Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Invitation to my mother's 10th birthday party, 1928

My mother has forgotten many things but not the luncheonette that her parents owned at 23 East 20th Street in Manhattan.  These days the neighborhood is very fashionable, known as the Flatiron District. During the 1930s, however, it was largely given over to manufacturing.

Of course, as goes the urban cycle, the area was home to affluent New Yorkers through much of the 19th century.  In 1858, Theodore Roosevelt came into the world in a brownstone at 28 East 20th Street.  An American flag waves out front, as it did in the thirties.

At the little restaurant, one could have breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday.  The customers were largely factory workers from the cast-iron buildings that clustered around Broadway, which cuts across a large slice of Manhattan from west to east.

The Flatiron Building rises where Broadway crosses Fifth. In its shadow, the blocks are short with little sunlight.

Flatiron Building, 1938
photograph by Berenice Abbott
(Museum of the City of New York)

My mother recalls a well-muscled guy who looked just like Tyrone Power. He worked in a carpet factory around the corner. On Saturdays when he came in for lunch, she sat at the counter, sneaking glances. 

I had no idea.

In addition to Tyrone Power, there was Frank, the sandwich man. In 1939, Frank went west to work for Boeing, where he would earn a lot more money.
My grandmother handled the cash register and my grandfather was the cook.

One day, a man in a fancy suit entered the restaurant. He held his hand in his pocket, as if he had a gun. He said to my grandmother, “How many guys you got working here?”

He wanted to know if there was organizing to be done.

He went into the kitchen and spoke with Frank and the dishwasher. After a few minutes, he left the store.

In 1932, at the bottom of the Depression, a customer asked if he could get a meal in exchange for drawing a picture of my mother.

The luncheonette also was the scene of her tenth birthday party. That is her last memory of East 20th Street. One year later, her father sold the restaurant to his cousin Murray and bought a luncheonette further uptown, on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets, very close to Times Square.  

From there it was a short walk to the Capitol Theater where The Wizard of Oz opened in 1939. She remembers prancing up Broadway with her mother and a friend, full of eager anticipation.

Before the show, Judy Garland came on stage.  Everyone was shocked.  The actress had become chubby and wore her hair in short blonde ringlets, but she sang beautifully.

In a way, the luncheonette was a snapshot of the 1930s – a square meal, a job, the advancing war, and the lift that came from finding a movie star, real or imagined, in your midst.  

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Tale of Two Museums

The tables and chairs have been rearranged; otherwise
the room appears much as it did 100 years ago.

Some archives are worse than others. The chairs may be uncomfortable, the lighting poor, the taking of photographs forbidden.

Not so at the sun-filled library of the New-York Historical Society, with its two-story ceiling, swirling staircase, and creaky wooden card catalogue. Plus, everyone is friendly and helpful.

Therefore it’s hard to believe that once upon a time the place was haughty and insular. One of its defining characteristics was the requirement that new members be proposed by existing members. Subsequently, the trustees would meet, discuss various prospects, and make a decision much in the way of a country club.

This elitist system continued into the 1920s even though the Society desperately needed to expand its base in order to raise money. In 1908, the trustees had bought land and constructed a new building on Central Park West. Operating costs rose even as architects drew up plans for additions.

Not to mention the issue of having – or not having – a mission. The Society’s librarian, Robert H. Kelby, quietly went about his business, researching and writing; parrying inquiries. Visitors dropped by for lectures and little else.

Then something happened in 1917.

Mrs. John King (Maria) Van Renssaeler, a Society member and descendant of one of New York’s oldest Dutch families, kicked up a fuss at the annual meeting.

According to those present, May, as she called herself, told the Society members that their institution was “dead.” Here’s what she said:

With the hordes of immigrants due to arrive here after the war, it is essential that some organization take enough interest to supply them with new national figures, history and folklore of this country and city, to take the places of those they had to leave behind. They will come to us full of illusions of America, the land of the free, and will find New York gasping under its load of munition millionaires, careless and spendthrift.

Washington and Lincoln are our only national heroes, and even they will seem remote enough to the immigrant landing at Ellis Island. It is our duty, and we shall hope to assimilate these new peoples without danger to our society and civilization, to make them over anew. The New York Historical Society can supply the straw to make bricks from the foreign mud and water…

During the past century, the goal of Americanization has become controversial. But in 1917, Mrs. V. R.’s words were quite progressive and way too much for the trustees, who pushed back. One year later at the annual meeting, she again urged change before storming off. In 1920, she established the Society of Patriotic New Yorkers, a branch of the Colonial Dames of America -- which she had founded in 1890.

Ironically, the Colonial Dames of America started as an exclusive organization whose members all descended from Colonists.

Newspaper sketch of
Mrs. Van Renssaeler
But anyway . . .

In 1923, a startup called the Museum of the City of New York came on the scene. According to its founder, a Scottish immigrant named Henry Collins Brown, the new museum would “educate the schoolboy and inspire the immigrant.”  

A popularizer of the city’s history who once referred to himself as a “remembrancer,” Brown had many dealings with Mr. Kelby, the New-York Historical Society librarian, and his successor Alexander J. Wall.* Brown often borrowed pictures from the Society’s collection and reproduced them in the books that he wrote and published. Like Mrs. V. R., he urged Kelby and then Wall to coax the Society into the 20th century.  

Indeed, the Society’s trustees gradually changed their modus operandi.  

Meanwhile, Henry Collins Brown assembled a board for the Museum of the City of New York. Next he prevailed on the city to donate the dilapidated Gracie Mansion, overlooking the East River, as a temporary home for the museum. Built in 1799 as a country estate, Gracie Mansion would undergo the first of many restorations.

Henry Collins Brown, 1914

After being named director of the Museum of the City of New York, Brown moved his wife and young daughter into the mansion. That may have been one of the reasons why the board ousted him in 1926. 

Suffice it to say that the Society’s librarian, Alexander Wall, was unhappy to learn about the new museum. After Henry Collins Brown wrote to him, “We are a going concern,” Wall replied:

For some time there would be bitterness and rivalry. Eventually, each museum would find its place.

*Mr. Wall's real name was Wohlhagen, but the Society's trustees asked him to change it when the US entered World War I in 1917.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Untangling the Life of Xesia Y. Z.

Newspaper story about Xesia
As a young journalist who covered the theater, Allan Forman hung around eavesdropping and hoping for a glimpse of the leading ladies. He claimed to know personally that despite Lillie Langtry’s endorsement of Pears Soap, she did not use the stuff.

In 1886, Allan’s long edgy article, “Around the Stage Door, Men Who Haunt It and Girls Who Pass through It,” was syndicated widely in the U.S.

Surely he spoke from experience in describing the many ways that men made fools of themselves by fancying actresses and singers, married and unmarried.

 One that "knew" an actress --
sketch used in Allan's article

Sometime later, he met Xesia Yrsa Zephania Carlstedt, whom he married in 1900.

Really? you say.

Do you mean the Swedish-born Xesia Yrsa Zephania whose career never quite took off even though she acted in such memorable plays as “The Noble Son,” “The Pearl of Pekin,” and “The Corsair”? 

Do you mean Xesia Yrsa Zephania who inherited thousands of dollars from her former lover, a Swedish baron named Falkenberg to whom she was promised in marriage by her father, a consul general whose home was located next door to the baron’s castle?

The papers reported that she ran away to America to be free of entanglements. 

Cut to 1891.

“A Man About Town,” starring Xesia, has just flopped in out-of-town tryouts. The cast practically walked back to New York, critics say. Arriving home, the hapless Xesia received a thick envelope from a lawyer detailing the bequest of “the man who loved her so well and so unsuccessfully.” 

It was the baron. He left her $50,000!

She probably did receive the money, although some whispered that in fact the baron had rejected Xesia because she lacked aristocratic lineage.  

It’s not as if her family was undistinguished, however. Xesia’s father, Axel B. C. Carlstedt, descended from a long line of musicians and composers. The position of organist in the churches of Sodra Villie and Orsjo had been held by a member of the Carlstedt family for more than 130 years.

Axel emigrated from Sweden to the U. S. in 1872. 

Upon arriving, he moved to Massachusetts, studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, earned a doctorate, married an American woman, and eventually founded the South Side College of Music in Chicago.

Axel fathered 11 children. Some were born in Sweden during his first marriage but the details are hard to figure out.

What matters is that he went about naming them “in the most delightful way,” to quote Mary Poppins.

Since his own name began with the initials ABC, Axel continued the pattern with his children.


Axel Bernhard Conrad, Jr.

Dagobert Edvard Fritiof

                            Gustaf Harald Julius

Knut Leonard Maltidius

                             Nellie Olivia Pauline

                                           Quelie Rosalie Sophie

Theresa Urania Vilhelmina

                             and Xesia Yrsa Zephania.

The names of the last three children did not fit the alphabetical pattern but exceeded expectations for ingenuity. They were: 

              Aberta Agir Ostgota, Detolfta Johanna Marie, and Bror Tretton Methodius.                    

While Axel taught music and became a papa repeatedly, several of his children, including Xesia, gravitated toward music and theater. She toured the country drawing slight attention for her performances, for no Lillie Langtry was she.

Advertisement for Pears soap
featuring Lillie Langtry

Meanwhile, Allan ran his magazine, The Journalist, and wrote about everything. During the 1890s, he addressed “The Cigarette Question,” “The Ways of Blackmailers, a risky business that doesn’t always pay,” and “The Typewriter Question.”  

He also complained about “Eating to Honor Somebody”:

It always seems a trifle absurd to me, to call together a lot of men to eat in honor of somebody. The respect expressed by inducing dyspepsia may be genuine. Ovations and oysters, sympathy and soup, releves and roasts, enthusiasm and entrees, homage and hominy, compliments and champagne, may all go very well together but . . . I should prefer a sandwich and a cup of coffee in a quiet corner.

Allan did not hesitate to be honored with a
Chop Suey dinner, given by the Blue Pencil Club 

Xesia and Allan married in 1900 and lived in Brooklyn until Allan’s father died in 1908. Then Allan retired and began a renovation and expansion of Nabichaugue, the family’s Long Island estate. He and Xesia lived there for the rest of their lives.

When Allan and Xesia renovated Nabichaugue before
World War I, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran a long story about it.

After Allan’s death in 1914 the Baroness, as she now started to call herself, drew quite a bit of publicity when she started farming at Nabichaugue to help the war effort.  

It may be a far cry from singing grand opera in the presence of cheering thousands to growing seed corn . . .  but it is understood that Mrs. Allan Forman of this place agrees that producing seed corn, when you hit it right, is fully as pleasant and almost as remunerative as appearing nightly in the footlights.

So, she was an acclaimed opera singer all along.

Xesia Y. Z. Carlstedt Forman;
passport photo, 1930s

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Harmony of the Chord that Follows

The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise
Giovanni di Paolo, 1445
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

This came to me last week. Through all the poetry read and written, I’ve harbored the idea that it’s kind of immature to replay the first time I fell in love. After all, it was 43 years ago.

The revelation arrived as I was walking toward the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a bright morning, blue sky.

It was 1974 again and we were climbing the museum steps, two 16-year olds who had taken the train to Grand Central Terminal and walked 40 blocks up Fifth Avenue. Why the museum? Definitely my idea; probably because the Met was one of the places in the city where I felt truly comfortable without my parents around.

About a year earlier, my father had announced that my brother and I were getting soft growing up in the suburbs, and took us to Greenwich Village for the day. That would have been a cooler place to go but I did not remember how to navigate around Washington Square.

So now my soon-to-be boyfriend and I were buying tickets and climbing more steps to the second floor galleries because that was the way I knew. The Met had not yet built the additions that made it sprawl.

Walking and climbing; finally alone together.

In music, anticipation is defined as the sounding of a few notes to create dissonance before the harmony of the chord that follows.

In the case of my high school experience, there had been more than a year of missed cues and letdowns.

So, while The Date felt like destiny, it also felt fragile. In those days it was the nature of teenaged girls – helped along by large doses of Joni Mitchell – to believe that love won’t last.

And it did not, although I kept the memory.

But last week I let myself fully evoke that time, as far as it was possible to reach, and realized that the floaty swirliness I always feel in early April descends from that particular April.

It’s the world barely green and the boulders in Central Park still cold from the winter as you sit on them, talking.

It’s April 1974 and April 2017.

The Garden of the Tuileries on a Winter Afternoon
Camille Pissarro, 1899
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Adventures of Allan Forman

Advertising card, 1890s
(New York Public Library)

Civil War General Stewart L. Woodford, also a diplomat and congressman, visited the tobacco tycoon Alexander Forman at his home on Long Island in 1880.

Forman’s 20-year old son, Allan, accompanied Woodford to the beach, where they captured enough crabs to fill a basket and started to walk home. Along the way, they were accosted by patronizing “summer people” who bought the crabs for a small fortune – 50 cents.

Several years later, Allan and Woodford met again at a private party.

“Resplendent in the whitest of linen and smoothest of evening clothes,” according to a newspaper account, Woodford recognized Forman as he strolled along.

“Glad to meet you, Allan, glad to meet you,” the General said. “Why I don’t think I’ve seen you since we were in the fish business together!”

(Thought to be an amusing story, late 19th century.)

Brooklyn Heights, 1870s;
time of Allan Forman's youth 

(New York Public Library)

Allan Forman was born right by the beach with the crabs, in a house built by his Mayflower ancestors. He grew up in a Victorian brownstone in Brooklyn Heights.

He benefited from his father’s fortune, made in the warehousing of snuff and tobacco during the Civil War. Educated at the prestigious Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, Allan started writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in his teens. The paper’s editor, Thomas H. Kinsella, sent him to San Francisco to cover riots incited by an Irish labor leader named Denis Kearney. The violent fury directed at Chinese immigrants ended in death and destruction, and disgusted the young reporter.

Allan went on to Williams College in Massachusetts and always made a fuss about it, although he did not graduate.  

              Back in Brooklyn, Allan’s stories appeared regularly in newspapers and journals. Now he had two important mentors: Samuel S. Conant, editor of Harper’s Weekly, along with Kinsella of the Eagle.

However, in February 1885, Conant disappeared into a nineteenth-century melodrama involving a barroom, a watch & chain, and a man resembling him who might have taken a train to Florida.

Part of a search party, Allan scrambled around the beach at Coney Island, looking desperately for Conant and interviewing the proprietor of the Ocean House hotel where the editor might have been seen last.  

S. S. Conant never turned up.

But Allan continued to develop a nice style. Here’s the opening of an article entitled “The New York Crook”:

Not long ago I chanced to meet a lawyer somewhat prominent in a certain class of criminal case. After a few moments’ chat, I invited him to the theatre.

“No, I have to see a client of mine. Come with me and I’ll show you a new phase of life. I’ll introduce you to the ‘crooks.’”

The lawyer’s invitation chimed in with my lazy mood, and, hailing a passing hansom, we were whirled to our destination . . .

And here he is writing about dinner in Chinatown:

“Come and dine with me,” was the cheering invitation extended to me by a jolly New York lawyer of Bohemian tendencies. But I knew my man, and was aware of his penchant for mousing into all sorts of out-of-the-way quarters of the city where he fairly reveled in dirt and mystery and strange viands, so I lit another cigarette and lazily drawled, “Where?”

Illustration for Allan's story about Chinatown

Already well-known in the world of the New York press, Allan really arrived when he took the helm of the first magazine devoted to journalism, The Journalist. The weekly was a few years old when he became editor in 1886.

At the time, press clubs had been established in most major U.S. cities. But reporters, publishers, and illustrators missed having a publication dedicated to their profession. The Journalist didn’t always fit the bill because Forman published whatever struck his fancy, but he would lead it for 22 years.

Unfortunately, too, he was for sale – as scandals revealed in 1891 and 1905.  

It turned out that Allan had deals with the New York Life Insurance Company and the Mutual Life Insurance Company. He offered himself as a “press specialist.” For a fee, he used his influence to place flattering stories about the companies in newspapers around the country.

He might praise old management over new management, discredit newspaper investigations into corporate corruption, or “spin” bad news. In fact, Allan may have been the true father of public relations.

Allan shills for Mutual Life Insurance (1890s)

Despite the bad publicity about Allan’s subterfuge, he carried on. However, the prestigious Lotos Club kicked him out for violating house rules and endangering others, so perhaps he was upset about something.

Subsequently, a series of exposes about the insurance business appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The World.  A legislative committee (counseled by future Supreme Court justice Charles Evans Hughes) delved into the workings of the big companies. Allan did not testify, but one of his colleagues said that Forman earned $1 to $2 per line for six 250-word stories which editorialized in the guise of news.*

Frontispiece, 1889 issue of The Journalist

Once again, Forman remained untarnished. But he must have been running low on cash.

In 1896, he brought a suit to have his father declared insane after his mother refused to give money to one of Allan’s creditors. Justice Osborne of the Brooklyn Supreme Court accepted the testimony of two doctors: the elder Forman was competent to manage his own affairs.  

Then Allan’s first wife, Florence, divorced him, so he went off to Egypt for two years and left The Journalist in the hands of Marguerita Hamm, a pioneering woman reporter married to the jolly lawyer who lured him to dinner in Chinatown.

Allan had always loved the theater and occasionally wrote for The Dramatic Times. He liked to hang around backstage and gather gossip. In 1900 he remarried to a Swedish actress with the incomparable name of Xesia Yrsa Zephania Carlstedt.

To be continued.

*Ultimately, revelations about political slush funds and investing for self-gain led to significant regulation of the insurance industry. By the way, wouldn't counseling a legislative committee on an investigation into corporations disqualify a Supreme Court candidate today?!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Chinatown / Kishineff

Street Scene (Hester Street) by George Luks, 1905
(Brooklyn Museum)

May 28, 1903 – Carnegie Hall is packed. The headliners include:

former President Cleveland,

New York City Mayor Seth Low,

former U.S. Senator and Union General, Carl Schurz,

and Dr. Jacob Schurman, president of Cornell University and former ambassador to Germany.

Not a celebrity in sight.

They have gathered to condemn a pogrom against Jews that occurred April 20-23 in a village called Kishineff in Bessarabia, a region to the east of present-day Romania.

A pogrom meant the destruction of an entire community, sometimes led by the local population and sometimes by the Cossacks, marauders who answered to the Czar. Homes and stores would be smashed and nearly everyone tortured or killed. During the late nineteenth century, these massacres occurred with greater frequency. Russian Jews became desperate to go to America. By 1903, they already crowded the tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Survivors with dead children following Kishineff Pogrom

At the Carnegie Hall meeting, Grover Cleveland received a standing ovation for his remarks:

              The wholesale murder of inoffensive, defenseless men, women and children . . .
gives rise to a distressing fear that even the enlightenment of the twentieth century has neither destroyed nor subdued the barbarity of human nature, nor wholly redeemed the civilized world from “man’s inhumanity to man.”

 The headline in the New York Times stated:

 Great Mass Meeting Denounces
the Kishineff Outrages.

During the coming months, Kishineff stayed in the headlines. Meetings were standing-room-only and thousands of dollars were raised for Russian Jews. 

This 1904 illustration depicts President Theodore Roosevelt
telling the Czar to stop the persecution of Jews.

Yet even before the Carnegie Hall rally, an unlikely event occurred.

The Chinese community in New York City sponsored a play at the Chinatown Theater with all proceeds going to the aid of the Kishineff survivors. The benefit was the brainchild of two businessmen who had anglicized their names: Joseph Singleton (Chew Mon Sing) and Guy Maine (Yee Kai Man).  

On the evening of May 10, Guy Maine welcomed the audience to the theater on Doyers Street: “There should be a strong bond between the Jews and the Chinese for both have been persecuted.”

In response, noted the Times, the author Herman Rosenthal 

. . . told of what had been done in getting up the benefit performance by the members of the Chinese Reform Association, and said that if they had shown so much generosity and goodwill toward the Jews the latter’s indebtedness to them was very considerable, and the philanthropy of the Chinaman should never be forgotten.

The mutual goodwill of the immigrant groups had been nurtured by their proximity to each other in the jumble of downtown Manhattan.

And the goodwill persisted.

Chinese Theater, 5-7 Doyers Street in Chinatown
(circa 1900)
In December 1905, the Chinese Empire Reform Association again held a benefit for Russian Jews and raised $1,000. A company of 40 Chinese performed a play called King David at Miner’s Bowery Theater. Two congressmen, two judges, and the borough president were in the audience. The actors spoke Chinese, which didn’t seem to interfere with anyone’s enjoyment.

King David, a tragedy, was written by an English vicar named R. C. Fillingham.

“In the intervals between the acts a company of Chinese soldiers gave drill exercises on the stage,” reported the Times.

That in itself is a curious story.

A few years earlier, George McVicker, a major in the N. Y. State National Guard, began training about 150 Chinese men in the attic space of the Oriental Club, a gathering-place for businessmen, on Mott Street. They used rifles with bayonets and dressed in U. S. Army-style uniforms.   

One explanation for the drills was that the Empress Dowager of China, who had seized power in 1865 and ruthlessly disposed of her son and her nephew, ordered the training so as to improve and modernize her Imperial Army.

In fact, the training was initiated by the Chinese Empire Reform Association, which sought to overthrow the Empress and the Qing Dynasty. The 1911 Xinhai Revolution, which led to the formation of the Republic of China, owed some small success to the work of the association.    

Incidentally, Joseph Singleton and Guy Maine –who initiated the benefits on behalf of the Russian Jews – led the New York City chapter of the Chinese Empire Reform Association. In 1908, they brought Sun Yat Sen to the United States where he embarked on a nationwide speaking tour.

There’s a good parallel here: the Chinese who hoped to vanquish the imperial ruler of the nation from which they emigrated, and the Jews who fled Russia to escape the imperial rule of the Czar.

The closeness of immigrant communities would not necessarily lead to warm feelings; often it culminated in violence and fierce prejudice.

Somehow that didn’t happen here.

Untitled photograph by Walker Evans:
Bowery clothing store owned by Moe Levy, who 
was very friendly with Chinese merchants. 

*Alternative spelling is Kishinev.