PODCAST: The big, brash history of St. Mark’s Place, the East Village’s most interesting street.
St. Mark’s Place may be named for a saint but it’s been a street full of sinners for much of its history.
One of the most fascinating streets in the city, St. Mark’s traces its story back to Peter Stuyvesant, meets up with the wife of Alexander Hamilton in the 1830s, experiences the incredible influx of German and Polish immigrants in the late 19th century, then veers into the heart of counter-culture — from the political activism of Abbie Hoffman to the glamorously psychedelic parties of Andy Warhol.
And that’s when the party really gets started! St. Mark’s is known for music, fashion, rebellion and pandemonium. In the 1970s and 80s, clothing stores like Limbo and club nights like Club 57 helped define its character — punk, new wave, alternative, raucous.
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Stuyvesant Street superimposed over the planned grid. Ultimately the street was allowed to remain, breaking the grid. By the way, see that green patch at the far right? That was also a cemetery.
The front of 22 St. Mark’s Place from a 1914 history book. (It looks almost identical to 20 St. Mark’s, the old Daniel LeRoy House, which is still there.). “It had a tea room in the rear of the first floor, which [the tenant] altered into a library, constructing a bathroom in connection with it. A new bedroom was added above the library, and in the basement was installed a cook.” [source]
Deutsch-Amerikanische-Schützen Gesellschaft (German-American Shooting Society) building, 12 St. Mark’s Place, pictured here in 1975 in a photograph by Edmund Gillon
St. Mark’s Place and Third Avenue in 1914, the same year as the shootout at Arlington Hall! The Third Avenue elevated train framed St. Mark’s on the west end, the Second Avenue elevated (which actually ran along First Avenue in the East Village) to the east.
The mugshot of Dopey Benny whose gang was involved in the shootout which killed a city official.
A photo by Victor George Macarol of the boutique Manic Panic (and a man in meditation), 1975
The south side of St. Mark’s Place, 1975
Crowds waiting to get into the Electric Circus
A flyer for Trash and Vaudeville…
Keith Haring performing at Club 57 in a themed evening called Acts of Live Art. For more information on Club 57, you can read my earlier article about this extraordinary club here. Dazed has a pretty great article about the place here.
Coney Island High, a pivotal East Village venue during the 1990s.
Top photo — St. Mark’s Place in 1978, Photos by Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos, care of Vintage Everyday
The Hotel Chelsea, August 1936, photograph by Berenice Abbott (NYPL)
Inside the Dream Palace The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Few places in New York exist with so many ghosts as the Chelsea Hotel. Oh, I don’t know if it’s really haunted, but the historical figures that have gained inspiration from their stays at this storied place have certainly left their mark. But with geniuses — with the pressure of being genius — also comes drama, escapism, and tragedy.
Sherill Tippins‘ new book on the Chelsea Hotel — aptly named Inside the Dream Palace — does double-duty as a hall of fame for great substance-abusing artists and writers. It’s a wondrous, colorful account of a unique social living experiment as it slowly dismantled its pretensions and became a rustic den of creativity, community and debauchery.
All the great tales are recounted here — from Dylan Thomas‘s death to Sid and Nancy‘s tragic evening — and a many new ones introduced. For all the names I expected to see (Henry Miller, Arthur C. Clarke, Thomas Wolfe, Patti Smith), there were a great many more that have surprising connections to this unique landmark.
I had such a fantastic time sampling the lives of the Chelsea’s various characters that I wanted to ask the author a few questions myself. Here’s Sherill Tippins, elaborating upon the hotel’s unusual origins, its tenacious spirit and uncertain future:
Reading of the original philosophies behind the Chelsea Hotel – the utopic, if somewhat simplistic notion of communal living of various types of classes – I kept thinking ‘Wow, imagine if somebody tried floating this idea today!” What was it about this period and this project specifically that made people open to such a radical suggestion?
ST: In the wake of Boss Tweed’s thefts, the long, deep recession of 1873, and the usual massive shift of wealth to the top one percent that followed (sound familiar?), the city’s social fabric seemed to many New Yorkers to be irredeemably destroyed. People were so desperate for some kind of workable solution that New Yorkers from different economic classes started meeting in unprecedented ways – “bankers sitting next to bakers,” as one reporter put it in amazement – to discuss what had happened to the city and how it might start to recover.
Into this critical moment in history walked the Chelsea’s architect, Philip Hubert. Basically, Hubert appealed to New Yorkers in the same way every successful idea man has in New York, before or since – via their pocketbooks. (Below: The Chelsea, photographed by the Wurts Brothers, NYPL)
He introduced the concept of cooperative living – showing how much cheaper it was for New Yorkers to form a “club” to buy their own land, build an apartment house to their own liking, and share the costs of maintenance, fuel, and other services. The new cooperative apartments were so appealing and cheap that the demand for them proved nearly insatiable.
Here was a way to bridge the stultifying divide that had opened up between classes in a society where status was determined by the size of an individual’s bank account, so that citizens felt compelled to isolate themselves, as Hubert put it, “to guard their dearly cherished state of exaltation.” New Yorkers who lived together, on the other hand, would have to converse and exchange ideas. Alliances would form, and perhaps these alliances would arm groups against the chicanery of the next Boss Tweed.
To create real diversity, Hubert had to make cooperatives not only practical but, in a sense, sexy. He managed that feat with the Chelsea Association Building, set in the heart of New York’s racy theater district, at the intersection of all the new elevated railroad lines and equidistant from the Ladies’ Mile shopping district and the decadent Tenderloin. To make life at the Chelsea even more enticing, he built a cooperative theater and a drama school to go with the cooperative, and invited in an assortment of artists, musicians, actors and writers to spice up the core population of businessmen, financiers, and working people.
You walk us very vividly through different decades of the Chelsea’s strange and storied existence. If you could re-visit a particular era of the Chelsea yourself, to which time period would you like to see? Its earliest days, the wild 60s, or another era?
ST: Every time I’m asked this question I respond differently, because in fact I love every era at the Chelsea. Today, though, I’ll choose the Depression era as the one I’d most like to experience.
It was a surprisingly idyllic time at the hotel. Room prices had lowered to a level that artists could actually afford, and secondly because many residents experienced a new kind of creative freedom as they were subsidized financially by the W.P.A. (“I can’t begin to tell you how rich everyone was,” one artist recalled.)
This was the era when the residents laid down a set of “house rules” that have been followed, more or less, ever since: don’t interrupt people during work hours; don’t visit without an invitation; don’t hit up famous neighbors for a job or a connection, and so on. With their privacy protected, working artists felt comfortable socializing after hours: Edgar Lee Masters entertaining Thomas Wolfe in his suite, Masters and the artist John Sloan listening to music on the Victrola together, Van Wyck Brooks dropping in for cocktails with Sloan…. It was from these interactions that a real, lasting Chelsea Hotel culture was born—a culture that would nurture generations of artists in the decades to come.
From ‘Dream Palace’: “The artist Brion Gysin and his close friend William Burroughs arrived to market their new invention, the Dream Machine.”
You’ve written about so many iconic writers and artists, both in this book and in your past projects. And this is really a story of icons, as they pass through this extraordinary landmark. But I greatly enjoyed stumbling upon some of your rather obscure figures here, those fairly forgotten today. Any particular individuals that you newly discovered in your research that were a particular favorite of yours?
ST: One of the most fascinating longtime Chelsea Hotel denizens, who is known surprisingly little considering his cultural contributions, is the anthropologist-musicologist-artist-filmmaker-occultist Harry Smith (at right). Smith created The Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of powerfully resonant American blues, ballads, gospel, and other songs that helped inspire the 1960s folk music movement and that inspired Bob Dylan in particular.
At the Chelsea, in his role as house magician, Smith provided the Yippies with a magic spell for levitating the Pentagon and Leonard Cohen with a love spell to seduce the singer Nico. (It failed, sadly.) Smith was also an experimental filmmaker, considered a genius by the underground film community; his films were designed to affect viewers neurologically, presumably altering their state of consciousness as a path toward further evolution. In the 1970s, Smith created a film, Mahagonny, based on the opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and featuring such Chelsea Hotel residents as Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Allen Ginsberg—a film intended to communicate to all cultures, regardless of language or location, humanity’s troubled state.
There are others I found captivating, even if they weren’t known outside their small circles of admirers. In fact, I would have included hundreds more if I’d only had the pages to contain them.
There’s also a large amount of tragedy associated with the Chelsea, from the most famous events (Dylan Thomas and Sid Vicious, of course) to even the footnotes of history, those known only for their awful ends. For instance, the woman who cut off her hand and jumped off the roof. (I went back and read that sentence like six times!) Did you sense any particular reason for this in your research? Is it just the density of dramatic figures that stayed here?
ST: I’m so glad you asked that question, because I’ve asked it myself so many times! Unfortunately, I’ve never come up with a definitive answer, but I can give you my hypothesis.
Somehow, from the beginning—according to the letters and other writings in various archives—the Chelsea has always felt feminine to those who have lived in it. Feminine and maternal, like a mother welcoming her children into her arms. I would imagine that if one were in a state of existential despair or psychological extremity, one might look for comfort to an architectural (archetypal?) mother figure, particularly as one made the ultimate decision to end one’s life.
I’m thinking of Frank Kavecky, the impoverished young artist who was robbed on the subway of funds he was holding for the Hungarian Sick and Benevolent Society. Discovering his loss, he went straight to the Chelsea – checking into a room for the afternoon, locking the door, settling himself into a rocking chair, and shooting himself in the head.
And Almyra Wilcox, the well-to-do visitor who overdosed on pills while writing a love letter to someone she knew she’d never see again. She was found dead the next morning, unfinished letter in hand. Reading these stories, I think, if I were ready to do myself in, I might choose the Chelsea. Wouldn’t you?
The fate of the Chelsea Hotel remains undecided, sitting empty, “like a corpse in its niche on Twenty-Third Street.” If you could somehow dictate the future of the Chelsea yourself, what would you like see happen here? A return to its transient roots or an entirely new purpose altogether?
ST: Of course, the obvious desire would be to bring back the old days, with the former co-owner Stanley Bard managing the Chelsea and his son, David Bard, waiting in the wings. But since life is about moving forward, I would hope that the new owner, Ed Scheetz, will respect the Chelsea’s traditional function as fully as he claims to do.
The new owner has some intriguing ideas for the “new” Chelsea: creating a small, urban MacDowell-colony type program in which a half-dozen artists would enjoy free room and board, along with space on the ground floor to display or perform finished work. He has shown me his plans for placing large, expensive rooms next to small, relatively cheap ones, to encourage a mix of people in the traditional Chelsea Hotel way. He has assured me that he intends to maintain the building as a hotel, with the much-needed circulation of daily visitors from around the world, along with permanent residences whose occupants can pass on the community’s memories and values.
All of this sounds wonderful. The challenge, as always, lies in making this culture both “real” and affordable. It’s ultimately my hope that Ed Scheetz will be willing to go so far as to make the Chelsea the loss leader of his collection of New York hotels, if that’s what it takes to keep the life of the Hotel Chelsea going.
Sherill was also on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC, talking about the book. Here’s the show (and thanks to Chip Pate on Twitter for pointing this out!):
One hundred and twenty-five years ago today, Robert Moses was unleashed upon the world, born in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dwight Street. He remains today one of the most powerful civic figures in American history, and obviously one of the most controversial. Because of Moses, we have the modern New York City. Many of its strengths and its difficulties can be traced, in some way, to decisions he made, from roads and housing to parks and waterways.
Can you really “celebrate” Robert Moses? Of course you can. Here’s ten particular ways you can ruminate upon the changes he inflicted upon the city, from the mighty highways to the large, concrete-heavy parks.
An excerpt: “Robert Moses was, in every sense of the word, New York’s master builder. Neither an architect, a planner, a lawyer nor even, in the strictest sense, a politician, he changed the face of the state more than anyone who was. Before him, there was no Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach State Park, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, West Side Highway or Long Island parkway system or Niagara and St. Lawrence power projects. He built all of these and more.”
The Unisphere is still around (and presumably in no danger), but the New York State Pavilion, seen in the background, could face demolition. (NYPL)
2) Help save the New York State Pavilion. The curious remnants that remain of the World’s Fair 1964-65, located in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, are in danger of being torn down. Certainly Moses himself would have approved of tearing down these useless — and yet, priceless — relics.
3) Visit neighborhoods plucked from Robert Moses’ grasp. Had Moses had his way, a variety of beloved neighborhoods would have been wiped from existence — parts of the Lower East Side and SoHo (thanks to the Lower East Side Expressway proposal), Willowtown in Brooklyn, just to start.
In particular, go to Battery Park and physically embrace Castle Clinton if you can. (It was still behind fences last I checked.) Moses wanted to construct a bridge over to Brooklyn that would have wiped it from existence. From my original article: “The Brooklyn-Battery would be designed by bridge master Othmar Ammann, designer of nearly half the bridges of New York City, with an anchorage plopped in the middle of Governor’s Island.”
Fortunately, the community intervened, and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was built in its place. But a vision of what it might have looked like is above. (Courtesy Urban Omnibus)
4) Visit those neighborhoods he did replace. This is a far more depressing stroll and far more common. Moses’ use of funds from Title I of the 1949 Housing Act replaced some serious New York slum conditions with low-income housing developments, but some of it was poorly designed and shoddily planned. According to Joel Schwartz, “To a generation of critics … Title I was also synonymous with reckless power that went unchecked until a small band of urban liberals rallied the conscience of the city.” Not surprisingly, Moses focus was on neighborhoods that were predominantly black and Latino.
Most striking of these was East Tremont in the Bronx and Manhattantown on Manhattan’s Upper East Side:
5) Ride over the Triborough Bridge and head to Randall’s Island Easily one of Moses’ biggest successes, the Triborough Bridge Authority took in millions of dollars in tolls which then funded other ambitious projects throughout the state.
Over at Randall’s Island, you should visit the Triborough Bridge Authority Building, which was the homebase for Moses for decades. It was here that many of his greatest triumphs — and a few city downfalls — were planned.
6) Check out the ghastly Robert Moses mosaic in Flushing-Meadows Park. The mosaic underfoot is based upon a work by Andy Warhol which the artist created after Moses destroyed Warhol’s outdoor art piece involving the FBI Most Wanted list. From my previous article ‘Most Wanted: Robert Moses vs. Andy Warhol’: “[H]is mural was literally whitewashed. Warhol intended to replace it with a new design: 25 silkscreen panels of Robert Moses’ face in a Joker-like grin. Unsurprisingly, [Philip] Johnson did not think this appropriate for the main pavilion of Moses’ fair.”
Listen to the WNYC piece from 2010 for more information!
7) Ponder his vast, virtually unchecked power. Can you imagine if a politician or city leader were actually as successful as Robert Moses in getting anything done? His reach and output makes him one of the most powerful city builders in modern human history.
Imagine such power in the hands of a modern politician today. Scratch that. Imagine that power in the hands of an unelected civic leader, as Moses was.
He was so powerful, in fact, that he changed the names of neighborhoods — on a whim! Like Throggs Neck, for instance. Excuse me, Throgs Neck.
From my article on the origin of the name: “You may have noticed that John’s last name [Throgg] has two g’s in it, while most common spellings have only one. Legend has it that this is another thing you can blame on Robert Moses. Not exactly known for reaching out to communities for their thoughts and opinions, Moses decided to drop a ‘g’ in 1955 when the bridge started construction, believing it would fit on more traffic signs without an additional and needless letter. Who cares if it was in use that way for over 300 years!”
8) Watch Robert Moses on TV in 1953 Moses was even a guest on an early television show called Longines Chronoscope, sponsored by Longines. This isn’t the most fascinating television that was ever made, but it’s interesting to hear Moses’ authoritative voice during the era of his greatest power.
And check out this bonus video on Robert Moses’ “improvement plans” for Coney Island:
9) Visit his burial site He’s buried in a crypt at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. So is his most prominent collaborator, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
10) Listen to our podcast (Episode #100) on Robert Moses, our longest-ever show!
The interior of the Electric Circus on St. Mark’s Place. Pic courtesy Christian Montone/flickr WARNING The article contains a couple light spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC. If you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don’t watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here.
Almost predictably, a couple characters from ‘Mad Men‘ finally interact with a psychedelic temple of Andy Warhol, in this case the nightclub Electric Circus at 19-25 St. Mark’s Place, today the site of a Chipotle and a Supercuts.
As I wrote back in an article from 2007: “It became the East Village fuse box for Warhol’s talents and those of his entourage, in particular the Velvet Underground and Nico. The dazzling synthesis of psychedelica and glamour, of the Velvet’s strange atmospheric music and Warhol’s performance displays of lights and costumes, immediately attracted the scenesters to this odd little street — according to the New York Times, “everyone from hippies to Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton” — way before St. Marks would make its reputation in the 1970s with the punk scene.”
An original ad from the Electic Circus, summer of 1967 (courtesy butdoesitfloat)
Since I wrote that article, many people have chimed in within the comments section to relive their memories of Electric Circus. Here are a few of my favorite comments from those who were actually there:
“What memories. I started working at the E.C. as a ticket taker. I say working, but in reality we didn’t get paid, we got let in for our work. Like Woodstock, if you remembered much of what happened at the E.C. you weren’t really there.” – Being the Best
Below: Headline from the Village Voice, July 6, 1967
“I worked at the Electric Circus, 67-68-ish. I was the fire-eater, and mime/clown, working with another mime named Michael Grando. Larry Pizoni was the director of the circus show. We had a trapeze artist named Sandy [Alexander], and security was a biker club called the Aliens (which worked, unlike Altamont).
Everytime I’m in New York, in the East Village, I stop on St Mark’s and bow my head. I wanted to have someone put up a plaque, but nobody in the stores knew who to call.” – Richard Bluejay “I was one of 5 or 6 people who worked at Limbo* for number of years across from the Electric Circus. I was there at the opening night, and then on for a long time I remember we use to give discounts to the Circus employees so we get in free. Can not tell you how many times I was in there but it was a lot!!!! It was great time back then. Fillmore East was around the corner and Max’s Kansas City was not far away. East Village was where it was at back then ” – Anonymous
A freakout-indusing video from Electric Circus, scored to the music of Frank Zappa:
“I remember two things about the electric circus from my one visit in 1969. One was the fact that the walls were not at a right angle to the floor, which combined with the strobe lights and swirling crowd, made for a delightfully disorienting experience. The other was a dark room off to the side where couples — or even strangers I suppose — could sit and smooch. In addition to all kinds of nooks and crannies for this purpose there was a rotating upholstered carousel in the middle of the room, divided into sections, one per couple.” — Anonymous
Below: A typical crowd on the stairs outside the Electric Circus (pic courtesy Old New York)
“I’m so excited, after all these decades to hear from people who got to experience the the most amazing Electric Circus, as I did. By far dancing myself into a dazed, psychedelic trance, while absorbing the magical energy of the Chambers Brothers sing ‘Time’, was right up there in my top ten of life altering experiences. I was a runaway, living with new friends in the Village.
I used to panhandle on St. Marks Place, and spend all my money on clothes at the Limbo, pizza, and tickets to hear my fav bands, except for the times I used to get in for free.” — Sonny
Below: Sonny’s jam from the floor of the Electric Circus:
“I can’t remember exactly how I arrived at St. Marks Place that first night. I had never been to St Marks Place and I certainly didn’t know about Electic Circus. I was just following a friend of mine who was interested enough in the new culture to find out where to go and what to do.
There must have been some kind of happening that night because the streets were full of people. People were hanging all over the stairs leading up to the Circus. And, you didn’t have to pay. We just walked in. I still remember it emotionally.
The big room was completely decorated with fabric amorphously draped on walls and spanning corners and cornices. Projectors behind the fabric ran continuous short loops of films. Of course it was dimly lit so as not to wash out the films. People were everywhere and moved mysteriously in the smoky dim light. I was born in Brooklyn and had already lived a few years in Manhattan, but I never saw anything like this before. The next time I saw EC the decor had changed. I never paid to get in because I was a member of the PABLO Light** show.” — Anonymous
* Limbo was a famed ‘hippie clothing’ boutique where today’s Trash & Vaudeville sits today.
** That would be Lights By Pablo, a leading ‘liquid light show’ exhibitor of the late 1960s, frequently here and at Fillmore East.
In 1970, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to an X-rated film set within the world of gritty, vice-riddled Times Square.
The central figures in that film — ‘Midnight Cowboy’ directed by John Schlesinger— were a clueless cowboy named Joe Buck (Jon Voight), clomping into New York with dreams of becoming a successful hustler, and the wheezing Enrico Rizzo or ‘Ratso’ (Dustin Hoffman), a con man with even bigger dreams of Florida sunshine.
There are few time capsules of New York’s darker days quite as pleasurable as ‘Midnight Cowboy’. It’s hardly as provocative as when it was released in May 1969, but its ragged edges have only become more remarkable to view as a piece of history, paying tribute to an era often romanticized today.
We know now that this is not as low as New York City would sink. The 1970s would bring further financial ruin and physical deterioration.
But ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is in no way sugar-coated, and for those who think they would prefer this New York over the overpriced, condo-centric Manhattan we live, work and play in today might do well to give this film a very close inspection.
Here are 25 fascinating facts and details from the film itself, some of them specific to individual shots in the film. There are no major spoilers here, but you’ll appreciate this more if you’ve at least seen the film once.
And ‘Mad Men’ fans, take note! This season, which starts in April, is most likely set in 1968, around the time when this movie was filmed in New York City. It would not be a stretch to see Don Draper or Peggy Olson somewhere in the background of certain scenes.
At the bottom is a Google map of some of the places mentioned in this article:
1. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was shot in New York City during the spring and summer of 1968. Inspired by the making of Schlesinger‘s film, Andy Warhol protege Joe Dallesandro starred in his own cowboy hustler movie called ‘Flesh‘. Given its micro-budget and cheap production values, the Dallesandro variant made it into theaters many months before ‘Cowboy’ did. (More on Warhol in a bit.)
2. As Buck heads into New York on a Luxury Liner bus, New Jersey is epitomized with a montage of tangled highways, roadside hotels and congestive industry. Featured in this quick-cut of unpleasantness is the Seville Motel (in North Bergen), the Pitt-Consol Chemical Company in Newark, and of course Newark Airport.
3. On the bus, Buck holds a radio to his ear and listens to the sunny voice of Ron Lundy from WABC, 770 on the AM dial. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ features many iconic images and names which would disappear in the 1970s, but Lundy’s career was just taking off, soothing the anxieties of New York commuters well into the 1990s. If you stuck around listening to 770 that particular day, you’d also be likely to hear another famous broadcaster — Howard Cosell.
4. For the first third of the film, Joe Buck resides at the Hotel Claridge at Broadway and 44th Street. Back in the 1910s, this might have been considered the heart of New York culture, as Rector’s Restaurant, the ultimate lobster palace, resided on the first floor. The Claridge was demolished in the early 1970s. Today, ABC broadcasts Good Morning America and other programming from this site.
Joe buys a copy of the postcard (at left) to send back home, indicating with an arrow what floor he’s on. He eventually rips it up. (Pic courtesy Postcard Attic)
5. The cowboy strolls through the streets of Midtown, stunned and confused by the rhythms of city life. His Texan gait and cowboy flair stands apart from the life of Fifth Avenue. Along the way you can spot some places that are still around (like the Swiss National Tourist Office at W. 49th Street) and some long gone, such as the children’s clothing retail Best & Company at W. 51st Street, torn down in the 1970s and replaced with the Olympic Tower.
Joe finishes his tour of Fifth Avenue with a stop at Tiffany’s & Co., ogling a lady as she ogles a piece of jewelry behind the window. The 1960s began with the site used in the film ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s‘. You could spend an hour comparing and contrasting the characters of Joe Buck and Holly Golightly. Both characters maneuver through New York nightlife using their sexual wiles.
Below: Buck stands flummoxed in front of a man lying on the sidewalk, more confused perhaps of the reactions of others walking by. (Courtesy On The Set of New York)
6. The naive Buck looks for prospective clients along Park Avenue, stopping older women with his silly line, “I’m looking for the Statue of Liberty.” (He clearly saw it on his way into Manhattan.) One lady suggests taking the “7th Avenue Subway” (today’s 1-2-3 train) before catching on and escaping to her home at 117 East 70th Street.
The exterior of this luxurious townhouse in Lenox Hill sends Joe into one of his many gauzy fantasies. This house, built in 1931, is situated along Millionaire’s Row and was built by Frederick Rhinelander King, who worked at the firm McKim, Mead & White. Today the building holds the headquarters of the Harambee USA Foundation, an African relief organization.
7. Joe finally gets lucky (relatively speaking) when he meets a socialite played by Sylvia Miles, who invites him up to her apartment at 114 East 72nd Street. He’s rebuffed when he eventually gets around to asking for money. “Who do you think you’re dealing with, some old slut on 42nd Street?!” Unlike the previous townhouse, this apartment building was only a few years old when it was notoriously used as the location of Buck’s first New York hookup. A few years after ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was released, this building became a co-op.
8. The Mutual of New York building at 1740 Broadway makes regular appearances throughout the film, as much for its glowing MONY sign as for the Weather Star atop the building, alerting midtown Manhattan of the time and temperature. The ubiquitous timepiece — in 7,344-point Futura, for you font buffs — first made its appearance in the 1950s. The sign comes up in a gag later in the film involving a drug-induced Scribbage game.
(Courtesy the New York Times, via Official Guide New York World’s Fair, 1964/1965)
9. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is rather ambivalent on the subject of gay people. While out and confident gay people are seen along the fringes, the film mostly focuses on those who troll 42nd Street and are generally ashamed or guilt-ridden by their actions. It does make for an intriguing time capsule, as literally one month after the film’s release came the riots and gatherings outside Stonewall bar in the West Village.
10. Buck meets Rizzo (aka Ratzo) at a midtown bar, and the nervous, chronically ill grifter takes on the cowboy as a client. The movie’s most famous line was delivered as Hoffman and Voight are crossing 58th Street at Sixth Avenue.
11. Rizzo and Buck continue their stroll back over to Fifth Avenue and the Plaza Hotel. Rizzo briefly commiserates with a carriage horse before heading over to a spectacular row of green phone booths, similar to design as the one at right (courtesy Forgotten New York). These green phone booths must have been quickly replaced in the 1970s with the more familiar silver booths.
‘Midnight Cowboy’ is a celebration of old New York phone booths, which sadly dwindled in number starting in the 1980s. For that loss, we’re sorry, Clark Kent.
12. After Rizzo abandons Buck with a crazed preacher, the cowboy lapses into a black-and-white fantasy sequence, chasing Rizzo down into the subway. Rizzo is seen riding away on an F train, specifically the R40 style subway car. These would become very popular with graffiti artists and most associated with New York’s rundown transportation system. What you’re seeing in the film, however, is a new car, as they entered service in 1968.
13. One of two memorable Times Square signs in the movie is the one hanging outside Buck’s hotel window for Haig’s Whiskey. While the sign proclaims ‘Haig’s for Today’s Taste’, its more popular slogan was ‘Don’t Be Vague’. A picture of the Times Square sign, below, is from 1970, astride one of Times Square’s most famous signs for Bond Clothing Stores. (Courtesy Skyscraper City)
14. Ah, 42nd Street! The bright illuminated marquees, the all-night shops, the weird and dangerous street scenes, the alternative world that it offers in ‘Midnight Cowboy’. Among the many prurient delights seen in the background is the great old Hubert’s Museum, a classic old dime museum that held on even as the culture around it became debauched and seedy.
The museum closed the year after it was featured in the film, becoming, like so many places along 42nd Street, a peepshow. You can find some incredible pictures of Hubert’s here.
It’s around this spot that Buck is picked up by his first male client, played by a young Bob Balaban (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Best In Show). While portrayed as a skiddish, quiet boy, today his character looks more like the hipster lead singer of a Brooklyn rock band. (Below, in an official press image)
15. Buck emerges from an all-night movie theater and wanders down 42nd Street early the next morning. Among the many films advertised on the row of marquees is one with a most arresting title — The Twisted Sex. The sexploitation flick was made in 1966 by Chancellor Films, famous for all sorts of naughty pictures, including ‘Fanny Hill Meets Dr. Erotico’, ‘The Diary of Knockers McCalla’, ‘Animal Love’ and ‘Sex Cures The Crazy’.
16. Buck chases down Rizzo at a diner on the Upper East Side. They argue and turn the corner to reveal the Hotel Kimberly for ‘transients’. This is NOT the Kimberly Hotel in Times Square, a far classier joint. This Kimberly was located at Broadway and 74th Street, which becomes obvious when you see the exterior of the Apple Bank Building in a cross shot.
The Hotel Kimberly had once been a rather fabulous hotel in the 1930s-40s. In fact, a young Lucille Balllived here in 1931! (Image courtesy Pay Phone News)
17. Rizzo takes Buck back to his place, not the “Sherry Netherlands” [sic] that he claims earlier in the film, but in a rundown East Village tenement, presumably on its way toward demolition. Although I do not know the specific address, these scenes are memorable for perhaps being the first time Lower East Side squatting is featured in a Hollywood film!
18. Rizzo decides Buck needs to score clients the old-fashioned way — by stealing them from other men. They visit The Perfect Gentleman Escort Service — “endorsed by leading travel agencies and credit clubs” and probably in no way disreputable — and snag an address where a potential client awaits at the Hotel Berkley.
The Berkley is a women’s hotel, “a whole goddamn hotel with nothin’ but lonely ladies,” as Rizzo indelicately describes. That is one of the few places in ‘Midnight Cowboy’ that does not exist. The Gotham Hotel, at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, stood in for this fictional haven. Today, you may know it better asThe Peninsula.
Above: 42nd Street in 1975, a strip of movie palaces for exploitation films (Courtesy Temple of Schlock)
19. The second notable Times Square signage gets a few seconds of glory at this point — the Gillette Right Guard sign, dispensing a steam of aerosol into the street. The steam effect was another iteration of creativity began in 1933 with the A&P 8 O’Clock Coffee cup.
20. Desperate for money, Buck resorts to selling plasma at a midtown blood bank. I can only recoil in horror at the sorts who frequented this place in the late 1960s, looking for extra money. I’m not sure of the exact address of the neon-advertised blood bank featured in the film, but it’s possibly the one featured in this picture, located over on Eighth Avenue. (Courtesy Christian Montone/Flickr)
21. In a refreshing break from Manhattan, the duo are seen walking all the way to Queens to visit the grave of Rizzo’s father at Calvary Cemetery. Rising in the distance you can see the Kosciuszko Bridge. A few years later this same cemetery would be used in ‘The Godfather’. (Below the scene from Calvary, courtesy DVD Beaver)
22. Rizzo and Buck are talking in a diner when a strange duo enter, snap Buck’s picture and hand him a flyer to a mysterious party, located “at Broadway and Harmony Lane,” another false address designed for the film. Rizzo is incredulous and possibly jealous. “Where does it tell you to go? Klein’s bargain basement?” This is a reference the famous discount clothier S. Klein, and in particular to their location off Union Square.
The store typified the square’s general fall from grace as a place of high-end retail. S. Klein would remain open until 1976. (Below: Klein’s being being demolished in 1978, pic courtesy Forgotten NY)
23. They eventually go to the strange party — or should I say ‘happening’ — of Hansel and Gretel Mac Albertson. “Flesh and blood and smoke will be served after midnight,” according to the flyer. The party style and decor is heavily influenced by Andy Warhol’s own psychedelic events, and there’s a glimmer of The Electric Circus in the set design. If that wasn’t enough, Warhol acolytes Viva, Ondine and Ultra Violet make brief appearances.
Warhol was asked to participate in the film, but declined. In June 1968, as ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was wrapping up filming, Warhol was shot by Valerie Solonas.
24. Buck’s last desperate trick involves an out-of-towner he picks up at a midtown arcade. (This might even be the arcade in question.) Later, we see the pair up on 49th Street, turning the corner to be greeted with the facade — of Colony Records! The classic music store was located in the Brill Building and had remained a surviving relic of midtown’s popular music glory days, right up until its closure last year.
25. Finally, that omnipresent song! Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin” is probably one of the most famous pop songs to ever be featured in a motion picture, its ease and flowing charms compatible with Joe Buck’s carefree attitude. But if the artist had had his way, another song would have been used — “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City.” You can give it a listen here. Which do you prefer?
Here’s a map of some of the places from ‘Midnight Cowboy’ mentioned in the article above. I’m absolutely positive a couple places may be off — and a few are speculations, based on clues in the film. If you have any further information, please email me! View Midnight Cowboy: The Map in a larger map
Arguably New York’s least conventional hotel, the Chelsea Hotel (or rather, the Hotel Chelsea) is the one of New York’s culture centers, a glamorous, art-filled Tower of Babel for both creativity and debauchery. From Mark Twain to Andy Warhol, it’s been both inspiration and accommodation for artistic wonder.
We wind back the clock to the beginnings of the Chelsea neighborhood and to the hotel’s early years as one of the city’s first cooperative apartment buildings. What made the Chelsea so different? And why are people still fighting over this storied structure today?
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___________________________________ As always, click on pictures for a bigger view
Standing Tall The Chelsea Hotel, built in 1883, was originally intended as a cooperative apartment building for wealthy tenants. However, by 1905, the building was turned into a hotel. Throughout its history, the Chelsea accommodated residents staying there for a few days … or a few decades. (Photograph by the the Wurtz brothers)
Old Chelsea Mansion The neighborhood of Chelsea was carved from the estate of Captain Thomas Clarke and his descendants. Clarke named his large, hilly estate after the still-operating Royal Chelsea Hospital, a respite for retired British soldiers. The Clarke mansion home sat approximately where the intersection of 23rd and 9th Avenue is today — just down the street from the Hotel Chelsea.
Absolutely Fireproof Many of the Chelsea’s sturdy amenities would come in handy when it began hosting rowdy musicians and artists. The buildings fireproofs claims would be put to the test when certain residents (Edie Sedgwick, Sid Vicious, to name a couple) would set fire to their rooms. And the building’s soundproof walls would be of service when rock bands stayed here.
Bird Of A Feather William Burroughs and Andy Warhol in a room at the Chelsea, from a scene in Abel Ferrera’s documentary Chelsea On The Rocks, a film hopefully seeing the light of day very soon.
Tragedy 1978 No resident of the Chelsea was as infamous as Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, a raucous tragic pair who literally tore up the hotel. Vicious woke from a drug stupor in his room on October 12, 1978 to find his girlfriend stabbed to death. Sid would eventually die of a drug overdose the next year. Below, her body is carried from the hotel.
Below: A clip from Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, filmed in various rooms at the hotel.
Who do you think picked up the tab: Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin or Tim Buckley?
To get you in the mood for the weekend, every other Friday we’ll be celebrating ‘FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER’, featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse spaces of the mid-90s. Past entries can be found HERE.
At Max’s Kansas City, there was not a Max, and it wasn’t in Kansas City. What you would find, however, was the birth of celebrity nightlife in New York City, a collision of culture greats before they became cliches, glamour with a tattered cuff.
There were certainly nightclubs in downtown Manhattan that became magnets for revolutionary musicians and artists well before Max’s. But I maintain that no place organized and fetishized its celebrity clientele quite like this little club on 213 Park Avenue South (between 17th and 18th streets), providing canvas aplenty for Andy Warhol’s pop art crowd and underground music’s biggest pioneers. Nights at Max’s begat the culture of Studio 54.
Max’s was actually Mickey’s — Mickey Ruskin that is, a lawyer who opened a string of cafes and bars in the early 60s, eventually cultivating relationships with Greenwich Village artists and writers who would pop in to showcase their talents. His first, the 10th Street Coffeehouse (between 3rd and 4th Aves.), became a poets corner, with standing-room audiences listening to beat and experimental poetry. In another venture, a bar called the Ninth Circle, Ruskin began attracting painters and artists, quickly becoming, in his own words, one of New York’s leading “middle-class beatnik bars.”
Successfully moving from coffee to liquor, Mickey now wanted to try the restaurant business. He bought the failing Southern Restaurant near Union Square, and on December 6, 1965, transformed it into Max’s Kansas City.
The mysterious name purportedly comes from one of Ruskin’s more famous clients from the Ninth Circle, poet Joel Oppenheimer . According to a documentary on Max’s Kansas City, Oppenheimer heard Ruskin wanted to open a steakhouse and claims, “When I was a kid, all the steakhouses had Kansas City on the menu because the best steak was Kansas City-cut, so I thought it should be ‘something Kansas City.'”
Although people have suspected the ‘Max’ comes from fellow poet Max Finstein, Oppenheimer claims a more logical origin. “Wouldn’t you eat at a place called Max’s? I said, ‘Mickey, believe me, it’s Max’s Kansas City.’ Two days later, he called back again and said, ‘I don’t know why, but I mentioned the name to some people, and they all loved it.'”
Whatever the story, the restaurant soon became more known for its crowds than for its simple menu. All of Mickey’s writer and artist friends migrated to Max’s, a loyal crowd but not enough to keep the doors open. Then Andy came.
Ruskin is unsure of the date, but Andy Warhol soon became a regular, and with him came his entourage of geniuses, models and freaks. And with them came reputation and notoriety. The biggest names generally camped out in Max’s backroom, which soon gave way to music and photography, attracted like moths to the nightly absurd mixture of the beautiful and the famous.
“I met Iggy Pop at Max’s Kansas City in 1970 or 1971,” recalled David Bowie. “Me, Iggy and Lou Reed at one table with absolutely nothing to say to each other, just looking at each other’s eye makeup.”
William Burroughs smoking in a corner with Allen Ginsberg. Twiggy and Mick Jagger and Dennis Hopper — dancing to live performances upstairs like the Velvet Underground (performing at Max’s during their last days), Bob Marley or a young Bruce Springsteen on acoustic guitar.
Meanwhile, in the front room gathered artists and writers, many of whom were too broke to pay their checks and occasionally paid for their meals with original art. Imagine having a meal paid for with an original work of art by William de Koonig or minimalist Carl Andre!
A staple of the late 60s, Ruskin weathered the following decade for only a few years before closing its doors in December 1974. But the story was not over.
BELOW: Blondie performs at Max’s
The name and location was snatched up by club owner Tommy Dean Mills, who revitalized Max’s as a viable punk club, restoring a bit of its prior glamour, booking hot punk banks like Blondie and the Ramones, glam acts like the New York Dolls and before-they-were-famous performers like the B-52s, Devo, and Madonna.
Most notably were the post-Sex Pistol shows by Sid Vicious, messy and unforgettable; three months before his death, Sid attacked Patti Smith’s brother Todd inside the club and was thrown into jail. (Or maybe not; see notes below for a possible correction.)
Imagine a Steve Madden shoe store in Times Square erecting a grand new palace to footwear, and atop its banner they decided to welcome its patrons and the throngs of Broadway theater goers passing by with sculptural likenesses of Angela Lansbury, Audra McDonald, Idina Menzel, and Julia Roberts.
That absurd theater dream actually happened — eighty-three years ago. Polish-born Israel Miller was a successful importer of women’s shoes from the 1920s well into the late 1960s, an early fashionista who learned his trade fitting ladies of Broadway during its formative years. It was an adroit way of self-promotion; the glamorous Ziegfeld girls wore his shoes home, and what lady doesn’t want to look like a glamorous Ziegfeld girl?
By 1911, Israel opened his first shoe store at 1552 Broadway, the heart of the new theater world. Business boomed — echoing the fortunes of Broadway itself — and by 1926 absorbed the storefront next door, 1554 Broadway, to create a midtown footwear oasis for trendy women.
Today, Israel’s former shrine to shoes is a TGI Friday’s. But the gaudy striped signs of this chain restaurant fail to mask a remarkable glimmer of the building’s glory days.
You can still see Miller’s slogan etched into the marble — The Show Folks Shoe Shop Dedicated to Beauty in Footwear. Sitting into the walls below are four statues of Broadway muses, four major stars of the stage when they were carved in 1929 — drama icon Ethyl Barrymore, musical muse Marilyn Miller, operetta diva Rosa Ponselle and film’s biggest female star Mary Pickford (yes, that’s really her, in drag as Little Lord Fauntleroy).
But the building is as much a monument to 20th Century art as it is to the early days of Broadway. The first remarkable fact comes with the man who sculpted these stone beauties: Alexander Sterling Calder, father of the iconic mobile designer.
The second involves Miller, who in the 1950s commissioned a young graphic artist to invent whimsical, fresh shoe designs, radically dusting off his store’s by-then dusty reputation. That illustrator, Andy Warhol, would later uses his assembly-line acumen and eye for product design to revolutionize the art world.
Above: a hilariously hideous Robert Moses mosaic, on the sidewalk at Flushing Meadows
Robert Moses wanted the World’s Fair of 1964 in Flushing Meadows to be a family affair with little controversial material. Not surprisingly this meant few displays for American art.
So how did an Andy Warhol mural get plastered on the New York State Pavilion, one of the most conspicuous buildings at the fair?
The Pavilion was designed by Philip Johnson, also the designer of Museum of Modern Art’s midtown galleries and also the head of architecture and design there. Johnson was an admirer of Warhol’s ever since the Museum of Modern Art’s pivotal December 1962 show on pop art, where its very merits were dissected by critics.
Johnson commissioned Warhol and other pop artists to create work for the exterior of the pavilion, and the result was ‘Thirteen Most Wanted Men’, blown-up mugshots of the FBI’s most wanted list.
One week before opening to the public, Johnson informed Warhol that the governor objected to the piece, because it just happened to feature mostly Italians and officials feared it would offend Italian visitors.
Warhol, however, knew very well that Moses was behind the objection. And it may not have been anything to do with the content. Andy was becoming a polarizing figure by this time. This was the year Warhol would make his move from artist to icon, the year he opened the Factory, the year he filmed such provocative movies as ‘Blow Job’ and ‘Taylor Mead’s Ass’, and the year his studios were raided by police and his work confiscated for its offensive content. Andy Warhol was anything but family friendly in 1964.
So his mural was literally whitewashed. Warhol intended to replace it with a new design: 25 silkscreen panels of Robert Moses’ face in a Joker-like grin. Unsurprisingly, Johnson did not think this appropriate for the main pavilion of Moses’ fair.
A vestige of Warhol’s Moses can be found in a mosaic in Flushing Meadows.
By the way, Warhol later claimed in his biography that he was happy that his art was painted over at the pavilion: “Now I wouldn’t have to feel responsible if one of the criminals ever got turned in to t he FBI because someone had recognized him from my pictures.”