Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Back in Time: Inwood 1940

My mother (left) poses with a friend on
Sherman Avenue, Inwood, Manhattan, mid-1930s.

My mother is living in a corner of her childhood.

She doesn’t suffer from dementia, although her memory has worsened.  Her intellect persists, fed by the New York Times and the New Yorker.  She is not grieving; she is not pained.  She just keeps cycling through 1940 where she lives in an apartment on West 211th Street and attends junior high school at P. S. 52.

Her story is set in a particular place called Inwood, located at the northern tip of the island of Manhattan.  While my mother was growing up there in the 1930s, the neighborhood was home to mostly Irish and some Jewish families who lived harmoniously in Art Deco-style apartment buildings built between the wars.   

Contemporary photo of Inwood Hill Park with
the Hudson River visible through the trees

As a little girl, living on Sherman Avenue, she liked to ride her tricycle along the sidewalk in front of her building. One day, she looked across the street to watch a police car pull up in front of a candy store.  The cops leapt out and busted through the door, dragging out pinball machines and smashing them in the street. Mayor LaGuardia believed that pinball encouraged gambling and corrupted youth.

The family moved to a four-room apartment on 211th Street.  An only child, she drew adoration from her grandmother, mother, and father. Her parents owned luncheonettes and worked long days so she ate dinner with just her grandmother. The two were very close; they shared a bedroom. Sarah Olcott cooked, shopped, sewed, and – the story may be apocryphal – brewed something alcoholic which she sold to the local policemen.

The radio, a 20” Philco made of dark wood, sat on a table near a chair and ottoman. On Sunday mornings her father sat on the ottoman with his head close to the fabric screen that covered the speaker, listening to Father Coughlin.

When Father Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest out of Michigan, started his radio program in the early thirties, he was a New Dealer. Then he became obsessed with Jewish bankers and, as the decade progressed, enthusiastically embraced Hitler and Mussolini.

My mother asked her father why he listened to such a horrible man. Her father replied that he liked to hear the other point of view.  

Scholars have thoroughly examined the importance of radio to all Americans during the war years. My mother remembers Edward R. Murrow’s “This is London” and commentary by William Shirer. Those reports must have been thrilling and chilling.

Her grandmother Sarah had emigrated from Kiev around 1900, at the age of 30. She arrived with two young children and her younger sister, Rebecca. The eldest sister, Zelda, stayed behind. Everyone assumed that Zelda had perished at Babi Yar, but a few years ago we learned that she came to the U. S. during the late 1930s. The secret puzzled my mother, who concluded that Sarah and Zelda had argued about something serious and never reconciled. 

Corn Exchange Bank, West 207th Street, Inwood, 1920s.
My mother's mother kept an account at this branch.
Rebecca’s husband turned out to be crazy and slashed her throat with a kitchen knife.  Her two sons, by then grown up and both lawyers, “took care of him,” according to my mother. There may have been restraining order or perhaps the guy was institutionalized.

Rebecca’s daughter, Rhoda, married a man who went into the Venetian blind business after the war.  He did very well for himself, as they say.

Rebecca’s other daughter, Faye, was blonde and blue-eyed.  Since Faye didn’t “look Jewish,” she snagged a top job at a bank.  While on a ship headed to Paris for a bank conference, Faye met a British oil engineer who worked for BP in Iraq. They married and lived in Iraq through the 1950s.

Sadness intruded.  My mother’s uncle, Ben, had been gassed in the Meuse-Argonne during World War I.  He returned to the U. S. and spent the rest of his life in V. A. hospitals.

Her mother had TB and spent years in hospitals and sanitariums. 

I wonder about this attachment to childhood. Surely not every 89-year old feels like crawling back into the past, even if it is comforting.   

Recently I realized that my mother’s point of reference has always been those years on West 211th Street.  When we were growing up, she excessively invoked her childhood.  I wonder if she is now trying to figure out something or someone, but the fact is that reflection has never been her forte.    

And so she simply replays the past.  At least she knows how it will turn out. 

Summer Afternoon by Ernest Lawson
My mother remembers the ancient tulip tree depicted
in this 1908 painting of Inwood Hill Park.

See post May 11, 2016.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Frank Munsey of Maine

Frank Munsey

When the publisher Frank Munsey died in 1925, Americans took notice. Rather than grieving, however, most speculated about the disposition of his fortune.  A bachelor with no record of philanthropy, Munsey had accumulated wealth since 1894, having trekked from Maine to New York City with $40 in his pocket twelve years earlier. Eventually, Munsey’s investments in real estate and U. S. Steel, along with his consolidation and sale of newspapers and magazines, begat millions. 

The tributes poured forth, from President Coolidge down the line: “His purpose was high and his efforts never ungenerous.”  “In his death a dynamic, forceful, and enterprising personality is gone.”  And so on.

Several colleagues wrote that Munsey’s life was inspirational, dramatic and romantic. A few offered examples of his kindness. But the truth was revealed at the funeral service, attended by hundreds at the Cathedral of St. John Divine. Not a eulogy in sight.  

A Munsey Company vice president sent his boss an
embarrassingly sycophantic thank-you for a
Christmas bonus, 1914. 

Amidst the coverage a theme emerged: the life of Frank Munsey was a Horatio Alger story. Horatio Alger, Jr., a nineteenth-century writer, penned more than 100 books – most famously The Story of Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York With the Boot-blacks – in which the heroes were usually destitute young boys, alone in the city, who achieved financial success through luck and determination.

Somehow, more than his self-made contemporaries such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Munsey embodied the boy with a dream.

Born in rural Maine in 1854, Munsey went to work as soon as he could.  At the age of 12, he made his way to Augusta, where he got a job as a telegraph clerk.  The state’s forests produced paper as well as lumber, and Augusta had become a publishing and shipping center. Here, Munsey developed a consuming interest in newspapers and magazines.  At a time when the nation’s literacy rate was rising, he imagined an adventure magazine for boys called Golden Argosy.  He asked friends to fund his venture, including the Maine politician James G. Blaine who thrice ran for president. 

“You will be swallowed up in New York by the sharks in very little while,” Blaine reportedly said.

Frank arrived in New York City in September 1882 with $40 in his pocket. He rented a room and toiled by candlelight year after year, writing stories, striking out until the 1890s when he found the right formula with Argosy, the nation's first pulp magazine.  Later, he started Munsey’s Magazine, which soon turned a profit.

During the next few decades, Munsey launched more magazines with mixed results. And he bought and sold newspapers in New York, Boston, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, bent on creating a monopoly similar to the railroads.
The New Republic often editorialized about Munsey. 

His really was a “rags to riches” tale.  No wonder that Editor and Publisher, the preeminent trade journal of the day, ran this rambling headline:

Frank Munsey’s Boy Dream of Power and Wealth Came True – Indomitable Will Triumphed over Countless Obstacles – Fortune Estimated at $40,000,000 – His Amazing Adventures with Magazines and Newspapers in Five Cities

Historians have long debated the Alger mythology. Was it propaganda or a narrative that mediated between the agricultural economy and industrialism? Or was it authentic?

However you slice it, the Alger heroes were distinguished by earnestness and sweetness.  It is doubtful that Frank Munsey, beset with ruthless ambition, ever possessed either quality.

In early 1926, the public learned what was in Munsey’s will. The publisher left bequests to several longtime employees. He generously remembered his sister as well as a woman he knew as Annie Downes, who had spurned his marriage proposal years earlier in Maine. And, in a grand gesture, he left the rest of his estate – estimated at $40 million – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Many a head was scratched upon learning that Munsey had become a major benefactor of the art world.  Not only had he never evinced an appreciation of paintings, drawings, and sculpture, but in 1921 he had turned down a nomination to become a member of the museum corporation.  That was less than five months before Munsey executed his last will. 
It’s hard to figure how Frank Munsey reached the decision to bestow so much money on the Met. One acquaintance believed Munsey’s lawyer had persuaded his client; others thought the publisher admired the business efficiency of the museum trustees. But I believe that the gift constituted the last bid of a very lonely man for acceptance into New York society.  

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1917
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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