Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Blue Pencil Bohemia

Ashcan School painter George B. Luks sketched dinner
at Maria's restaurant in Greenwich Village, 1890s.

In the 1890s, Maria’s restaurant on MacDougal Street drew quite a crowd.

Maria herself presided over the kitchen. While she cooked and served, men and women toasted each other, recited poetry, sang, teased, and argued as they milled around large tables.

At Maria’s, a meal of soup and spaghetti, roasted meat, salad, fruit, cheese, coffee, and Chianti could be had for fifty cents.

That’s where Ernest Jarrold – a newspaperman also known as Mickey Finn – often was goaded into singing “Slattery’s Baby.” Like much of Jarrold’s output, the song mocked Irish immigrants:

 Oh, I’m sorry to shtate I’m in trouble of late,
              From Slattery as well as the childer;
              He tries all the while me patience to rile
              An’ me poor broken heart to bewilder. . .


               
A gentleman named Henry Collins Brown saw the performance and recalled it years later.

              At first I was surprised to find Henry hanging out in Greenwich Village. Somehow, the founder of the Museum of the City of New York didn’t seem like a good fit for raucous dinners.  Indeed, in his many books about the history of New York City, the Scottish immigrant could be a bit pretentious.

But Brown was foremost a social observer. His chronicles of nineteenth-century city life are remarkably detailed, whether he is describing the long-gone Vanderbilt mansions or the hole-in-the-wall arrangements that conveyed drinks to theater-goers. And it seems that he dove into every pocket and corner of late-nineteenth century Manhattan.

The scene at Maria’s restaurant, dubbed “Bohemian” by Brown and others, rolled merrily along gathering artists and storytellers. Soon enough, it attracted uptown swells who hoped to be fashionably edgy. When Maria’s moved to Fourteenth Street, everyone followed. Intent on preserving their fun and exclusivity, the artists and writers established The Pleiades Club which met weekly at the restaurant.*

After a while, the lawyer and poet William E. S. Fales broke off to start The Blue Pencil Club. He located it in lower Manhattan near Newspaper Row, and invited the bawdy Mickey Finn and other journalists and illustrators to come along.

Among club members, the cartoonist R. F. Outcault was especially well-known. He had made his name with the inimitable character, the Yellow Kid. The bald urchin in an oversized yellow nightshirt emerged from a comic strip about street kids called “Hogan’s Alley,” which Outcault created for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Soon enough, William Randolph Hearst lured Outcault to his New York Journal. It is said that the term “yellow journalism” originated with the circulation battle that ensued between the two papers. **

The Yellow Kid is front and center in this panel
from R. F. Outcault's "Hogan's Alley."

While the newspaper business conjoined the Blue Pencil members, they often boasted of their “Bohemianism,” and spectators agreed. However, newspapermen like Finn and Fales were a long way from the down-and-out, unconventional style that took its name from the early-nineteenth century vie de Boheme of Paris’ Latin Quarter.

They were almost as distant from the crowd that met at Pfaff’s, a cellar bar on Broadway where Walt Whitman and other Bohemians hung out before the Civil War. After all, the Blue Pencil Club men were regularly employed with bylines to boot.

Still they persisted in identifying as Bohemians, even declaring Fales “the King of Bohemia.” There are many histories of Bohemianism in the United States, some of which mention the crowd at Maria’s and none of which mention the Blue Pencil Club, but I won’t split hairs.     

Detail of 1890 demographic map of Manhattan
(Library of Congress)

What’s interesting is that the newspaper offices where these men worked were spitting distance from the neighborhoods where Chinese, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants had settled since the 1880s. In this way, they were right on top of the cultural and social changes brought about by new demographics.  

One change was the proliferation of ethnic table d’hote restaurants in lower Manhattan. In those days, table d’hote referred to a small restaurant, often in a cellar, where the chef and his family lived, cooked, and served dinner to guests. For these boisterous fellows, a visit to a Hungarian, Spanish, French, German or Romanian joint constituted a Bohemian adventure. 

Something new and different, unsullied by crowds hoping to be cool.

Besides, by 1900, a spaghetti dinner could be had at one of many “Italian eating houses,” recalled Henry Collins Brown.  



* The Pleiades Club continued into the 1930s.
** Since the cartoonist had not copyrighted “Hogan’s Alley” or its characters, the World was able to continue the strip by employing a different illustrator and retitling it. That illustrator was George B. Luks, who went on to become a member of the Ashcan School of painting. Later, Outcault created Buster Brown, a comic strip character as well as the mascot of the Brown Shoe Company of St Louis.

See posts: 1/25/17, 2/1/17, 2/14/17.

1 comment:

  1. I'm almost seeing a "Rent" - like musical. By the way "The Knick" captures the culture and time quite well.

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