Tag Archives: prohibition

Jimmy Walker, Mayor of the Jazz Age (NYC and the Roaring ’20s Part One)

PODCAST For the first part in our New York City in the Roaring Twenties summer mini-series, we’re hitting the town with “Beau James,” New York’s lively and fun-loving mayor Jimmy Walker.

The 1920s were a transformational decade for New York, evolving from a Gilded Age capital to the ideal of the modern international city. Art deco skyscrapers reinvented the skyline, reorienting the center of gravity from downtown to a newly invigorated Midtown Manhattan. Cultural influences, projected to the world via radio and the silent screen, helped create a new American style.

And the king of it all was Jimmy Walker, elected mayor of New York City just as its prospects were at their highest. The Tin Pan Alley songwriter-turned-Tammany Hall politician was always known more for his grace and style than his accomplishments. His wit and character embodied the spirit (and the spirits) of the Roaring ’20s.

Join us for an after-midnight romp with the Night Mayor of New York as he ascends to the most powerful seat in the city and spends his first term in the lap of luxury. What could possibly go wrong?

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #233: JIMMY WALKER, MAYOR OF THE JAZZ AGE

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

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!

________________________________________________________________________

Walker having his morning coffee at his home on 6 St. Lukes Place (pictured below)

Courtesy MCNY

Jimmy Walker with Charles Lindbergh in 1927, in the midst of a ticker tape parade after his non-stop ride from Long Island to Paris.

Courtesy New York Social Diary

 

Walker so enjoyed throwing public events for famous people that he was frequently parodied for it. In 1932 Vanity Fair pictured him giving a lavish welcome — to himself.

Conde Nast

Harry McDonough with The Elysian Singers from 1905, singing Walker’s big hit “Will You Love Me In December As You Do In May.”

The dashing fashion plate, pictured here most certainly on his way to yet another vacation…..

….perhaps his European vacation! He’s pictured here in 1927, strolling the streets of Venice with a few hundred people behind him.

A picture of Jimmy, actually at work! He’s swearing in the new fire commissioner James J. Dorman in 1926.

Mayor Jimmy Walker with British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald at yet another welcoming ceremony, broadcast on the radio.

MCNY

Another British visit, this time from Mrs Foster Welch, Mayor of Southampton.

In another Pathe video, Jimmy Walker visits Ireland and the former home of his father.

During Walker’s extraordinary rise, New York was becoming an entirely new city in the 1920s with construction projects on virtually on every block. Even in front of the Hotel Commodore (pictured here in 1927), which was, for a time, the home of Jimmy Walker.

Park Avenue (at 50th Street) in 1922.

MCNY

Park Avenue at 61st Street in 1922. The rich flocked to this newly developed street of apartment complexes, making it the new center of wealth.

And now, for a little glamour, a few shots of Yvonne Shelton, then Betty Compton, Walker’s two most famous girlfriends (who he wooed while married to wife Janet).

wikiart
Courtesy Historial Ziegfeld
Photographs above by Alfred Cheney Johnston.

 

She most famously starred in 1927’s Broadway production of Oh Kay! starring Gertrude Lawrence. Here’s Lawrence singing a famous song from that show:

 

IN TWO WEEKS: Chapter Two of our series on the Roaring ’20s, rewinding back to the beginning of the decade and introducing you to another icon of the Jazz Age. Who will it be?

New York City in the Jazz Age! Presenting Our Podcast Summer Series

The Bowery Boys are heading to the speakeasy and kicking back with some bathtub gin this August — with a brand new summer series focusing on New York City in the Jazz Age.

The 1920s were a transformational decade for New York, evolving from a Gilded Age capital to the ideal of the modern international city. Art deco skyscrapers reinvented the skyline, reorienting the center of gravity from downtown to a newly invigorated Midtown Manhattan. Cultural influences, projected to the world via radio and the silent screen, helped create a new American style.

This summer we will be telling this story from the perspective of two major figures of the Roaring ’20s — one from New York’s poshest circles (who dabbled in the debauched), the other from the seediest corner of the underworld (who briefly broke through to the mainstream). Their lives share similar paths — familiar places and events. They certainly rubbed elbows. They might have had an illegal drink together.

Two devastating events in particular will disrupt the lives of these two characters and upend New York’s giddy good times. A gruesome murder will began an epic unraveling of corruption. A financial calamity will freeze the city’s progress in place.

Getty Images

Our new podcast series begins this Friday (August 4th) with a profile of one of the most fashionable characters of the Jazz Age and the backdrop of unfathomable prosperity that transformed New York City into the most powerful city in the world.

Before we begin, make sure you’ve heard these six episodes from our back catalog. The stories of the people and events described in these particular shows will reverberate into the situations presented in our next three podcasts.

You can download these shows from iTunes, stream from most any podcast listening player, or listen to them below:

THE BOY MAYOR OF NEW YORK (Episode #156)
The story of Mayor John Purroy Mitchel doesn’t take place in the 1920s but you may consider it a prequel to the first part of our mini-series. It’s the story of a well-meaning, likable and photogenic young mayor who was swiftly overwhelmed by the corruptible engine of government.

 

THE ALGONQUIN ROUND TABLE (Episode #223)
New York City was the international capital of publishing by the 1920s, and the writers, critics and bon vivants who gathered for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel during this period helped define the eras style and sass.

 

Courtesy Open Culture

THE COTTON CLUB: “THE ARISTOCRAT OF HARLEM” (Episode #204)

As one of the most famous nightclubs of the Roaring ’20s, the Cotton Club launched careers and electrified New York’s raging nightlife although its policies of segregation tarnish its musical reputation. This show is full of music to get you in the mood for a Jazz Age summer!

 

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF RUDOLPH VALENTINO (EPISODE #170)

Few events in New York City during the 1920s typify the decade’s feverish creation of the modern celebrity more than the death of silent screen idol Rudolph Valentino, a former dancer in Times Square nightclubs who became America’s most exotic movie star.

MAE WEST: SEX ON BROADWAY (EPISODE #182)

The movie star was one of the most vibrant — and dangerous — performers on the New York City stage in the 1920s. She would get her inspirations from the ladies of the speakeasies and the alternative cultures of Greenwich Village.

Midnight in Times Square: The history of New Year’s Eve in New York City

PODCAST The tale of New York City’s biggest annual party from its inception on New Years Eve 1904 to the magnificent spectacle of the 21st century. 

In this episode, we look back on the one day of the year that New Yorkers look forward.  New Years Eve is the one night that millions of people around the world focus their attentions on New York City — or more specifically, on the wedge shaped building in Times Square wearing a bright, illuminated ball on its rooftop.

1In the 19th century, the ringing-in of the New Year was celebrated with gatherings near Trinity Church and a pleasant New Years Day custom of visiting young women in their parlors.  But when the New York Times decided to celebrate the opening of their new offices — in the plaza that would take the name Times Square — a new tradition was born.

Tens of millions have visited Times Square over the years, gazing up to watch the electric ball drop, a time-telling mechanism taken from the maritime tradition. The event has been affected by world events — from Prohibition to World War II — and changed by the introduction of radio and television broadcasts.

ALSO: What happened to the celebration which it reached the gritty 1970s and a Times Square with a surly reputation?

PLUS: A few tips for those of you heading to the New Years Eve celebration this year!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #195: MIDNIGHT IN TIMES SQUARE: NEW YEARS EVE IN NEW YORK CITY

___________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

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!

________________________________________________________________________

New Years Day celebrations have evolved since the days of New Amsterdam when visitations symbolized a ‘fresh start’ to the year.

Courtesy NYPL
Courtesy NYPL

 

A decorative cigar box from the 1890s, ringing in the new year with a winsome damsel and wholesome scenes of winter beckoning you to smoke a cigar.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

The crowds outside Trinity Church on 1906 gathered to usher in the new year. The church was traditionally the place people gathered before the Times Square celebration took off.

1

 

Fated to be the centerpiece of New Years Eve, One Times Square once wore some beautiful architecture until much of it was ripped off to accommodate a frenzy of electronic signs.

Courtesy NYPL
Courtesy NYPL

 

Times Square in 1905 for the very first New Years Eve celebration albeit one with fireworks, not a ball drop.

Courtesy NYPL
Courtesy NYPL

 

The party offerings at the Hotel Astor in Times Square in 1926.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

The view of Times Square from the Empire State Building.

Courtesy NYPL
Courtesy NYPL

 

New Years Eve 1938

AP photo
AP photo

The throngs in 1940 with the Gone With The Wind marquee in the background (not to mention Tallulah Bankhead in the play The Little Foxes!)

Courtesy New York Daily News
Courtesy New York Daily News

Ushering in 1953:

9

Celebrations were also held for a time in Central Park, like this festive group from 1969:

Courtesy New York Parks Department
Courtesy New York Parks Department

An electrician from the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corporation tests out the lighting effects that will greet the new year in 1992.

MARTY LEDERHANDLER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
MARTY LEDERHANDLER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

And here’s some videos of New Years Eve countdown past!

Mr New Years Eve himself — Guy Lombardo — here at the Roosevelt Hotel, ringing in 1958

From 1965-66:

A clip from Dick Clark’s first appearance in Times Square. It cuts away to Three Dog Night in California!

CBS’s New Years Eve program featuring Catherine Bach from The Dukes of Hazzard.

The absolutely bonkers ball drop for the new millennium.

Last year’s commentary by those wacky cards Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin.

Hell’s Kitchen: New York’s Wild West

PODCAST Hell’s Kitchen, on the far west side of Midtown Manhattan, is a neighborhood of many secrets. The unique history of this working class district veers into many tales of New York’s criminal underworld and violent riots which have shaken the streets for over 150 years.

This sprawling tenement area was home to some of the most notorious slums in the city, and sinister streets like Battle Row were frequent sites of vice and unrest. The streets were ruled by such gangs as the Gophers and the Westies, leaving their bloody fingerprints in subtle ways today in gentrified buildings which at one time contained the most infamous speakeasies and taverns.

We break down this rip-roaring history and try to get to the real reason for its unusual name!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #186: Hell’s Kitchen: New York’s Wild West

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

Starting this month, we are doubling our number of episodes per month. Now you’ll hear 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!

________________________________________________________________________

 

The mysteries begin over 200 years ago when ordered avenues and streets could scarcely be imagined, and the shoreline was a ragged coast.

The Dutch later called it the Great Kill District, for the creek which emptied into the Hudson River (North River) at 42nd Street. As you can see from this diagram the shore was evened out with landfill to create 12th Avenue although the inward dip at 43rd Street is still visible on a modern map.

map

 

A map (drawn by John Bute Holmes) of the original estate borders of Bloomingdale from the late 18th century.  The jagged shore line would later be filled in to make the blocks between 11th and 12th Avenues.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

The Ninth Avenue barricades made by rioters in the area of Hell’s Kitchen during the Civil War Draft Riots.

barricades

The Orange Riot of July 12 from Eighth Avenue south from 25th street, an 1871 image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

orange

Bad boys:  Some Hell’s Kitchen ruffians show Jacob Riis how to rob people who have passed out.

Jacob Riis
Jacob Riis

 

An intriguing shot of 58th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

Jacob Riis’ photograph of the Hell’s Kitchen tenement and the remains of Sebastopol (the rocks), 1890

Photo by Jacob Riis
Photo by Jacob Riis

 

Street vendors under the 9th Avenue Elevated Railroad

Museum of City of New York
Museum of City of New York

 

The Hartley House, a settlement house for the Hell’s Kitchen community. on West 46th Street

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

 

At the recreation pier — a public swimming hole at West 51st Street and the Hudson River.

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

 

The later configuration of the Gophers. Owney Madden is on the back row, fourth from the left.  A very rough and dangerous gang, but don’t they clean up nice?

Courtesy of Garland County Historical Society and Butler Center Books
Courtesy of Garland County Historical Society and Butler Center Books

 

Owney Madden, the king of the Hell’s Kitchen speakeasy racket.

owney

 

A couple spectacular shots of 1938 slum clearance — eliminating the tenements of 37th Street.

Wurts Brothers. Museum of the City of New York
Wurts Brothers. Museum of the City of New York
Wurts Brothers. Museum of the City of New York
Wurts Brothers. Museum of the City of New York

 

Businesses on West 52nd Street, facing into DeWitt Clinton Park. It’s likely that William Hopper & Sons Truckmen at no. 626 probably traces itself back to the original Hopper land owners.  Photograph by Charles von Urban

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The entrance to DeWitt Clinton Park (at 54th Street) in 1936

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

Most of the pressures faced by the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood came from its perimeter with dramatic changes to the waterfront to its west, Port Authority/Lincoln Tunnel to its south, Madison Square Garden/Times Square to its east and Lincoln Center/Columbus Circle to its north.

Below: The West Side Highway and piers 95-98, looking west from a roof on West 54th Street

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

The Port Authority Bus Terminal in 1950, at West 40th and 41st Streets and 8th Avenue.

Wurts Brothers, courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Wurts Brothers, courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The 8th Avenue Madison Square Garden, as seen in 1935.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

A mural from 1974 — “The Neighborhood Belongs to the People Not Big Business.”

Courtesy US National Archives
Courtesy US National Archives

 

Supreme City: The ascent of Midtown Manhattan in the 1920s


A view of Midtown Manhattan, looking southeast, by the Wurts Brothers (NYPL)

Supreme City
How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America
by Donald L. Miller
Simon & Schuster

Supreme City, by Donald L. Miller, certainly one of the most entertaining books on New York City history I’ve read in the past couple years, is also one of the strangest.  Almost as an obligation, New York’s Prohibition-fueled nightlife and the rowdy administration of Jimmy Walker are conjured up front, and colorfully so, only to then be placed aside.

This is not a book about the standard subjects of the 1920s.  This is indeed an epic about New York City in the Jazz Age, but it’s a wildly different tune than the one in which you’re familiar.

This is a tale of architecture and invention, of a boldness and proportion that New Yorkers take for granted today.  Supreme City recounts the invention of Midtown Manhattan, but it’s also about a spiritual shift in urban life.  This is the story of how New York City became not only a supreme city, but a supersized one.

Miller, a professor of history at Lafayette College perhaps better known for his works on World War II, approaches the sprawl of New York’s most ambitious decade almost like a mathematician. He ties this epic — a swirl of large personalities and impossible ideas — into a specific intersection of time and place.

It’s as though a slew of particles (comprised of ambitions and personalities) just slammed into each other one day, creating a new form of urban environment.

Industrial visions and personal journeys alike culminate in the year 1927, a watershed date for New York history, and arrive within the Manhattan grid system, mostly along 42nd Street between Eighth Avenue and Lexington Avenue, the nucleus of a new urban vision.  The story ventures out through the entire city of course but always to the beat of this new Midtown.

From here, Miller brings in the components of growth, the great innovators and personalities, plotted in relation to each other and to the great city blossoming under their feet.

These aren’t just the standard innovators, the expected cast — David Sarnoff, Duke Ellington, Charles Lindburgh. Sure, you get a bit Texas Guinan‘s drunken swagger, a little of Jack Dempsey‘s scrappiness.  But Miller gives equal prominence to perhaps less colorful real estate gurus and planners whose contributions created the playing field of modern New York. While it’s always nice to relive the 1920s through a lens of champagne and The Great Gatsby, Miller’s concern is with the players who actually built the city.

The engineer William Wilgus receives deserved placement in Supreme City for his innovations of covering the unpleasant tracks of Grand Central to create acres of new land, “taking wealth from the air” and inventing New York’s ultimate canyon of wealth — Park Avenue.

Architect Emery Roth brought the apartment skyscraper to Midtown and practically invented the allure of the penthouse.  The almost faceless Fred French — his section is actually called “Who on Earth was Fred French?” — turned the apartment complex into a swanky, thematic thrill with such Midtown projects as Tudor City (a 1928 illustration pictured at left).

Of course, it took the wealthiest New Yorkers to fuel these changes. New money sparked the new playing field.  The old families hastened their migration up Fifth Avenue, their mansions abandoned, torn down and replaced with the high-end shops in which they would later shop.

While department store masters like Edwin Goodman swept out the socialites to build his Fifth Avenue temple of commerce Bergdorf-Goodman, the pleasant rivalry between Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden helped generate the avenue’s reputation of social perfection and high glamour.

Sensing the upward surge of Midtown — its almost-amoral infinite rise — impresarios like Samuel “Roxy” Rothefeld, Florenz Ziegfeld and George “Tex” Rickard rose to create venues to corral the masses.  Midtown became home in the 1920s to the industries of entertainment — publishing, radio, television.  Even Seventh Avenue below Times Square found purpose in the swell as America’s Garment District.

As Midtown grew in the 1920s, the instruments of getting there also rose to the challenge, finally conquering the Hudson River, from the Holland Tunnel to the George Washington Bridge.

The story is so big that Miller can’t contain all of it. Supreme City captures that place before the Great Depression, perhaps New York’s single most decadent moment. He does not venture out into the other boroughs and rarely even ventures below 42nd Street. From the vantage of the Chrysler Building — the treasure most indicative of the age — those places are hazy and distant.  By the last page of this heavy tome, Midtown Manhattan creates everything, drives everything, almost entirely is everything.  That energy is certainly infectious, making Supreme City is an rich, propelling read.

Recalling the opening of Roseland Ballroom at the start of Prohibition, the ‘phantasmal’ atmosphere, the private dancer

The Roseland Ballroom closes its doors next month on April 7th after a round of Lady Gaga concerts.  The storied big band venue — the ‘world’s foremost ballroom cafe’ — originally opened on December 31, 1919 at 1658 Broadway (at 50th/51st Street).  In the 1950s, it moved to its present location on 52nd Street, a former ice and roller-skating rink.

On the surface, opening a dance club a few weeks before the start of Prohibition doesn’t seem to be especially wise.  But New Yorkers ate it up.  After all, there would eventually be hundreds of speakeasies surrounding it!”

From the January 17, 1920 edition of the New York Evening World, headlined ‘Broadway Finds Joy In Roseland‘:

“The shadow of the camel, i.e. the presence of Prohibition, has not robbed Broadway of all its pleasures.  The dancers still find a way to have a good time, as may be attested by the thousands who attend the sessions at Roseland, the new dancing place at Broadway and 51st Street.

During the ’20s, the Roseland was the scene of many dance marathons for prize money.  In 1923, when the city reminded him that state codes authorized only twelve-hour endurance contests, he arranged for competitors to be whisked away on a boat — called the Roseland — to complete the contest.

The Roseland took aim at dismissing the blues at the height of the Great Depression.   “At Roseland Ballroom, ‘Old Man Depression’ will be tried and found guilty of murdering Prosperity and sentenced to death.  A scaffold will be erected for him and his ‘death’ will be a signal for merry-making.” [from the December 31, 1931, New York Times]

At right: Regular Roseland bandleader Fletcher Henderson (courtesy NYPL)

The Roseland was never the Rainbow Room.  During the 1940s it was nicknamed ‘the poor man’s nightclub’ which apparently didn’t stop it from being “the most famous dance hall in the world,” according to the New Yorker in 1942.  (It was also, back when it opened, a whites-only establishment.)  Always popular, the Roseland of the 1940s was charming and sometimes mysterious, regimental and rarely lewd.  Its owner Louis Brecker always referred to it as “the home of refined dancing.”

People accustomed to night-club life often find the atmosphere slightly phantasmal. The ceiling is hung with dark-blue muslin studded with tiny electric bulbps give a night-sky effect. The roomis lit by neon lamps, graduating in shade from deep pink to lemon yellow. In their dim rays knots of patrons drift to and from the dance floor with a curiously delicate air, fluorescing a bit as they go.” [New Yorker, 1942]

Roseland dancers, 1941 (Library of Congress)

The Roseland was also known for hostesses (or taxi dancers) who would dance with gentlemen for $1.50 per half hour.  They were beautiful and well behaved, never drinking alcohol if their patrons offered. And they never solicited business, sitting politely in a roped-off dias by the dance floor, waiting for an interested man to come along.

“Each hostess tried to build up a clientele by thoughtful attention to masculine interests and hobbies. Many hostesses read books in order to increase their conversational range,” according to the New Yorker. “[E]lderly gentlemen who like to surround themselves with hostesses, sometimes  [bought] out the entire platoon for the evening.”

The hostess/taxi dancer, hugely popular during the World War II era, had mostly faded out by the time the Roseland moved to its present location at 52nd Street.

 Here’s a Henderson tribute to the venue, entitled “Rose Room (In Sunny Roseland)”:

 

PBS’s ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’: Jazz Age murder mysteries and the beleaguered forensics team who solved them


Charles Norris and the toxicology laboratory at Bellevue Hospital [source]

The Poisoner’s Handbook
PBS: American Experience
Premieres January 7, 2014
8pm EST / 7pm CST

“In 1922 101 New Yorkers hanged themselves.  Four hundred forty-four died in car accidents.  Twenty were crushed in elevators.  There were 237 fatal shootings and 34 stabbings.  And that year, nine hundred and ninety-seven New Yorkers died of poisoning.”

The ominous statistic above — which opens The Poisoner’s Handbook on PBS’s American Experience — reveals one of the ugly side effects of modernity.  Industry often used chemicals without fully understanding their deadly effects.  Children routinely played in areas heavily coated in rodenticides like Cyanogas.  Meanwhile, diabolical individuals, more knowledgable of poison’s profound powers, employed them in criminal ways, confident of the difficulty by early coroners and law enforcement to accurately trace them.

Some deaths by a certain poison could be identified by early forensics, but intent was frequently unclear.  Did a drunken man kill his neighbor or was it death by carbon monoxide?  Did a father kill off his family with thallium, or was it a dreadful accident?  What was causing the gruesome deformities and deaths of women at a local watch factory in New Jersey?

Not helping matters was the corrupt nature of New York’s early investigative teams, a carnival of unqualified men often placed into office by Tammany Hall and paid by the number of bodies they processed.  Deaths by poison were frequently overlooked and misidentified, thus turning it into an attractive weapon of murder.

Into this chaotic, frightening world steps the innovator Charles Norris (above), New York’s first chief medical examiner, and his leading toxicologist Alexander Gettler, who set up their laboratories at the city morgue at Bellevue Hospital.  From here, their team delved into a completely new world of crime detection, attempting to locate killer toxins within the body tissue of the dead.  Unbelievably, their jobs are made more difficult by New York mayors, from John Hylan, who objected to Norris’ use of autopsies in solving crimes, to even Fiorello LaGuardia, who accused Norris of embezzlement.  (Quite the opposite; Norris paid his toxicologists out of his own pocket. )

One event brought poison into a more sinister spotlight — Prohibition.  With the elimination of liquor sales, people ran to the speakeasies, where a lesser quality, more toxic brew was being served. In some cases, it was the government itself who was selling poisonous potions, as with the failed experiment called the Bridge Whist Club.  “Realizing that many bootleggers stole industrial alcohol to make their product, enforcers directed that the industrial stuff be polluted with Methanol, hoping the foul taste and physical illnesses would deter consumption.” [source]

Norris, Gettler and their team at Bellevue, innovating forensics techniques that identified the effects of poisons upon the human body, were responsible for greatly decreasing crimes by poison and for improving worker’s safety in plants which used chemicals and fuels in their daily routine.

At right: Radium made watches glow in the dark and became a devastating killer at a New Jersey factory

This truly dark PBS documentary, a terrific realization of the book The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in the Jazz Age by Deborah Blum, plays out like a condensed anthology of Jazz Age mysteries, arranged by poison type within a macabre medicine cabinet.  Illustrating the narrative are a collection of dazzling photographs (many from New York’s Department of Records) and better-than-normal live action set pieces.

This is a nail-biting film, shamefully fun actually — a blueprint for the modern television procedural, so much so that I’m rather surprised that somebody hasn’t developed The Poisoner’s Handbook into a regular television series.  Some of the poison deaths here seem so outlandish that they make a typical episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation seem rather pallid in comparison.

There’s even a recurring villain of sorts, a woman named Fanny Creighton who the media grimly nicknamed Borgia (for Lucrezia Borgia).  I won’t tell you what various crimes she’s guilty of, but I will say, do not ever go out and have a cocktail with her.

Times Squared: Lovingly nitpicking ‘The Great Gatsby’ trailer

The recent trailer to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, aka ‘Moulin Rouge in Manhattan’, seems to have left everyone in a state of awe (and horror) in its vivid, hyper-electro-glossy depiction of Prohibition-era New York. And it left many feeling slight panic, even apoplexy, especially considering the entire spectacle will be rendered in 3D when it’s released in December. Oh God. Will flappers kick whimsily towards the camera?

So how accurate was Lurhmann in his glamorous take on Times Square of 1922? How accurate was it supposed to be? Many have already taken note of one glaring and unforgivable error — misspelling the name of Florenz Ziegfeld on the sign for the ‘Ziegfeld Follies’. That ridiculous mistake overshadows a possibly smaller error, that the Follies were actually performed down at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street in 1922. However, the Follies from the year before were hosted at the Globe Theater on West 46th Street (today’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre), quite close to this sign. So perhaps they just kept it up.

Here’s the entire trailer:

Clearly, Luhrmann is interpreting New York, not emulating it. ‘Moulin Rouge’, after all, was Paris through a hazy scrim. He’s filtering the glitz of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s work through his own dreamlike aesthetic and doesn’t need to fact-check every sign and street corner. Still, the trailer does feature some interesting obscure details, and I can’t help myself.  If you saw a different detail, please post about it in the comments section:

Queensboro Bridge The trailer opens with a spectacular look at the Queensboro Bridge, a potent symbol in the Fitzgerald novel. “Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money.”

The bridge opened in 1909, and it’s a defining image of the Jazz Age, not least of which because the population of Queens almost tripled during the 1920s. There were certainly trains on the Queensboro — it was built to accommodate them — but I’m not sure about that particular train.  Below it sits grimy old Blackwell’s Island, renamed Welfare Island in 1921 and certainly looking the part.

 — Skyscrapers Oh Lord. I don’t think this depicts New York at all but is a composite view of various buildings of the age. Far to the left in the trailer I see structures that look like the Singer Building and the Woolworth Building, but they would not be seen from this angle. Besides, the Woolworth would be taller than the Singer. See below for a size comparison, in a picture from 1922, looking northeast.

There are some vaguely Flatiron Building/Met Life Tower type structures, but they look like they’re on 42nd Street.  And why do I think I can see something that clearly looks like the New York Central Building (later the Helmsley Building) which wasn’t finished until 1929?

Times Square Signs An array of illuminated products logos — in various colorful hues foreign to Times Square in 1922 — gives the Crossroads of the World a mystical glow. The tony Hotel Astor adorned in lights dominates the plaza to the left. Nearby is an ad for Douglas Fairbank‘s ‘Robin Hood’, released in October 1922. It played at the Lyric Theatre. Fairbank’s rival Rudolph Valentino and actress Norma Talmadge created a buzz when they attended the film’s premiere together here.

It’s next to the advertisement for Hydrox (the sandwich cookie which debuted in 1908) and the Capitol Theater, a movie palace which opened in 1919. The tire ad is a nice touch, recalling Times Square’s status as the center of automobile sales and repair during the early 20th century.


Below the Zeigfeld [sic] Follies sign is an advertisement for Sonora, a phonograph company that began producing radios in 1924. Their slogan ‘Clear As A Bell’ harkens back to the company’s original product line — clock chimes.

To the right of those is a sign for the Columbia Theatre, “the royal palace of burlesque” in the 1920s. The theater opened in 1910 with decor of “Roman gold and and French gray, and the hangings and carpets are of rose du Barry.” It became the Embassy movie theaters in the 1970s.

Later on in the trailer, an ad can be seen for Arrow Collars, the detatchable shirt collar company that went on to spawn America’s first male model type, the ‘Arrow Collar Man’, the sort of debonair type who populates the world of Gatsby. Of course, the demand for collared shirts pretty much killed of this industry by the end of the decade.

Grand Central Oyster Bar There appears to be a brief scene at this lush location with its vaulted ceilings. The Oyster Bar would have indeed been a thriving spot in 1922 and an ideal place to mix business with pleasure. A few years later, so goes the legend, David Sarnoff formed RKO Pictures over a few oysters here with Joseph Kennedy. In 1922, Tin Pan Alley lyricist Al Lubin met his music partner Harry Warren here. They went on to create the film musical 42nd Street in 1933.

Yellow Cab Co.? There are many brief glimpses of taxicabs, including those of the Yellow Cab fleet, which would later be purchased by the Checkered Cab company in 1929. In 1922, the Yellow Cab successfully won a ruling barring other paid-ride automobiles from being painted yellow. ‘1,000 Cabs Face Change of Paint.

Blood And Sand A prominent movie marquee is shown near the trailer’s end for Rudolph Valentino‘s ‘Blood And Sand’, a summer box office smash in 1922. This film debuted at the Rivoli, at 1620 Broadway, at 49th Street. From the New York Times film review on its debut: “Mr. Valentino has not been doing much acting of late. He’s been slicking his hair and posing for the most part. But here he becomes an actor again.” Let’s hope the same can be said of Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Mr. Gatsby.

By the way, the 1974 version of ‘The Great Gatsby’, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, premiered — with attendees in full ’20s regalia — at the Loews State Theater at 1540 Broadway at 45th Street. “The guests, many of them in Teflon or Daisy white, whatever you want to call it, were greeted by hundreds of celebrity gawkers, reporters and photographers.” [source]

Below: A clip from the Valentino film:

 

As I rewatch the trailer over the next few days, I may amend this article with further information. If there’s something obvious that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments below!

Thanks to Michael Raisch, whose Tweet to me last night inspired this article.  Screenshots courtesy of Curbed and Entertainment Weekly.

The South Street kidnappings: During Prohibition, did ‘shanghai gangs’ really lurk in the shadow of the ports?

The old port at night was no place to be.

Weathered taverns and boardinghouses sit next to uninhabited warehouses, separated by dimly lit South Street from the shadow of rocking masts and creaking piers that sank into the black water of the East River.

A lonely sailor, soused from the wares of the cheapest Water Street saloon, stumbles down the cobblestone. A figure emerges from the corner. A whistle. Another man steps from behind. And the lonely sailor has vanished.

The fear of ‘disappearing’ in New York kept many awake at night in the 19th century. In a world where everybody was essentially ‘unplugged’ and ‘off the grid’, there was a sense that people could simply vanish, almost as if absorbed into the urban environment without a trace.

Moral crusaders, in a tirade against personal independence, warned parents to keep close watch on their daughters for fear they would be snatched from the street, plied against their will with opium and turned into prostitutes.

Some thought this might have been the fate of ‘cigar girl’ Mary Rogers back in 1841. And as late as 1911, some speculated this was the fate of the socialite Dorothy Arnold, one of the most prominent disappearances of the Gilded Age. [Hear more about her story in our podcast from last May.)

But it was men who were often the victims of street kidnapping. The transient nature of the New York port world mixed with the influx of new immigrants — many of them younger men — fostered a disturbing cottage industry of so-called impressment (or ‘shanghaing’ in the old vernacular), where drunken men were either forcibly taken off the street or taken advantage of in their inebriated state and put to work on a sailing ship.

In 1870, a sailor ‘under the influence of liquor’ was tied up and dragged onto a boat. A Fort Hamilton soldier in 1882 was kidnapped and placed aboard a ship off Staten Island. While his message, thrown overboard in a bottle, was received, officials were unable to rescue him as the boat sailed for its destination: Hamburg, Germany.

Below: The forest of masts along South Street, 1890

It’s impossible to know exactly how many men were forced onto boats along New York’s port, as the victims were frequently drunk, thrown onto boats that embarked on long voyages and then failed to press charges when they returned. An article in 1910 claims that ‘[h]undreds of sailors were captured [in New York Harbor], usually in the saloons, beaten into insensibility, to awake when the ship was at sea and the Captain an absolute tyrant.”

There would be an actual, near legal version of shanghaiing called crimping where the sailors, still taken at will, would be forced to sign an agreement, paid for their services but not allowed to leave. They would embark on often long voyages, and by the time they got back, “his anger is likely to have died out.”

By the late 1910s, federal laws protected the rights of seamen, and most shanghaiing and crimping practices were abolished. Except, of course, for those in illegal industries, and especially a brand new one created by the advent of Prohibition in 1920.

This type of kidnapping was perhaps the most frightening of all. “South Street Whispers of Shanghaing” announced a rather in-depth New York Times article in 1925. Now, instead of ‘crimps’, who lurked in sailor’s boarding houses, looking for possible captives, it was whole ‘shanghai gangs’ that ruled the shadows of the seaport.

“I have been drugged and held captive on a ship,” claimed one note found in a bottle and mailed to the police. An anonymous shipping master reported hearing of a victim “drugged in one of these newfangled speakeasies that are run as drug stores. They said along the street that a shanghai gang had got him, stole his money and shipped him to sea….The man is gone, and who can trace him?”

Below: South Street in 1920 in a snowstorm during the first year of Prohibition (Courtesy Flickr/wavz13)

The destination for these unlucky men wasn’t a long-distance voyage but rather a line of near-invisible vessels permanently moored off the American coast. ‘Rum Row‘ facilitated the distribution of alcohol into the United States, with product passing to smaller boats and shady, midnight deals made between mobsters and smugglers. It was an unpleasant and dangerous job, constantly under the fear of capture, betrayal and accident. In an illegal industry with few rules, unwilling men could be discarded.

This also made Prohibition-era impressment a mystery and something of an urban legend. How much forced capture really went on? The Times report interviews several sailors and even a salty South Street bartender, but their names are kept out of the story. Two men, thrown aboard a Rum Row schooner, “were made to work, starve and suffer for water, under threats,” only escaping when the vessel was captured by authorities.

South Street’s changing fortunes may have prevented a widespread problem of the sort which occurred in the 19th century.  The old pubs and grog houses were closed or turned to speakeasies, and heavy shipping had moved on to other ports throughout the harbor, on the Hudson River side, and in Brooklyn and New Jersey. The ports themselves were heavily controlled by mob bosses — and the promise of mob money — which perhaps made such forced recruitment unnecessary. And of course the success of illegal Prohibition industries relied on knowing which laws to abide and which to skirt.

Yet the fear of vanishing kept men on their toes at night as they passed through the neighborhood, keeping in the light as they stumbled down South Street.

At top: Drawing by Barbara Latham courtesy New York Times.  It accompanied the article mentioned above.

The cat’s meow: NYC in the 1920s, through a gauzy haze

Capital of the World: A Portrait of New York City in the Roaring 20s
By David Wallace
Lyons Press

REVIEW ‘Capital of the World’ is a delicious but high-calorie Whitman’s sampler of New York City delights during the 1920s. It is no surprise to find that it is authored by journalist David Wallace, whose publishing career is mostly comprised of tomes about Hollywood and southern California. New York is seen through the same sunny, star-studded lens; there is no hint that common people lived in New York City during the 1920s.

The 1920s were truly a decade of change in New York. Cramped Manhattanites moved to Queens in huge numbers, Wall Street reached a fevered and treacherous zenith, and automobiles forced physical changes onto the landscape. Of course, you’ll find none of that in Wallace’s jazzy little essays.

His is a New York of pure personality — gangsters and flappers drinking bathtub booze, dapper gentlemen and unconventional ladies. He writes less of the actual ’20s and more about the roaring ’20s, the partial invention that inhabits our pop culture consciousness.  The book is a mostly a collection of profiles, of glamorous people you would readily invite to your dinner party.

Wallace starts and ends with Mayor Jimmy Walker, who reigns over New York from 1926-1932. The other mayor of the decade, John Hylan, merits just a couple mentions and is referred to as “long-winded” and “stuffy”. That is the extent of politics. From there it’s a survey of mobsters and dancers, wits and weirdos.

It’s a great summer read, and you don’t even have to read the chapters in order. Get your fill of baubles with Texas Guinan (Ch. 6) and Fanny Brice (Ch. 8), go high end with Dorothy Parker (Ch. 15) and Elsie De Wolfe (Ch. 17), top yourself off with Martha Graham (Ch. 10), then fall back to the gutter with New York’s legendary madam Polly Adler (Ch. 5).

Or choose the movers and shakers of pop celebrity, from Walter Winchell (Ch. 7) and his favorite haunt the Stork Club (Ch. 2) to the radio king David Sarnoff (C. 9) and magazine mogul Henry Luce (Ch. 16).

It’s a staggered view of the decade, but a succinct look at the decade’s purveyors of culture. You do get a couple chapters on the growth of organized crime, but those essays are notable more for the number of references to mobster films and, in particular, The Godfather. (Wallace has his feet firmly planted in contemporary pop culture, often bringing in references to things like Madonna’s ‘Confessions On A Dance Floor’ and ‘Dancing With The Stars’.)

Of course, there are a few major figures noticeably absent — and he stuffs the entire Harlem Renaissance into a single chapter, when it could have been five — but then, this isn’t meant to be nutritious, is it? ‘Capital of the World’ is a bottle of cheap champagne, perfect for the beach.

Pictured above: Cast members from Broadway’s The Garrick Gaieties, 1925, photo by Ira D Schwarz (courtesy NYPL)