Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Literary Days of James L. Ford

When James L. Ford died in 1928 – blind; both legs amputated – he and his beloved sister Mary had long forsaken the city. 

In 1913 James purchased an old cottage, early nineteenth-century with a white picket fence, in Brookhaven Hamlet on the south shore of Long Island.  Then around 1920 he and Mary decided to move there permanently, bidding farewell to an equally nineteenth-century brick townhouse on West Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village. 

The Copley portraits and mahogany chairs went with them, whisked away from the “large new hippodrome city,” as one of James Ford’s friends described it, “in which everyone must be either a tiger or a ring master or a spectator.” 

A decade earlier, as James swam in anesthesia in Roosevelt Hospital, he reportedly was willing to depart for good.  But he stayed alive for Mary, cheerful and busy to the end according to visitors.  

Caricature of James L. Ford
The siblings were born in the mid-1850s and grew up during the “Flash Age” – James’ term, which I’ve never seen anywhere outside of his own work.  That is what he called the post-Civil War era of newly minted fortunes and ill-gotten gains, “vulgarity, crime and loose living,” as he wrote in Vanity Fair; the Tweed Ring in power, the uninspired emergence of the brownstone city. 

Neither James nor Mary – a fierce feminist – opposed change per se, but their spirits resonated largely with the daguerreotypes stashed in the top drawer of the writing desk in the parlor.

The family descended from New England colonists.  After marrying in 1850, the parents moved to St. Louis.  By 1860 they had returned east and settled in Brooklyn, now with two sons. 

For several years James studied at a boarding school in Stockbridge, Mass. while his older brother Arthur, a graduate of the Columbia School of Mines, became a railroad engineer.  Arthur was in Colon, Panama, repairing a bridge, when he died of yellow fever in 1880.  Fortuitously he had already introduced James to the Railroad Gazette, a job which launched his younger brother’s career in journalism.

 Railroad Gazette, 1876

James’ first assignment for the trade journal was to describe a new industrial process that converted coal-dust into fuel.

I shall never forget the pride and delight that filled my soul as I stepped aboard the Hudson River steamboat.  “Little do these passengers dream that I am a reporter,” I said to myself as I walked proudly down the gangway . . .  Still greater was my delight when I read my account in the columns of the Gazette and realized that I was actually in print.

A perfect summation of the pleasure of the byline.

From the Railroad Gazette Ford leapt to the New York Ledger, the New York Sun, and the New York Herald.  He made his biggest mark as a theater critic at the Herald for more than two decades, until the newspaper mogul Frank Munsey purchased it in 1920.  James resigned immediately in protest and disgust, for Munsey boasted a terrible reputation for ravaging the guts of the newspapers he owned.

Cartoon depicting the ruthless newspaper tycoon, Frank Munsey

Undoubtedly present at every major theater opening between 1880 and 1920, James hobnobbed with the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanora Duse, the Barrymores, Edwin Booth, and George Arliss. 

He also documented the underbelly of American theater – minstrelsy that promoted the Uncle Tom stereotype and the “New York Negro,” a dandy in a top hat and suit.  The comedy team of Harrigan & Hart, along with performers like “Johnny Wild” who colored their faces with burnt cork, drove these popular shows well into the 1920s. 

Illustrations of Johnny Wild characters appeared in
Ford's 1921 memoir, Forty-Odd Years in the Literary Shop.

A sharp social observer, James regaled readers with tales of actors, agents, socialites, Knickerbockers, Bohemians, and women and men of letters in his candid books and articles. 

Another opium smoker was Pearl Eytinge, a woman of vivacious charm and no mean accomplishment . . .  I have seen her lying in a joint in Bleecker Street reading poetry to a pickpocket beside her; I have seen her on Mr. Wallack’s stage playing an ingenue part to which she was ill-suited by temperament and manner of life; and I have seen her at one of the great masked balls at the Academy of Music, the center of a group of fashionable admirers. 

Pearl Eytinge
(from Find-a-Grave)

James’ final book, Forty-Odd Years in the Literary Shop, was his best.  On page four he reflected:

The shifting decades offer a long vista, dim in sundry places but shining brightly at its furthest end on a wide, shady garden where, under wise and loving parental guidance I had a little sister to play with and a kind elder brother to kick me when I tried to be funny. 

Brookhaven home of the Fords, 1920s

Friday, March 20, 2020

My Last TP

There’s a wonderful poem by the Victorian poet Robert Browning (1812-1889), “My Last Duchess.”

It begins

            That’s my last duchess painted on the wall
            Looking as if she were alive.

The speaker is the Duke of Ferrara who is showing a visitor a painting of his deceased wife.  The painting resides behind a curtain, which the Duke has swept aside.

It happens that the visitor is the courtier of a nobleman whose daughter the Duke hopes to marry next.  As the visitor gazes at the beautiful portrait, the Duke explains that the Duchess had an extraordinary smile.  But it angered him that his wife smiled indiscriminately because he wished her to share the smile – which appears in all its radiance in the painting – exclusively with him.

When the Duke commanded his wife to smile only at him, “Then all smiles stopped together,” he recalls.

In my silliness I have taken a photograph of my last duchess smiling at me.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Dark Horse? The Tale of Midy Morgan

Maria "Midy" Morgan (undated photo)

Midy Morgan is young and energetic, six feet tall with kind blue eyes and a swinging gait.  Born in 1828, she has grown up on her family’s estate in County Cork. She is a superb horsewoman who loves to foxhunt. 

But now it’s 1865 and Midy’s down and out, having been banished from home because she isn’t a man.

Rallying, she sails off to Rome with her mother and sister, an aspiring artist.  “Clad in deepest mourning, with a heavy heart and an extremely light purse,” Midy would later describe herself. 

She already speaks French and now she learns Italian. Segueing into society, she takes up foxhunting “on the Campagna,” according to an American newspaper. Her fearless riding draws admiration.

Before long it’s 1868 and Midy’s accepting a gold hunting watch and diamond brooch from the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II.  The portly monarch with a ridiculous mustache is a horseman himself, and very grateful for her completion of a challenging mission.

He had asked her to purchase for him six fine mares, so she traveled back to Ireland and spent several months looking and negotiating.  Prizes in hand, she valiantly accompanied the horses across the Channel and led them over the Alps to their new home in the Royal Stables at Florence.

King Victor Emmanuel II

America was yet to come.  There Midy would become one of the nation’s first woman journalists, covering horse-racing, the stockyards, the market, husbandry, and the transportation of livestock for the New York Times for more than 25 years.

Midy’s life had the quality of a fairy-tale. After the death of her county squire father, she managed the farm while her older brother fought in the Crimean War.  Midy turned out to be a brilliant manager who coaxed large crops of wheat and vegetables from the brown soil and claimed high prices for her cattle and thoroughbred horses. She also studied veterinary medicine with one of the Queen’s surgeons who examined all domestic animals that arrived at the port of Cork.

It was fortuitous that her brother kicked her off the farm.  She got to see the world and succeed on her own terms.

Born Maria Morgan, Midy never boasted about her many triumphs.  Perpetually facing hostile men who felt threatened by her competence and knowledge, she won them over with her wit and honesty. She nearly always dressed in black, sported a felt hat, and strode around in brown brogans.   

Midy loved Italy, but the American consul – T.B. Lawrence, heir to a New England textile manufacturing fortune – persuaded her to move to the United States.  She arrived in 1869 armed with letters of introduction to Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times; Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Herald, and Leonard Jerome, a financier who built the Jerome Park Racetrack (with August Belmont, Sr., a banker who invested the Rothschild fortune and founded the Belmont Stakes).  Jerome would become the grandfather of Winston Churchill. 

Scandals and corruption swirled
around the business of transporting
cattle throughout the 19th century.

Unfortunately, Henry Raymond had died recently.  His replacement, the well-whiskered John Bigelow, told Midy that the only opening at the Times was for a cattle and livestock reporter.  Of course, she took it and never looked back.  She became a respected authority, especially about cruelty to animals.  Her writing inspired reforms.  And she never minded kicking back in a barroom along the road.

Over time, Midy became friendly with Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, former presidents Grant and Arthur, and longtime Senator Chauncey M. Depew.  They made her a member of the American Jockey Club. 

Newspaper Row, Manhattan, mid-1870s:  Times Building (left);
U.S. Post Office (center right)

Jerome Park Racetrack; first race, 1872

In 1873 the New York State Legislature invited Midy to speak about the need for skilled agricultural workers.  Advocating reformatory schools where vagrant girls and boys would receive an “agricultural education,” she said:

To me it matters not whether a man dies worth $5000 or $100,000, so that he has spent a useful, valuable life.  Better does it appear to me to own stock on the boundless prairies, to own flocks and herds, than to own stocks in Wall Street.  There is to me a woeful love of city excitement in young Americans; therefore, any system that would turn the current of youthful life into free and pure channels of agricultural pursuits would be a blessing to society at large.  

In fact, within two decades, farming would start to lose its luster for young people.  In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed the Country Life Commission to advise on how to stem the exodus from farms to cities.  Improved agricultural education was a centerpiece of the proposals, but the trend was never reversed.

Images of the Union Stockyards in Chicago, 1880s

Midy remained a reporter until her death in 1892.  She had been ill since falling on the ice at the Jersey City stockyards one year earlier.  Anxiety plagued her as well.  Having lost money in a real estate deal, she supplemented her reporter’s salary by working part-time as a station agent for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

In 1885, Midy launched her dream of a house in the Staten Island neighborhood of Livingston along its fashionable north shore.  Perversely, she worked with neither a contractor nor an architect.  Over a period of seven years arose a three-story brick building with a mansard roof.  A chimney ran through the center of each floor, which consisted of one large room, and an iron staircase led to the top.  The dining room walls were covered with painted seashells.  The bathrooms contained plunge baths, which were akin to small pools.

Midy’s sister, the artist, took charge of the decoration.  She lived in the house but Midy never did.  The house no longer exists but Midy endures somewhere, a daring rider of the Gilded Age.

"Cupid with a Dog," bracelet by Luigi Saulini,
parting gift from King Victor Emmanuel to 
Midy Morgan when she left Italy for the U.S. in 1869.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Wanamaker, Ogden, Whalen & Powell: A Story about Race

Wanamaker's at Astor Place, 1920s

In 1928, 200,000 black people resided in New York City and 250 of them were employees of the department store known as Wanamaker’s.  

Founded by John Wanamaker in Philadelphia in 1876, the same year as the nation’s centennial, the store employed African-Americans through Reconstruction and into the Jim Crow era.  Wanamaker’s devout Christianity led him to believe in racial equality – to the extent that the times permitted.

John Wanamaker

The brilliant entrepreneur was also influenced by his friend Robert Curtis Ogden, who joined Wanamaker’s soon after it opened and conceived of the store’s innovative advertising and marketing schemes. 

Robert C. Ogden had been committed to the education of black Americans since 1874, when he joined the board of the Hampton Institute.  The Institute, established after the Civil War as a teachers’ training school, provided agricultural and industrial education – although little in the way of academics – to freed slaves. *

Nature study brochure
Hampton Institute, 1908

In 1896, Ogden moved from Philadelphia to New York City to manage a new branch of Wanamaker’s located downtown near Astor Place.   

There he drew admiration from black employees who soon formed the Robert Curtis Ogden Association of the John Wanamaker Store.  Its purpose was to celebrate the achievements of the store’s black employees; for example, the association awarded annual prizes for achievement in musical composition and performance.

In 1905 Wanamaker and Ogden addressed the National Negro Business League, founded by the educator Booker T. Washington to support black-owned businesses.  Their remarks received flattering reviews in the New York Age, one of the nation’s foremost African-American newspapers.

Robert Curtis Ogden

But contemporary scholars note that the speeches were patronizing and that both men denied the existence of systematic racism.  Further, it is now evident that Wanamaker’s nonwhite employees were rarely promoted. They remained in menial jobs behind the scenes with the exception of elevator operators.  

However, the store’s employment practices were tolerant compared to other businesses.

After World War I, for example, white veterans lobbied the Fifth Avenue department stores to fire black elevator operators and give them the jobs instead.  Saks and Best & Co. obliged but Wanamaker’s and Bloomingdale’s did not buckle.

One could argue that Wanamaker and Ogden were racists, yet they rose above the shameful standards of the day.

John Wanamaker died in 1922, by which time his son Rodman had complete control of the company.  While Rodman’s three passions were music, aviation, and American Indian culture, he continued the work of the Ogden Association and the store’s relatively liberal hiring policy.

Everything changed when Rodman Wanamaker died in March 1928 and a glad-hander named Grover Whalen, a longtime store employee who had been one of Rodman’s assistants, stepped into the top position.

Perpetually doffing a homburg hat, Whalen dabbled in everything: politics, public relations, ceremonies.  He did have some good ideas such as the creation of WNYC, the city’s radio station.  Also, he was a fabulous greeter of General Pershing, Charles A. Lindbergh, and numerous famous people who visited New York.

But he wasn’t great for Wanamaker’s.  Just a few months after Whalen stepped in, the New York Age ran a front-page story about a change in the store's longstanding policy.

It turned out that a white woman customer had observed employees eating together in the integrated company cafeteria and complained to management.  Whalen immediately issued an order to segregate the lunchroom.  In protest, black employees began eating in local restaurants rather than in the cafeteria, but Whalen remained unbowed.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, Grover Whalen could not resist the call of City Hall.  Within a few months he was gone from Wanamaker’s, having accepted the job of Police Commissioner offered to him by playboy Mayor Jimmy Walker.   

“There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick,” declared Whalen.  Communists and bootleggers counted among his many targets.

Over time, Whalen’s views on race might have evolved.  But they did not. 

In his autobiography, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first black member of the U.S. House of Representatives, recalled visiting Whalen around 1935 just after the former police commissioner had been named chair of the New York World’s Fair Corporation.  The fair would open in 1939.

We went to ask him for employment for qualified Negro people.  He offered us token jobs.  We refused them.  The slogan of the fair was “Building the World of Tomorrow,” and I can remember telling Grover Whalen: “You cannot have a World of Tomorrow from which you have excluded colored people.”

Mr. Whalen, suave and urbane, smiled beneath his carefully trimmed mustache and said, “I do not see why the world of today or tomorrow of necessity has to have colored people playing an important role.”

“A loss shared by all New Yorkers,” came the cry when Whalen died in 1962.  Even though the language is boilerplate, it’s still hard to choke down.

Grover Whalen (second from left) greets Charles Lindbergh
(facing camera) at the Manhattan Bridge in June 1927

*The Hampton Institute (now Hampton University in Hampton, VA) and the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University in Alabama) were denounced in some quarters for providing what critics considered the equivalent of a grammar-school education.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Gun Hill Road

215 East Gun Hill Road, The Bronx, 1940
(from the NYC property tax photos of 1940)

My computer always warns me not to capitalize the word “The” in “The Bronx,” but I know it’s wrong.  My father, a proud Bronx boy, always had the last word in the matter.  Thus, after receiving our childhood gifts, my brother and I addressed all thank you notes to our grandparents at 215 East Gun Hill Road, The Bronx, New York.

They had moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Art Deco-ish building sometime during the mid-1930s. My father and his brother grew up there.

Building entrance, 2010s

Gun Hill Road has existed for more than 200 years.  It gets its name from a Revolutionary War skirmish in which the colonists hauled a cannon to the top of a hill and fired on the British.  That occurred in the middle of winter in 1777. 

Well over a century later, in 1898, New Yorkers voted to consolidate the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island) into the City of New York.  Consequently, vast swaths of land in The Bronx suddenly became valuable and made many a real estate fortune.

By 1905 there was subway service from Manhattan to The Bronx.  In 1917, Gun Hill Road became a stop on the IRT line. 

My grandparents’ neighborhood drew Catholics and Jews who had enough money to flee Manhattan, leaving behind the crowded streets and tenements.  They craved space, trees, and air.

Still, every day my grandfather took the subway back to Manhattan.  He was in the fur business, a trade he had brought with him from Lithuania in 1914. 

Until the 1980s, the fur business was big business.

In his Eastern European accent, he told a story about his family’s fur shop in Vilnius.  One day, the Cossacks rode up to the front of the store, dismounted their horses, and stormed inside. 

“Give us the furs!” they told his grandmother. 

“Never!” she cried. 

Again: “Give us the furs!” 


She flung her body across the minks that were piled on a table.  The soldiers shot her to death.      

My brother and I liked to hear this story and our grandfather seemed to like telling it to us.

At the time that my grandfather arrived in the United States, manufacturing was scattered all over Manhattan rather than consigned to one area.  You could find all kinds of industry from the southern tip of the island up to 59th Street and farther north along the East Side.

But in 1916, the same year that urban reformers pushed through the nation’s first citywide zoning code, local businessmen formed The Committee to Save New York.  The idea was to consolidate industry below 32nd Street and west of Sixth Avenue.  This would have the effect of restoring uptown real estate values for businesses and homeowners. 

Surprisingly, everyone got on board.  Within a few years, most garment manufacturers had moved their factories and sweatshops to the new industrial district.  The fur shops, clustered around Seventh Avenue at 28th Street, became part of it, too.

Within that small area, my grandfather moved around a lot: 214 West 28th to 150 West 28th to 52 West 22nd to 67 West 23rd.  These buildings have all been demolished except for a four-story brownstone walk-up built in 1851 when Franklin Pierce was president.   

Since my grandfather created designs for fur shops and department stores, he did not need to have a vault and a showroom – just enough space for worktables and the tools of the trade.  He might have needed refrigeration for the furs. 

He did well until the Davy Crockett craze of the late 1950s, when he jumped in late and ended up with too many raccoon tails.

My grandparents circa 1945

When my grandfather came home to Gun Hill Road, he sat down in one of the easy chairs zipped into plastic, smoked a cigar, and watched television while my grandmother fussed around him.

On her left leg she had a large brown birthmark, so visible that a bureaucrat noted it in her naturalization papers.  The mark strongly resembled a stain in their bathroom sink that was caused by a long-running leaky faucet.  The child’s mind insisted that there had to be a connection between the stain and the birthmark, but what was it?

Occasionally my parents went away for the weekend and left my brother and me with our grandparents.  If the day was warm, we would all walk over to the “Oval,” a large park built during the New Deal on the site of an old reservoir.  We’d sit on a bench while bicycles and balls flew by.

Construction of the "Oval" during the 1930s

Back in the apartment, in a corner of the second bedroom, a battered wooden rack held a couple of old magazines.  One was an issue of Look with a big story about Jackie Kennedy, commemorating one year since the president’s assassination. 

I liked to sit on the wooden floor with the window half-open, the breeze moving the curtains, looking at the pictures. 

Even then, it surprised me that my grandmother held onto the worn magazine, for she spent a lot of time clearing closets and tossing out anything that was past its prime. 

She wanted everything to be new with no reminders of the old country in the apartment on Gun Hill Road.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

St. Augustine 1911

George Miller Brown in St. Augustine, 1911

George Miller Brown was a cautious, soft-spoken man whose long-anticipated trip from New York City to Florida would be his first voyage since he arrived at Castle Garden from Scotland in 1871.

An industrialist named Henry C. Flagler, who organized the Florida East Coast Railway Company, had made train travel possible from New York to Miami since 1896.

But George wanted to depart from the new Pennsylvania Station, an astonishing marble temple designed by McKim, Mead & White, which opened its bronze doors in November 1910.

There could be no grander way to go.  Construction had lasted seven years and the building, with its vast concourse and soaring staircases, occupied four city blocks between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

Pennsylvania Excavation by George Bellows
(Brooklyn Museum)

In March 1911 George boarded a sleeper headed to St. Augustine.

He could afford the vacation, if that’s what it was.  He had done well thanks to advertising sales, a growing field to put it mildly.  George first worked for Alexander T. Stewart, who established the world’s first department store on Broadway in 1848.  It too was a marble palace, five stories high.

Then George leapt to the Gair Company, founded by a fellow Scot and Civil War hero to boot.  Robert Gair invented paper bags and corrugated boxes.  He became a millionaire and George Miller Brown – well, he made a small fortune.

Map of Henry C. Flagler's Florida East 
Coast Railway, circa 1911. A Key West 
extension had not yet been completed.

When I first saw the colorized photograph of George, I wondered if he went all the way to St. Augustine to pose with the oranges.  The image has such a deliberate quality. 

It’s possible that he wanted to see an air show presented by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, which would have been a pretty big deal.  Ever since an international air meet in Reims in 1909, Americans had flocked to the shows in Los Angeles, Boston and New York.

In St. Augustine, the pioneer aviators James J. Ward and John Alexander Douglas McCurdy flew their planes up and down the south beach and over Matanzas Bay. Sadly, Ward would crash five months after the exhibition, but McCurdy went on to play an important part in airplane manufacturing during World War I.

James J. Ward in the Curtiss Transcontinental Flyer 
just before his death in September 1911

The airshow surely interested George. But no one spent time in St. Augustine without paying a visit to Dr. Garnett’s Orange Grove. 

In 1911 when George traveled south, Florida’s main industries were real estate, cigars, oranges, and sponges.  Tourism was creeping up.

To capitalize on the visitors, during the early 1900s Dr. Reuben Garnett, a doctor from Missouri who moved to St. Augustine in 1882 in search of a Catholic community, opened an orange grove on his property.  He brought in ladders and encouraged visitors to pick the oranges and stroll along paths lined with palm trees and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

Another visitor to Dr. Garnett's Orange Grove poses 
for his picture by Lewis W. Blair, circa 1911

In 1910, in a masterstroke, he hired a photographer, Lewis W. Blair, who snapped souvenir pictures of the tourists.

And folks, George brought his photograph back to New York.

"A Spray of Orange Blossoms"
illustration from Florida East Coast Homeowner, 1911