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

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