Wednesday, January 25, 2017

From Chinatown to China with William E. S. Fales

There once was a city where nothing stood still.

Brilliant and wild, William Fales inhabited that place. In 1880, he first ventured into the narrow streets of lower Manhattan. 

He would spend many hours of his life in Chinatown.

Now, when I climb the stairs at the Canal Street subway station, Billy – as his close friends called him – is hurrying by. He’s on his way to dine at Mong Sing Wah on Mott Street, where he’ll introduce a skeptical friend to “Chow Chop Suey” and drink cup after cup of rice liqueur.

Next he’s heading to Doyers Street to see a performance at the Chinese Theater, the audience a mix of neighborhood residents and “slummers.” Those are wealthy people who enjoy escaping the confines of their class.  

And finally, long after midnight, perhaps he’ll move along Pell Street, to an opium joint…

But that’s speculation.  
Pell Street, Chinatown, 1890s

A big man with a twirling mustache, William Edward Sanford Fales was born in New Bedford, Mass., in 1851 and grew up in Brooklyn where he attended Polytechnic Institute. He taught himself Chinese and French. Teachers and colleagues called him a genius.

None of his friends can ever forget Fales, the many-sided, with his massive head and blond curls. . .  

Like champagne, he was often effervescent, sparkling, and overflowing. Much that he emitted was like froth, but much, too, was substantial and weighty. . .

He would deliver a talk on the history of Satan, and follow it with a paper on the origin of obscene words. This, in turn, would be succeeded by a lugubrious poem on death, or on the final “wreck of matter and the crash of worlds.” * While exercising his skill in the realm of the imagination, he was addicted to mathematics and scientific research.

William descended from an early American family of Puritans, the Fales clan of Bristol, R.I. His father, Edward S. Fales, was born in Cuba in 1833 and came to the U.S. as a child. He studied law, edited a newspaper, and reportedly became fluent in nine languages.

Along the way, Edward married Imogene Franciscus of Baltimore. They had three children together but spent much of their marriage apart. Edward worked for a pharmaceuticals manufacturer in Rio de Janeiro.

Imogene outlived her husband by 27 years. She became a writer, suffragist, populist, prohibitionist, and sometime Theosophist.

Their eldest son, who used the pen name W. E. S. Fales, received an E.M. from the Columbia School of Mines in 1873.** Two years later, he earned a degree from Columbia Law School. 

Next, William joined the law firm of Colonel Benjamin Tracy, who served in the Civil War. Active in Republican politics, Tracy would become U. S. Secretary of the Navy.  

A young man named Wong Chin Foo, founder of a New York newspaper, The Chinese-American, joined Tracy, Catlin & Brodhead as an apprentice to Fales. He didn’t stay long, moving on to become a celebrated activist who publicly opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, lobbied for citizenship for Chinese immigrants, and wrote extensively about the Chinese experience in America (including an article about Chinese food in Cosmopolitan Magazine).

It’s impossible to know if Wong Chin Foo thought W. E. S. Fales was a great guy or just another slummer.

Wong Chin Foo, 1880s

On the one hand, Fales dove into Chinatown even though the tongs (gangs) were bloodthirsty and danger lurked on Ragpickers Row and Bandit’s Roost, filthy dark alleys off Mulberry Street.

Fearlessly, the jocular Brooklyn lawyer steamed ahead and got to know the proprietors of Chinese laundries, restaurants, and other businesses. He loved their stories and often went to bat for them – it was said – when cops and immigration officials came down hard.

On the other hand, as stated in a magazine article:

Fales speaks Chinese, and his chief delight is to pilot a party to his Mott Street yellow friends for a Chinese supper – there, he is in his glory. The Chinamen respect him . . .   

Was Fales, in fact, grimly tolerated by the Chinese?  

Either way, no one could argue with the man’s passion for Chinatown. He visited night after night, commuting by the Fulton Ferry and riding the Third Avenue El until the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883. Then he traveled by carriage in a city still lit largely by gas.

Mong Sing Wah Restaurant,
newspaper illustration, 1890s

Around 1880, W. E. S. married Agnes, the first of his three wives. He never bothered much with her or their two sons, whose names were Harold Athelstan Fales and William Hereward Fales. Athelstan, known as the “first king of England," ruled during the tenth century. Hereward, known as “the last Englishman,” led a popular rebellion against William the Conqueror in the eleventh century.

So you can see where Fales was coming from.    

In the mid-1880s, he began to publish poetry. Dozens of his poems appeared in newspapers and magazines nationwide: “The Modern Spirit,” about drinking; “Unto My Ladye,” about “her faire Haire and sweete Eyes”; “Sea Foam,” about a shipwreck, and so forth. The poetry was trite, but would improve slightly.

Also during these years, Fales left his beloved Brooklyn for Chinatown. There he lived for some time in a rented room, in the thick of things on Doyers Street.

A remarkable opportunity came his way in 1890.

Colonel Benjamin Tracy, now Navy Secretary under President Benjamin Harrison, arranged Fales’ appointment as Vice Consul in Amoy, China. To top it off, Dr. Edward Bedloe, best known as a founder of a dining club, the Clover Club of Philadelphia, became Consul.

Fales and Bedloe were old friends. They both liked to drink and were practical jokers, reported the Brooklyn Eagle. You can bet that they spent many an hour trying to top each other’s wit.

Off they went to Amoy, as Xiamen was known in the West.

19th century map of China

To be continued.

See posts on 2/1/17 + 2/14/17; also about Imogene Fales, 5/25/16.

*Recollections by Fales’ law school classmate and fellow mischief-maker, Frederick W. Hinrichs. “Wreck of matter” quotation is from Thomas Carlyle.
**The School of Mines of Columbia University, founded in 1864, is today The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

An Inauguration Story

Officials arrive at the Capitol for Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 inauguration
(Library of Congress)

T’was a sparkling day, the sky full of sun and wind, when Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1905.

TR, the youngest man elected President of the United States (until 1960), was bursting with vision and promise. He always experienced great moments – particularly his own – on the highest plane of exhilaration. 

The new president -- formerly a vice president, governor, and assistant secretary of the navy among other things -- had helped steer the nation to its new position as a global power. “Much has been given us, and much will rightfully be expected from us,” he now declared.

Yet more important than international affairs, said he, were the relationships among Americans:  

Modern life is both complex and intense, and the tremendous changes wrought by the extraordinary industrial development of the last half century are felt in every fiber of our social and political being. 

TR delivers his inaugural address
(Library of Congress)

I wonder if TR counted race relations among the challenges of modern life.  Four years earlier, he had invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House.  Throughout his career, Roosevelt had made remarks that seemed sympathetic to Americans victimized by prejudice.

He probably did not realize that those who planned the 1905 inauguration found black Americans to be very much in the way. 

A former U.S. Army general, George H. Harries, served as chair of the 1905 Inaugural Committee. Harries appointed a Sub-Committee for Colored Visitors whose 42 members (all black) were told that there must be “absolute separation” between the races although “our colored visitors should enjoy the fullest protection and be accorded the kindest hospitality in the houses of the refined members of their own race in this city.”

Similar actions had occurred at earlier inaugurations, largely in deference to Southerners. 

It’s hard to imagine how the Sub-Committee maintained segregation at the inauguration. Blacks constituted one-third of the District population. Were they swept off the streets? Barred from certain areas?  The Inaugural Committee's report does not explain what was done.

Two weeks out, the Sub-Committee for Colored Visitors asked the Secretary of War to include a squadron of the Ninth Cavalry – black troops – in the parade. He agreed.

The program performed at the inaugural ball at the Pension Building included a ragtime march called “Black America, a Negro Oddity,” written by a Detroit record store owner, Harry Zickel. The Committee on Music tucked it in among Strauss, Rossini, and Sousa.

Less than ten years earlier, the Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”), had formally ushered in the Jim Crow Era.

In 1901, the number of lynchings nationwide dropped from triple to double digits, but the needle wouldn’t move again until the early 1920s.

In 1906, the Brownsville Raid occurred in Brownsville, Texas.  White residents falsely accused black soldiers stationed at a segregated unit nearby of murdering a white police officer and a white bartender.  In a case of grave injustice, TR ordered dishonorable discharges for all 167 soldiers.*  

The 1905 inauguration turned out to be an inauspicious start to Roosevelt's first full term of office.  While he was tone deaf on race, however, he acted as a progressive on several significant social issues.  Interpreting what that means makes the study of history interesting. 
1905 inaugural parade; TR invited six American Indian
chiefs to participate, including the Apache Geronimo
(Library of Congress)

*In 1972, the Army exonerated the soldiers and President Nixon pardoned them.

See post December 28, 2016.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Lost Notes, Just Found


Your grandmother Elena was extraordinarily beautiful. She had long brown hair and spent much of each morning putting it up in pin curls while seated before a three-way mirror. You’ll always remember those finger rolls.

By the time you knew her, she was a vain woman who wore too much make-up and fake nails. As a little girl, you once caught sight of her unmade and undone, and were quite terrified.  

In 1913, the first of several family scandals occurred when your grandfather, Victor, left Elena for his second wife without having secured a divorce.  The new wife’s name was Ellen.  

Grandfather Victor

Your own parents – Louis and Vivian – would divorce in 1942. Soon after, your mother returned home, bringing you with her to a grand estate in Greenwich, Connecticut which belonged to your other grandmother, Edith, and her second husband.

The two grandmothers were opposites. Elena raised chocolate poodles and entered them in shows. Edith threw liquor-soaked costume parties in the basement of the mansion.

Once each month your mother would put you on the train to New York City to spend the weekend with Elena, who lived on the Upper East Side. 

The daughter of a banker, Elena was stuck between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She and Victor met and courted in the old way. Nine months after they married, a little girl was born; then your father came along. But the daughter died young and the marriage never recovered.

Your father didn’t think much of his mother, and insultingly called her “the eggplant.”

Free of Elena and properly married, Victor went on to have three sons with Ellen. The family business came into their hands (and the hands of your father).

There was Otto, who was gay. He wanted to be an interior decorator.

Then came Karl and Alfred.

Your father believed he was the smartest of the four. He also wanted to be an interior decorator but did not trust his brothers to run the business.  

They all made fortunes. You and your mother never worried about money.

Your grandmother, Edith; 1920s
(passport photo)

But your mother was an alcoholic. Her sister was, too.  

Their father had died when they were ten and twelve -- a strange accident at Saranac Lake -- leaving them with Edith in a large apartment on Riverside Drive. Edith spent a decade trying to find another wealthy husband.

Their father died when they were
ten and twelve.

She took a lot out on her daughters – especially your mother, who simply could not get out from under. To the day she died, Vivian would call Edith and ask, “What should I wear?”

Vivian lost five pregnancies. When she conceived you in 1937, the family placed her at the LeRoy Sanatorium in New York City. That’s where you entered the world.

Many of the women who sought “private treatment” at LeRoy arrived pregnant. Occupying nine floors and the penthouse in an Art Deco building at 40 East 61st Street, the sanatorium was founded by Alice Fuller LeRoy, a widow who needed to earn a living.

Now back to the Greenwich mansion, which everyone called “The Big House.”

A few snapshots: three-story entrance hall with a Cinderella staircase. Library cast in chintz where Edith held court. Vast stone terrace; green lawn that ran to the water. 

Everyone had to be dressed properly at all times.

At cocktail hour, the younger grandchildren were invited into the library to have toasted peanut butter and bacon canap├ęs. Then they were sent to have dinner with the help. That changed when each turned twelve and was allowed in for dinner on the condition that she first stood up and gave a short speech.

Edith continually admonished everyone: That isn’t how it’s done, dear.

Your step-grandfather, a kindly man, tolerated Edith for reasons you can’t fathom. He drove you around in his woody station wagon looking for an imaginary goat.  

Drunk or not, your mother volunteered for the Red Cross, played canasta, and fell in love with a German fellow. Edith forbade her to marry him.

In 1960, your father moved out to California. When you visited, he unveiled a portrait of his second wife, known as “Sunny.” You blurted out: “It doesn’t look like her.”

“Go away till you have some brains,” your father replied. 

But he redeemed himself. He and Sunny loved objets, and they had good taste, too. They took you to Ojai to learn about pottery. Later, they came east and the three of you toured New Hampshire searching for antiques.

Your father wrote poetry. He died of cirrhosis in 1970.  

Now it is decades later and you’re an expert in dressage. You and your second husband live happily on a farm in New England. You have legally changed your name several times.

Very few people recall anything about your parents and grandparents although once upon a time they were in all the papers.

The Little Time Traveler

  Last fall, my adorable grandson, halfway between two and three years, was finally tall enough to look at the family pictures arranged on a...