Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Mrs. Blair & the Turkey-work Chair


The chair pictured in 1891.

The Turkey-work chair sat in the parlor of a house that overlooked the Connecticut River. In the winter when the river froze, the boy who grew up in the house with the chair liked to skate back and forth under the bridges. 

His name was Henry. He knew by heart the cotton mills and iron foundries that hummed and clanged along the riverbank.  

After the Civil War, the town of West Springfield, Mass. would become even more industrialized, but when Henry bustled through the front door of his home, red-cheeked and dangling his skates, he returned to an earlier century.  


West Springfield, Mass., late nineteenth century

Perhaps he cast an eye toward the chair in the corner. His father and mother were protective of it, so they kept it out of the way.

The chair once belonged to Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island Colony and champion of religious freedom. Built around 1670, it had been passed down through several generations who didn’t have to apply for membership in the Daughters or Sons of the American Revolution. They were originals.

The boy’s father, also named Henry, was a dour bookbinder born in Hartford in 1831. He lived modestly with his second wife, Henrietta, and their son. The cupboards were filled with creamware and lusterware and the floors covered with hand-hooked rugs. Nobody thought of these things as antiques; they were just old family possessions with sentimental value.     

In his youth, the bookbinder caused his widowed mother plenty of headaches. He periodically disappeared and reappeared to announce he was heading to Pike’s Peak to strike gold or to New York City to try his hand at a new profession which he hadn’t yet determined.   

His mother believed that the devil’s workshop lay immediately beyond the borders of New England, and she was pleased when her son met and married Therese in 1853 and settled in West Springfield, where he started in the bookmaking field as an edge-gilder. 

The American Bookmaker was one of several trade journals
devoted to bookmaking during the nineteenth century. 

Soon after giving birth to a baby girl in 1860, Therese died. A few years later Henry remarried to Henrietta, one of Roger Williams’ descendants. That’s how the Turkey-work chair came to West Springfield.

Turkey-work chairs got their name from the upholstery used on the back and seat, a wool fabric loomed in England to resemble Turkish carpets.

The Roger Williams chair, carved from maple and oak, was stuffed with marsh-grass and covered with sackcloth. The floral upholstery had been attached with wrought-iron tacks. 


Eventually, the boy who liked to skate on the Connecticut River grew up and married, and he and his wife moved next door to his parents in 1890. (The arrangement did not please the young man’s elegant new wife, but she got back at him by fleeing to her family home in Syracuse, N.Y. as often as possible.)

The century turned and the unthinkable occurred—a world war. A few years after the 1918 Armistice, Henrietta died.

One day Henry received a letter from the president of the Rhode Island Historical Society, asking if he would consider donating Roger Williams’ Turkey-work chair to its collection.

Henry agreed that the gift made sense. He did not realize that the letter was a ploy. The man behind the request, a sneaky antiques dealer named Charles Woolsey Lyon, absconded with the chair to his shop in Manhattan and sold it in 1923.


This advertisement for Charles Woolsey Lyon's shop
appeared in Arts and Decoration in 1920. 

Henry, who died in 1925 at the age of ninety-four, probably did not know what became of the chair. In hindsight, the theft may have been a mixed blessing because the purchaser, Mrs. J. Insley Blair, ultimately bequeathed the chair to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it lives today.

Otherwise, who knows? The Turkey-work chair might have languished in West Springfield, lost in a fire or discarded by a descendant who did not understand its worth.

Natalie Blair, married to an heir to one of America’s first million-dollar fortunes, developed a passion for Early American antiques during the 1920s.

The Blairs lived in a 65-room mansion in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., an exclusive village in the lower Hudson River Valley, designed by the renowned architectural firm Carrere and Hastings. Natalie filled the large attic rooms with furniture and art organized by historical period.

The chair as it appears in American Furniture in
the Metropolitan Museum of Art
by Frances Gruber Safford (2007)

She began lending pieces to the Metropolitan Museum when the American Wing was established in 1924. Bequests followed her death in 1951, at which time Roger Williams’ chair found its permanent home. 

Thirty short blocks and one long one from the antique shop of Charles Woolsey Lyon, a man whose sterling reputation hid at least one incident of deceit. 

And far from the house on the Connecticut River where the boy and his parents inhabited four centuries.  



Monday, November 22, 2021

Charles Lowell Woodward, Book Peddler


If you were searching for something to read in colonial America, you might have picked up Gulliver’s Travels, Poor Richard’s Almanack or, of course, the Bible. 

But soon enough, the rising book trade along the East Coast would have increased your options exponentially. By the mid-eighteenth century, shops flourished in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, with titles in history, theology, science, and travel in greatest demand. 

The American bookseller had a notorious persona: gruff, tough and fiercely competitive. Many were rude without being malevolent, but occasionally one might sabotage another with a false accusation of fraud—passing along reproductions of ancient texts—or avoiding customs taxes with fake receipts.

By the 1890s, these sellers were a dying breed. Among the few remaining bookmen of the nineteenth century who retained his scowl and his integrity until the end, Charles Lowell Woodward closed the door upon this life on September 17, 1903.

His passion for books went back to his childhood in rural Maine, inculcated by his father Caleb, an abolitionist and jack-of-all-trades, whom he revered. But Charles didn’t want to hang around the farm. He had the urge for going, as Tom Rush sang.

At the age of 20, he took off for California, delirious with gold fever. He sailed around Cape Horn and found work at the Poverty Hill Mines near the Yuba River, about 100 miles northwest of Sacramento. While building a well, he fell into it and broke his ankle. This put an end to his mining career and he headed back east. 

Ankle problems prevented Charles from serving in the Civil War, so he joined the New England Society, a charitable organization that was old even then, and helped care for hospitalized soldiers and their families. 

When the war was over, Charles answered the call of the Pennsylvania oil fields but a flood left him homeless with two trunks of possessions. One was packed with books.

He landed in New York City at the age of 32.

Nassau Street bookshops, 1895*
(E.D. French)

There, while working as an agent for Bradstreet’s, Charles began to haunt the old bookshops that were clustered downtown along the narrow streets. In the morning, up went the striped awnings. The sellers hauled wooden bins full of prints and maps onto the sidewalks and rearranged their window displays.

Some of the stores were windowless and light entered only through the front door, if it happened to be open. Dingy and dusty, the air inside nearly as congested as the sky above the industrial waterfront, the shops nonetheless attracted plenty of luminaries.

Perusing the shelves, you might spy former President Ulysses S. Grant, the actor Edwin Booth or the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, not to mention Tammany pols, capitalists, and Bohemians. Swiftly obsessed, Charles joined the ranks of the collectors. Americana and Mormonism were his particular interests.

In 1875, Charles finally possessed enough books and savings to open his own bookshop, located in a dark room at the rear of the second floor of 78 Nassau Street. He kept the store tidy and broom-swept and took the unusual step of shelving the most valuable books with the titles facing inward. Thus, he maintained absolute control over who handled them.

Charles Lowell Woodward took pride in the tongue-in-cheek
advertisements that he placed in Publishers Weekly and trade journals.

Charles disdained presumptuous customers. His “rough and often repelling exterior fairly bristled with hatred of humbug, cant, and pretense,” wrote one of his colleagues.

He found genealogical research especially contemptible. Customers in search of family trees were handed the “donkey catalogue,” a list of books related to ancestral lineage, its cover decorated with a picture of a donkey. 

But Charles had a special fondness for certain clients, including the librarian and historian George H. Moore, once dubbed “Clio’s high-priest.” (In Greek mythology, Clio was the muse of history.) Moore worked for many years at the New-York Historical Society and the Lenox Library, a precursor to the NYPL. He had the habit of dropping by 78 Nassau Street during the early evening. After Charles locked up around 9 o’clock, the two men would sit on a bench in City Hall Park and talk far into the night. 

Oh, to hide in the shrubbery near the fountain and eavesdrop on their discussions!

City Hall at night, 1900

In 1902, Charles was hit by a wagon that came barreling down Nassau Street, and his health began to decline. One of his daughters—perhaps Polly or Daisy—started to help around the shop. But it was clear that the business could not continue after his death and he made the decision to sell his stock and close the store.

After World War I, new construction invaded Nassau and the other old streets. Park Avenue South, eight blocks between Union Square and Astor Place, became Manhattan’s “Book Row.” Further on, that neighborhood would have its own obituary.  

Advertisement, New York Times, November 1903

 *from Booksellers of Old New York and other papers by William Loring Andrews (1895).



Monday, October 18, 2021

Growing Up With John P. Marquand

John P. Marquand by Gardner Cox, 1955
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Gift of Phyllis B. Cox
Sometimes when my sons were young, bursting with a story about something exciting, I would reply, “Really my dear, really!”

Except I’d say it like this: “Rally my dear, ra-a-a-ally!”

The reply never failed to annoy them. Right now, relatively late in the game, I would like to apologize because it is, indeed, very annoying.

It would have been better, perhaps, to know where “ra-a-a-ally” came from, but I could not recall. It was imprinted on my brain, something I’d read many years earlier, which stuck.

But just a few weeks ago, I discovered the source while scanning the shelves for a comfortable old shoe sort of book.

During the sixties and seventies, my parents owned a modest beach house on Gardiner’s Bay in East Hampton. At the time, East Hampton was relatively modest, too. There was no Elie Tahari, J. Crew and Ralph Lauren, but there was an A&P, a grocery store with a donut machine, two pharmacies, a nineteenth-century windmill, and a movie theater with a single screen.

Best of all was the bookstore run by the Ladies Village Improvement Society. Used books, of course. And a wonderful range—bestsellers, Book-of-the-Month Club, and lots of novels that were popular during the forties and after the war.

As the historian Joan Shelley Rubin wrote:

On rainy summer afternoons, the inhabitants of the cottages for rent along the New England coast or the lakes of the Midwest sometimes grow restless. Tired of Monopoly and finished with the stack of current fiction imported from  home, they fasten their attention on the well-worn books that, like the mismatched china and frayed rag rugs, furnish the house. Among the faded volumes on the shelves, certain titles turn up with the faithfulness of an old friend . . .

At the LVIS bookstore in East Hampton, one might stumble over the oeuvre of a single author. Such was the case for me and John P. Marquand (1893-1960), who first gained renown for his Mr. Moto series about a Japanese secret agent. Several of these books became films.

Poster for Think Fast, Mr. Moto
During the late 1930s, Marquand turned his attention to the East Coast, portraying patricians, men in particular, struggling with the social chasm opened by World War I. His first such novel, The Late George Apley, a memoir of a Boston Brahmin, won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1938.

Marquand proceeded through the 1940s and ’50s, producing well-plotted books about affluent men and women, some with pedigrees, who were navigating cultural pretensions old and new. 

In So Little Time (1943), Jeffrey Wilson, a script doctor, and his wife Madge are driving to a weekend party at the home of Beckie—Madge’s oldest friend—and her husband, Fred.


Madge said that Fred and Beckie had such luck, and their old farm in Connecticut was just another example of it. It had simply been an old ramshackle tumbledown place occupied by an Italian family named Leveroni, although the house was one of the dearest old salt-boxes that Beckie had ever seen, whatever a salt-box might be, and it dated back easily to the Revolutionary War. Beckie was the one who saw its possibilities.   

The critics wrote that Marquand was a superb satirist, delivering send-ups of bluebloods like Beckie and Fred who sashayed between New York and Boston, Park Avenue and the Berkshires.

I think the most interesting characteristic of Marquand’s protagonists is how they shift from present to past, and how their memories keep yanking them back to the small towns from whence they came. 

Jeffrey Wilson, for example, realizes that one of the guests at Fred and Beckie’s party is an Edward Murrow-like journalist who covers the war from the frontline.

           “Hello, Walter,” Jeffrey said.

           “Why, I didn’t know you knew Mr. Newcombe,” Beckie said.

Yes, Jeffrey does know Walter Newcombe. They both grew up in Bragg, Massachusetts, and got started working for a curmudgeonly editor at a Boston newspaper; Walter just a squirt in the telegraph room.  

Throughout the weekend, Beckie can’t get over the coincidence, which makes her feel important. She hopes Jeffrey will draw Walter out.

During dinner, Walter’s irrepressible wife is seated beside Jeffrey. She says to him:

 “What’s the matter, dear old playmate? Does the soup taste bad, old chap?”

 “It isn’t the soup,” Jeffrey said. “You ought not to kill a duck and do anything like that to it.” But Mrs. Newcombe was not interested.


“Not rahally,” she said, “not rahally, dear old chap.”

So there you are.

At the end of So Little Time, after Jeffrey’s son enlists and announces his engagement to a young woman from a fine family, Jeffrey’s mind flees to the past.

For some reason he was thinking about Madge as she had looked when he had first seen her there by the tennis court at her father’s house, years and years ago when they had been so young. Something had happened to her dress, he remembered. She had wanted a pin for her dress. She had always wanted something from him. He had thought at one time that he had nothing left to give her, but now he knew that there was always something he could give, without desiring to, perhaps, but always something. He could always give her something, and she was the only one.

But Madge is superficial, I remember protesting to myself—too young to grasp the big picture . . .

The Late George Apley, 1937

Sources: So Little Time by John P. Marquand (1943); The Making of Middlebrow Culture by Joan Shelley Rubin (1992).




Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Hilda Jones


First pages of Mary Ann Horneman's pamphlet,
The First Ladies of the White House (in miniature)

I can’t wait to get back to 1941 so that I can see Mary Ann Horneman at the annual convention of the South Dakota Federation of Women’s Clubs.

She’s been invited there to give a presentation about America’s First Ladies: sing old-time songs, tell stories, show off her collection of First Ladies dolls.

Each doll—Adams, Coolidge and the rest of the gang—is dressed in a copy of the gown worn by her corresponding mannequin in the First Ladies Hall at the Smithsonian Institution.

Mary Ann made the dolls and their costumes, painted their portrait faces, and stitched their satin skirts and lace bodices.

She launched her career as a lecturer and entertainer after publishing a small book, 5”x7”, that contains photographs of her dolls and a few paragraphs about each First Lady. Since then, she has been traveling around the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas, visiting every women’s group that needs a speaker.

It’s real tea party stuff. Crowned with a headdress, swishing her own satin skirt, Mary Ann presents the First Ladies as the finest examples of American womanhood, each a study in courage and beauty. The audience clucks and nods.

Before Mary Ann introduces her dolls at the big meeting, Gertrude Null, president of the Federation, will speak about “The Importance of Being a Woman.” Miss Null is a music teacher who grew up in Huron, S.D. not too far from the Minnesota border. Incorporated in 1883, Huron rose on the banks of the James River, blessed by the Chicago and Northwestern Railway.

Huron is not unlike the city of Beloit in north central Kansas, where Mary Ann was born and would spend most of her life. Perched over the Solomon River, Beloit boomed after the Civil War thanks to the Missouri Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads, which passed through town carrying grain and passengers.  

Gertrude and Mary Ann were born, respectively, in 1889 and 1886. They were the daughters of wealthy men. Mr. Null practiced law and Mr. Horneman owned a furniture store that bulged with overstock.

Local and regional women’s organizations, like the South Dakota Federation, began to proliferate after the Civil War. Most of them sponsored pleasant social gatherings with performances and lectures by members. During the 1890s, however, the women’s club movement really took off. It grabbed thousands of white women like Mary Ann and Gertrude whose hometowns were scattered across the Great Plains.

Having imbibed the Victorian niceties of their mothers, Mary Ann and her peers tended toward the tinkly side of things. Yet they were very much a different generation, one that reached tentatively for new ideas. They wanted to learn about social issues like child welfare, took sides on Prohibition and women’s suffrage, and believed in reform, albeit incrementally. They agreed on “The Importance of Being a Woman,” but few met the definition of first wave feminist.

1916: Black professional women's club
(New York Public Library)
The women’s club movement was segregated, of course, so Black women began to form their own organizations around the turn of the twentieth century. Some grew out of sororities at historically Black colleges and universities and coalesced around the perennial campaign for anti-lynching legislation.

That fight was still going on, right in the middle of the New Deal in March 1936, when 18-year old Hilda Jones, a Black student at Girls Commercial High School in Brooklyn, won a contest to design a print for a dress to be worn by Eleanor Roosevelt.  

First prize was $75, a stunning amount of money for the daughter of immigrants from Barbados whose father worked  as a garage attendant. “I’ve liked to draw for as long as I can remember,” Hilda told a reporter. Her design was inspired one Brooklyn night by the mustard greens that her mother was preparing for dinner.

The story ran on the first page of The Voice of Colorado, a weekly with a largely Black readership, which had so little use for the Roosevelts that it endorsed Alf Landon for president that year. The bitter fight to organize the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in Arkansas, and the W.P.A.’s blind eye toward its own inequitable distribution of resources, dwarfed the story with the headline “Negro’s Design Bought by Mrs. Roosevelt.” 

Girls who entered the competition show off their designs.
Hilda is standing, second from right. 

Eleanor Roosevelt wore Hilda’s green and purple leaves, now imprinted on a chiffon dress, to a White House luncheon. Meanwhile, the young woman fervently hoped to become a commercial fabric designer.

By the time that Mary Ann Horneman started toting around her First Ladies show, Hilda had a factory job in one of the many manufacturing plants that once flourished in New York City. She never became a designer. After 1940 she disappears from record.  

Hilda's connection to Mary Ann and Gertrude is a barely visible thread, but it exists.  

“The buried talent is the sunken rock on which most lives strike and founder.”—Frederick William Faber (1814-1863), British theologian and hymnist   


Monday, August 16, 2021

A Census Century


 from Increase of Population in the United States, 1910-1920
by William S. Rossiter (1922)

An entire century separates the 1920 and 2020 censuses, so one might think that the issues surrounding the two surveys would be as different as night and day. But that is not the case. Immigration and political power were front and center 100 years ago, just as they are now.

Those most frightened by the prospect of the 1920 census were members of Congress. Today, the same fear strikes politicians as the 2020 results become known to the public. What is at stake is the number of seats that each party will hold in the House of Representatives.  

Reapportionment is mandated by the Constitution to assure that representation reflects the distribution of the population. It occurs every ten years, based on census data.

In 1910, when the results of the census were made known, they revealed a total population of 92,228,496, with a rural population of 50,164,495 and an urban population of 42,064,001. Obviously, the next census would report a population greater than 100 million.

Equally significant would be the shift from rural to urban. The next census would show that—for the first time in American history—more people resided in U.S. cities than on farms.

Thus, in the wake of the 1920 census, the nation faced a major shift in political power. Reapportionment would dictate that less populous states would lose House seats and urban areas would gain them. In anticipation of the shift, some representatives declared, as early as 1917, that the census had little value. Others urged that immigrants be eliminated from the count. 

Reapportionment brings a new political balance each decade, but it also marks significant cultural and social change. Hence the Anti-Saloon League hustled politicians to rush through Prohibition before the 1920 reapportionment, for a constitutional amendment to ban liquor never would have passed if urban legislators had been the majority in the House.

In fall of 1920, just seven months after the enumerators—as they were called—set forth with their questionnaires, the government revealed the first results of the new census. Ten states would lose seats (Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Vermont, and Virginia) while ten states would gain seats (New York, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas).

The prospect of such a drastic realignment led the House Census Committee to violate its constitutional duty by repeatedly postponing and voting down reapportionment after the final census report of 1920. It became a perennial dance.

In their first attempt to avoid reapportionment, Congressional legislators proposed a measure that would have enlarged the House to 500 seats from 435 seats. It was voted down.

In 1922, President Harding said he’d had enough and insisted that reapportionment occur by March 1923. That vote was deferred.  

In 1924, the Census Committee announced that it would drop reapportionment because “adoption of the 1920 census would seriously affect agriculture and farming sections.”

In 1926, the House again rejected reapportionment, claiming that it was not mandatory. Despite public anger and editorial outrage, the House again refused to move on reapportionment in 1928. 

Finally, after the results of the 1930 census were announced, the House acted. But the damage had been done.

If Congress had performed its duty, the Immigration Act of 1924 would not have been enacted. That xenophobic law set severe quotas for Eastern European immigrants and excluded most Asians, Indians, and Arabs. Prohibition probably would have been repealed far earlier than 1933 due to overwhelming opposition among city dwellers.

It’s evident that no one intends to postpone the reapportionment dictated by the 2020 census results. Observers have noted, however, that redistricting and voter suppression—already in full swing—will have the effect of maintaining the status quo. In this way, to put it politely, we may see further postponement of social transformation.



Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Taking Possession of Leaves of Grass


Marked 100 in pencil in the upper right corner of the flyleaf, this 1905 edition of Leaves of Grass sat on our bookshelf for as far back as I can remember.

Published in Boston, dark green gold-embossed leather splendor: my father must have picked it up in a used bookstore on Fourth Avenue one rainy day in 1950s Manhattan. A day when he left the office early—a rarity—and headed downtown, perhaps ending with a few drinks in a bar near Washington Square before returning by commuter train to our suburban home.

He had attended NYU’s uptown campus, constructed on a bluff in The Bronx during the late nineteenth century. University Heights, as it was known, was the brainchild of Chancellor Hugh McCracken, who worried that the influx of working-class Italian immigrants into Greenwich Village, where NYU had risen in 1835, would destroy the school.

My father and his brother
NYU graduation, University Heights, 1947

As the diplomat and social observer Arthur Bartlett Maurice once quipped, “Whatever else Bohemia may be, it is nearly always yesterday.” My father, who probably didn’t know of the sharp-tongued Maurice, nevertheless would have believed that he had missed out by not attending the downtown campus even though it was considered less prestigious until the 1960s.

Now the book is in my lap, that same edition of Leaves of Grass, not musty but with a loose binding, 449 pages that include “Song of Myself” and conclude with “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” reflections written five years before the poet’s death in 1892.

My father liked “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Mannahatta,” and the elegiac “When Lilacs Last at the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which memorialized President Lincoln. During the summer of 1975, he asked why I was reading the French Symbolists and not “a more cheerful poet, like Whitman.”  

The reason, pure and simple, was that Bob Dylan had invoked Verlaine and Rimbaud in his transcendent album, “Blood on the Tracks,” released earlier that year. 

Another question concerns the befuddling original owner of this particular copy of Leaves of Grass: James Wallig of Fall River, Mass. I’m not accustomed to being rebuffed by databases, but James is nowhere to be found even if I spell his name six different ways. The best option is Frank Lincoln Willig, a Boston grocer who makes an appearance in the 1915 census.


If Frank was James’ father, he neglected to tell his son not to write in books, although it might not have mattered because James was in a hurry to get to Leaves of Grass. Within a few days of acquiring the book on May 31, 1905, he took an inky pen to its pages to scrawl, sloppily, the dates on which he conquered various poems.


I imagine him sitting on the porch of an old frame house on the day after Decoration Day, possibly not far from “Maplecroft,” the mansion where Lizzie Borden and her sister lived after Lizzie’s acquittal for murder.

He scans the contents of the book and turns to page 298: “To Him That Was Crucified.”

                 We walk silent among disputes and assertions . . .

He marks the date, puts the book down, and picks up the Fall River Daily Herald, which someone has left on the table. He glances at an ad for Talbot & Company:

            Outing suits—new $5.00

            Duck Trousers 98c to $1.50

            Crash Trousers 98c

            Wash Vests $1.00-$5.00

            Straw Hats—all the shapes and sizes

It’s summertime in Fall River, 1905.



Wednesday, June 30, 2021


Oliver Victor Limerick as Billy Burgundy

Billy Burgundy’s Letters, published in 1902, is one of Oliver Victor Limerick’s several rude books that ridicule high society, Wall Street, and affairs of the heart.

In the first chapter, “Jilted,” Burgundy writes about his ex-fiancée, Sylvia Heartburn:

A girl can fool a whole detective agency if she takes a notion. Just to prove what I say, Gertrude Hatpin told me last night that old man Heartburn was a janitor until he struck oil in Pennsylvania, and that the family history that I loved and respected was bought from a Fulton Street family tree fakir.

"Fulton Street family tree fakir"! I must investigate. Along the way, I might find out why a man named Oliver Victor Limerick would assume such a pedestrian penname as Billy Burgundy.

"Find the Fakir"
from a late nineteenth-century 
newspaper story

There are a few definitions of fakir: a Hindu or Muslim mendicant; a Hindu or Muslim man who rejects worldly goods. In antebellum America, fakirs were entertainers and necromancers, of various ethnicities, who performed magic and feats like levitation and “Asiatic jugglery.”   

The widely-known Fakir of Ava was an illusionist named Isaiah Hughes, born in England, who cashed in on the mania for miracles during the 1840s and 50s, touring the U.S. in make-up and regalia.     

After the Civil War, “fakir” came to be used colloquially to describe any con man or trickster. It likely got conflated with “faker.” Down on Fulton Street in New York City, a fakir was any peddler who sold cheap wind-up toys, Japanese dolls, all imaginable tzatchkes, and—according to Oliver Limerick—faux family trees.

Fakirs also harassed tourists “to bunco the hayseed,” according to one observer.


They bring in fluffy little puppy dogs, that look pretty in babyhood, but may be guaranteed to grow up into the toughest looking mongrels imaginable. They offer cheap cologne, that is labeled all right, but proves to be water when it is uncorked.

Sometimes, the fakirs ventured north toward Union Square, but the police chased them back to Fulton Street where they continued to attract crowds and the occasional reporter, this one in 1898:


Busy Times, These, Down Along Fulton Street

No one called Oliver Limerick a “fakir,” but he had the whiff of the unsavory about him. 

Born in the bustling river port of Rodney, Mississippi, in 1873, son of a pharmacist, Limerick made his way to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and graduated in 1893. Then he moved to New York City and secured an appointment at the Brooklyn Diagnostic Institute. From that perch, he announced a cure for asthma and hay fever: Asatco, a new Austrian drug, which was available in free samples by mail.

Before long, Limerick got caught up in a blackmail scheme involving the Frazer Tablet Triturate Manufacturing Company and the Cincinnati Health Department. Limerick was said to be the middle man between the city’s health officer and the company, demanding $10,000 or he would publicly “pronounce the tablets impure.”

In 1897, sentenced to two years in a state penitentiary, Limerick asked for a second trial and was granted one. I don’t know if he got off.

But lo, Limerick reappears in 1901 with a book, Toothsome Tales Told in Slang by Billy Burgundy. One critic described it as “weak, vulgar and insane.” That may have been the case. Either way, Limerick was imitating a popular series of pamphlets, Billy Baxter’s Letters, that reportedly sold four million copies.

During the late nineteenth century, a market developed for literature that featured “slang,” irreverent sendups of men and women’s foibles using a derogatory street vocabulary and self-deprecating style. 

The first perpetrator, George Ade, a Chicago newspaperman and playwright, wrote a syndicated column, “Stories of the Street and of the Town,” for the Chicago Record. Some consider Ade to have been the forerunner of Mike Royko, whose man-on-the-street columns appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Daily News across thirty years.

"Billy Burgundy's Stories to be Syndicated" 
A Democratic congressman, Edward W. Townsend, became famous for his “Chimmie Fadden” stories about the Bowery Boys, also heavy on “slang.” Two were made into films directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

Then along came William J. Kountz, Jr., whose Billy Baxter character “coined his slang and filled his little books with new phrases which gave unspeakable delight to people who are close students of English as it is twisted in this country,” according to Kountz’s obituary. He died in 1899 at age thirty-one.

When he wasn’t railing against “tobacco-phobes” who didn’t agree that smoking was a healthy pursuit, Limerick kept on publishing stories about Billy Burgundy. He fell in with a bunch of rowdy artists and writers who caroused all around town and never, ever shed their cynicism about women.

The doctor-cum-author died in 1926 and was returned to Rodney, now a ghost town ever farther away from the big bad city where Limerick left Billy Burgundy behind.

Rodney, Mississippi, 1940s


Friday, May 28, 2021

Mom & Me & Pal Joey

Original cast recording, Pal Joey, 
Broadway, 1952

I was thinking about an old musical, Pal Joey, which debuted on Broadway in 1940, and my parents saw in revival in 1953, when they had just moved back to New York from Dayton, Ohio.

The playbill for Pal Joey was buried in a carton in the attic of the house where I grew up, along with dozens of other playbills. The soundtrack was stashed among the LPs in the den on the first floor where the record player lived.

The record player was built into the far corner of a wooden window seat that looked onto the front porch. To use it, you had to lift up a heavy lid, which was designed to lean back against the wall and stayed put most of the time. In the large hole below were the turntable and controls, accessible with a few clunky maneuvers.

I’ve never seen anything like that record player except in my childhood home. I’m pretty certain that my parents designed it when they moved into the house. They liked to innovate whenever possible but had varying success.

The records were categorized in a cabinet, also below the window seat: Brigadoon, South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun, West Side Story, and so forth. Between the images on the front of the album and the story summarized on the back, it was possible for a child to figure out the characters and what the songs meant. 

Pal Joey was based on a selection of short stories by the writer John O’Hara, previously published in The New Yorker, who offered them to the songwriting team of Rodgers and Hart to transform into a musical.

Joey, the central character, is a likeable opportunist and womanizer, the emcee of a Chicago nightclub who longs to run his own show. While courting a chorus girl, he starts an affair with a society dame who gives him the money to start his own club, Chez Joey. In the second act, after a blackmail plot is revealed, Joey blithely carries on in search of more prey.

An eminent theater critic, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, applauded Pal Joey when it opened on Christmas 1940, closing his review with a question that became legendary—at least among a certain generation:

“Although ‘Pal Joey’ is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” 

Screenshot of Brooks Atkinson's review of the 1940
Broadway production of Pal Joey, starring Gene Kelly

“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “I Could Write a Book,” are among the unforgettable songs that Rodgers and Hart wrote for Pal Joey. My favorite is “Zip,” performed by a newspaper reporter who plans to write an article about Joey’s new club and regales him with stories of famous people she has interviewed. In “Zip,” she sings about one of the interviewees, Gypsy Rose Lee, who revealed what she thought about while performing a striptease.*

Today, “Zip” is astonishing because its lyrics assume a relatively high level of cultural literacy among the audience. And that’s also why the song is so funny.

            Zip! Walter Lippmann wasn’t brilliant today.
            Zip! Will Saroyan ever write a great play?
            Zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night,
            Zip! And I think that Schopenhauer was right . . .
            I don’t like a deep contralto
            Or a man whose voice is alto
            Zip! I’m a heterosexual.
            Zip! It took intellect to master my art
            Zip! Who the hell is Margie Hart?

It goes on for two more verses:

            Zip! I consider Dali’s paintings passé.
            Zip! Can they make the Metropolitan pay?
            Zip! Rip Van Winkle on the stage would be smart.
            Zip! Tyrone Power would be cast in the part . . .

It fell to my forty-year old mother to explain Lippmann, Saroyan, and Schopenhauer to ten-year old me, not to mention Margie Hart (a striptease competitor), Lili St. Cyr (another burlesque dancer), the words heterosexual and misogynistic, and more.

I’m thanking her today on her 93rd birthday.

Newspaper caricature of Jean Casto performing
"Zip," 1940 Broadway production

(New York Public Library for the Performing Arts) 

*Here is Bebe Neuwirth singing "Zip." It's very close to the original recording.




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