Thursday, March 22, 2018

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Too Late for Kumyss

Downtown Mt. Vernon, 1920s
(Westchester County Historical Society)

During the winter of 1974, I was stricken with some sort of respiratory illness and stayed home from school for several days.

The timing proved excellent.  Joni Mitchell had released her iconic album, “Court and Spark,” on January 1st of that year.  Now it was February, and I knew the record would be essential to my recuperation.

After everyone had dispersed to school and work, I got dressed immediately.  Although six inches of snow lay on the ground, my plan was to walk a few blocks to a street called Columbus Avenue, take the bus to downtown Mt. Vernon, and go to the Bee Hive Record Store.  (Its name came from a soda parlor that previously occupied the space.)

When the Bee Hive was still a soda parlor

By 10:30 I possessed the record and decided to stop at Clover Donuts, a coffee shop near the bus stop.  That’s where I ran into Mrs. Moskowitz.  She waved me over to the counter, pointing to an empty stool.  I sat down beside her and ordered a cup of tea.

She didn’t ask why I wasn’t in school.

That’s probably because Virginia (“Ginny”) McClellan Moskowitz had other things on her mind, like history.  In fact she was the city historian.  She knew everything related to Mt. Vernon’s past and present, as befitted a woman born and bred there.  Mrs. Moskowitz had grown up in a family of city fathers.  Her childhood and much of her adulthood were spent in a large Victorian house with three generations of McClellans.  After World War II, she married Dr. Eugene Moskowitz and they continued to live in the house.

Virginia McClellan (left column, fourth down)
 Mt. Vernon High School yearbook, 1933

During the early 1970s Mrs. Moskowitz became especially busy.  In advance of the U.S. Bicentennial, the federal government dispensed millions of dollars to support local history initiatives.  Mrs. Moskowitz would use her allotment to mount several exhibitions and organize the old stuff that was pouring in.  She needed a lot of help.  The previous summer I had volunteered in her fiefdom, the Local History Room. 

In that room, the wooden file cabinets were packed with papers, the tables piled with maps and photographs, and the display cases filled with medals, plaques, and old silver.  Mrs. Moskowitz definitely had a plan, though.  She was working on it.

And now here we were in Clover Donuts. 

“Nice to see you,” she said cheerfully.

I explained about being sick and the unfortunate situation of having to run an errand in such bad weather.  I didn’t mention Joni Mitchell.

Mrs. Moskowitz leaned close and said with a smile:  “You could probably use some cumis.”  That’s how I imagined the word, based on her pronunciation.  But no.  

“K-U-M-Y-S-S,” she spelled enthusiastically, then added:  “Unfortunately, you’re about 50 years too late!”  

Indeed, I was very late for Kumyss, a sparkling milk drink popularized by Mount Vernon’s first mayor, Dr. Edward F. Brush, as a cure for asthma, chest colds, indigestion, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and anything else that ailed anyone anywhere.  It was a classic nineteenth century patent medicine. 

Kumyss is made by fermenting unpasteurized cow’s milk.  The addition of yeast and sugar makes the drink fizzy and slightly alcoholic.  According to Dr. Brush, the healing powers of Kumyss were known to Homer, the nomadic tribes of Russia and Asia, Marco Polo, the Crim Tartars and the Uzbeks.

 Advertisement for Kumyss, circa World War I

Dr. Brush became interested in Kumyss during the 1870s and published a book called Kumyss or Russian Milk Wine.  Subsequently he began to promote the drink, created a market, and built a Kumyss factory in Mt. Vernon.  The sales made him a millionaire.

However, he still loved being mayor and was reelected on the Republican ticket twice after his abbreviated first term, 1892-4.  It’s not clear that Dr. Brush attended medical school and he may have been a better politician than a physician.

The rage for Kumyss ran through World War I, then started to decline.

But Mrs. Moskowitz kept the story alive.  And she found the perfect moment to tell it.  I can still hear her chatting about Dr. Brush while we drank our tea in Clover Donuts.  The windows were fogged, the sidewalks needed salt, and the twentieth century marched on, looking for a new cure.  

Mayor Edward F. Brush, early twentieth century

More Mt. Vernon posts: 11/8/17; 6/28/17; 5/18/16; 9/27/16; 12/29/15/; 11/2/15

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Municipal Tragedy

Acupuncture or bail?
My acupuncturist is located on Baxter Street in Chinatown, his office wedged between storefronts that are occupied mostly by bail bondsmen.  They serve the municipal courts, just a few blocks away.  

I take the subway to Canal Street and walk east past the street vendors.  Glancing downtown, I can see the Municipal Building – a wedding cake designed by McKim, Mead & White and completed in 1914.

Even before it was built, the Municipal Building drew controversy.  The landmarks preservation movement would not emerge for another 60 years. But plenty of antiquarians objected to further disrupting a sedate civic center that dated to 1800.  City Hall Park had already been assaulted by a garish Beaux Arts post office, not to mention the Tweed Courthouse, an enduring symbol of nineteenth-century political corruption.

Municipal Building postcard, 1920s

The antiquarians didn’t stand a chance.  Besides, the 60-story Woolworth Building had just risen nearby, and without a doubt the city was going UP.

By 1984, when I started to work there, the Municipal Building had become shabby with a bit of a roach problem.  Yet fun still could be had since the marriage bureau was located on one of the lower floors and you never knew who would get in the elevator.   

The city’s radio station, WNYC, had called the building home since 1922.  It broadcast from crumbling quarters in the tower at the top.  I came on as an assistant to the director, Mary Perot Nichols, who began her career as a reporter for the Village Voice. 

Mary and her family had moved to Greenwich Village in the early 1950s.  As she became involved in the neighborhood, she kept asking Dan Wolf, then editor of the Voice, why no one was covering Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through Washington Square Park.*  Finally, Wolf gave her the assignment.

Within a few years, Mary became one of the city’s foremost investigative journalists.  She had dirt on every New York politician and surely that included Mayor Ed Koch, to whom she owed her WNYC appointments in 1978 and 1983.  Mary had resigned in 1979 after Koch ordered the creation of a show nicknamed the “John Hour,” wherein the names of men arrested for patronizing prostitutes would be read on the air. 

The idea, absurdly, was that the men’s embarrassment would lead to a decline in prostitution.

The “John Hour” aired once.  An enraged Mary stormed off.   

Mary Perot Nichols, 1970s
Photo was taken on a balcony of the Municipal Building.

But now it was 1984 and Mary had saved the station by creating the WNYC Foundation and populating its board with movers and shakers.  Formidable and rollicking, she loved her job and thrived on people dropping in and out of her office all day long.  For snacks, she kept a large jar of cherry-flavored chewable Vitamin C tablets on her desk in the same way that my grandmother kept a crystal dish of hard candy on her coffee table.

There was always a crisis, or perhaps Mary’s idiosyncrasies made it seem so.  

One incident was unforgettable.  It involved the city’s Board of Estimate, on which sat the borough presidents, a motley crew representing Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.**

This board mattered a great deal because the city still funded a significant portion of WNYC’s operating expenses, and Mary needed to nail down every vote.  So each year the station prepared a detailed report to convince the borough presidents of the station’s worthiness.

The Queens borough president was an affable, beefy Democratic pol named Donald Manes.  He insisted that Mary pay a visit to his house to discuss the vote.  Mary asked me to come along – my one and only ride in a city car. 

We were ushered into the house through the back door.  The air was filled with cigarette smoke.  At the kitchen table, surrounded by men in dark suits, sat Mr. Manes. 

Mary squeezed in next to him.

“Donny,” she said, cutting to the chase. “Have you had a chance to read the report?  We sent it to your office a few weeks ago.”   

“Yes,” he wheezed.  “I got the report.”   

He looked at his palms, then turned them over.  

“I read it,” he said, and paused.  “But these days when I read, I don’t retain.”   

There was a hush.  The man had lost his exuberance . . . he even seemed defeated.  

Within two years the FBI would implicate Manes in all kinds of payoffs, kickbacks, and patronage.  The web of corruption encompassed several city agencies and many officials.  In 1986, facing charges of extortion and bribery, Manes stabbed himself to death with a kitchen knife.

I read, but I don't retain.  At the age of 26, I found this very amusing.  Now I realize that it's actually a line in a municipal tragedy.    

Donald R. Manes, 1970s.

*Robert Moses, an enormously influential developer known as “the master builder,” over-zealously constructed bridges, parks, beaches, tunnels, and roads during his reign, mid-1920s to early 1960s.  He met his match in Washington Square Park, where urban activist Jane Jacobs led the opposition to his proposed highway.
**The Board of Estimate was disbanded in 1989 after the U. S. Supreme Court declared it to be unconstitutional.   

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Teaching History to New Immigrants

One of many tours created by Frank Bergen Kelley

Frank’s mother descended from Dutch burghers.  They peered from the frames of their oil portraits, clasping silver goblets while hunting dogs lurked in the background. 

His father’s forebears emigrated from the Isle of Man. 

The family settled in New Jersey, where the father became a minister.  All of the sons and daughters stayed nearby, except for one.  That would be Frank.

The passion of Frank Bergen Kelley would always lie across the river.  It was the history of New York City. 

Frank couldn’t wait to get to a place where he could influence how new immigrants, in particular, would learn the history of their nation.  Planning to become a teacher, he earned three degrees from New York University in rapid succession, emerging with a doctorate in 1890.

Then he set off to teach at several military academies before landing, in 1899, at DeWitt Clinton, one of the city’s preeminent public high schools which drew boys from across the socio-economic and ethnic spectrum.    

For the next 34 years, this would be the perch from which Frank sparked the connection between citizenship and education.  He did not frown on flag-waving; rather, he believed that a deep understanding of history would nurture the most meaningful, enduring patriotism. 

He also believed that learning history demanded full engagement: eyes and ears, thinking, exploring.

In one of Kelley's guides, he juxtaposed 1909 and 1609 (inset) views
 of Manhattan, probably to commemorate the tricentennial of
Henry Hudson's voyage up the "North River."

Soon enough, Kelley came to the attention of the leaders of the City History Club of New York.  Established in 1896, the club was run by a mix of Gilded Age millionaires, the heirs of Knickerbockers, and socialites, with a sprinkling of antiquarians and genealogists.

The club “exists for Americanization,” its founders stated.  “To develop a better and more intelligent citizenship by means of the study of the history and traditions of the city, and the lives and deeds of the men who have made this city great . . .”

The trustees invited Frank Kelley to become superintendent of the club.  He accepted with delight.  What a perfect fit:  while the board raised money by hosting balls and auctions, Kelley created an educational program comprised of lectures, self-guided tours, and exhibitions.  It was publicized widely.  Recent immigrants especially were encouraged to enroll.

In rapid order, Frank produced at least 12 pocket brochures, including:  A Guide to Greenwich Village, A Guide to Fraunces Tavern (where General George Washington, in 1783, bid farewell to the officers of the Continental Army).  The board of education distributed these free of charge. 

And he lectured all the time, all over the city, in libraries and halls and schools.  Each year he would deliver several series of ten talks, open to the public at no charge, on “The History and Government of New York City.”  Five Sunday afternoon excursions were part of each series.  

Often Kelley lectured as part of a group.  Fellow speakers might include college presidents, diplomats, and professional historians.

Imagine that.

Important people coming all the way from New England and Washington, D.C. to personally educate new immigrants.

Between 1899 and 1903, the number of New Yorkers that attended public lectures rose from 550,000 to 1.2 million.

In 1906, when the City History Club celebrated its tenth year of educational work, Kelley reported on classes held in settlement houses, churches, and industrial schools.  He called for more volunteers to teach government and other courses.  

From one of Kelley's reports: singing the 
National Anthem prior to a lecture about government

By now the City History Club’s programs were thoroughly entwined with the work of the public schools.  This meant that the club’s officers, trustees, vice presidents, and advisers had a stake in the education of all children who lived in New York City. 

Supporters included the descendants of New York's founding families:  Virginia Gildersleeve (Dean of Barnard College), George W. Wickersham (U. S. Attorney General and internationalist), Mariana Van Rensselaer (historian and reformer), Robert De Forest (longtime trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Frank A. Vanderlip (journalist and founder of the first Montessori School in the U. S.).

Lovingly guided by Frank Bergen Kelley.

See also December 13, 2017 post. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Of Time and the Blizzard

Snowy day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The day before my father died last March, I moved in close to his right ear and asked him a few questions. 

“Do you remember Primrose Avenue?” I said.

That’s the name of a street near the house where we lived when my brother and I were growing up in Mt. Vernon, N. Y. 

Primroses are small colorful old-fashioned flowers. Primrose the street was pretty, too. It began in a vale (an appropriately antiquated word) near the business district, then meandered along, past a small park with lilac bushes and a few benches.  As it climbed a hill, the street widened with grand houses on either side, some with marble steps at the curb.  These had been used for carriages in the 1890s.  

Primrose Avenue postcard, around 1905

Now it is 2018 and a big storm has swirled into New York City.  Down on the street, you can hear cymbals as the snow crashes into the wind.  I remember this sound from my childhood when snowstorms occurred routinely from November to March.  We trudged to school through banks, drifts and slush.  Sometimes the driving snow stung our eyes.

During the winter of 1970, a blizzard socked the New York metropolitan area. It lasted a few days.  I can still conjure that wonderful sense of being stuck inside.  Even if one had an appointment, it would be impossible to get there.  Everything was closed; only our homes were open for business. 

One night, the snow finally stopped.  Looking out the window, we saw a few flakes trickling down.  My father and I decided to take a walk.  In boots and layers of sweaters coats scarves hats gloves, we stepped outside.

We started around the block and came to Primrose Avenue.  The last foot of snow had not been plowed and we couldn’t find the sidewalk, so we walked up the middle of the street. 

I remember a pink glow, which must have been the snow reflecting the streetlight.  Also the crunch, crunch of our boots.  I also recall, dimly, our conversation.

My father reading to me (left) and my brother (right), early 1960s

My father was a talented writer and editor who worked largely with dry bureaucratic prose.  At heart, though, he had a true literary sensibility.  Because of him, there were volumes of Whitman, Dylan Thomas, Housman, and Keats in the house; also such novels as The Naked and the Dead, Of Human Bondage, and Johnny Got His Gun.  My mother recommended King’s Row and anything by John O’Hara, but he urged on me Lolita and You Can’t Go Home Again.

After his death, I found notes for the book reviews that he wrote during his years as a newspaper reporter.  It was a good way to make extra money and get free books. In 1947, for example, his reviews included All the King's Men and a thriller called The Big Clock.*

Who knows why he also was reviewing Boswell’s Life of Johnson (published in 1791), but of it he noted simply: “Had to choke this one down.”

Back to Primrose Avenue. 

As we walked through the pink light and dwindling snowflakes, he imparted something magical to me.  I believe it involved the exhilarating connection between literature and experience.  The scene, the shadow, the words and characters – you could always return to them, or call them up.  And of course, what he said turned out to be true.

That’s why I’m glad that New York is finally getting a snowstorm, this snowstorm, the first one since his death.  It feels like I’ve crossed a continent to get back to Primrose Avenue and he’s there with me, talking and walking in the unplowed world.

Throughout his life, my father jotted down the titles
and authors of books he wanted to read.

*The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing was made into a movie starring Ray Milland and Maureen O'Sullivan.   

See posts November 16, 2016 and November 8, 2017.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Snow and Ice

"It was a lithographer's dream of winter"
(from Letting Go by Philip Roth, 1962)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Laugh Died on Her Lips

Socializing in the Tenderloin District, 1900s.
(still from a film by Thomas A. Edison)

At dawn they spilled onto the narrow sidewalk outside an opium den.  It was the winter of 1908.  The three women and their younger male companions had begun the evening carousing in Manhattan’s Tenderloin district, a treacherous neighborhood filled with thieves and slummers drawn like moths to saloons, brothels, and gambling parlors.

Now, as the clock struck 5:30, drunk and stoned out of their heads, they staggered along Bayard Street in Chinatown, clinging to each other and veering away from the alleys where hooligans lurked.  They made their way toward the elevated train, heading uptown.

No one was looking out for anyone else. 

The women were Annie Conning, who worked as a maid at the Chelsea Hotel, Rose McGuire and Mabel Cuzzie.  The three men would remain unidentified.    

Convergence of elevated lines, Chatham Square, 1900s.

Once on the train, they passed around an open bottle of champagne while yelling, laughing and taunting the other passengers, who were laborers trying to grab some sleep on the way to work.

One of the group, a man who sported a gray coat, dozed off.  While he was sleeping, the others took his watch, chain and tie pin. When he awoke and realized his watch was gone, he leaped toward Mabel and grabbed at the muff she wore on her hands. 

Then a gun went off and Queenie, who had risen from her seat, dropped dead on the floor, shot through the heart.

A pistol fell from the muff.  The man in the gray coat picked it up, slipped it into his pocket, and swiftly left the train with the other two men.

Meanwhile, the motorman and conductor seized Rose and Mabel.  The police booked them and learned that Annie Conning went by the name “Queenie.”  Of the three women, the cops reported, Queenie was the “oldest and the handsomest.”  

Mabel had met Queenie and the man in the gray coat, whose name was Ed, the previous night in a bar on 26th Street.

The next day, the denizens of the Tenderloin flocked downtown to the morgue.  Queenie’s employer, Mrs. Callahan of the Chelsea Hotel, identified Annie Conning and explained that she came from a wealthy Delaware family and had a husband out there somewhere.

The police detained Rose McGuire and sent Mabel Cuzzie to the Tombs, Manhattan’s notoriously grim prison.

Postcard of the horrible Tombs, 1900s.

A letter carrier named Samuel Lipschitz who had been a passenger on the train and observed the “antics of the party” (in the words of the police) swore that the killing was unintentional.  Still, while the inquest may have vindicated both women, Rose and Mabel paid a price whereas the three men just disappeared into the workday.    

The conduct of the group typifies antisocial behavior among working-class New Yorkers during the early twentieth century, with the Tenderloin playing a big part.  After the 1863 draft riots, the areas populated by immigrants stabilized, if uneasily.  But the Tenderloin never quite returned to a neighborhood of peaceable Irish Catholics.  In 1900, it saw another race riot while crime and prostitution increased.*

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the group of six began their evening in the Tenderloin and that nothing good came of it.  But alas, poor Queenie.  After the denouement, did anyone care that she was gone?

An opium den in Chinatown, New York City;
early twentieth century

*The diarist George Templeton Strong called the Tenderloin a “noctivagous strumpetocracy.” It’s an odd phrase, evocative of Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism,” which means night-walking (noctivagous) prostitutes (strumpets) in control of the government.