All posts by Bowery Boys

The Wise Guy of Baseball: Getting To Know Leo ‘The Lip’ Durocher

BOOK REVIEW The history of sports is often written around its most revered role models, as though the noble character of the greatest players comes from the purest devotion to their game.

Leo Durocher, a sterling shortstop and manager for some of the greatest teams in baseball history, was no role model. In most ways, he was the very opposite, a combative player with a rock-star personality.  He’s famously attributed as saying “Nice guys finish last,” not because he actually said it, but because it seemed to be his life’s slogan.

In Paul Dickson‘s fast-paced and often amusing biography, Durocher’s extraordinary accomplishments on the field battle for prominence with the player’s indulgent and never-ending quest for the good life. Along the way, he became an iconic New York sports hero. As a player for the New York Yankees (1925, 1928-29), the Brooklyn Dodgers (1938-48) AND the New York Giants (1948-1955), his story plays out in New York’s greatest ballparks, as well as its most glamorous nightclubs and hotels.

Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son
by Paul Dickson
Bloomsbury Publishing

Durocher, born in Massachusetts to French Canadian parents, has had many nicknames through his career — Frenchy, “the All-American Out,” and a great number of four-letter ones. But “Leo the Lip” seemed to fit him best. His quarrels with other players, umpires and sportswriters are the stuff of legends.

Babe Ruth famously couldn’t stand him. At one point, he accused Durocher of stealing his watch, an alleged theft that would follow the players from the Yankees to the Dodgers. Writes Dickson: “As Leo said, in a half-angry, half-mocking tone, ‘Jesus Christ, if I was going to steal anything from him I’d steal his god-damned Packard.”

Brooklyn Dodgers Leo Durocher on dugout steps in 1939

His expletive-filled spats with teammates and managers tarred him early in his career; at one point, at age 24, Durocher was considered ‘washed out’, a toxic presence distracted by decadence and fame. As Dickson writes, “One rumored reason that all the teams in the American League passed on Durocher was that Babe Ruth let it be known he wanted Durocher out of the league.”

In New York, Durocher hops from the Cotton Club to the Stork Club in fancy suits, racking up debts at trendy hotels and acquiring a coterie of suspicious characters. His gambling addiction is now legendary; although many baseball players squandered their salaries this way, Durocher seemed to treat gambling as a second sport.

This led him into the circles of both mobsters and movie stars. And there, in the middle, was Durocher’s close friend George Raft, the Hollywood actor who frequently played gangsters on film. Durocher emulated Raft — often dressing and parting his hair in similar ways — and the actor, in turn, introduced the baseball player to the thrills of the entertainment world.

Below: Durocher with the stars of the TV show Mr. Ed

Courtesy Baseball Reliquary

Even during his greatest moments as a manager of the Dodgers, many believed Durocher might quit and become a radio comedian and actor. During World War II he even toured with the USO.

Yet he would always return the game. With the Dodgers, he transitioned from player to manager, overseeing the team during some of its greatest moments. That included the years with Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player. (Of course, Robinson and Durocher would later public feud, almost a rite of passage for great baseball stars at this point.)

Dickson, a long-time chronicler of baseball history, finds a readable balance between Durocher’s on-field achievements and late-night scandals, revealing a charming and exceptionally scrappy, if not exactly likable, sportsman.

He’s harsh and mouthy to the end. But his talent was undeniable; the writer Bob Broeg, at Durocher’s death in 1991, said that “losing Leo Durocher was like losing either on old friend or an old enemy — you could take your pick.” Over the years, the writer had gotten into several fist-fights with Durocher.

How the Kosciuszko Bridge got its wonderfully bewildering name

“That sound that crashes in the tyrant’s ear – Kosciuszko!” Lord Byron was talking about Polish hero Tadeusz Kościuszko, who was (most likely) born on this date in 1746.  Tomorrow a new bridge bearing his name will open to the public,  hoping to eliminate the many grievances of those stuck upon its predecessor during rush hour.

But how did the original 1939 span over the Newtown Creek, connecting Brooklyn to Queens, get named the Kosciuszko Bridge in the first place?

Kosciuszko wasn’t just Poland’s most famous revolutionary.  In 1776, he sailed for America to fight alongside George Washington and the Continental Army.  He was a brilliant strategist and engineer, helping bolster many American forts, and was greatly admired by Washington’s generals.

In one of his more clever displays, the man who would one day have a bridge named after him actually blew up several bridges to hamper British advances in upstate New York.**

After the war, he returned to Europe and led the fight for Poland’s independence (although his storied uprising against Russia was ultimately a failure).

Kosciuszko died in 1817 and has been celebrated the world over as the greatest of revolutionaries and perhaps the best known historical figure in Polish history.  But that alone doesn’t get one a bridge in Long Island.


The new automobile bridge, eventually part of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, was completed in 1939, replacing a smaller one called the Meeker Avenue Bridge.

The new crossing opened in August. Germany invaded Poland nine days later.

The approach to the Kosciuszko Bridge, photographed in 1939 by the Wurts Brothers.  Photo courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

New York City’s affinity with Poland was strong by this time. The city had thousands of Polish-Jewish residents.  The Polish pavilion at the 1939-40 World’s Fair in Flushing-Meadow was among the most striking, featuring a bold statue of the Polish monarch Wladyslaw Jagiello.  (That statue was eventually moved to Central Park, where it sits today near the Turtle Pond.)  Its powerful, war-like stance resonated with New York’s Polish immigrants, watching the destruction of their native country and its people from afar.

Below: Construction of the new Meeker Avenue Bridge in June 1939, later to be named Kosciuszko. (Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives) 


In July 1940, the Meeker Avenue Bridge was renamed the Kosciuszko Bridge, as a sign of the revolutionary spirit that bonded America and Poland.  It certainly made sense given that the Brooklyn anchorage rises from Greenpoint, a vibrant Polish neighborhood.

At an official ceremony on September 23, 1930 — a year after the German invasion — thousands of Polish-Americans cheered along to a rousing patriotic speech by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.  On either side of the bridge were parades featuring revelers in traditional Polish costumes.

Below: An image of the renaming ceremony, the bridge adorned in American  flags. Courtesy New York State

“[I]n so far as the American people and the American government are concerned,” said La Guardia, “the free government of Poland still lives and will continue to live.”

The crowd roared with applause at the mention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  America would not be officially engaged in World War II until the following year with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Ah, but that name!  It remains one of the more perplexing bridge names to say.  It’s correctly pronounced kohsh-CHOOSH-koh, although several slight variations are accepted.  At first, many people simply refused to say it.  In 1945, the New York Times mentioned that “Kosciuszko Bridge the people will not have and they call it the Meeker Avenue Bridge to this day.”

Of course, many people preface the name today with an expletive, as the original bridge is better known for its traffic entanglements and its lack of any kind of shoulder for stalled cars.  There have been plans for years to replace the bridge, plans which will finally come to fruition this Thursday with opening of the new span, costing $555 million.

The Kosciuszko’s younger brother bridge — the Pulaski Bridge, named for another Polish hero, Kazimierz Pulaski — spans the same body of water just a couple miles to the west.

**Tadeusz Kościuszko actually blew up and booby-trapped many bridges during the Revolutionary War on the command of Colonel Philip Schuyler, the father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton.

(A variant of this article originally ran Feb. 4, 2014).

Top image courtesy Allison Meier/Flickr

‘Citizen Jane’: A new film explores the legacies of Moses and Jacobs

FILM REVIEW The story of Robert Moses versus Jane Jacobs has grown to such an epic scale by this point that it scarcely represents reality anymore. Their legacies have taken on super heroic form — the Avengers of New York City history, if you will — representing the basic evils of corrupt government and the essential good of humanity in protecting its citizens from distress and exploitation.

Many might walk by a certain aspect of New York City life that remains troubling and may, to this day, immediately attribute it to Moses, while strolling through a bustling neighborhood and thanking Jacobs for her inspiration. These instincts aren’t wrong but they are reductive.

A new documentary seeks to keep Moses and Jacobs in the realm of the mythical. Citizen Jane: Battle For the City, about the critical fight against urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s,  plays out in New York City, of course, but its title pointedly leaves out the location. The movie is bookended (perhaps burdened) with a greater context — their fight now possibly reverberates into the struggles of all modern cosmopolitan life and even the fate of our planet.

You may be quite familiar with the main players and their biographies.  Moses, the city’s parks commissioner, began to amass great power and influence after World War II, using federal money and modernist ideas to develop urban renewal programs that would rewrite the landscape New York City. Jacobs, “just a housewife” as she was later described by Moses and his cronies, was a journalist and urban theorist who evolved the fight to save the integrity of her own Greenwich Village neighborhood into one to preserve the vital characteristics of the city.

Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

Citizen Jane brings these stories alive using a wonderful assortment of film footage and interviews. Without a doubt, the greatest pleasures of this film are the actual voices of its two subjects.

Moses is at his most cantankerous here, often growling out the defense of his own plans. He describes slums as “a cancerous growth,” complains about people who don’t want to relocate, then labels his critics as in “opposition to everything that’s progressive.”

But Jacobs can be vitriolic herself of course. Fortunately there’s an abundance of interviews which the film uses to narrate Jabobs’ personal journey from a passive journalistic voice to a crusader against, in her own words, the “full flowering of the expressway power city.”

Rendering of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Courtesy Library of Congress

The film, directed by Matt Tyranuer, makes bold and sometimes ominous choices of presenting the stark contrasts of changing urban life, building towards the ultimate confrontation — the development of the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Even here, the director makes a wise decision to let original news and promotional film footage from the period speak for itself. While it is true that the central conflicts presented within Citizen Jane are truly modern and universal, there’s just nothing like hearing the voices of 1960s New Yorkers, complaining about Robert Moses and afraid of losing their homes, to help bring those points across.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer
Altimeter Films
Now playing in theaters and On Demand



Josephine Cochrane and her Dazzling Dish-Washing Machine

THE FIRST PODCAST Of the tens of thousands of U.S. patents granted in the 19th century, only a small fraction were held by women. One of those women — Josephine Cochrane — would change the world by solving a simple household problem.

While throwing lavish dinner parties in her gracious home in Shelbyville, Illinois, Cochrane noticed that her fine china was being damaged while being washed. Certainly there was a better way of doing the dishes?

Cochrane’s extraordinary adventure would lead to places few women are allowed — into gritty mechanical workshops and the exclusive corridors of big business. Nobody could believe a woman responsible for such a sophisticated mechanical device.

In her own words: “I couldn’t get men to do the things I wanted in my way until they had tried and failed on their own.  They insisted on having their own way with my invention until they convinced themselves that my way was the better.”

FEATURING: The voice of Beckett Graham from the History Chicks podcast, portraying the actual quotes of Mrs. Cochrane (or shouldn’t that be Cochran)?

To get this episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services.

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“The Garis-Cochran Dish Washing Machine having been in competition with both foreign and home inventions at the World’s Fair received a diploma and medal for best mechanical construction, durability and adaptation to its line of work and unrivaled for quantity and quality of work.”

Mrs. Cochrane in her later years:


‘The Gargoyle Hunters’ and the Architecture of Nostalgia

BOOK REVIEW The architects and builders of the post-Civil War period provided New York City with masterpieces of great beauty — cast-iron facades, modern emblems of trade rendered in marvelous stone, fanciful medieval gargoyles upon impressive towers. Gilded Age architecture and the ornate shapes of pre-modern design have nonetheless defined the timeless identity of the city.

In the 1970s lovers of this fading architectural landscape decided to protect its most treasured features. By liberating its details from the landscape entirely.

They were called ‘gargoyle hunters’, so passionate for the city’s magnificent beauty that they would rather steal aspects of it than see it destroyed.

The Gargoyle Hunters
by John Freeman Gill
Alfred A. Knopf

John Freeman Gill‘s new book The Gargoyle Hunters is obviously about one of these guerrilla collectors, working with a crew of thieves, chipping away at doomed architectural wonders falling into disrepair, scouring heaps of rubble for a bit of beauty in a city tumbling into financial ruin.

One of the thieves is the gargoyle hunter’s son. His name is Griffin.

Shortly into Gill’s captivating and exuberant novel, one realizes that architectural crimes are merely the backdrop. This is a story about all varieties of nostalgia. Formalized urban nostalgia, of course, of the kind that drives landmark preservation and podcasts about New York City history. But also the constant pining for recognizable moments in a person’s life, both for the pleasures of our childhood and for the relationships that once held us in safety.

Below: The World Trade Center, with the Woolworth Building peering through — two architectural contrasts in Gill’s novel (photo date 1973)

Gill, a New York-based journalist and New York Times contributor, is the son of a ‘gargoyle hunter’ who traipsed 1970s in search of aged, deteriorating treasures, and his adventure, while certainly fictionalized, has the immediacy of a memoir, laced with specific references to corner shops, restaurants and cheap snack foods.

Griffin’s parents are separated so he spends time between his home — a rustic, unrenovated brownstone on the Upper East Side — and his father’s workshop in a warehouse in Tribeca, many years before chic hotels and film festivals would arrive here. Griffin has accepted the separation, if mournfully, just as he assumes New York as a faded, withering place, the rubble upon which the foibles of his adolescence play out.

Below: Heaps of rubble abound in early 1970s New York. In The Gargoyle Hunter, they sometimes possess abandoned treasures. 

But those around him are not so complacent. His sister spends her time trying to piece her family back together in crafty ways. At one point, she smashes a window with a rock, knowing her father will have to come back and repair it.

Her father also vandalizes to repair the past, soon employing his son in wild and increasingly dangerous capers to remove carved detailing from old Gilded Age buildings, finding great spiritual urgency in his tasks.

“The bridge of time is very poignant,” he told me. “I think about the immigrant carvers who came over here and did this work on people’s home — itinerant nobodies, many of them, with no stable homes of their own — and I meet them across time.”

Their adventures soon lead to a startling heist — the theft of an entire building.

“No, not part of a building, son. What we’re going to steal is a building — the whole damn thing, cornice to curb. Just stop asking so many questions and you’ll see. Okay?

(NOTE: This sounds far-fetched, but Gill bases this on an actual event of a cast-iron structure win 1974.)

Below: The ramshackle streets of Tribeca, another vivid location from the book

I feel as though Gill is doing a bit of gargoyle hunting from his own life, the novel filled with charming and very specific anecdotes of teenage exuberance and wistful remembrance, dotted along the corridors of 1970s New York that you can almost follow along with on a dusty map.

There’s even a marvelously awkward experience atop the Statue of Liberty, one that feels gleefully unrestricted, with a major nod to modern cinema’s greatest ode to nostalgia — A Christmas Story.

The central crimes (or are they rescues?) of The Gargoyle Hunters feel realistic because they’re paired with the common trials and errors of teenage life, moments we all wish we could chip away and save forever.


Deconstruction Of The Third Avenue El: A new exhibit at the Transit Museum

Who knew the dismantling of something so filthy and monstrous could be so beautiful?

Sid Kaplan is a master print-maker and photography teacher who the New York Times recently called “the darkroom equivalent of the session man, the go-to guy famous musicians revere and want to work with.” Kaplan has been fascinated with photography since his teenage years, a prodigious capturer of urban mood and light upon black-and-white prints.

In 1955, when he was 17, Kaplan became fascinated with workmen taking down the Third Avenue Elevated Railroad, a relic of the Gilded Age. He reached for his camera. But he caught more than history being taken down.

Sid Kaplan/Courtesy Transit Museum

The Transit Museum Annex in Grand Central Gallery Annex presents a selection of Kaplan’s early work in  Deconstruction of the Third Avenue El: Photographs by Sid Kaplan, less an elegy for a day gone by and more a celebration of a changing New York.  For the secret spell imbued within these images is the lively and captivating street life, the diners, delis and dry cleaners peeking over the corners. 

Naturally the IRT Third Avenue Elevated (first opened in 1879) was not placed on a fashionable street, nor did it attract magnificent urban architecture. The Third Avenue of Kaplan’s images is of the ephemeral, everyday variety. You may vaguely recognize the street corners but not the businesses.

The elevated train itself adds to the glorious disorientation. Although sections of the El began closing down in 1950, it would not entirely close in areas of the Bronx until the 1970s. In these images, Kaplan captures a city in transition, metal and architecture warping itself along familiar bends and sight lines.

Sid Kaplan/NYC Transit Museum


Currently on view at the New York City Transit Museum’s Grand Central Gallery Annex (it’s on the Vanderbilt Avenue side of the building, next to the Station Master’s office). It’s free! The exhibit runs through July 9, 2017.

Those crazy kids! This Friday learn all about the Great Subway Race of 1967

Here’s an event for you this Friday that’s a little bit The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and an iota of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — with a New York City touch, of course. It’s The Great Subway Race of 1967!

Fifty years ago M.I.T. computer whiz kid Peter Samson programmed a mainframe computer about the size of a passenger elevator to calculate the most efficient route to ride the entire NYC subway system in the least amount of time.

This Friday, Samson will recount to Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione his team’s outrageous attempt to break the existing riding record using payphones, runners, and a teletype hook-up between a makeshift “data center” in midtown Manhattan and the mainframe in Cambridge.

Come out to this FREE event this Friday at Hunter College! Advanced registration REQUIRED.  Details are below. Book your tickets here


Fri, April 21, 2017
7:00 PM – 8:30 PM EDT


Hunter College West Building
SW corner 68 St. & Lex. Ave.
Here’s a little video preview of the event:

Great Subway Race of 1967 Video Preview from Michael Miscione on Vimeo.

The Beauty Bosses of Fifth Avenue: Elizabeth Arden & Helena Rubinstein

PODCAST Fifth Avenue’s role in the ‘revolution’ of beauty, as led by Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, New York’s boldest businesswomen of the Jazz Age.

The Midtown Manhattan stretch of Fifth Avenue, once known for its ensemble of extravagant mansions owned by the Gilded Age’s wealthiest families, went through an astonishing makeover one hundred years ago. Many lavish abodes of the rich were turned into exclusive retail boutiques, catering to the very sorts of people who once lived here.

On the forefront of this transformation were two women from very different backgrounds. Elizabeth Arden was a Canadian entrepreneur, looking to establish her business in the growing city of New York. Helena Rubinstein, from Poland by way of Australia, already owned an established company and looked to Manhattan as a way to anchor her business in America.

Their products — beauty! Creams, lotions, ointments and cleansers. Then later: eye-liners, rouges, lipsticks, mascaras.

In this episode we observe the growing independence of American woman and the changing beauty standards which arose in the 1910s and 20s, bringing ‘the painted face’ into the mainstream.

And it’s in large part thanks to these two extraordinary businesswomen, crafting two parallel empires in a corporate framework usually reserved for men.

ALSO: Theda Bara, Estee Lauder, Max Factor and a whole lot of sheep and horses!

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We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!


FURTHER LISTENING — Check out our spin-off podcast The First: Stories of Inventions and their Consequences, in particular, the episode on the invention of the bikini — The Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Revolution

FURTHER READING AND VIEWING: If you liked this episode, you might also like:

Hope In A Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture by Kathy Peiss

Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty by Michèle Fitoussi

“The Powder and the Glory” Documentary produced, written, and directed by Ann Carol Grossman & Arnie Reisman

War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry by Lindy Woodhead

A few images of Fifth Avenue between 50th and 57th, in the years of transition — from residential to retail.




Museum of the City of New York


1922 — Fifth Avenue and 57th Street

The Collis Huntington mansion on 57th and Fifth Avenue. Helena Rubinstein moved her salon in here in the mid 1920s.

Elizabeth Arden, circa 1915, near the start of her career.

Helena Rubenstein, photo date 1924

An example of Helena’s Valaze cream, made from lanolin


A selection of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein vintage ads, courtesy Vintage Ad Browser


A variety of facial treatments from a Helena Rubinstein salon, circa 1941

Nina Leen/Photography


Helena employed many of her family members.  Mala Rubinstein, Helena Rubinstein’s niece, shows the ladies how beauty is done at the 715 Fifth Avenue salon

Courtesy NYT Photograph by Bradford Robotham

The commercial featured on this week’s show!

A very affected presentation, but this video does show Rubinstein in action!

The “beauty process” was in vogue by the 1930s as evidenced by this short film starring Hollywood film actress Constance Bennett.

Helena Rubinstein latched onto Hollywood celebrities both as a way to inspire beauty regiment — and, of course, to sell more products.

For Theda Bara, Helena even sold a line of ‘vamp’ make-up, tying into her scandalous reputation. (Read more about Theda Bara here.)


Even Marilyn Monroe was an Elizabeth Arden fan, frequently popping into the New York salon.


Two strange secrets of DeWitt Clinton Park in Hell’s Kitchen

DeWitt Clinton Park, far west in Hell’s Kitchen between West 52nd and West 54th Streets, has two unusual features that harken to a time one hundred years ago — and millions of years ago!

The park’s most striking feature is an unusual rock formation that juts out just west of the sports field. This unique outcrop, dating back 450 million years (that’s right: read that again!), is called exotic terrane, meaning that a portion of the earth’s crust formed by two tectonic plates grafted together to create a rock composition unlike anything that surrounds it.

Horsing Around: Children daily play around one of the oldest exposed areas of Manhattan’s natural topography. At top, in the 1934 image, the same rocks (more exposed and treacherous) greeted other children. 

Courtesy Greg Young

Over the past couple of centuries, most of Manhattan’s unique geological features have been smoothed over by the city, which hired workers to push plows and drive dump trucks filled with dirt. Thankfully, this extraordinary feature was left in place during construction

But on the eastern end of the park sits a more somber reminder of the past —  New York’s most touching World War I memorial, a lonely doughboy with a rifle slung over his shoulder holding, wait, what is that?

He’s offering up a handful of poppies, flowers that held a decidedly different meaning during the statue’s dedication in 1930 than they have today.

Poppies grew in abundance in the Flemish town of Ypres, site of multiple battles during the war, and the bright-red variety came to symbolize the fallen.

A quote from the famed World War I poem “In Flanders Fields” by poet- surgeon-Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae hugs the base, explaining the mysterious imagery:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

(The bolded part above appears as an inscription on the memorial.)

But this sorrowful monument of Hell’s Kitchen has another tragic element. It was crafted by sculptor Burt Johnson, known for creating many statues of World War I doughboys (a nickname for American soldiers) across the country. You can find another example of his work in Doughboy Plaza in Woodside, Queens.

But Johnson died in 1927 while still modeling the memorial intended for the park. His widow made arrangements for the statue to be completed and eventually, in the fall of 1929, it was installed at De Witt Clinton Park.

The above is an expanded excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

OUR ISOLATION IS OVER: In ‘The Great War’, PBS presents a different take on America’s entry into World War I

One hundred years ago this week, the United States of America rose to assist its European allies and officially declared war on Germany.

This was an unprecedented moment in this country’s history, a signal of its rising importance on the world stage and a declaration of the United States as the standard bearer of democracy.

But this declaration was also a delayed reaction. In most ways, America was already at war.

PBS marks this important moment in history with an intense three-part mini-series The Great War, looking at this country’s involvement in the European conflict from vivid and surprisingly fresh angles.

Below: An exclusive clip from The Great War, of the initial influence of Tin Pan Alley on the early opinions of Americans:

My confession: I love great historical stories of war, but I do not always like war documentaries. There’s a certain uniformity to many of them that’s rather numbing — black-and-white stock footage of smoky battlefields, static maps of troop movement, battles without context. Wars are sometimes presented as impressive events, devoid of humanity.

The Great War is rather unique (and potentially frustrating for some true war-history fanatics), easing deliberately into discussion of the conflict in the same way that Americans would have learned of it themselves during the summer of 1914.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by members of the revolutionary movement Young Bosnia, did not seem like the sort of event that would concern the dinner conversations of regular Americans. Many believed themselves isolated from those sorts of conflicts by an ocean; if anything, the Gilded Age proved that the United States was equal, if not greater, to those foreign cultures.

At yet, as the situation escalated, bringing in Germany, Russia, France and eventually Great Britain into the conflict, it would seem the United States would be dragged in as well — whether its leaders admitted it or not.

The Flatiron Building, for a time, became a war recruitment office.

The first part of The Great War (airing Monday night) takes the temperature of America from 1914 to 1917, a country torn into sympathizers and pacifists.

Because of this country’s unique make-up of immigrants, the European struggle ignites a thousand smaller conflicts here. Many race to their old homelands. Suffragists, in a struggle for their basic rights, ignite an anti-war movement. President Wilson, in a fierce re-election bid in 1916, brandishes the slogan ‘He Kept Us Out of War’.

A campaign vehicle for Thomas Woodrow Wilson candidacy in the 1916 American elections. 1916 USA

But in fact, America was already engaged in the conflict — on both sides of the battle, depending on who you were and where you lived in America. German immigrants felt embattled and rallied for peace. But events such as the sinking of the Lusitania and the explosion at Black Tom Island soon turned the opinions of most American to the cause of war. How then could a powerful nation enter such a conflict from thousands of miles away?

A faux battleship was constructed in Union Square in 1917 to encourage participation in the war effort:

Library of Congress

Part Two (airing Tuesday, April 11) explores the mobilization and training of American forces. But while the documentary does follow a set of individual stories of men going to war (such as that of Alan Seeger, a Greenwich Village poet ), it spends a significant time on American shores, observing the efforts of many (led by Wilson’s propaganda chief George Creel) to drum up excitement and patriotism — and others whose opposition to war remains steadfast.

We do follow the journey of one entire squad of soldiers, and it’s a truly amazing tale — the Harlem Hellfighters, the first African-American regiment to engage in the conflict. They were assigned to the French Army as many American troops refused to fight alongside them. What the French got was a well-trained, precise and sometimes vicious squadron. (Thanks to the under appreciated James Reese Europe, they also had a renown military band.)

Below: An exclusive clip from The Great War, of national outrage in 1918 of ‘slackers’ and an extraordinary raid in New York City.

It’s not until Part Three (airing Wednesday) that American forces, led by General John J. Pershing, are fully engaged along the Western Front.

By this time, tens of thousands of Allied soldiers had been killed, The film’s unique point of view can be unsettling at times; there are so many perspectives to tell — and the filmmakers should be credited with this uniquely 21st century approach — that the larger canvas of war and its cruel atrocities often leaves center stage for a time, only to come crashing into the narrative with jarring force.

There’s no escape in Part Three. The battles of the Hundred Day Offensive are depicted in ominous, almost otherworldly detail. Meanwhile, back in the United States, campaigns to drive ‘slackers’ and anti-war agitators into the open tramples upon basic constitutional rights and escalates the fears of regular Americans.

Over six hours, The Great War leaves you sorrowful, exhilarated and hungry to learn more.  I’d recommend pairing this with another Europe-focused film series — the BBC’s The First World War or, for something older, the epic 1964 series produced by England, Canada and Australia — also called The Great War.

During the live broadcast, please following along with me on Twitter @BoweryBoys where I’ll be sharing trivia about American and its involvement in World War I throughout the show.

PBS, American Experience
Debuting April 10, 9/8C
Check your local listings