Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Imagining the Park

Century-old vines in the Wisteria Pergola, Central Park, 2017

Photo by Claudia

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

James L. Ford Postscript

Cover of James L. Ford's Forty-Odd Years
in the Literary Shop
(third edition, 1896)

A few weeks ago when I wrote about the journalist James L. Ford, my husband said that he liked the post a lot. Naturally, my first thought was that he would want to hear more.

Indeed, there is a postscript, a short piece called “The Dying Gag” that Ford published in the late nineteenth century. It’s about a tiresome joke that keeps making the rounds of the New York variety shows, the type of joke that has been delivered hundreds of times and now elicits groans instead of laughs. 

Ford sets the scene outside the stage door: “. . . a wild blustering night, and the wind howled mournfully around the street-corners, blinding the pedestrians with the clouds of dust that it caught up from the gutters . . .”  

Before long the pedestrians come in from the cold. They stand around backstage while a frail figure – the “Old Gag” – makes its way to its dressing room, dozes off, and is awakened by the stagehands who cluck about how he should keep resting. Nevertheless they help him onto the stage.

The Old Gag speaks:

“And so you say, Mr. Johnson, that all the people on the ship were perishing of hunger, and yet you were eating a fried egg. How do you account for that?”

“The ship lay to, and I got one.”

As a wail rises from the audience, the Old Gag stumbles back into the arms of the stagehands. They carry him to his dressing room but cannot rouse him.

“The Old Gag,” writes Ford, “was dead.”


Returning to the book to make sure to get the joke right, I noticed that my copy, published in 1896, once belonged to a man named John Tatlock, Jr. I decided to chase him.

At first it appeared that there were two men named John Tatlock, Jr., both born in 1860. Each man plowed through the nineteenth century and died in 1926, having reaped the harvest of upper-class American life. 

One Tatlock was a scientist and the other an actuary with the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. Both were born in Williamstown, Massachusetts and graduated from Williams College, each like his father.

Of course, it turned out they were the same person.

Even as a child, John Tatlock, Jr. had a passion for astronomy. During college he studied with a brilliant astronomer, Truman Henry Safford, who incidentally was a calculating prodigy. * Tatlock graduated in 1882 and stayed on for a year to continue his work with Safford at the Williams College Observatory, the nation’s second oldest one in regular operation (erected in 1836).  

Screenshot of a drawing of the Williams College
Observatory, mid-nineteenth century
Tatlock then became the astronomer at the Washburn Observatory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Subsequently he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Beloit College. Tatlock’s particular interests were occultations of stars by the Moon, and meridian circle observations. The latter involves the movement of celestial bodies across a local longitude. (Someone correct me, please.)

By the 1880s many colleges and universities had added astronomy to their curriculums and were trying to raise money to build observatories. But Beloit couldn’t make it work and Tatlock resigned in 1885.

“The funds of the college are so low that the authorities do not feel justified in keeping the observatory in a state of scientific activity,” the Chicago Tribune reported.  

“This is another one of the many cases in which science does not pay except as it can be placed directly at the service of some business-man.”

John Tatlock, Jr. (date unknown)

Tatlock promptly moved back East. He married a socialite, Kate Chamberlin, in 1886, and was offered the plum position of associate actuary at the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. Later he worked for Prudential Insurance, became a bank president, and founded his own actuarial firm.

A fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of London and the New York Academy of Sciences, Tatlock remained devoted to astronomy. In 1897 when the Yerkes Observatory opened near Geneva Lake in Wisconsin, he was among the honored guests.

BIG EYE TO OPEN declared a newspaper headline:

Scientists from All Over the Country Will Be There.
Hitherto Hidden From the Sight of Man.

One must wonder whether Tatlock would have preferred to stay an astronomer. 

*When Safford was nine, a local priest asked him to find the square of 365,365,365,365,365,365. In less than one minute, without paper and pencil, Safford produced the answer: 133,491,850,208,566,925,016,658,299,941,583,225. Some observers said that Safford spun around the room like a top, rolled his eyes, and appeared to be in agony as he figured out the problem.

Monday, April 6, 2020

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

July Night