Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Adventures of Allan Forman

Advertising card, 1890s
(New York Public Library)

Allan Forman was born by the beach on Long Island, in a cottage built by his Mayflower ancestors. He grew up in a Victorian brownstone in Brooklyn Heights.  His father had made a fortune from warehousing snuff and tobacco during the Civil War. 

Educated at the prestigious Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, Allan started writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in his teens. The paper’s editor, Thomas H. Kinsella, sent him to San Francisco to cover riots incited by an Irish labor leader named Denis Kearney. The violent fury directed at Chinese immigrants ended in death and destruction, and disgusted the young reporter.

Allan went on to Williams College in Massachusetts and always made a fuss about it, although he did not graduate.  

              Back in Brooklyn, Allan’s stories appeared regularly in newspapers and journals. Now he had two important mentors: Samuel S. Conant, editor of Harper’s Weekly, along with Kinsella of the Eagle.

In February 1885, Conant disappeared into a nineteenth-century melodrama involving a barroom, a watch & chain, and a man resembling him who might have taken a train to Florida.

Part of a search party, Allan scrambled around the beach at Coney Island, looking desperately for Conant and interviewing the proprietor of the Ocean House hotel where the editor might have been seen last.  

S. S. Conant never turned up.

But Allan continued to develop a nice style. Here’s the opening of an article entitled “The New York Crook”:

Not long ago I chanced to meet a lawyer somewhat prominent in a certain class of criminal case. After a few moments’ chat, I invited him to the theatre.

“No, I have to see a client of mine. Come with me and I’ll show you a new phase of life. I’ll introduce you to the ‘crooks.’”

The lawyer’s invitation chimed in with my lazy mood, and, hailing a passing hansom, we were whirled to our destination . . .

And here he is writing about dinner in Chinatown:

“Come and dine with me,” was the cheering invitation extended to me by a jolly New York lawyer of Bohemian tendencies. But I knew my man, and was aware of his penchant for mousing into all sorts of out-of-the-way quarters of the city where he fairly reveled in dirt and mystery and strange viands, so I lit another cigarette and lazily drawled, “Where?”

Illustration for Allan Forman's story about Chinatown

Already well-known in the world of the New York press, Allan really arrived when he took the helm of the first magazine devoted to journalism, The Journalist. The weekly was a few years old when he became editor in 1886.

At the time, press clubs had been established in most major U.S. cities. But reporters, publishers, and illustrators missed having a publication dedicated to their profession. The Journalist didn’t always fit the bill because Forman published whatever struck his fancy, but he would lead it for 22 years.

Unfortunately, too, he was for sale – as scandals revealed in 1891 and 1905.  

It turned out that Allan had deals with the New York Life Insurance Company and the Mutual Life Insurance Company. He offered himself as a “press specialist.” For a fee, he used his influence to place flattering stories about the companies in newspapers around the country.

He might praise old management over new management, discredit newspaper investigations into corporate corruption or “spin” bad news. In fact, Allan may have been the true father of public relations.

Despite the bad publicity about Allan’s subterfuge, he carried on. However, the prestigious Lotos Club kicked him out for violating house rules and endangering others, so perhaps he was upset about something.

Subsequently, a series of exposes about the insurance business appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The World.  A legislative committee (counseled by future Supreme Court justice Charles Evans Hughes) delved into the workings of the big companies. Allan did not testify, but one of his colleagues said that Forman earned $1 to $2 per line for six 250-word stories which editorialized in the guise of news.*

Frontispiece, 1889 issue of The Journalist

Once again, Forman remained untarnished. But he must have been running low on cash.

In 1896, he brought a suit to have his father declared insane after his mother refused to give money to one of Allan’s creditors. Justice Osborne of the Brooklyn Supreme Court accepted the testimony of two doctors: the elder Forman was competent to manage his own affairs.  

Then Allan’s first wife, Florence, divorced him, so he went off to Egypt for two years and left The Journalist in the hands of Marguerita Hamm, a pioneering woman reporter married to the jolly lawyer who lured him to dinner in Chinatown.

Allan had always loved the theater and occasionally wrote for The Dramatic Times. He liked to hang around backstage and gather gossip. In 1900 he remarried to a Swedish actress with the incomparable name of Xesia Yrsa Zephania Carlstedt.

*Ultimately, revelations about political slush funds and investing for self-gain led to significant regulation of the insurance industry.  

See part 2: April 20, 2017.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Chinatown / Kishinev

Street Scene (Hester Street) by George Luks, 1905
(Brooklyn Museum)

May 28, 1903 – Carnegie Hall is packed. The headliners include former President Cleveland, New York City Mayor Seth Low, former U.S. Senator and Union General, Carl Schurz, and Dr. Jacob Schurman, president of Cornell University and former ambassador to Germany.

They have gathered to condemn a pogrom against Jews that occurred April 20-23 in a village called Kishinev in Bessarabia, a region to the east of present-day Romania.

A pogrom meant the destruction of an entire community, sometimes led by the local population and sometimes by the Cossacks, marauders who answered to the Czar. Homes and stores would be smashed and nearly everyone tortured or killed. During the late nineteenth century, these massacres occurred with greater frequency. Russian Jews became desperate to go to America. By 1903, they already crowded the tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Survivors with dead children following Kishinev Pogrom

At the Carnegie Hall meeting, Grover Cleveland received a standing ovation for his remarks:

             The wholesale murder of inoffensive, defenseless men, women and children . . .
gives rise to a distressing fear that even the enlightenment of the twentieth century has neither destroyed nor subdued the barbarity of human nature, nor wholly redeemed the civilized world from “man’s inhumanity to man.”

 The headline in the New York Times stated:

 Great Mass Meeting Denounces
the Kishineff Outrages.

During the coming months, Kishinev stayed in the headlines. Meetings were standing-room-only and thousands of dollars were raised for Russian Jews. 

This 1904 illustration depicts President Theodore Roosevelt
telling the Czar to stop the persecution of Jews.

Yet even before the Carnegie Hall rally, an unlikely event occurred.

The Chinese community in New York City sponsored a play at the Chinatown Theater with all proceeds going to the aid of the Kishinev survivors. The benefit was the brainchild of two businessmen who had anglicized their names: Joseph Singleton (Chew Mon Sing) and Guy Maine (Yee Kai Man).  

On the evening of May 10, 1903, Guy Maine welcomed the audience to the theater on Doyers Street: “There should be a strong bond between the Jews and the Chinese for both have been persecuted.”

In response, noted the Times, the author Herman Rosenthal 

. . . told of what had been done in getting up the benefit performance by the members of the Chinese Reform Association, and said that if they had shown so much generosity and goodwill toward the Jews the latter’s indebtedness to them was very considerable, and the philanthropy of the Chinaman should never be forgotten.

The mutual goodwill of the immigrant groups had been nurtured by their proximity to each other in the jumble of downtown Manhattan.

And the goodwill persisted.

Chinese Theater, 5-7 Doyers Street in Chinatown, 1900
In December 1905, the Chinese Empire Reform Association again held a benefit for Russian Jews and raised $1,000. A company of 40 performed a play called King David at Miner’s Bowery Theater. Two congressmen, two judges, and the borough president were in the audience. The actors spoke Chinese, which didn’t seem to interfere with anyone’s enjoyment. King David, a tragedy, was written by an English vicar named R. C. Fillingham.

“In the intervals between the acts a company of Chinese soldiers gave drill exercises on the stage,” reported the Times.

That in itself is a curious story.

A few years earlier, George McVicker, a major in the N. Y. State National Guard, began training about 150 Chinese men in the attic space of the Oriental Club, a gathering-place for businessmen, on Mott Street. They used rifles with bayonets and dressed in U. S. Army-style uniforms.   

The training was initiated by the Chinese Empire Reform Association, which sought to overthrow the Empress of the Qing Dynasty. The 1911 Xinhai Revolution, which led to the formation of the Republic of China, owed some small success to the work of the association.  

Incidentally, Joseph Singleton and Guy Maine –who initiated the benefits on behalf of the Russian Jews – led the New York City chapter of the Chinese Empire Reform Association. In 1911, they brought Sun Yat-sen to the United States where he embarked on a nationwide speaking tour.

There’s a good parallel here: the Chinese who hoped to vanquish the imperial ruler of the nation from which they emigrated, and the Jews who fled Russia to escape the imperial rule of the Czar.

The closeness of immigrant communities would not necessarily lead to warm feelings; often it culminated in violence and fierce prejudice.

Somehow that didn’t happen here.

*Kishinev also is spelled Kishineff.

The Little Time Traveler

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