death. His fascination with death is erotic: he was drawn to it as most of us are drawn to the company and the touch of the beloved.

In his essay “Sun and Steel,” he wrote of “a single, healthy apple…at the heart of the apple, shut up within the flesh of the fruit, lurks the core in its wan darkness, tremblingly anxious to find some way to reassure itself that it is a perfect apple. The apple certainly exists, but to the core this existence as yet seems inadequate… Indeed, for the core, the only sure mode of existence is to exist and to see at the same time. There is only one method of solving this contradiction. It is for a knife to be plunged deep into the apple so that it is split open and the core is exposed to the light… Yet then the existence of the cut apple falls to pieces; the core of the apple sacrifices existence for the sake of seeing.”

Mishima stood about five feet, two inches. He glowed with charisma and an undeniable, disturbing sexuality. Every memoir testifies to his extraordinary energy. He was brilliant and witty, even playful. He had self-knowledge and a keen irony, and his own absurdities were often its target. He became politically active on the extreme right and in 1968 organized the Shield Society, which became his elegantly uniformed private army.

Both Japanese and Westerners testified to his extraordinary empathy—his ability to understand and respond to others. Thus his genius for conversation: the man who loved discussing the Japanese classics, Oscar Wilde, or the dozen shades of red differentiated in the Chinese spectrum could also discuss weightlifting or kendo or a thousand other subjects, each gauged to his listener. He could make his companion feel that he or she was the most important person in the world to him, which was a useful gift for a man who understood that he lived behind masks, or in a series of compartments, and that no one knew him whole.

In November of 1970, Yukio Mishima was forty-five. He’d published thirty novels, eighteen plays, twenty volumes of verse, and twenty volumes of essays; he was an actor and director, a swordsman and bodybuilder, a husband and father. He spoke three languages fluently; he had gone around the world seven times, modeled in the nude, flown in a fighter jet, and conducted a symphony orchestra. During the previous evening, he had told his mother that he had done nothing in his life that he had wanted to do.

On November 25, twenty-two years to the day from beginning Confessions of a Mask, he led a party of four members of the Shield Society to a meeting with the commanding general of the Eastern Army of the Japanese Self-Defense Force. He had finished revising the manuscript of The Decay of the Angel only that day; it was on a table in the front hall of his house, ready for his publisher’s messenger.

At army headquarters, with only swords and daggers, Mishima and his men took the commanding general hostage. They demanded that the troops be assembled outside the building to hear Mishima speak. A little before noon, with 800 soldiers milling about, Mishima leaped to the parapet of the building, dressed in the Shield Society’s uniform. About his head was the hachimaki. He began speaking, but the police and television helicopters drowned out many of his words. He spoke of the national honor; and demanded the army join him in restoring the nation’s spiritual foundations by returning the Emperor to supreme power.

He had once said, “I come out on stage determined to make the audience weep and instead they burst out laughing.” It held true now: the soldiers shouted that he was a bakayaro, an asshole. After a few minutes, he gave up. He cried out three times, “Heiko Tenno Banzai” (“Long Live the Emperor”), and stepped back.

He loved Jocho Yamamoto’s classic Hagakure, an 18th-century instruction manual for the warrior. Jocho states, “The way of the samurai is death…the perfect samurai will, in a fifty-fifty life or death crisis, simply settle it by choosing immediate death.”

Mishima had fantasized about kirigini—to go down fighting against overwhelming odds, sword in hand. Now he kicked off his boots and removed his uniform until he wore only a fundoshi. He sat down on the carpet and took a dagger, a yorodoishi, in his right hand. He inhaled deeply. Then his shoulders hunched as he drove the blade into his abdomen with great force. As his body attempted to force out the weapon, he grasped his right hand with his left and continued cutting. The blood soaked the fundoshi. The agony must have been unimaginable. Yet, he completed the cut. His head collapsed to the carpet as his entrails spilled from his body.

He had instructed Morita, his most trusted follower, “Do not leave me in agony too long.” Now, Morita struck down with Mishima’s dai katana. He was inept: the beheading required three strokes. Then Morita took his own life.

Mishima’s motives remain the subject of speculation: madness, burnout, or fatal illness. Some whispered that he might have enjoyed the pain. Others suggested he and Morita had committed shinju, a double love-suicide. Some argued esthetics. A reading of Sun and Steel suggests that suicide was the logical completion of his search for beauty. Others take him seriously. Perhaps it was a matter of honor, and his death the most sincere protest he could muster against modern life.

To this day, thousands of Japanese observe the anniversary of his suicide.

New York Press, May 9, 2000

February 15, 2009   Comments Off on The Way of the Perfect Samurai

The Collyer Brothers of Harlem

Dr. Herman Livingston Collyer, a successful gynecologist, his wife Susie, and their sons Homer and Langley moved from Murray Hill to 2078 Fifth Avenue, at 128 Street, in 1909. The house was a three-story brownstone mansion, with mahogany paneling, fine antiques, and family portraits dating to the eighteenth century. The Collyers were among New York’s oldest families. Their ancestors came to America on the Speedwell, which, according to Langley Collyer, “…had a better passenger list than the Mayflower.”

Two years after the Collyers’ arrival, African-Americans began settling in Harlem in large numbers. By 1925, Harlem had been transformed from an upper-middle-class white suburb into the center of African-American life.

But while nearly all the other white folks left, the Collyers did not. Dr. Collyer died in 1923, Mrs. Collyer in 1929. Their sons remained in the mansion. According to Trinity Church’s baptismal records, Homer Collyer was born on November 6, 1881. Langley was about six years younger. Both men graduated from Columbia: Homer, who graduated with the class of 1904, earned an MA, an LLB, and an LLM and practiced admiralty law. Langley took his degree in chemistry and mechanical engineering. He never worked for a living, devoting himself to music.

In 1928-’29, Homer worked in the law office of John McMullen, who would become the family lawyer. Homer then worked for City Title Insurance at 32 Broadway, spending his days researching in the Hall of Records. A former colleague described Homer as an affable, courtly, Dickensian type, with old-fashioned clothing, high collars, and elaborate sideburns who wrote with an elegant Spencerian hand.

Langley, who was last photographed in 1946, looked like a stereotype of an aging late Romantic poet, with an old-fashioned bow-tie, formal black jacket and vest, gray striped trousers, a long gray mustache, and longish hair.

By 1917, the Collyers’ telephone had been disconnected because, as Langley explained, they were “being billed for long distance calls they didn’t make.” In 1928, the gas was shut off. The brothers began going without steam heat and hot running water, using kerosene for lighting and cooking. The Encyclopedia of New York City and Jan Morris in Manhattan ’45 claim they had no water or sewer connection; no contemporary sources go that far. Some of the local kids threw stones through their windows and after Langley had spent large sums to replace the glass, he decided it was better to board them up and close the inner shutters.

Most sources agree that Homer last appeared in public in 1932. In 1933, he suffered a stroke, with “hemorrhages in both eyes,” and went blind. Thereafter, Langley cared for him. They avoided doctors, treating Homer’s illnesses with special diet and rest. Langley said Homer ate 100 oranges a week and treated his eyes by consciously resting them: keeping them closed at all times.

Their solitude was first violated by the press on August 11, 1938, when Helen Worden wrote an article for the World-Telegram about Maurice Gruber, a real estate agent who wanted to buy Collyer property in Queens. When the Collyers did not respond to his letters and then his personal visits, Gruber staked out the house. By the following day, Worden found Charles Collyer, a distant cousin working as a ticket agent for the Long Island Rail Road, who suddenly and conveniently became worried that Homer was dead. Worden’s article was accompanied by photographs posing Charles Collyer and his wife on the front steps of the mansion. Worden called Langley “the mystery man of Harlem.” She recapitulated every street rumor that behind the shabby facade was a veritable Arabian Nights’ palace of Chinese rugs, rare antiques and thousands of morocco-bound books, including piles of money that Langley was afraid to put in the bank.

She then staked out the mansion herself. One night she caught Langley slipping out to go shopping and began her interview by calling out, “Good evening, Mr. Collyer. The neighbors tell me you keep a row boat in the attic and a Model T in the basement.”

Strangely enough, Langley responded. “Yes and no,” he replied. The boat, he explained, was his father’s canoe. “He used to carry it to the Harlem River on his head and paddle down to [Bellevue] every morning and back every evening. The auto was his, too. I never got around to putting it together again after he died.”

Langley later claimed all his troubles dated from these articles. Jan Morris writes that “…nobody ever interfered with them it seems, or tried to make them live like everyone else. They were the Collyer Brothers, Harlem’s Most Fascinating Mystery, as the tabloids like to say, and fashionably mysterious they were allowed to remain.”

But they were not left alone. As the Daily News wrote, “folks attempted to see for themselves.” This phrase is ambiguous. The clippings on the Collyers leave a strong impression that from the late thirties, nosy neighbors knocked on the door, nasty kids threw rocks at the house, broke their fence, and smashed bottles in their front yard, and reporters kept interviewing obscure relatives on the steps of the house, expressing concern over poor cousins Homer and Langley.

Another story quoted a neighbor describing Langley as “the ghosty man… He did have a brother, Homer, but nobody’s seen him in a long while. They ain’t seen his ma, either. She was s’pose to be dead, but she never had a funeral… He’s like haunts in graveyards, he don’ come out before midnight.”

Langley panicked. Though gloomy, the house had not been messy in 1938. By 1942, Langley had single-handedly accumulated vast quantities of newspaper, cartons, tin cans and other refuse, transforming the mansion into a fortress. He apparently applied his engineer’s training to arrange packing boxes and cartons in interlocking tiers with concealed tunnels passing from one room or one floor to another. Langley alone was familiar with the maze. Anyone else would have to remove the entire barricade to pass. He also booby-trapped massive piles of newspapers and old luggage with trip wires.

Their final drama began at 8:53 a.m. on March 21, 1947, when a man who gave his name as Charles Smith telephoned police headquarters, saying, “There was a dead man in the house at 2078 Fifth Avenue.” Police arrived around 10 a.m. to find a crowd of Harlem residents outside the house. The police roped off the area. Some officers tried forcing the mahogany front doors. Then the police took them off their hinges. There stood a solid wall of boxes and debris, up to the ceiling.

Other officers entered the unlit, cluttered basement. The way from the basement to the first floor was blocked by a solid mass of packing cases. Then, the police forced the shutters on a first floor window. Within lay a desolation of ceiling-high stacks of boxes, paper, and furniture, crawling with rats. The officers found the stairs to the second floor blocked with yet another mass of packing cases.

Two hours after the police first arrived on the scene, officers finally clambered from a ladder into a second-story room. There they found Homer dead. He was emaciated, bearded (Daily News) or mustachioed (Times), clothed only in either a tattered robe (Times) or a few ragged fragments of clothing (The Sun), and lay with his knees drawn almost to his chin. Dr. Thomas Gonzales, the medical examiner, said that Homer’s body was extremely emaciated and dehydrated. “There is no question,” Gonzales said, “that he had been neglected for a long time.” There was no food in his stomach or his digestive tract, indicating he had nothing to eat or drink for at least three days before his death, which was attributed to chronic bronchitis, gangrenous decubital ulcer (a large, untreated bedsore), and senile pulmonary emphysema.

The story was a wild sensation: on March 22, 1947, even the Times printed a front-page story on Homer’s death. By the end of the second day, according to the Times, the police had removed nineteen tons of debris from the first-floor hallway alone.

As the search for Langley continued, thousands of curious citizens walked or drove by the house. According to the Daily News, “few lingered at the scene. They were driven away by the smells.”

A friend whose father covered the story for one of the dailies told me the cops lit up cheap, foul-smelling cigars against the overpowering stench of organic corruption—”like a blow from a mailed fist.” For not only the newspapers, garbage, and animal wastes were rotting, but as a city housing inspector told The Sun, even the house was rotting: Its floor and walls were saturated because of the open windows and roof leaks, the beams were rotted and buckled from the weight of the junk and bricks were falling from the walls.

The New York County public administrator, a Surrogate’s Court official, took over the search from the police. On March 31, the public administrator hired six professional movers to remove all articles of value from the house. They tore out the basement entrance and began emptying the law library. The 2500 law books were merely a tenth of the volumes in the house. They found numerous family oil portraits. They found Mrs. Collyer’s hope chests, jammed with unused piece goods, silks, wool, damask, and brocade; three bolts of embroidered white curtain material, each containing 54 yards, that had never been unwrapped; and a batch of fine linen dish towels, stamped “Collyer,” that had never been used.

They found telephone directories, three revolvers, two rifles, a shotgun, ammunition, a bayonet and a saber, a half-dozen toy trains, toy tops, a toy airplane, fourteen upright and grand pianos, cornets, bugles, an accordion, a trombone, a banjo; tin cans, chandeliers, tapestries, a portrait camera, enlarger, lenses and tripods, a bowling ball in a canvas bag, bicycles and bicycle lamps, a rolled-up 100-foot rug runner, a nine-foot-tall mahogany clock with a music box inside and pastel painted figures on the broad face; thirteen ornate mantel clocks, including one contained in a metal bust of a girl whose ears and bodice dripped coins, thirteen Oriental rugs, heavily ornate Victorian oil lamps and vases, white plaster portrait busts, and picture frames. They found a static machine, an electrical device manufactured during the 1890s for the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, and other ailments. They found five violins, at least two dating from the 18th century, two organs and scores of seven-inch gramophone records dating from 1898, including “Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon for her Lover Who is Fur, Fur Away,” “Atta Baby,” and “Nobody In Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine.” They found sheets in braille from Homer’s failed attempts to learn the system. And they found a certificate of merit for punctuality and good conduct awarded to Langley at Public School 69, 125 West 54th St., for the week ending April 19, 1895.

These things merely salted the vast sea of junk and paper.

By April 3, according to the Herald Tribune, the searchers had removed 51 tons of waste. They had only reached two rooms on the first floor. By April 8, nineteen days after the search began, The Sun reported 103 tons of debris removed. Then they found Langley’s body.

He had been buried alive in one of his booby traps while crawling to bring Homer food. He had been only eight feet from his brother. He was wearing burlap draped over his shoulders as a cape, and police speculated this had snagged on a wire and tripped the booby trap. Langley wore no underwear or socks. He had on a bathrobe, three jackets, and four pairs of trousers. Around his neck as a scarf was a white onion sack fastened with a safety pin. He lay on his right side and the rats had been at him. Both The Sun of April 8 and the World-Telegram of April 9 stated that a preliminary examination indicated Langley had died quite some time before his brother. Apparently, Homer had died utterly, horribly alone.

On May 9, 1947, Robert F. Wagner Jr., the city’s commissioner of Housing and Buildings (later Manhattan borough president and mayor), announced the mansion would be demolished as unsafe and a menace to life and property. It was torn down within the year.

Langley was buried in the Collyer family plot in Cypress Hills Cemetery on April 11. The funeral arrangements were made by the public administrator’s office. The numerous relatives produced by the press apparently did little more than attend the services and file claims against the brothers’ estates.

There was no great wealth. The Surrogate’s Court probated the estates in 1949: $60,000 in real estate holdings, $2000 in savings, $4000 from the sale of personal property. Against this were claims for $15,000 in estate taxes and thousands more in city, federal, and state tax arrears. It is unclear whether the forty claimants against the estate ever saw a dime.

The only explanation Langley ever provided for the brothers’ behavior was that they preferred to live alone.

— New York Press, October 5, 1999

January 30, 2009   No Comments

The Man Who Was Phileas Fogg

He went four times around the world and inspired Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. He devised the financing scheme for the transcontinental railroad, lobbied Congress to enact it, and made a fortune from it. And at the end, nearly penniless and living in a Greenwich Village single room occupancy hotel, he made a living as a lecturer, the Champion Crank.

Born in Boston in 1829, George Francis Train had been orphaned before his fifth birthday when his parents and siblings died of yellow fever in New Orleans. He sailed back alone, “with a shipping tag pinned to his coat as if he had been a bag of coffee,” and was raised by his grandmother and maiden aunts (who found the sailors had remarkably enriched the boy’s vocabulary). At seventeen, he entered his uncle’s shipping business as a clerk and, proving imaginative and industrious, became a junior partner.

In 1850, Train first met a president of the United States. He walked uninvited into the White House, presented a letter of introduction from Secretary of State Daniel Webster (a former attorney for Train & Co.) and sat down for half an hour with President Zachary Taylor. Train later wrote, “He wore a shirt that was formerly white…spotted and spattered with tobacco juice. Directly behind me, as I was soon made aware, was a cuspidor, toward which the President turned the flow of tobacco juice. I was in mortal terror, but I soon saw there was no danger…he never missed the cuspidor once…”

Later that year, while changing trains in Syracuse, New York, he saw an animated, attractive young woman chatting with her friends. “Look at the girl with the curls,” Train said suddenly. “Why, do you know her?” inquired a traveling companion. “I never saw her before,” Train replied, “but she shall be my wife.”

He immediately changed his plans, jumped aboard her train, sat down in the same car and struck up a conversation with her chaperone. He learned the charming young woman, Miss Wilhelmina Davis, was stopping to see Niagara Falls. Train suddenly needed to see this wonder of nature. Once there, Train somehow took over the duties of escorting Miss Davis to the Falls. He wrote, “our love was mutually discovered and confessed amid the roaring accompaniment of the great cataract,” and they were betrothed.

Train’s bearing was assured and confident; his manner distinguished; and his wardrobe elegant. His conversation was usually brilliantly witty. In combination with his swarthy features, black curly hair, and flashing eyes, he was irresistibly attractive. He married Willie on October 5, 1851.

At the onset of the Australian gold rush, Train and Willie headed for Melbourne. When they arrived after ninety-two days at sea, they found 600 ships in the harbor and a city grown from 10,000 to 40,000 within a year. Train worked as a commercial agent for American shippers while writing feature articles for American and foreign newspapers, often about himself, his speeches, and his adventures.

He met Lola Montez, whose dancing talents were best appreciated in bed; she had been mistress of the King of Bavaria and now lived off her past by appearing in an operetta entitled Lola Montez in Bavaria. She was tough and imaginative as well as sexy: she dealt with a defamatory news article by horsewhipping the editor; when a sheriff arrived at her hotel with a warrant, she tore off her clothes and insisted that if he would arrest her, he must carry her off naked. The sheriff did not execute the warrant. Train won her friendship, probably because he was generous and funny and didn’t hit on her. (After more adventures, she died in Brooklyn, where she is buried under her true name, Eliza Gilbert, in Green-Wood Cemetery).

Train traveled home by making his first round-the-world trip. At every stop, he cabled articles to various papers. When he landed in New York, he received a blizzard of publicity, including sixteen columns in the Herald devoted to him and his tour of the world. He had written much of it himself. Years later, he would give a friendly journalist an article he himself had written reporting on one of his speeches, saying, “You see, I have put in the cheers and applause where they belong.” He wrote a series of articles on European business for the Merchant’s Magazine, later collected in his books Young America Abroad, An American Merchant in Europe, Asia, and Australia and Young America in Wall-Street.

In 1856, he was presented to the man who molded his politics and even his facial hair for decades to come.

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was a nephew of the first Napoleon. In December 1852, he had overthrown the Second Republic with little bloodshed and reestablished the Empire by plebiscite. Napoleon III had set male fashion by wearing a waxed mustache and a narrow goatee, a combination called an imperial. Like most of Napoleon III’s admirers, Train was most impressed by his transcendence of special interests as “a man who goes neither left nor right but forward.”

Train was in London in 1861 and, at a time when the British establishment largely favored the South, he became the Union’s fiercest champion. He financed a newspaper, the London American, which presented the Union point of view, particularly by reporting the innumerable speeches of George Francis Train. He also gave Sunday breakfasts in his London townhouse for leading politicians and newspapermen. On one side of his invitations was a rakish photograph of Train, his eyes gleaming from beneath his mop of curly hair, and on the reverse: “Come and meet a dozen live men at my round table breakfast next Sunday at eleven.”

He was attacked by the British press: Punch suggested, “The fittest position of all for him would be that of suspension at some altitude from the ground by a ligature embracing his neck with a running noose, and maintaining him in antagonism to the force of gravitation.” In his own country, however, he was hailed as “the Eloquent Champion of the American Union.” In 1862, as he later wrote, “I…returned to my country the most popular American in public life.”

Although he had never held public office, he spoke of himself as a candidate for president in 1864. The Democratic National Convention expelled him; nonetheless, he campaigned. On Election Day 1864, Lincoln polled 2.2 million; the Democrat, 1.8 million, and if “Train got any votes at all, it is not recorded.”

Even while running for president, he started a new deal: Union Pacific. Congress had enacted legislation to subsidize the construction of a transcontinental railroad and agreed to turn over 6400 acres of public land and financial subsidies of up to $48,000 for each mile of track built. The Union Pacific Railroad Company retained Train as their chief lobbyist. In 1864, he persuaded Congress to double the railroad subsidies for construction.

Then he recalled Napoleon III had financed massive public improvements through a bank, the Credit Mobilier. Train organized the Credit Mobilier of America at the behest of the directors and leading shareholders of the UP. Somehow, the UP awarded cost-plus construction contracts to Credit Mobilier, siphoning government money into its directors’ pockets. The construction costs were wildly extravagant. Credit Mobilier became a byword for corruption. But the railroad was built and finished within five years.

In 1866, he campaigned for women’s suffrage in a Kansas referendum. His oratory was astonishing: the Lawrence State Journal wrote: “He came! He saw! He conquered!” Susan B. Anthony credited most of the 9000 votes cast for women’s suffrage to his hard work and thunderous eloquence.

Then he ran for president again. He decided to go around the world for publicity, using the railroad to cross America, and doing it faster than anyone had ever done. He paid his way by lecturing. When he arrived in France, a delegation from the First International called on him at his hotel in Marseilles. They invited him to speak. “Well,” he boomed, “I cannot keep these good people waiting.” Ten thousand people were at the Alhambra theater. He stood up and sang the “Marseillaise.” He was as eloquent in French as in English, and after rousing the crowd to a frenzy, he marched with them upon City Hall, which was seized in the name of the Commune. Within a few days, Train was arrested and deported—in a private railway car, complete with manservant and chef.

Upon his return to the United States, Train announced he had gone around the world in eighty days. This, of course, did not count his month playing revolutionary. But two years later, Jules Verne published Around the World in Eighty Days. The hero, though English, is eccentric, egotistical, eloquent and ingenious. George Francis Train was Phileas Fogg.

His growing eccentricity ended his business career: even the men who knew him no longer trusted his judgment. His oratory was wilder than ever. One writer described it thus: “He double-shuffles and stamps on the floor ’till the dust obscures him; he beats his breast, clenches his fist, clutches his hair, plays ball with the furniture, outhowls the roaring elements, steams with perspiration, foams at the mouth, paces up and down ’till he looks like a lion in a cage lashing his tail.”

His campaign literature introduced him as “The Coming President. The Man of Destiny. First Campaign Gun. Victory, 1872: Six million votes, Nov. 12, for the Child of Fate! Train and the People against Grant and the Thieves!” Again he ran as an independent. Grant polled 3.6 million votes; his Democratic-Liberal Republican opponent, 2.8 million; the Labor Reform candidate, 30,000; the Prohibitionist, 6000. And again, if Train got any votes, they are not recorded in the tabulations.

Three days before the election, Train learned the radical feminist Victoria Woodhull had been arrested. She had been charged with obscenity: One of her newspaper articles on sex had included a phrase from Deuteronomy, “red trophy of her virginity.” Train then published The Train Ligue, a title alluding to his French revolutionary experiences, consisting of Old Testament verses concerning nudity, murder, incest and adultery. Then, he dared Anthony Comstock, the “Roundsman of the Lord,” to arrest him for printing “disgusting slanders on Lot, Abraham, Solomon, and David.” To Train’s delight, Comstock had him imprisoned without bail for public indecency. At his arraignment, Train was asked whether he pleaded guilty to the indictment. He replied, “I am guilty of publishing an obscene paper composed of Bible quotations.” The judge entered a plea of not guilty.

The case became an embarrassment. The court offered to release Train if he would plead not guilty by reason of insanity, but Train refused. He stated he would rather die in jail than be a hypocrite, and cried, “Back to durance vile!”

Meanwhile, as Meyer Berger observed in The Eight Million, Train continued making speeches, even in the Tombs. The guards wearied of his magniloquence and stuck him in an unheated cell. Train wrapped himself in a traveling rug, roaring, “I’ll raise hell in this Egyptian sepulcher!” Then the guards hustled him to Murderer’s Row, hoping this might frighten him. Instead, he canvassed his fellow inmates and won election to the coveted presidency…of the Murderer’s Club. Finally, the warden moved him into solitary confinement. This was enough and he copped to the plea. Train was discharged without having been tried on the charges in his indictment. Upon his release he complained, “My lawyers did not understand me. They are like all lawyers. They think it better to lie your way to freedom than to suffer for the truth.”

Finding his career in ruins, his fortune lost, and his reputation destroyed, Train gradually began living away from his family. As one biographer wrote, “escapade after escapade, eccentric performance after Quixotic involvement, all in bewildering succession, simply made normal domestic life impossible.”

In 1876, he was adjudicated a bankrupt, listing assets of about $100. At the age of 47, he owned merely a watch and the clothes on his back. Now he made his living through his platform speeches, enhancing his marketability by living up to his reputation as an eccentric. He no longer sought the presidency, but dictatorship. He referred to himself as “Citizen” Train. It, too, bore the flavor of revolutionary France and stressed his independence: he was “not a Democrat, not a Republican, not a Catholic, Protestant, not a man marked with anybody’s brand, but simply a citizen…” He became a vegetarian; he refused to shake hands, arguing such contact drained his vital energies, and when introduced to a new acquaintance, solemnly shook hands with himself. He adopted a new calendar, dated from his own birth, and occasionally conducted services as a minister of the Church of the Laughing Jackass. He remained good copy for the papers, writing articles in his telegraphic, allusive style with a double-colored pencil, blue at one end, red at the other.

He made his last two trips around the world in 1892 and 1896. He still believed he was important: in Japan, he made a speech to a crowd gathered to watch the Emperor travel by a later train, convinced they could have come only to see him.

Upon his return, Train moved into Mills House No. 1, at 160 Bleecker Street in the Village, an impressive Italianate hotel designed by Ernest Flagg to provide “…decent accommodations at low cost for people of small means.” There he dictated his autobiography, My Life in Many States and Foreign Lands. Train presented the 19th century as if it had revolved around him, writing, “It is supreme Dictatorship with me, or nothing. I am plaintiff against the whole world. I have been in fifteen jails for expressing my opinion, but I never robbed even a henroost.”

It would be nothing. In 1903, Citizen George Francis Train (“I am sometimes the only Citizen of these United States! There should be more of them!”) joined Eliza Gilbert in Green-Wood Cemetery.

New York Press, October 19, 1999

January 29, 2009   No Comments

Diamond Jim Brady

Throughout his adult life, Diamond Jim Brady was a salesman working for pure commission. If he didn’t sell, he didn’t eat. Happily, his diverse and insatiable appetites were all the incentives he needed to earn a million dollars a year. Half a century after his death in 1917, Fortune called James Buchanan Brady the greatest capital goods salesman in American history.

He sold railroad equipment—spikes, plates, shovels, rail cutters, trucks, cars, and so forth—in the old-fashioned way, on the road ten months a year. His first big break had been a sale to George Baer of the Philadelphia & Reading, whose abstract dislike of humanity was crowned by a concrete loathing of salesmen. Brady camped in Baer’s outer office for five days. When Baer finally demanded to know why he was sitting there day after day, Brady said affably, “I’ve been waiting to tell you, Mr. Baer, that you can go straight to hell.” An hour later, he had an order for five million dollars’ worth of freight cars, and he and Baer were laughing and slapping each other on the back.

But Brady’s genius as a salesman paled beside his capacity for self-indulgence. The Cophetua of the Mauve Decade was born on August 12, 1856 above his father’s bar at 90 West Street, near Cedar Street. His father, a loyal Democrat, named him after that year’s Democratic Presidential nominee. At eleven, Brady began working as a bellboy at the St. James Hotel on Broadway and 26th Street. The hotel’s bar, as was then common, offered a free lunch counter for its patrons. Brady took his meals there until the bartender forbade it because Brady was eating for six men.

st-james-hotelFour years later, he began working for the New York Central Railroad. He studied bookkeeping and penmanship (he wrote a magnificently ornate hand and usually signed his name in full, deeming James Buchanan Brady a name worthy of a few flourishes).

In 1879, he began selling railroad supplies for Manning, Maxwell & Moore. Brady spent his savings on his first diamond ring and three superbly tailored suits to go with his Prince Albert coats, stove-pipe hats, gates-ajar collars, and white, round, detachable cuffs. “If you’re going to make money, you’ve got to look like money,” Brady said. As one biographer wrote, “If he may be said to have had a religion, that one sentence formed its ten commandments.”

As Brady traveled the country, he befriended countless railroaders: mechanics, section foremen, road gang supervisors, stationmasters, train crews, hostlers, firemen, and engineers. He gave parties, played cards, and swapped stories. In this way he learned what each railroad needed to complete its equipment. Then he would go to the companies’ front offices, tell the purchasing agents what they needed, and sell it to them. The orders poured in. He was making a million dollars a year by his thirtieth birthday. One day, after checking his accounts, he said, “Hell! I’m rich! It’s time to have some fun.”

He never stopped. He began collecting diamonds. Inevitably, someone would say they were fake. Brady would take one of the stones and write his signature with it in large and flowing letters on a window pane. It made his point while advertising his name.

Then, there was the food. “His gross displacement,” wrote humorist Irwin S. Cobb,  “was awe-inspiring. He had a huge frame to start with and fat was draped upon it in creases and folds.” Another observer describes how when Brady ate, “An oversized napkin would be tied around, not tucked into, his neck.”

The napkin is inevitably placed, for on his knee it would have been as inadequate as a doily under a bass drum. It would have been lost, bewildered, in the shadow of one of the best known stomachs in New York, a stomach that started impetuously at the neck and gained power and curve as it proceeded majestically downwards.

In the morning, after a quart or two of fresh orange juice to tickle his taste buds (“I’m willing to pay more, and I’m willing to wait, but I want my oranges squeezed fresh!”), Brady had a light breakfast of beefsteak, a few chops, eggs, flapjacks, fried potatoes, hominy, cornbread, several muffins, and a huge beaker of milk. Around 11:30 a.m., he might renew his strength with, say, two or three dozen oysters or clams. Then, at 1:00 p.m., he lunched. This meal was apt to be heavier than breakfast and generally consisted of more oysters and clams, a deviled crab or two—or three—perhaps a pair of broiled lobsters (“The snapping and cracking of lobster claws,” one observer noted, “sounded like the descent of a cloud of seven-year locusts on a Montana wheat field.”), then a joint of beef or another steak, a salad, and several kinds of fruit pie. Brady topped this off with the better part of a box of chocolates. He felt it made the food set better.jim_brady

Then came dinner: the big meal. In The Big Spenders, Lucius Beebe wrote that “so heroic were his skirmishes with the roasts, entrees, and pieces montees as to elevate them to an actually epic dimension.

Brady not only ate the full twelve-course dinner that was the conventional evening snack of the early decades of the last century, he usually consumed three or four helpings of the more substantial dishes, beginning his repast with a gallon of chilled orange juice and finishing with the greater part of a five pound box of the richest chocolates available. In between he might well consume six dozen Lynnhaven oysters, a saddle of mutton, half a dozen venison chops, a roasting chicken with caper sauces, a brace or so of mallard or canvasback ducks, partridge, or pheasant, and a twelve-egg soufflé.

There were bets taken on whether or not Brady would fall dead before dessert.

Once, a railroad president’s wife, having set before Brady and shore dinner of gigantic proportions and watched him devour it, even to the seventh helping, asked him how he knew when his appetite was satiated.

“Well, ma’am,” Brady explained, “Whenever I sit down to a meal, I always make it a point to leave just four inches between my stomach and the edge of the table. And then, when I can feel ’em rubbing together pretty hard, I know I’ve had enough.”

Yet he never touched alcohol, tea, or coffee. When he met the great John L. Sullivan at a friend’s bar in 1881, the bartender, knowing both men, gave Sullivan tall seidels of Pilsener and Brady tall seidels of root beer. Sullivan assumed Brady was drinking beer, and Brady did not disillusion him. During the next hour, Brady matched Sullivan drink for drink, never so much as turning a hair, Sullivan’s amazement grew. “By God, Sir!” he roared, “you’re a man. I’m proud to call you my friend! Shake hands again!”

Brady was always dressed at the height of conservative fashion, few noticing the slyly ingenious, perfect tailoring which softened the exaggeration of the ungainly figure. People did notice the dozens of diamonds giving off huge, glittering winks and ripples of light that covered his enormous chest and his cuffs, sparkling like a thousand tiny mirrors with every movement. He wore diamond studs instead of shirt buttons, diamond cuff links, a diamond pin in his tie, a watch and chain encrusted with stones, a boutonniere of diamonds. His belt buckle was a mass of diamonds and gold worked to form his initials, J.B.B. He even had a three-carat stone set in the ferrule of his cane.

He came to own thirty different sets of jewelry: one for each day of the month. They included more than 20,000 diamonds and over six thousand other stones. Each set included a watch, watch chain, ring, scarf pin, necktie pin, shirt studs, collar buttons, vest buttons, belt buckle, eyeglass case, pocketbook clasp, and even underwear buttons. As John Burke wrote in Duet in Diamonds, “…in full panoply, glittering with refracted light from stem to stern, he looked like a Mississippi riverboat at night coming around the bend with all its illumination turned on.”

Brady’s career on the road and his grotesque physique had early inclined him to patronize women of fragile virtue and, often, no virtue at all. His deeply suppressed romanticism escaped only through his efforts to soften the commercial nature of these relationships through giving the girls expensive jewelry rather than cash on the barrelhead.

He was a close friend of Stanford White, as profound a student and practitioner of debauchery as he was of architecture. One of Brady’s biographers found a man who had worked as a procurer for White and described a birthday party White had thrown for Brady in the Hall of Mirrors atop the old Madison Square Garden:

The meal proceeded uneventfully up to dessert. Then, a twinkle in his eye, [White] gave a signal and three of the waiters entered the room bearing aloft a huge Jack Horner–Pie. They carefully placed it in the center of the table, and then handed each of the gentlemen a white silk ribbon. Mr. Brady’s ribbon, I noticed, differed from the others. It was a red one.

At a sign from White, “all the gentlemen pulled on their ribbons” and “the pie fell apart revealing a beautiful and entirely nude girl nestled in the middle of it.”

Mr. Brady kept pulling in his red ribbon which, I could see, was fastened to the girl’s arm. And as he continued to pull, the girl got up and danced down the table to where he was sitting. She then climbed down of off the table and onto Mr. Brady’s lap where, after kissing him several times, she proceeded to feed him his dessert.

The other gentlemen guests were rather envious of Mr. Brady’s good fortune, and they proceeded to show their envy by loud wails and groans. After he had let them do this for a few minutes, the Governor smiled and suddenly clapped his hands. The doors opened and in came eleven other nude young ladies who also proceeded to feed the guests their dessert. It was a very pleasant evening.

lillian-russellYet Brady’s relationship with the most lusted-after woman in the United States—the blonde, blue-eyed, spectacularly voluptuous  Lillian Russell—was entirely Platonic. America’s sex symbol during the 1880s and ’90s, Russell had made her mark as an actress and singer, but she was also a skillful card player and and an unerringly accurate tobacco spitter. Her extraordinarily warm, intimate friendship with Brady lasted  for over thirty years. He was her frequent escort; they traveled and vacationed together; they confided in one another. She came to love him dearly. Sex, however, never entered into it.

Unlike many self-made men, Brady remained sunny, generous, and sympathetic. He was a notorious soft touch. George Rector, the restaurateur, recalled once suggesting that people were taking advantage of Brady. “He looked at me, closed one eye in a wink, and said, ‘George, I know they’re all pullin’ my leg; but did you ever stop to think it’s fun to be a sucker, if you can afford it?'”

By the late winter of 1917, Brady was paying for a lifetime of heroic indulgence: ulcers, angina pectoris, diabetes, and malfunctioning kidneys. He did not complain, believing one’s capacity for taking losses to be a measure of one’s manhood. On Friday, April 13, 1917 he died in his sleep. Three days later, he was buried from St. Agnes’ Church on East 43rd Street, off Lexington. The congregation was jammed with actors, athletes, politicians, steel magnates, rail barons, gamblers, stock market speculators, and Lillian Russell, who wept.

New York Press, December 29, 1998

January 29, 2009   No Comments

Hard-Boiled Charlie Chapin

In the golden age of American newspaper journalism, those 60 years between 1890 and 1950, New York had as many as 14 English-language dailies, with telegraphs and telephones to speed the news-gathering, even as high-speed presses printed tens of thousands of newspapers an hour. The radio was not a serious competitor and the television became a mass medium only after World War II.

Some of the journalists of that day still survive in memory: publishers such as Hearst or Pulitzer or reporters such as Gene Fowler, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Editors, however, being behind the scenes, are more obscure.

Some weeks ago, I picked up Johns Hopkins University’s elegant reissue of City Editor, a minor classic by Stanley Walker. Walker discusses the great editors whom he admired. He calls one, Charles E. Chapin, city editor of the New York Evening World before 1918, “the ablest city editor who ever lived.”

He is an interesting choice. Chapin’s autobiography, published in 1920, is on its face a splendid memoir, often amusing, and utterly sane. Until the closing chapter, one never realizes its writer was serving a sentence of 20 years to life for murdering his wife. The book is fascinating in context as a masterpiece of self-delusion. To read it, one might think Chapin was a nice guy who worried too much about money. However, nearly anyone who had ever worked for Hard-boiled Charlie described him as a cruel, sadistic tyrant.

Yet he was more than that. He instituted the legman/rewrite system of news-gathering, where a reporter gathered the facts and telephoned a rewrite man, who wrote the story. He envisioned reporting news as it happened, without prejudice, color or individual style, the reporters and rewrite men working as machines.

As importantly, he forced his reporters to use the summary lead, which puts the important facts-who, what, when, where, why-into the first sentence, and the inverted pyramid story form, which works from the lead down to the less important facts. This meant that he forced his reporters to abandon lengthy and winding news articles structured by chronology and usually written in an ornate, self-consciously literary style of “fine writing.” To be sure, Chapin alone did not change this. The expense of transmitting news by telegraph favored concision. Others argue that public education created a semi-literate reading public without the patience to decipher fine writing. However, Chapin’s importance as city editor of one of the nation’s most famous papers made his judgments stick.

Charles Chapin was born to poverty in Watertown, NY, in 1858. He taught himself to set type and take shorthand. For a few years, he was an actor with a traveling theater company; his reporters rejoiced to learn he had played Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In 1879, he married Nellie Beebe, an actress: it was a love match that would endure for 39 years. He then almost immediately became a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. One of his first editors defined journalism as “the art of knowing where hell is going to break loose next and having a man there to cover it.” He took it to heart: by his 25th birthday, he would be city editor of the Chicago Star.

At 33, he visited New York with Nellie for the first time. On an impulse, he walked into the World Bldg. and introduced himself. They knew his work; they hired him immediately. Tall, slender and erect—he stood like a pouter pigeon, shoulders back and chest thrust out—Chapin dressed with an exaggerated elegance: wasp-waisted tweed or herringbone suits, always with a calendula or gardenia in his buttonhole; spats; and selections from his collections of pearl tie pins, watch fobs, studs and flamboyant ascot ties in such colors as “baby blue, pink, orange, purple, and red.” His thin gray hair was trimmed daily and he exuded bay rum. He was grim-faced and square-jawed, with an ashen complexion and a military mustache. And his voice was a nasal blend of snarl and whine.

Allen Churchill’s admirable Park Row describes his response to the greatest single loss of life in the city’s history before Sept. 11. The General Slocum, an excursion steamer, burned in the East River. The final death toll was 1021. Eyewitnesses saw “women on fire and holding children in their arms running about the deck…women and children going over the rail by the dozens…” Charred and mangled bodies lay in piles along the beach or floated in the blackened water.

At the World, the rewrite men taking down the details burst into tears. Some vomited. However, Chapin strutted about the city room, humming a happy tune. “He would run up and down, peering over shoulders to read the nauseating details of the tragedy as they were typed out. Then, standing erect, he would shout, ‘Women and children jumping overboard with clothing afire! Water full of charred bodies!'” The dead and bereaved were immaterial to his good fortune: he was editing a great paper that was covering a great story.

Thus, when New York City Mayor William J. Gaynor was shot in 1910, a World photographer kept snapping pictures. When the photographs came out of the darkroom, Chapin rejoiced: “Blood all over him, and an exclusive, too!” A World story led to the arrest of a swindler for murder. Chapin rubbed his hands together. Walker wrote that someone “remarked that he seemed to be feeling his oats. ‘Why shouldn’t I be happy?’ asked the spirit of sweetness and light. ‘I’ve started a man on the way to his electric chair.’”

He loved firing people: for being two minutes late, for staying home to minister to a sick family, for being knocked unconscious in pursuit of a story. He even fired Joseph Pulitzer Jr., his boss’ son, for absenteeism and lateness. The father said not a word. Chapin once took a dislike to a particular piece of copy and fired its writer. As the reporter headed for the door, Chapin barked to the entire city room, “That is the 108th man I’ve fired.” Perhaps this explains why Irvin Cobb, one of his best reporters, was present on the unusual day when Chapin telephoned the office to report sick. “Let us hope,” Cobb said, “it’s nothing trivial.”

Chapin wrote, “I was boss of the office for more than twenty years and…in all those twenty years I never saw or spoke to a member of the staff outside the office or talked to them in the office about anything except the business of the minute. I gave no confidences, I invited none. I was myself a machine, and the men I worked with were cogs. The human element never entered into the scheme of getting out the paper. It was my way of doing things.”

He expected his men to know what they were doing. If they did, he allowed them complete freedom to do their work. If they did not, he fired them. Once a reporter asked Chapin what to do next about covering a fire. Chapin snapped, “Go pick the hottest place and jump into it.”

Walker writes that a reporter, writing of the discovery of a body in the East River, referred to the “melancholy waters.” “Pretty good phrase, that,” said Chapin. He was overheard. For days, the Harlem River, the Gowanus Canal and the Spuyten Duyvil all developed melancholy waters. Chapin ordered that the next man who used the phrase would be fired. A new reporter had not heard the warning. The next day, his first story was of a suicide in the Hudson. The article began, “The melancholy waters of the Hudson…”

Chapin called him over. “You’re fired. ‘Melancholy waters’! Now, look here, in all sense how could the waters of the Hudson be melancholy?”

“Perhaps,” the young man replied, “it was because they had just gone past Yonkers.”

“Not bad,” Chapin said. “You’re hired.”

He came to speak almost exclusively in newspaper terms. Churchill claims he couldn’t say, “Hurry up with the story of the child who was killed.” Rather, it was, “Hurry up with TINY TOT WITH PENNY CLUTCHED IN CHUBBY FIST DIES UNDER TRAIN BEFORE MOTHER’S EYES.”

Chapin’s lavish lifestyle, complete with limousine and yacht (he had lived in the Plaza from before the day it opened to the public), concealed a morass of debt. He had been related by marriage to Russell Sage, the financier and usurer. After moving to New York, Chapin had cultivated the old miser, who had led the editor to believe he would inherit a fortune. Chapin anticipated his inheritance in luxurious living. When Sage died, he left Chapin almost nothing.

By the summer of 1918, Chapin was wiped out and he began to go mad. There is literally nothing in the record to indicate anything other than mutual devotion in his marriage. However, he obsessively believed Nellie would be unable to bear his financial collapse, and so he resolved to kill her.

Perhaps it was more a matter of the guilt being unbearable for him. (Interestingly, Eugene O’Neill, who had a copy of Chapin’s autobiography in his library, has Hickey use a similar rationalization for murdering his wife in The Iceman Cometh.)

Chapin spent the weekend of Sept. 15-16, 1918, at home with Nellie. He mailed a suicide note to the World’s business manager, Don C. Seitz, on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 16. Around 6 a.m. on Monday, as Nellie slept, Chapin drew a police special from under the bed, pointed it at a spot slightly above her right ear and pulled the trigger. For two hours, she moaned in agony. Chapin held her, weeping, speaking of nothing but love and beauty and joy. Then she died.

Chapin breakfasted and dressed for the office. He hung a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door to his suite. Then he began traveling the subways and elevated railways to Central Park, Bronx Park and Prospect Park, where a police officer came along as he was raising the revolver to his head.

Meanwhile, Seitz had received his letter. Mail was delivered much more quickly for three cents in 1918 than for 34 cents now. He telephoned Chapin’s hotel. The hotel manager and a police officer entered Chapin’s suite with a house key.

Chapin left the subway at W. 66th St., where he bought a paper and saw his name staring up at him from the headline: CHARLES CHAPIN WANTED FOR MURDER.

Then he became sane again. He surrendered at the nearest police station and never breathed again as a free man. In mid-January 1919, he pled guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years to life. He complained of how the newspapers handled the stories of his crime. “What’s the newspaper business coming to?”

Chapin adapted to prison life. In 1919, he was asked to edit the prison newspaper, The Star of Hope. According to James McGrath Morris’ Jailhouse Journalism, Chapin transformed the paper into an advocate for inmates’ rights. The prison authorities shut him down. Major Lewis E. Lawes, a new warden, who later wrote bestsellers such as Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing, suggested that Chapin expand his autobiographical articles into a book, which he did.

Chapin took up gardening. Lawes let him direct a Garden Squad, which transformed the bleak compound with flowers. Chapin would probably have been paroled in 1933. However, in the fall of 1930, Lawes told him Sing Sing was being renovated. The garden would be ploughed under.

Chapin took to his bed. Lawes visited him. “Do you want anything?” “Yes,” Chapin replied. “I want to die. I want to get it over with.”

On Dec. 16, 1930, Hard-boiled Charlie turned his face to the wall. He had believed he would die in Sing Sing from the moment he had been assigned the number 69690. The individual digits totaled 30: the number a newspaper reporter types at the end of a story.

New York Press, April 16, 2002

January 29, 2009   No Comments