New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Romantic Losers

The Best Man

On November 7, 1876 Samuel Jones Tilden, Democrat, of New York, won the election to succeed Ulysses S. Grant as President of the United States. On March 5, 1877 a Republican from Ohio placed his hand on the Bible, looked the Chief Justice in the eye, and repeated, “I, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, do solemnly swear…” The elections of 1876 are unique: the only time when we know the result was fixed and the loser entered the White House.

Tilden was sixty-two when he began his great adventure. He was born in New Lebanon, New York. His father was a wheel-horse of the Albany Regency, the Democratic machine created by Martin Van Buren—“the Little Magician” —that dominated state politics from 1820 to 1840. Tilden grew up among the Regency’s leaders. Having inherited his father’s knack for analysis and deduction, Tilden simply listened to their conversations on great issues and low politics. By eighteen he was publishing political articles in the Albany Argus, by nineteen essays and pamphlets on taxes and banking. He often advanced his agenda with the pen: his research was thorough, his logic impeccable, and his prose cool, unemotional, logical, and persuasive.

The writing reflected the man. Tilden was cold and aloof. His only passions were politics and the law. He never married. He probably had no interest in sex at all. Harry Thurston Peck, a close observer, wrote, “He treated his friends as though at some time they might become his enemies.” Peck may be overstating it: Tilden had no friends.  He did not need them.

With a few scraps of formal education, including a term at Yale, he clerked in a law office while attending what is now New York University Law School. In 1841, he was admitted to the bar and two years later became New York City’s corporation counsel. Two years later, he was elected to the State Assembly, where his land reform legislation ended the Patroon Wars between the great upstate landlords and their tenant farmers and won him a reputation for statesmanship.

On returning to private life, he specialized in reorganizing railroads and over two decades made a fortune in salvaging, rearranging, and combining sickly corporations. He was loyal to Van Buren’s anti-slavery Democrats, the Barnburners. As the Little Magician moved left, Tilden went with him, even bolting the Democratic Party when Van Buren ran for President in 1848 on an anti-slavery third-party ticket.

Tilden’s public personality largely concealed a shy, cold hypochondriac behind a façade of worldliness and good manners. One had to know him well to dislike him. He could do nothing about his appearance: sallow, with a prominent nose and jutting chin, graying hair, and a pronounced stoop. His voice was hoarse, even unpleasant. Yet the voice carried, and the mind behind it manufactured a kind of stripped-down rhetoric, clear, logical, and persuasive, that struck sparks in the minds of Tilden’s listeners. Few so cold have ignited such passion in their followers.

Tilden cautiously supported the Civil War effort, though he considered the Republicans revolutionaries, trying to create an excessively powerful federal government to impose their social agenda without regard to its effect on individual freedom.

During the 1860s, as William M. Tweed dominated the New York City Democratic Party through Tammany Hall, Tilden quietly noted the organization’s growing corruption—he observed everything—until Tweed began raiding the City treasury beyond reason and good taste. When The New York Times, then a Republican partisan rag, broke the scandals in 1870, Tilden was initially cautious. Then he decided to help destroy Tweed to save the party. He personally financed much of the investigation that made Tweed’s prosecution inevitable and successful.

The Democratic Party needed a gubernatorial candidate who could distract voters from the scandal. Tilden, who now believed he was the only man who could clean up the state, was available. In 1874, Tilden was elected governor. He exposed and shattered the Canal Ring, a conspiracy of contractors and officeholders who had grafted millions from the state waterways. The local hero became the presidential contender.

As the Centennial opened, the Grant administration was exhausted by eight years of scandal. The President, a lion among jackals, was blind to his friends’ dishonesty and incompetence. Like most revolutionaries, the Republicans knew how to enjoy power once they’d seized it, and their corruption created a backlash for change.

Tilden won the Democratic nomination on the second ballot. The Republicans deadlocked for seven ballots before compromising on Rutherford B. Hayes. For once, compromise was a good thing. Educated at Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, Hayes was a successful lawyer-politician. In 1861, he marched off with the 23rd Ohio as a major (one of the privates was future President William McKinley). In 1865, he returned a major general. He led from the front because that was where a leader belonged (he was wounded five times, seeing more front line fighting than any other President). He was a competent, scrupulously fair administrator in later life because he had learned an officer’s first duty was his men’s welfare and so, throughout his political career, his most faithful supporters were the men he had led in battle.

Hayes was elected to Congress and then three terms as Governor of Ohio. Hayes, good-humored and kindly, was attractive, clear-eyed, eloquent, magnetic, and generous. Men admired Tilden. They loved Hayes.

An American presidential campaign is really a series of campaigns and much of it, like an iceberg, is invisible to a casual observer. In 1876, the Civil War had only been over for a decade. Much of the South was still ruled by Republican puppet governors upheld by the Army. As the Republicans were the party of abolition, Southern whites flocked to the Democracy.

Southern elections had become times of terror. Outside the state capitals and the lines of communication held by federal troops, as numerous government records, newspaper files, and collections of private correspondence make clear, white extremists conducted a secret war of fire and blood against Republicans. Unlike the lumpenproletariat comprising today’s Klan, these terrorists were often community leaders bitterly determined to destroy the Republicans, disenfranchise the blacks, and restore white rule.

They intimidated tens of thousands of former slaves from voting. Republican activists who didn’t get the message, whether former slaves or carpetbaggers, including the white women teachers who had come south to teach former slaves how to read and write, were burned out, murdered, lynched, or raped. The nightriders, believing they were entitled to rule, acted on their irrational resentment of anyone who even seemed to threaten their entitlement.

Above all this, the two major candidates fought it out on a high plane. Beneath them, the campaign sank lower and lower. The reports indicate that Tilden was accused of having been a miser, a tax dodger, a traitor, a secessionist, and a supporter of slavery. There were many suggestive references to his bachelorhood.

Nonetheless, on November 7, 1876 Tilden polled 4,300,590; Hayes, 4,036,298; Peter Cooper, the inventor, financier, and founder of Cooper Union on Astor Place, polled 81,737 on the Greenback ticket, and other candidates polled 12,158. Hayes went to bed believing he had lost. Zach Chandler, the Republican National Chairman, went to bed with a bottle of whiskey to console himself.

Hayes’s managers had a better idea. With the cooperation of The New York Times, they planted stories in the mass media casting doubt on Tilden’s election by claiming Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina for the Republicans. The Republican National Committee converted that doubt to reality by challenging and invalidating returns from Democratic counties. Tilden’s 7,000 vote majority in Louisiana vanished when the certifying board threw out 13,000 of his votes.

In Florida, the certifying board apparently determined Hayes’s electors had won despite Tilden’s majority. In South Carolina, where the governor regularly executed state papers between entertainments in one of Charleston’s finer whorehouses, anything was possible. The new results threw the electoral votes of those states to Hayes, giving him a margin of one vote: 185 to 184.

When the Electoral College voted in December 1876, the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives could not even agree on how the votes should be counted. Tilden fought with the weapons honed over a lifetime: precedent, analysis, and reasoned argument.

He wrote a brilliant series of articles and studies arguing that the votes should be counted before the House, so coolly logical, sensible, and persuasive as to prevent the Senate leadership from unilaterally accepting the contested results and proclaiming Hayes the President-elect. It is uncommon to find politicians shamed from doing what they want by mere writings, but there it is.

Meanwhile, the nation slid toward civil war. There were rumors of violence and military coups. Demonstrators chanted, “Tilden or Blood.” Democrats began drilling. Army officers began hinting that restive troops were ready to march on Washington, to win a second time at bayonet point the victory already won in the ballot box.

We do not know when the moment’s ripeness was made clear to Samuel J. Tilden. Nevertheless, for a few days in the winter of 1877, he held the power to ignite a second Civil War. No one could have blamed him. He had won the Presidency, only to have it taken from him by one vote in a shabby burglary. It would have required a single word, a nod, perhaps only a moment’s convenient silence.

It did not come. He publicly denounced even the suggestion of the use of force. He insisted that he would take power by law.

To end the deadlock, on January 29, 1877, Congress created by a bipartisan Electoral Commission to resolve the dispute. Oddly enough, both Hayes and Tilden denounced the Electoral Commission as unconstitutional. Both announced they would accept the result. The Electoral Commission began deliberating on February 2, 1877. Inauguration Day was on March 5.

At some point, the Commission chose not to go beyond the returns. This served both parties. The Republicans did not want the corruption of the official results investigated. The Democrats did not want an examination into their relationship with the nightriders. Perhaps, as some have suggested of more recent national elections, neither party wanted an honest exploration of the other party’s misconduct.  Such an investigation might have gone out of control and spoil the game for the players, if not the people.

On February 26, 1877, four Southern Democrats and five Ohio Republicans, including future President James A. Garfield, met at the Wormley House, a Washington hotel. Nothing was put on paper. They agreed that, if Hayes was inaugurated without disruption, Federal troops would be withdrawn from the South.  The Reconstruction state governments would collapse in favor of rule by the Southern white elite.

Then by party lines, eight to seven, the Commission voted for the Hayes electors, thus making Hayes the 19th President. The results were announced on March 2, 1877. Hayes was privately sworn in at the White House on March 3, 1877, just in case, and went through the public ceremony two days later.

On learning of the Commission’s decision, Tilden smiled, murmuring, “It is what I expected.” Later, he said, “I can retire to private life with the consciousness… of having been elected to the highest office in the gift of the people, without any of its cares and responsibilities.” Withdrawing into his Gothic Revival brownstone townhouse on Gramercy Park South, Tilden died in 1886, leaving most of his fortune to create what is now the New York Public Library.

Few men so unloving have done so much for their country. By breaking up the great Dutch land grants, his land reform laws created thousands of independent farmers. The Tweed Ring was smashed with his money and not one dime of his expenditures was ever repaid. At the great moment of his life, he refused to let his followers install him by force in the Presidency he had won by right. His posthumous gift that created the New York Public Library has enriched millions of lives, including mine.

Rutherford B. Hayes kept his part of the deal. On April 24, 1877, less than two months after taking office, Hayes ordered the Federal troops back to their barracks, ending Reconstruction. He retired after one term and died at his home in Spiegel Grove, Ohio on January 13, 1893, aged 70. Only a few still called him “His Fraudulency the President.”

Over fifty years ago, Irving Stone published They Also Ran, a collection of essays on losing major party presidential candidates that is something of a minor classic. He summed up the election of 1876 thus: “It had been a photo finish, with history serving as the infallible camera. By the time the film could be developed, the wrong people had collected their money and gone home, the stands were deserted, the track dark. Yet there remains the picture for all time, with Tilden out front by a nose.”

New York Press, November 28, 2000

November 28, 2015   No Comments

The Road of Hubris

Occasionally, we think about investments we  could have made that might have made us rich. Armed with clairvoyance, who would not have sunk the farm into Microsoft, back when Bill Gates was a nebbish? But we probably would have put our money into AT&T, U.S. Steel or Western Union—sound investments that would become much riskier through technological change and management by mediocrity.

It’s easy to see why a century ago, an investor choosing between, on the one hand, an automobile factory promoted by an obscure Michigan mechanic named Henry Ford and, on the other, the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway, backed by J.P. Morgan & Company and controlled by the bluest of blue chips, the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, might have opted for the known quantity.

The Westchester—“the Road of Ease”—ran its first train on May 29, 1912 and its last on December 31, 1937. It was safe, stylish, and efficient. Its trains ran on time. Though it never turned a profit, part of its main line survives as part of the IRT number 5 line, carrying passengers  between East 180th Street and Dyre Avenue in the Bronx.

The Westchester was an old idea. On March 20, 1872, the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway was incorporated to build from New York through the Bronx to the Connecticut border beyond Portchester. The Panic of 1873 cut off new investment in the scheme as abruptly as the 2001 recession cut off the dotcoms, and so the Westchester slumbered as a paper railroad—a file of corporate papers, including its franchise to build through the Bronx to Westchester—in its lawyers’ office. In 1906 investors headed by J.P. Morgan and William Rockefeller (John D.’s roguish brother) bought control of the Westchester for $11 million. This was a lot of money for an abstraction.

However, the corporate charter and the franchise justified the expense to Charles Sanger Mellen, the New Haven railroad’s arrogant, sharp-tongued, and audacious president. Throughout his presidency, from 1904 to 1913, Mellen enjoyed the confidence of J.P. Morgan, who was as much a financial statesman as an investment banker.

Morgan had dominated the New Haven through sheer force of personality since 1892. Mellen later testified that without Morgan the New Haven’s board of directors would have been “as lacking in interest as a herd of cows deprived of a bull.” Morgan’s policy was simple: eliminate competition. He saw the railroad as a route to a monopoly over southern New England’s surface transportation that would literally control “everything that moved.”

By 1912, Mellen had achieved this. Through new construction, stock control, or lease, the New Haven operated over 2,000 miles of track: nearly every inch of steam railroad and trolley in Connecticut and Rhode Island and most of southern Massachusetts. The New Haven even controlled the coastal shipping companies—like the great Fall River Line with its huge white wedding-cake four-decker steamers Commonwealth and Priscilla. (The heroine of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 ends her life aboard a thinly disguised Fall River Line steamer.)

The Westchester’s peculiarity was that, though controlled by the New Haven, it would directly compete with its parent for commuter passengers between New York City and its northern termini, White Plains and Portchester. Yet this wasn’t an absurdity. First, Mellen believed the Westchester would eventually save the New Haven money. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which regulated railroads, required the New Haven to operate commuter trains with cheap tickets between Westchester and Connecticut and Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, which was owned by a rival company, the New York Central. The New York Central charged the New Haven up to twenty-four cents for each New Haven passenger passing through Grand Central. This meant the New Haven lost money on every commuter it carried.

The Westchester’s planned southern terminus was at 132nd Street and Willis Avenue, where its riders could board the IRT subway at 129th Street or the el train at 133rd. This obviated Grand Central’s terminal charges. If the Westchester charged lower fares than the New Haven, New Haven commuters might shift to the Westchester, cutting Mellen’s losses.

Second, Mellen believed that New York City’s commercial center would continue expanding northward. Between 1800 and 1850, the commercial district had grown from the tip of Manhattan to Canal Street; by 1900, it had passed 42nd Street. Mellen expected that it would reach the South Bronx between the 1930s and 1950s. (The city fathers planned for this: look at a map of the roads, railroads, and subways that converge at 149th Street in the South Bronx neighborhood nicknamed “The Hub.”) The Westchester would be right there, waiting for it.

The Westchester drove its first spike in 1909. Mellen spared no expense: Roger Arcara described it in Westchester’s Forgotten Railway as “the culmination of railway development: the most modern and efficient design, the most solid and sturdy construction, the greatest capacity (for its amount of trackage), and the most attractive layout and appearance of any line in the world.” It cut through rocks and hills and filled gullies and bogs to keep a straight, level right of way. Its bridges, viaducts, embankments, and retaining walls were designed to last for the ages. Although most of its route was then rural, the line was solidly built as a four-track heavy-duty electric railroad using the finest technology of the day.

It opened on May 29, 1912. From the beginning to the end, it was a first-class operation. Its 72-foot-long olive-green steel cars, with upholstered double-seat benches and a toilet compartment, could reach 57 mph within a minute. At E. 180th Street, Morris Park, Pelham Parkway, Gun Hill Road, Baychester Avenue, and Dyre Avenue the railroad built fabulously ornate stations of poured concrete and steel, designed in a kind of Spanish Renaissance style (“modified Mission” it was called), several of which still serve the MTA today. It carried 2.8 million passengers in 1913, 4.5 million in 1916, and 14 million in 1928.

Yet the Westchester never quite caught on. Its elegant trains were rarely more than five coaches long, in contrast to the fourteen-coach commuter trains run by the New York Central and the New Haven. Commuters preferred a one-seat ride to midtown over changing to the subway at the East 133rd Street terminal. Second, the city’s zoning laws, adopted four years after the Westchester opened, effectively set the northern limit of commercial development at 59th Street.

Third, the Westchester never developed much freight traffic: indeed, it operated only one freight locomotive throughout its existence. Some said it hauled a single load of coal up to White Plains in the fall and took out the ashes in the spring.

Fourth was the fall of Charles S. Mellen. The New Haven’s press bureau made the railroad seem a financial Rock of Gibraltar. Yet as early as 1907, Louis Brandeis, then a Boston lawyer, later a justice of the United States Supreme Court, had shown that Mellen’s profits were largely bookkeeping magic. Few paid attention then. In May 1912, a few days before the Westchester accepted its first paying passenger, the ICC began a routine review of the New Haven’s services and freight rates. Their accountants found confusing transactions between the New Haven and its 336 identified subsidiaries. The review became a full-scale investigation.

The report, issued in early 1913, proved Brandeis correct. The New Haven was insolvent: it had lent money to its money-losing subsidiaries, which they used to pay dividends to the parent company, which the parent then classified as income. Worse, Mellen had constantly shuffled assets between subsidiaries to inflate profits. One relatively clear example, outlined in George H. Foster and Peter C. Weiglin’s Splendor Sailed the Sound, was the New Haven’s coastal steamship operations. The ships themselves were sold in 1907 by one subsidiary, New England Navigation, to another, Consolidated Railway. They were not paid for in cash but with Consolidated Railway stock, worth $20 million but only because Mellen said it was.

The New Haven’s accountants showed a paper profit on the sale for New England Navigation, which was reported as real income, and an increase in the assets of Consolidated Railway. It looked like the real thing. With each transfer, though, the corporate books became works of increasingly elaborate fiction, showing explosive growth without any real increase in value. The steamboats alone shuttled from subsidiary to subsidiary (Consolidated Railway to New England Steamship to New England Navigation and back) over the next five years, pumping up the asset values on one or another set of books, depending on which one needed to be made attractive to investors at any point in time.

An immediate result of the investigation was Mellen’s resignation in August 1913. Within the year, the ICC offered and Mellen accepted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. He described the steamboat deals and numerous other secret transactions. The New Haven’s treasurer, Hiram Kochersperger, was taken ill; his doctors advised him to travel to Europe for a rest, rendering him regrettably unable to testify. Mellen, when asked how long Kochersperger had been ill, replied, “Since the Commission began to get after the New Haven’s accounts.”

On November 2, 1914, a federal grand jury indicted twenty-one New Haven directors; Mellen spent thirty-one days on the stand at their trial.

Meanwhile, the Westchester lost money on its day-to-day operations from 1912 until 1921 and from 1932 through 1937. Even in the good years, it never made enough to cover the bond interest, which was paid by the New Haven. Much as the dotcoms relied on infusions of fresh venture capital, so the Westchester relied on advances from its parent. In 1935, six years into the Great Depression, the New Haven went broke. The advances stopped. In its annual report for 1935, the New Haven wrote off the Westchester, stating that “The advances made to the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway Company amount to $21,460,494.87, but as the prospect of their being repaid is very remote, they have been reduced to a nominal value of $1.” The next day the Westchester defaulted on its bonds and filed for bankruptcy.

By April 15, 1937, the Westchester’s receiver determined the line was hopelessly insolvent. On December 31, 1937, the Westchester made its final run. In June 1939, scrappers began removing the tracks in Westchester County; a year later, the City of New York purchased the line between E. 174th Street and Dyre Avenue for $1.7 million—much less than it had cost to build—and began operating it on May 15, 1941.

Here and there, the Westchester survives. The East 180th Street and Morris Park stations still bear the initials “N.Y.W.B.” The overpass at Brady and Matthews Avenues bears the railroad’s symbol: the caduceus, a staff entwined with coiled snakes, symbol of Mercury, the swift messenger of the gods. According to Cox Rail, an online site for collectors of obsolescent railroad securities, one of the Westchester’s handsomely engraved bonds, meant to be redeemed in 1946 for $1,000 in gold, is worth about $50.

New York Press, February 19,2002

February 3, 2015   No Comments

Honore Jaxon, Professional Rebel

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 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 Prince on 36th Street

James Aloysius Harden-Hickey, Baron of the Holy Roman Empire by command of the Supreme Pontiff, editor, novelist, swordsman, and adventurer, who would proclaim himself James I, Prince of Trinidad, and die by his own hand, was born in San Francisco on December 8, 1854. The flavor of San Francisco life in the 1850s was still affected by the Gold Rush of 1849. The enforcement of rough justice through committees of vigilance and lynch mobs was merely one of many indications that the city by the bay was not yet housebroken. Accordingly, Hickey’s French-born mother took her son to Paris.

They arrived amidst the glittering reign of Napoleon III. If one believes Richard Harding Davis, “When Harden-Hickey was a boy, Paris was never so carelessly gay, so brilliant, never so overcharged with life, color, and adventure.” Davis, one of the most glamorous reporters of the early 20th century, was also one of the most wildly overrate; yet there is something to what he says here. Within a generation, France had seen two revolutions, two kings, and a republic. Now she was an empire again, under the rule of a Bonaparte. Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon I, had seized power in 1852. He transformed Paris with his massive public works and bewitched the public with theatrical display and gorgeous ceremonies. The Second Empire sparkled with flamboyance, imagination and a kind of passionate worldliness.

Harden-Hickey spent little of his childhood and adolescence in Paris. The Jesuits taught him at Namur, Belgium; he studied law at the University of Leipzig. Yet his politics, tastes, point of view, and appearance were molded by Napoleon III and the Second Empire. At nineteen he passed the examinations to enter Saint-Cyr, the French military academy, from which he graduated with honors in 1875. His father died shortly before his graduation.

Having inherited a small income and mastered French, and enjoying the reputation of a master swordsman (like Scaramouche, he could pick the buttons off one’s waistcoat with a foil), Harden-Hickey foreswore the profession of arms for Parisian literary life. In 1878, he married the Countess de Saint-Pery; they had a son and a daughter.

He published eleven novels between 1876 and 1880. Irving Wallace, in his essay on Harden-Hickey (collected in The Square Pegs), calls the plots naive, the characters stereotypical, and the language flat. One novel is obviously borrowed from Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff, another from Don Quixote; all are bluntly monarchist and antidemocratic. Harden-Hickey’s polemics were more successful: his vehement defense of the church won him ennoblement as a Baron of the Holy Roman Empire.

The political upheaval after the fall of Napoleon III in 1870 subsided into the regime we call the Third Republic. Much as a tempest in shallow waters stirs up sludge, so the transition raised up a new set of corrupt politicos whose embezzlements and bribery led to a seemingly unending succession of scandals. With the concomitant abolition of press censorship, France saw an explosion in the number of newspapers being published. Most were edited in the spirit of Villemessant, founder of Le Figaro, who observed, “If a story doesn’t cause a duel or a lawsuit, it isn’t any good.”

The royalists, who wanted to restore the kings of France, unleashed their own media blitz by financing newspapers. They wanted a Parisian illustrated weekly, something like London’s Punch. Harden-Hickey’s swordsmanship and polemical skills made him its perfect editor.

On November 10, 1878, Harden-Hickey first published Triboulet, named for a jester of King Louis XII. The cover illustration showed the jester beating Marianne, the symbol of the Republic, and various politicians with a war club. The writing was as vigorous as the artwork. Within weeks, Triboulet had a paid circulation of 25,000. Within the year its business manager had been imprisoned, its staff had collectively served some six months in jail, and the paper had been fined 3000 francs. Within two years, it had become a daily. Harden-Hickey was sued forty-two times for libel and fought at least twelve duels, believing that his opponents should meet him either “upon the editorial page, or in the Bois de Boulogne.” The fun lasted until 1887, when the royalists’ money gave out.

He had changed. He divorced his wife, largely renounced Catholicism and flirted with theosophy and Buddhism. He began a journey around the world, spent nearly a year in India learning Sanskrit, studying the Buddha’s teachings, and even—he claimed—traveling to Tibet. Along the way, he made a short stop in the South Atlantic. Some 700 miles from the Brazilian coast, his ship hove to off to the deserted island of Trinidad.

“Trinidad is about five miles long and three miles wide,” Davis wrote, “but a spot upon the ocean. On most maps it is not even a spot.” Its residents were birds, turtles and land crabs. Harden-Hickey went ashore, explored the island and claimed it in his own name.

He was not the first to land there. An Englishman named Halley had made his way there in 1698. Two years later some Brazilian Portuguese settlers built stone huts, the ruins of which survived into Harden-Hickey’s time. A 1775 book claimed that one Alexander Dalrymple had taken possession of the island in the name of the King of England in 1700. Nonetheless, mariners landing in 1803 and 1822 found no inhabitants save “cormorants, petrels, gannets, man-of-war birds, and turtles weighing from five hundred to seven hundred pounds.” This gave Harden-Hickey’s claim color under international law: the English never settled the island; the Portuguese abandoned it. Trinidad was there for the taking.

Harden-Hickey returned to Paris in 1890, where he met Anne Flagler, daughter of John H. Flagler, an American financier. On St. Patrick’s Day 1891, he married her at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. For the next two years, he lived quietly with the Flaglers in New York. At some point during this period, he traveled to Mexico, where he purchased at least one ranch with money from his father-in-law. Apparently, Flagler would support his son-in-law quite generously without permitting him the control of any sizable sum of money. This restraint galled Harden-Hickey, who seems never to have considered earning his own living.

On Sunday, Nov. 5, 1893, the New York Tribune gave him front-page publicity with an exclusive story on his scheme to transform Trinidad into an independent country. Harden-Hickey argued that “…the inland plateaus are rich with luxuriant vegetation… The surrounding seas swarm with fish… Dolphins, rock-cod, pigfish, and blackfish may be caught as quickly as they can be hauled out…the exportation of guano alone should make my little country prosperous…”

Harden-Hickey’s announcement did not precipitate a world crisis. In January 1894, when he proclaimed himself James I, Prince of Trinidad, some nations even recognized him. One reporter interviewed his father-in-law, who seemed surprisingly tolerant of the adventure. He said, “My son-in-law is a very determined man… Had he consulted me about this, I would have been glad to have aided him with money or advice… But my son-in-law means to carry on this Trinidad scheme, and he will.”

The Prince announced that Trinidad would be a military dictatorship. Its flag would be a yellow triangle on a red ground. He began selling bonds for 1000 francs or $200, announcing that anyone purchasing ten of them was entitled to a free passage to the island. In San Francisco, he purchased a schooner to transport colonists and ferry supplies and mail between Trinidad and Brazil. He hired an agent to negotiate the construction of docks, wharves and houses. He also contracted for Chinese coolies to constitute an instant proletariat. On December 8, 1893, he instituted the Order of Trinidad, an order of chivalry in four classes to reward distinction in literature, the arts, and the sciences. He then commissioned a firm of jewelers to make a golden crown and issued a set of multicolored postage stamps.

An old friend from Paris, the Count de la Boissiere, became his secretary of state for foreign affairs. After working out of the Flagler residence at 18 W. 52nd Street, he opened a chancellery at 217 W. 36th Street. It was a room in a brownstone just west of 7th Avenue. Davis would visit it in the summer of 1894. Children were playing on the stoop with dolls. A vendor was peddling vegetables in the street. On the front door was a piece of paper bearing a handwritten note: “Chancellerie de la Principaute de Trinidad.”

In July 1895, the British government, then constructing a submarine cable to Brazil, landed troops and took possession of Trinidad as a cable station, based on Halley’s discovery in 1698. The Brazilians asserted a claim based upon the Portuguese occupation of 1700. Diplomatic representations were made; a mob at Bahia stoned the British consulate. No one remembered Harden-Hickey.

The Count de la Boissiere opened fire. His protest to Secretary of State Richard Olney pointed out that Harden-Hickey had notified the powers that he had taken possession of the uninhabited island of Trinidad in 1893. None of the powers had objected or opposed him. He asked the United States government to recognize the Principality of Trinidad and guarantee its neutrality.

August is the silly season, when no real news happens. In that long-ago summer of 1895—decades before electric fans or air conditioning—Olney may have been feeling the heat. He gave copies of the protest to the press corps for their amusement. The New York papers, much to the Count’s horror, ran stories poking fun at Prince James and at himself, his chancellery, his broken English, the formal manners so at odds with his squalid surroundings, and even his clothes.

It was around this time that Davis, then writing for The Evening Sun, called at the chancellery. On the wall he saw a notice of “Sailings to Trinidad.” It listed two: March 1 and October 1. The Count’s desk was piled with copies of proclamations, postage stamps, bonds and, in pasteboard boxes, gold and red enameled crosses of the Order of Trinidad. Davis found the Count “courteous, gentle, and…distinguished,” and gave Harden-Hickey a straight treatment. The other newspaper that treated Harden-Hickey with compassion was, odd though it may seem to us today, The New York Times. Reporter Henri Pene du Bois (grandfather of children’s author William Pene du Bois) and managing editor Henry Cary felt that Harden-Hickey and the Count were both in earnest and that their only fault was having a dream and the imagination to strive for it. One day, a pasteboard box appeared on the desk of each man: the Prince had awarded them the Order of Trinidad.

During the next two years, Harden-Hickey spiraled into depression. Without his island, he had nothing; furthermore, much of the world laughed at him for having tried to make his dream come true. No one, not even those who loved him, ever suggested that he had much of a sense of humor. And clearly, no one ever persuaded him to just go and get a job.

In 1897, Harden-Hickey completed plans for an invasion of England from Ireland. He asked Flagler to finance it. His father-in-law, perhaps not unreasonably, declined. Harden-Hickey never spoke with him again. He had drifted from his wife, too. While he had been in San Francisco hiring coolies and buying schooners, she had been in Paris; when she went to San Francisco, Harden-Hickey vanished to his Mexican ranch. Moreover, as Davis primly observes, Harden-Hickey “was greatly admired by pretty women.”

In early 1898, Harden-Hickey’s attempts to raise money by selling his Mexican land fell through. On February 2, 1898 he registered at the Pierson Hotel in El Paso, Texas, where he remained a week. According to Wallace, he was overheard to say that he was waiting for money from friends. He went up to his room at 7:30 p.m. on February 9. The following noon, the maids found him on the bed, a half-emptied morphine bottle on the nightstand. A letter to his wife was pinned to a chair. In his trunk was the crown of Trinidad.

New York Press, December 11, 2003

February 7, 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

Wild Rose MacDowell

On December 14, 1894 Edward MacDowell performed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Anton Seidl. Although it had been first performed in Boston some five years before, the concerto had not previously been performed here. After all, before the advent of the phonograph and the radio, orchestral music could be heard only in live performance.

Thus, the piece was in a very real sense new to New Yorkers—and MacDowell himself was a magnificent pianist at the top of his form. He triumphed, and in the hour of performance, his work seemed to stand on the edge of immortality. W. J. Henderson of the New York Times found the concerto impossible to speak of “in terms of judicial calmness, for it is made of the stuff that calls for enthusiasm…here is one young man who has placed himself on a level with the men owned by the world.”

In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, the New York–born MacDowell was world-renowned as America’s greatest living composer. His concerti, sonatas, tone poems, and song cycles were being performed throughout Europe, in Japan, even in South Africa. Some contemporaries—Seidl in particular—declared him superior to Brahms. Yet today, he is nearly forgotten.

He was born Edward Alexander MacDowell, at 220 Clinton Street in Manhattan, on December 18, 1860. His father was a prosperous wholesale milk dealer who loved the arts; his mother, having seen to it that he knew French, Spanish, German, Latin, and Greek, arranged his first piano lessons. In 1876 he was sent to the Paris Conservatoire, then as now one of the world’s leading conservatories.

At sixteen MacDowell was the youngest applicant in a pool of 300, and his performance in the entrance examinations won him one of the two scholarships awarded that year to foreign students. Yet he found the Conservatoire’s method of teaching piano—which relied heavily on sight-reading skills—to be pointless and absurd. His instructors wanted him to play music with the score turned upside down or to transpose it into a different key, and directed him to correct the work of earlier composers, such as Bach, so as to make it conform to the Conservatoire’s notions of what constituted proper composition. MacDowell wanted to work and felt he was being taught to play games.

After hearing the Russian virtuoso Anton Rubenstein burn up the piano in a bravura performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in B-Flat Minor at the Paris Exposition of 1878, he resolved to leave Paris, where he would never learn to play like that. Despite his youth (he was now eighteen), he won a place at the Frankfurt Conservatory, where most of his classmates were closer to 30. There he found instructors who, as McDowell wrote, dared to teach and play the classics “as if they had actually been written by men with blood in their veins.”

One day, one of MacDowell’s teachers, Joachim Raff, a composer, interrupted MacDowell while he was supposed to be practicing. He was actually just fooling around at the keyboard. Raff asked about the piece MacDowell was working on. Embarrassed at being caught idling, MacDowell, though usually candid, said he was working on a composition. Raff asked to see it when it was done. Feeling trapped (and liking Raff, as well), MacDowell chose to deliver. He wrote his first piano concerto over the next two weeks. Raff glanced at it. Then he scribbled a letter and said, “Take it to Liszt.”

Franz Liszt had created the stereotype of the great Romantic pianist and lived the rock star’s life, groupies and all. Now, in the fall of 1881, he lived in semi-retirement in Weimar. MacDowell arrived at Liszt’s home with Raff’s letter and the concerto’s manuscript. Shyness overcame him; he could not raise his hand to the doorbell, and so he sat in Liszt’s garden for an hour. Then the old man himself came outside and escorted MacDowell into his house. After MacDowell had warmed himself, he played the concerto. Liszt knew a good thing when he heard it and used his influence to have MacDowell’s work placed on concert programs. He also persuaded his own publishers to take the piano concerto.

MacDowell remained in Germany for the next decade, teaching, composing, and performing. He married one of his students, a young American woman named Marian Nevins, in 1884. The marriage was a wonderful success: Marian later wrote, “There was an extraordinary camaraderie between us which we never lost… Until he died, he gave me what few women ever have [from a man], his absolutely undivided affection…”

The first concerto premiered in 1885 and made MacDowell famous overnight. Stirring in mood, dazzling in technique, it provided him with a splendid vehicle for concert performances. So did his fiendishly difficult Witches’ Dance, a bit of showmanship that knocked their socks off across Europe. Critics hailed MacDowell’s mastery of the keyboard, his supreme power and control, as well as his striking stage presence. Tall, slender and broad-shouldered, with muscular arms and hands, he had jet-black hair and flashing blue eyes. All this, along with a flamboyantly waxed dark red mustache, must have made him irresistible.

In 1888, the MacDowells came home. They settled in Boston, then the center of American musical life. There MacDowell taught and went on national concert tours. His piano miniatures Woodland Sketches and New England Idylls, his settings of “To a Wild Rose” and “To a Water Lily” were on drawing room pianos throughout the country even as his larger works were being performed from Portland to San Francisco. During his Boston years, he wrote four massive piano sonatas, the Tragica, Eroica, Norse. and Keltic, each investing (or warping, as MacDowell self-deprecatingly said) the sonata form with symphonic grandeur.

On January 23, 1896 MacDowell gave a return performance of his Concerto with the Boston Symphony at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Seth Low, president of Columbia University, was in the audience. Earlier that year, Columbia had received a grant to establish its first professorship of music. In April 1896, Low offered MacDowell the job. He was thirty-five years old.

MacDowell was the music department. He taught seven year-long courses, each meeting two to three hours weekly, and—without teaching assistant or secretary—dealt with everything from purchasing desks, pianos, and library books to hiring outside lecturers, ordering chalk, and keeping the instruments in tune. (He often retuned them himself—it was easier than fighting with the university’s business managers, who refused to understand that pianos do go out of tune.) MacDowell slaved over the organization and content of his lectures to have them appear spontaneous, and also provided substantial individual instruction and individual examinations.

In 1901, Seth Low was elected mayor of New York and resigned from Columbia’s presidency. His successor, Nicholas Murray Butler, was a very different kind of man—a power seeker, far more interested in administration and in the idea of the educator than in ideas themselves, though he had taught philosophy. A mere five years in the classroom had convinced Butler that education was a science. He had founded Teachers College, successfully lobbied for compulsory state licensing of teachers (all of whom were required to have a degree in education, thus promoting the interests of the education industry), and advocated the centralization of the New York City schools, all reflecting Butler’s faith that centralized authority in the hands of men such as himself inevitably led to improvement.

Unfortunately, MacDowell chose this moment to propose restructuring Columbia’s curriculum, passionately arguing that some education in at least one of the fine arts was as essential as in science or history. Butler opposed the idea, largely because the mainstream faculty felt threatened and it seemed more politic to soothe their feelings. But MacDowell persisted. Butler saw this as a challenge to his own authority and vision for Columbia. He was not above spreading sly, personal speculations about MacDowell’s character, temperament, and intelligence among colleagues—all behind the composer’s back. MacDowell’s proposal was definitively turned down in September 1903. He resigned the following February.

In March 1905, MacDowell was knocked down by a hansom cab at Broadway and 21st Street. One wheel rolled over his spine: the injuries were physically and emotionally debilitating. He had been depressed since his resignation; now his depression darkened. Over the summer, his hair turned white. By November, his gait had become unsteady. His physicians never quite diagnosed his illness: Alan H. Levy, his most recent biographer, speculates that his depression, deepened by his physical injuries, led to a progressive aphasia. By the winter of 1905–06, he was dying. Friends raised funds to defray his medical expenses. Seth Low privately gave $2,000 to Marian MacDowell and lent the MacDowells his car. Butler didn’t even send a get-well card.

Now he was attended by a full-time nurse and a servant who carried him about. By the summer of 1907, he no longer recognized his parents. On January 23, 1908 his wife said to him, “Won’t you give me a kiss?” He managed to pucker his lips. He looked at her for the first time in days with something like recognition. Then he stopped breathing. He was forty-six years old.

His reputation was as the wild rose that fades. By the 30s, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, who should have known better, dismissed MacDowell and his contemporaries as genteel, over-gentlemanly, and bourgeois. Copland claimed that none of them wrote with fire in the eye: “There were no Dostoyevskys, no Rimbauds among them; no one expired in the gutter like Edgar Allan Poe.”

Alan H. Levy has called this phenomenon “the great erasure.” He suggests that the Copland generation wanted to believe itself the first American composers in whom the nation could take pride. They weren’t, of course, but the eclipse of MacDowell and the composers of his generation reflects how the Depression-era seizure of the nation’s musical establishment by the left sent much of America’s musical culture down the memory hole. Thomson finally admitted, shortly before his death, that MacDowell’s reputation might supplant that of MacDowell’s contemporary Charles Ives, whose cantankerous personality and freakish originality long charmed the critics. Only in the last few years have people begun quietly admitting that most of Ives’s so-called major works are unlistenable.

Nicholas Murray Butler remained president of Columbia until 1945. During World War I, he purged the faculty of antiwar professors and did the same to leftists during the 1930s and 1940s. The Republicans nominated him for vice president in 1912; he sought their presidential nomination in 1920. His support for the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928, one of many attempts between the wars to achieve peace without creating a means to enforce it, won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. He, too, is almost forgotten.

New York Press, April 30, 2003

April 30, 2003   Comments Off on Wild Rose MacDowell