Friday, May 28, 2021

Mom & Me & Pal Joey

Original cast recording, Pal Joey, 
Broadway, 1952

I was thinking about an old musical, Pal Joey, which debuted on Broadway in 1940, and my parents saw in revival in 1953, when they had just moved back to New York from Dayton, Ohio.

The playbill for Pal Joey was buried in a carton in the attic of the house where I grew up, along with dozens of other playbills. The soundtrack was stashed among the LPs in the den on the first floor where the record player lived.

The record player was built into the far corner of a wooden window seat that looked onto the front porch. To use it, you had to lift up a heavy lid, which was designed to lean back against the wall and stayed put most of the time. In the large hole below were the turntable and controls, accessible with a few clunky maneuvers.

I’ve never seen anything like that record player except in my childhood home. I’m pretty certain that my parents designed it when they moved into the house. They liked to innovate whenever possible but had varying success.

The records were categorized in a cabinet, also below the window seat: Brigadoon, South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun, West Side Story, and so forth. Between the images on the front of the album and the story summarized on the back, it was possible for a child to figure out the characters and what the songs meant. 

Pal Joey was based on a selection of short stories by the writer John O’Hara, previously published in The New Yorker magazine, who offered them to the songwriting team of Rodgers and Hart to transform into a musical.

Joey, the central character, is a likeable opportunist and womanizer, the emcee of a Chicago nightclub who longs to run his own show. While courting a chorus girl, he starts an affair with a society dame who gives him the money to start his own club, Chez Joey. In the second act, after a blackmail plot is revealed, Joey blithely carries on in search of more prey.

An eminent theater critic, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, applauded Pal Joey when it opened on Christmas 1940, closing his review with a question that became legendary—at least among a certain generation:

“Although ‘Pal Joey’ is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” 

Screenshot of Brooks Atkinson's review of the 1940
Broadway production of Pal Joey, starring Gene Kelly

“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “I Could Write a Book,” are among the unforgettable songs that Rodgers and Hart wrote for Pal Joey. My favorite is “Zip,” performed by a newspaper reporter who plans to write an article about Joey’s new club and regales him with stories of famous people she has interviewed. In “Zip,” she sings about one of the interviewees, Gypsy Rose Lee, who had revealed what she thought about while performing a striptease.*

Today, “Zip” is astonishing because its lyrics assume a relatively high level of cultural literacy among the audience. And that’s also why the song is so funny.

            Zip! Walter Lippmann wasn’t brilliant today.
            Zip! Will Saroyan ever write a great play?
            Zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night,
            Zip! And I think that Schopenhauer was right . . .
            I don’t like a deep contralto
            Or a man whose voice is alto
            Zip! I’m a heterosexual.
            Zip! It took intellect to master my art
            Zip! Who the hell is Margie Hart?

It goes on for two more verses:

            Zip! I consider Dali’s paintings passé.
            Zip! Can they make the Metropolitan pay?
            Zip! Rip Van Winkle on the stage would be smart.
            Zip! Tyrone Power would be cast in the part . . .

It fell to my forty-year old mother to explain Lippmann, Saroyan, and Schopenhauer to ten-year old me, not to mention Margie Hart (a striptease competitor), Lili St. Cyr (another burlesque dancer), the words heterosexual and misogynistic, and more.

I’m thanking her today on her 93rd birthday.

Newspaper caricature of Jean Casto performing
"Zip," 1940 Broadway production
(New York Public Library for the Performing Arts) 

*Here is Elaine Stritch singing a shortened version of “Zip” along with a bit of stage banter (from a 2001 solo show, “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty”). She performed the song in the 1952 Broadway production.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Print Dealer's World


Park Avenue Hotel, late nineteenth century

There he was at the reunion dinner of 1914, standing in a ballroom at the Park Avenue Hotel, rubbing shoulders with the other men who had dropped out of the City College class of 1880.

You could hardly blame him for shrugging off the degree. By 1914 Robert Fridenberg had risen to the top echelon of print dealers in New York City. A fixture at art auctions who routinely carried off prize engravings, he had one year earlier purchased The Burgis View, a 1717 mint condition print of the New York City skyline seen across the harbor from Brooklyn.

Triumphantly, Robert sold Burgis to an anonymous collector for the ungodly sum of $20,000, about eight times the price previously paid for any print of New York City. Within a few years the collector’s identity would be revealed, but for now Robert reveled in the speculation surrounding “the greatest find of a rare print in a century,” he told the New York Times.

 Partial screenshot of newspaper story about Burgis View

Robert had traveled a ways since 1880 when he abandoned formal education. Living on West Fifty-Second Street with his widowed mother and seven younger brothers and sisters, he had decided to get out of New York. His older brother Albert, a physician and head of the household, may have tried to persuade him not to move out west. Robert went anyway.

He shows up in Arizona Territory in 1882, one year after the Southern Pacific Transportation Company linked Tucson to a transcontinental railroad. His trade is not listed in the Graham County census. Perhaps he is part of a wave of Jewish settlers who are populating Tucson and Tombstone. Perhaps he has decided to become a Mormon.

Neither was the case. Rather, Robert had joined several thousand men from all over the world, from China and Russia, England, Ireland, Mexico, and Germany, hoping to make a fortune in the territory’s Copper Mountain Mining District. The miners, largely under the age of 40, lived in shacks in Clifton, Pima, Oro and surrounding southeastern towns. 

 Copper Mountain, Arizona, nineteenth century

They labored at the top of a canyon whose high cliffs were cut by the switchback San Francisco River. The ore was loaded onto wagons pulled by mules or cable cars that maneuvered down steep inclines well over 1,000 feet long. Once at the river’s edge, the ore was transported to refineries via baby-gauge railway. 

R. Fridenburg (misspelled), 1882 census

Robert lasted a few years. Despite the vagaries of the copper market, he may have returned to New York City with a pile of money. He certainly returned to a new profession.

By 1886 Robert was the proprietor of a small art shop on Forty-Second Street where – unlike most dealers who specialized in works by European artists such as Daumier – he sold engravings of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Soon he moved on to Currier & Ives prints, purchasing them for $1 and selling them for $2. 

Robert may have anticipated that wealthy collectors would eventually find American art and furnishings worthy of display in their homes. The trend began during the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. By 1890, there were historic preservation societies, a steady stream of patriotic commemorations, and fierce competition for Americana.


Robert’s parents, Henry and Bertha Fridenberg, were German Jewish immigrants who arrived in New York City during the 1850s when Nathaniel Currier and James Ives first set forth to capture old New York.

He was born on leap day, 1860, and grew up on the Lower East Side where his father worked first as a pawnbroker and then as manager of a public bath. Robert once recalled fishing in the swamps along the banks of the East River.

In 1890 he married Miriam Heynman Barnett of Philadelphia and they became parents of Robert Jr. and Paul. Mysteriously, both sons changed their surnames to “Perez” when the US entered World War I. Perez is a common name among Sephardic Jews. Robert Perez became a physician and Paul Perez started as a newspaper reporter and became a screenwriter of English and Spanish language films.

By the time Robert Fridenberg died in 1946, his hair was completely white and he sported a big white mustache and gold rimmed spectacles. He claimed to possess two million prints and engravings that filled three floors and the basement of 22 West Fifty-Sixth Street.

22 West Fifty-Sixth, left storefront, 1940
(City of New York Municipal Archives)

I don’t want to believe that Robert valued the prints exclusively for the profit, notwithstanding his evident delight with the newspaper coverage of each winning bid.

Surely he possessed a genuine affinity with the images of early American life and the landscapes and streetscapes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New York. Did he wish he could have steered that cart full of crates and barrels down that Broadway? Mailed a letter at that post office? Escorted that woman into the Crystal Palace?

No print in the world can reveal that information.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Gotta Get to the Fair


Manhattan, Blizzard of 1888
(Library of Congress)

There was a young man named James Buchanan, born in the year 1888 when a monumental March blizzard dumped as much as 55 inches of snow up and down the East Coast. More than 400 deaths were reported.     

The storm would be a turning point for cities, in particular. Telegraph, telephone, and electrical wires collapsed under ice, snow, and heavy winds. Cable cars, not to mention carriages pulled by horses, were stopped in their tracks. Everything ground to a halt.

Clearly, the utilities and transportation that enabled urban society to prosper would have to be modernized, and no better time than the late nineteenth century. 

American ingenuity had been brilliantly showcased in 1876 at the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia: the typewriter, sewing machine, mechanical calculator, and Corliss steam engine. During the coming decades, as the pace of daily life accelerated, a steady stream of new devices would promote convenience and efficiency.

The need for innovation was not restricted to industry. A demand for information also drove invention, the natural outcome of America’s growing literacy rate and the proliferation of newspapers and magazines during the decades following the Civil War.  

Poole’s Index, the first major index to periodical literature, had made its debut in 1882. The idea of William Frederick Poole, chief librarian at the Newberry Library in Chicago, who hatched it while still a student at Yale, the index would become a project of the American Library Association. Poole and William I. Fletcher, librarian of Amherst College, produced six volumes, the last in 1908.

William Frederick Poole
(Newberry Library)

At that point, Poole’s Index morphed into the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature (published by the H.W. Wilson Company to this day). The books were large and heavy. Like Poole’s, they were used in libraries by the reading public.    

To better serve business, an Ohioan named Frank Burrelle established a clipping bureau in New York City in 1888. It is said that he came up with the idea after overhearing two businessmen -- possibly in a saloon -- discuss the need to collect news stories about their own companies.* The great success of Burrelle’s Press Clipping Bureau would have been impossible without Frank’s partner, his wife Nellie.     

Advertisement for Burrelle's, 1910
(Museum of Public Relations)

That brings us back to James Buchanan, who worked as an office boy at Burrelle’s for three weeks during the summer of 1904.

The son of Scottish immigrants, fifteen-year-old James lived in Brooklyn with his father, Robert, a boiler master, and his mother, Elizabeth. He was one of eleven siblings, evidently the only Buchanan child who dropped out of school and started running around town when he was ten years old.  Sometimes he would disappear for weeks, his mother told a newspaper reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

 “He has given us a good deal of trouble,” she said. “James is the only wild one.”

Mother of Young James Buchanan
Fears He’s a Criminal

What precipitated the publicity, in August 1904, is that James stole $65 from Burrelle’s. The manager of the bureau, an amateur historian named Charles Hemstreet, had asked James to go to the bank to change large bills to small bills.

James did not return. Instead, he headed west. He had been talking about the Louisiana Purchase Exposition – the St. Louis World’s Fair – since it opened in April, Mrs. Buchanan said. Hemstreet agreed that James had an “intense desire” to visit the Fair.

Who could blame him? I can see him rocking in his seat on the Ferris wheel, 265 feet in the air, leaning over the side to take in the Textiles, Electricity-Machinery, and Transportation Buildings, the Lagoon, the Crystal Palace Tower, Observatory and Wireless Telegraph Station, the Palace of the Arts . . .

 . . . and spending that $65 on cotton candy, ice cream cones, hotdogs, hamburgers – palatable new delights introduced at the fair!

Surely James had a great time in St. Louis. By September, when the fair closed, he had presumably wended his way back east, where he would settle down and marry and become, at various points, a clerk, a bookkeeper, and the assistant superintendent of a plumbing supply house.

There’s one odd aspect of James’s story: the discrepancy between his mother’s description of her son and that of Charles Hemstreet, who considered James to be a “model boy.” The New York Times reported:

The press-clipping bureau people thought the boy a jewel. He parted his hair daily, spoke in a soft voice, was never heard to use bad language, had a neatly folded, clean handkerchief every morning, and never shirked his work except to read a New Testament that he always carried with him.

On his second day at the clipping bureau he astonished manager Charles Hemstreet by asking to be allowed to attend his Bible class. The manager was so astonished that he complied. The boy even got the manager so interested that he tried to help him in his studies, but found the boy almost as proficient as he was.

So, which was it? Can the wild one also be a student of the Bible who parts his hair daily?


*Burrelle's was not the first clipping bureau; the service existed in Paris and London by 1880, and in Chicago and New York City by the mid-1880s.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Psychiatrist

Bookplate, Smith Ely Jelliffe

In 1942, a few years before Smith Ely Jelliffe died at his summer home at Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains, he started to think about selling his vast collection of books and journals. Twenty thousand, it was estimated – volumes not dollars.

Jelliffe had to part with the library because his savings were decimated in 1929 when the stock market crashed. But he intended to keep a few thousand of his most beloved books about psychiatry, histology, and pharmacology, not to mention Tolstoy and Shakespeare.

I imagine the collection precisely organized from floor to ceiling. Each June the doctor ships his favorites from the family’s West Side apartment to the country house. In the fall the books return to the city.    

An “alienist” who gained renown testifying at some of the famous murder trials of the day, Jelliffe played an important part in the emerging field of psychiatry during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Yet he never fully entered the pantheon with Freud, Jung, Adler, and others.

The psychiatrist, early nineteenth century
(NIH: U.S. National Library of Medicine)

Some historians theorize that the psychiatrist, twice married and father of five, fell out of fashion because his second wife, Belinda (“Bee” or “Lady Bee” if you knew her well), alienated his friends and colleagues. Indeed, she did cause a stir with a shocking autobiography, thinly disguised as a novel, in 1936. Bee had once been her husband’s patient and she spared no one. 


 When Jelliffe was born in Brooklyn in 1866, industry already clogged the waterfront and polluted the creeks. The Navy Yard had been around since 1801. Yet swaths of what was still its own city resembled an old Dutch landscape, with churches, shops, and houses scattered along dirt roads. There were ponds where boys jumped in and stole each other’s clothes.

The son of a public-school principal, Jelliffe never played hooky. In fact, he would zip through the syllabus and ask for more. While studying at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute he developed a particular interest in microorganisms and materia medica, remedies used in the practice of medicine.

After receiving an M.D. from Columbia University around 1890, Jelliffe traveled to Europe. For the rest of his life, he would refer reverentially to his Wanderjahr.

He walked everywhere he could, crisscrossing mountains and valleys. He visited the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Italy, France, and England. Along the way he attended conferences and met with scientists, expanding his knowledge of germ theory and microbiology.

A youngish Victorian, Jelliffe complained about the licentiousness of the Europeans. He was grateful to live in America “even with its Wanamakers and Anthony Comstocks,” he wrote to his fiancée Helena Leeming. The prudishness would disappear by the time he immersed himself in psychoanalysis; perhaps even sooner during his honeymoon. 

Traveling in Europe as a young man, Jelliffe developed
wide-ranging intellectual interests. 

Returning to the United States, Jelliffe married Helena, a belle of Park Slope who had studied botany at Barnard College. He took a job with the Brooklyn Board of Health where he analyzed drinking water and held teaching positions at the New York College of Pharmacy, Fordham University, and St. Mary’s Training School for Nurses.

Amid stunning advances in scientific and medical research, Jelliffe’s interest shifted to psychotherapy and psychosomatic illness. Now a visiting neurologist at City Hospital on Blackwell’s Island (Roosevelt Island), he treated criminals and the mentally ill – work that precipitated his role as an expert witness in the trial of Harry K. Thaw, husband of the sultry actress Evelyn Nesbit. Her affair with the architect Stanford White drove Thaw to murder the eminent New Yorker.    

Thaw did the deed in a jealous rage, firing three shots at White’s head and shoulder during a late-night show in an open-air theater perched on the roof of the original Madison Square Garden on Twenty-Sixth Street – designed by Stanford White.  

One of several psychiatrists who examined Thaw for the defense, Jelliffe coined the term “brainstorm” to describe Thaw’s mental state while planning and committing the murder. Jelliffe testified at two trials (the first ended in a mistrial). In 1908 Thaw was found innocent by reason of insanity and sentenced to imprisonment for life at a state asylum. Eventually he was freed.


Despite financial debt, Jelliffe seems to have been a happy man. He often traveled to Europe with Helena and found his work stimulating. A prolific writer, he dove into the world of medical publishing with his longtime collaborator William Alanson White. They co-founded a monograph series on mental illness in 1908 and the first American journal devoted to psychoanalysis, The Psychoanalytic Review, in 1913. Later Jelliffe and White wrote Diseases of the Nervous System (1915), a widely respected textbook used in neurology and psychiatry.

Helena died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1916, leaving Jelliffe with oversight of their five children, ages fourteen to 21. Within a year, however, he remarried to Belinda Dobson, a nurse 24 years his junior who had wended her way to New York City from a miserable childhood replete with suicide, murder, violence, and drunkenness in North Carolina and Oklahoma.*

Smith Ely Jelliffe and Belinda, passport photo, 1920s

With Belinda, Smith Ely Jelliffe continued to travel abroad and narrowed his focus to psychosomatic illness, a longtime interest that grew out of his work in neurology.

In Sketches in Psychosomatic Medicine (1939), Jelliffe invoked the Socratic principle, as related by Plato: “One looks to the cure of the ‘soul’ in order to cure the body.”

He died in September 1945, five years after his retirement.   


*Belinda would publish a stunning memoir, For Dear Life (1936) and has been the subject of some scholarship. She died in 1979.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A Long Way from Junction City

Postcard of Junction City, early twentieth century

Someday I’ll get to Junction City, Kansas, where Alice Edwards came of age during the early twentieth century. She had six brothers and sisters, and her daddy went back and forth to Ohio where he’d spent his youth and had another large family with a woman who was not his wife.

When Alice died at the age of 95 in 1993, her daughter said, “It was a long journey for a little girl from a wheat field in Kansas to an old woman in Maine.” 

Author of 23 children’s books about nature, Alice once described her goal as a writer: “To combine a sense of wonder, beauty and appreciation of the world around us without in any way sacrificing scientific accuracy.”

Junction City is located in the Flint Hills, which run longitudinally through central Kansas. Nearly 10,000 square miles, it is the largest area of tallgrass prairie left in the world. The undulating landscape, cast in green and gold, is breathtakingly beautiful.

I know that because I’ve been there, although not to Alice’s hometown.

The days of Junction City started in 1858. The town flourished on the banks of the Kaw River in the shadow of Ft. Riley, which brimmed with Indian killers led by George Armstrong Custer. During the Civil War, Ft. Riley was a defensive post and prison for Confederate soldiers, but fell into disuse for many years after.  

Wild Bill Hickok came to Junction City in 1871, stayed at the Empire Hotel, shot wild birds and restored order at the request of the city marshal. After the outlaws left, everyone went back to farming, lumbering and working in the grain mills and sawmills. 

Junction City, late nineteenth century
Alice’s father John was a farmer. He must have had a terrible time during the 1870s when drought and grasshoppers wrecked the crops and betrayed the promise of the land. Around that time, many Plains farmers switched from corn to wheat, which proved to be less vulnerable to the plagues.  

Alice finished at the top of her high school class. I wasn’t surprised to find she was a debate star. The Kansas high schools have long produced competitive, talented debaters. In fact, the Kansas High School Debating League was established in 1910, just before Alice entered Junction City High School. 

The League sounds awfully dry and bureaucratic. But that was not the case!

The brainchild of Kansas native Richard Rees Price, who had gone off to Harvard for a master’s degree and returned full of verve, the League was part of the University of Kansas Extension Division over which Price presided. It embodied ambitious, progressive ideas about education, which usually is cause for excitement.

Richard Price and KU chancellor Frank Strong took a page from the University of Wisconsin, whose president enunciated the “Wisconsin Idea” in 1904: the boundaries of the university should be one and the same as the borders of the state. It was more than an idea, of course; really a plan to educate all citizens about government, society, and the big issues that wracked the world.

University of Kansas, 1910

Through KU’s Extension Division, any resident of Kansas – even in the smallest town, which probably lacked a public library – could borrow magazines, books, and digests to better understand the federal income tax, immigration restrictions, government ownership of the railways and so forth.

Alice at the University of Kansas

Needless to say, the flow of information was a boon to debaters like Alice and her champion teams.  

Like most American high schools, those in Kansas offered several curricula: commercial, vocational, college preparatory, and normal (teaching). In 1915, Alice received a combined degree in the latter two.

Alice standing, far left

Although members of the Edwards clan had not previously attended college, Alice unquestionably would. She went off to the University of Kansas, established in 1865 on Mount Oread, a treeless ridge in Lawrence about 100 miles west of Junction City. After college she taught in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie.

Alice married her first husband in Kansas in 1918. He was her ticket out of town. Wayne G. Martin, Jr. worked for the Miller Publishing Company, which owned newspapers nationwide. The couple moved east during the 1920s and lived in a suburb of New York City. They divorced in 1945.

Soon after, Alice married Earl Goudey, a science teacher in the local public school. She started writing books for children, including the “Here Come” nature series about deer, bears, bees, beavers, dolphins and other animals. Two of her books were runners-up for the Caldecott Medal.   

It was a long way from Junction City but a journey that had to be taken. Go west or east but go somewhere. Since the turn of the twentieth century, the farm had grown less and less attractive to young people.

In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a Commission on Country Life to study the social problems of rural America and figure out how to make agriculture a more appealing profession. But the tide kept turning.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do, but – well, I want to go places and see people. I want my mind to grow. I want to live where things happen on a big scale.”

So spoke a young woman to her small-town suitor in “The Ice Palace,” a 1920 story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Mom & Me & Pal Joey

Original cast recording,  Pal Joey,  Broadway, 1952 I was thinking about an old musical, Pal Joey , which debuted on Broadway in 1940, and m...