Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Before the flapper, the naughty 'vamp' scandalized New York


Above: Clara Bow, in It (1927), one of the roles that made her an major film star.

Two iconic actresses of the early silent film industry share a birthday today -- Theda Bara (born July 29, 1885) and Clara Bow (born in Brooklyn, July 29, 1905).  Bow became the screen's leading flapper archetype of the 1920s, but Bara's exotic, controversial antics set the stage one decade earlier.  In honor of their birthdays, I'm re-running this article from last year about 'the vamp', a sort of proto-flapper popularized by Bara and the ladies of the Ziegfeld Follies, later to influence the changes in perceptions of women in the 1920s.




 Maneater: Theda Bara in an unconventional portrait. Her publicist claimed it was her lover and that 'not even the grave could separate them'.

"A vampire is a good woman with a bad reputation, or rather a good woman who has had possibilities and wasted them" -- Florenz Ziegfeld

Progressive, liberated women were clearly so frightening one hundred years ago that equating them to undead, bloodthirsty creatures borne of Satan didn't seem so unusual.

In the late 1910s, women were on the verge of winning the right for equal representation in the voting booth. Women were asserting power in unions, and, in the wake of disasters like the Triangle Factory Fire, those unions were influencing government policy. They were taking control of their destinies, their fortunes, even their sexuality (Margaret Sanger's first birth control clinic opened in 1916).

This surging independence came just as the entertainment industry heralded the female form as one of its primary attractions. Ziegfeld's sassy, flesh-filled Follies -- and its many imitators -- defined the Broadway stage, mixing  music, sex and glamour with a morality-shattering frankness.

But it was the birth of motion pictures that gave the allure of female bodies an unearthly, flickering glow, as nickelodeon shorts became feature-length films, and the first era of the movie siren was born.

Combine the power of liberation with the erotic potential of cinema, and in the late 1910s, you got the vampire (or as we would come to know, the 'vamp').

The queen of the vamps was one of America's most mysterious movie stars -- Theda Bara (at left). The magnetic actress, with her steely gaze and jetblack hair, was the prototype for a movie bad girl. She shook convention so dramatically that a critic called her a "flaming comet of the cinema firmament."

From 1915-1919, she made over three dozen films, most in movie studios located in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It were here that she acquired her famous nickname, based upon her role as a home wrecker in a film inspired by Rudyard Kipling's 'The Vampire'. During this period, Bara lived in Manhattan's Gramercy Park with her family -- at 132 E. 19th Street.

She put a face to a new sort of young lady. These were the spiritual children of the prior generation of newly empowered women who fought against the constraints of Victorian society. A few years later, as another vein of female power (the temperance movement) helped bring about Prohibition, these young women would be called flappers, carefree and fueled on the powers of jazz and illegal alcohol.

But to the established class, these ladies weren't trend-setters. They were devils in black gowns. 'Know a 'Vampire' by the Card She Plays', warned a New York Evening World article from March 1919, accompanied by a Theda Bara-like illustration of a snake-like monster.

The article recounts the efforts of a Newark judge attempting the rid the streets of "flirty girlies," as he called them. "A vampire is a woman who flirts on the street with men, bleaches her hair, camouflages her face, disguises herself with clothes and gives wrong names, but is unable to change her eyes or dimples." The article laughs off his puny efforts. "Can vamps, of whatever sort, BE suppressed?"

Vampires were of course more readily seen in Times Square, dancers, actresses or cabaret stars. But even your stenographer could be one!, warned one article.

Unlike Bara's iconic identity as a raven-locked seductress, most 'real' vampires were blondes. "[T]he vampire of real life hath the golden hair of an angel, which is never disarranged, same when she letteth it down, to DISPLAY it, on the beach," warned columnist Helen Rowland, with a little tongue in cheek. (Ms. Rowland was famous for her writings as a 'bachelor girl'.)

"No one ever saw a vampire in a high neck dress," said an Evening World advice columnist in 1918. "All vampires must reveal their collar-bones and the contiguous territory."

The woman vampire was an urban creature, up all night, sleeping all the day. The city was partial cause for her condition. As the New York Times suggested in 1920, "The idea of New York as a vampire to the rest of the country is one which a number of persons have entertained and expressed. To some of them the vampire is Wall Street, to others it is the region of white lights [Broadway]."

Many actress got stuck with the term 'vamp' or 'baby vampire' -- or else, embraced the coy terminology. Juliette Day was a known 'baby vampire' for her role in the scandalous 1916 play 'Upstairs and Down'. It's no surprise that in the film version from 1919, the role is reprised by the notorious Olive Thomas, a Ziegfeld girl who met a bitter end the following year.

Some actress fought against the alleged stigma. Actress Clara Joel, playing a vampire-type role in a 1918 film, made it known in the Tribune that "she is not a vampire and that she was born in Jersey City."

The irony of stage actresses trying to shed a vampire image is that Theda Bara, the original vampire, in her first stage attempt in 1920, flopped. The play was supernatural-themed 'The Blue Flame' which opened at the Shubert Theater to cavalcades of unintentional laughter.(A 'terrible thing', according to the Times critic.) Bara, who had to deliver such lines as "Did you remember to bring the cocaine?" was roundly trashed.

Shortly thereafter, the vampire moved to Los Angeles. Her film career lasted a few more years, but sound pictures and a strict Hollywood production code pretty much eradicated the existence of vamps on the screen. In New York, meanwhile, her sultry spawn morphed into flappers, populating the speakeasies and cabaret nightclubs of the city.

Below: A 1919 romp called 'The Vamp' performed by the Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Summer styling : Get a Bowery Boys T-Shirt!


Here's your new look for the summer! Proclaim your love of New York history and the Bowery Boys podcast and blog with these two new exclusive T-shirts.  

The gold-on-black model is called The Boss Tweed, great for either a night out on the town at Delmonico's or an all-nighter at a Five Points stale beer dive.  


The red-on-white model is called The Stuyvesant, perfect for any budding director-general looking for something fashionable to wear to the beach, gym or rowdy Dutch port town.  




The shirts are $20 apiece (XL and larger $25) plus shipping.  You can purchase them here: the official Bowery Boys Shopify store.

This pricing is for a limited time only so buy shirts for you and your gang today!  All profits go back into the improvement of the podcast and blog, so you'll even be helping make our show better than ever.  In a few months we hope to have a couple more items to choose from.

TO NEW YORKERS: The shirts are being shipped from outside New York from Texas which explains the shipping price. We would appreciate any suggestions about how to get them made more cheaply here for locals. Email us and let us know.

Thanks for shopping and supporting the Bowery Boys! We tip our hat to you.

NOTE: The Boss Tweed is unisex while the Stuyvesant is in both unisex and women's sizes.

Shirts and logo designed by Thomas Cabus.  Thanks to Shahar Shamir for modeling.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

History in the Making - July 14, 2014: Red Hot Summer Edition


Party time at Leon and Eddie's nightclub at 33 West 52nd Street, photo from July 1948.  That's the proprietor himself -- Eddie Davis.    The nightlife impresario Toots Shor got his start here as a bouncer. [Library of Congress]


Demolition Is Hot Right Now: A disturbing report from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation of 20 recent buildings that were demolished before they could be landmarked. Do we ever need to hear the words "replaced with a parking lot"? A few of them are pictured here: [The Real Deal]

In Somewhat Better News: The oldest buildings in New York that are currently not demolished! [6SQFT]

The Most Interesting Burger King Ever: Some very fun old photographs of Governors Island. [Gothamist]

High Drama: The surprising history of the old Tammany Hall building in Union Square. [Daytonian In Manhattan]

Netflix Killed The Video Star: The final days of the very last Kim's Video Store in the East Village.  [Jeremiah's Vanishing New York]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Postcard from Paris: A view of another obelisk

I'm heading through France on my way to Tom's wedding, but I stopped by Paris to check out an object we mentioned in our Cleopatra's Needle podcast -- the Paris obelisk in Place de la Concorde!  Here it is reflected in the basin at Jardin des Tuileries.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dollhouses, skully and puddles: Lower East Side children, actually having fun


Girls with a pretty amazing dollhouse at Seward Park playground.  Photo labeled August 1913

I'll be traveling for the next few days so I'll be posting here a bit less than normal. Next week I'll re-post some interesting stories from the back catalog. Enjoy your weekend!

I recently discovered this first image in a collection of Lower East Side photographs, and realized how unusual it was to see pictures of children before the 1920s actually smiling and happy in photographs.  This is partly due to a certain awkwardness around cameras and the relative slow process in taking a picture back then.

Also, children were usually photographed doing things that did not make them happy.  The two best known social photographers of the era -- Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis -- were specifically trying to capture poor working and living conditions. Images of life's little pleasures did not fit the narrative. Although in some of Hine's photographs of tenement life, some happiness peeks through.

But I did find these images of kids at play, most all of them in the summer time. Take a little of their enthusiasm with you this summer! Click into the pictures for a larger view.


Children find some joy near the elevated, July 31, 1913.  The kid in me wants to jump in and join them.  The adult in me is thinking, "That water must be filthy."



I believe the boys in the two pictures above are playing checkers*.  Top photo is labeled August 1913, the second around the same time period.

Craig on our Facebook page clarifies the images above: "I suspect that the boys in that picture aren't playing checkers, but a distinctly NYC game called "Skully" or "Skullsy," as some call it. At least that's the first thing that I thought of." Good catch!


I'm putting this in a blog post about children playing, but I do not think the boy being leaped over is having too much fun.


Children being drawn to the streets by the intoxicating sounds of the organ grinder (and monkey, although I don't see one here).



At the Seward Park playgrounds.  The dark clothing doesn't appear to make the scene very jovial, but everybody is all smiles.



And a bonus picture above of boys playing in Central Park, 1904.  This is a quite extraordinary picture because for half a second, I thought they were sheep.

Photos above are courtesy the Library of Congress, the Tenement Museum, and the New York Public Library

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Dictaphone Murder Trial of 1914: A Mystery In Pictures




Does this woman look like a murderer to you?

This is Florence Carman, the wife of Dr. Edwin Carman, one of the most respected men in Freeport, on Long Island's south shore.  Mrs. Carman would be at the center of a murder trial that captivated New Yorkers 100 years ago.

Dr. Carman received a visitor in his office on July 1, 1914, one Louise "Lulu" Bailey.  Her visit was after hours, so we can perhaps surmise the tenor of their engagement.  So, does it seem, did Mrs. Carman.

Here's Dr. Carman, the subject of his wife's suspicions and the possible recipient of Mrs. Bailey's affections:



That evening, claimed Dr. Carman, as he entered his office to meet Mrs. Bailey, somebody shot at her through the window. She fell dead to the floor.  I should add that the office just happened to be on the ground floor of the Carman's Freeport home, a handsome structure, "one of the show places of the village."

Below: Investigators case the Carman's house for clues



The following day revealed a bizarre twist -- Florence had purposefully left on a Dictaphone machine on in the office.  After the police left, she removed it from the crime scene and hid it in the attic.

At right: One example of a Dictaphone machine from the 1920s..

Mrs. Carman, it seems, did not trust her husband with any female patients.  With the Dictaphone on, she could listen in on the conversations between the doctor and his patients.  In particular, she could spy upon any possible dalliance between her husband and Mrs. Bailey.

Her guilt seemed assured when witnesses declared seeing a "woman in white" standing on the porch at the time of the murder.

For many days, suspicions actually volleyed between the doctor and his wife.  For instance, some days later, Dr. Carman claimed that he was shot at by a man on a bicycle while entering his house, a tale others contradicted.  Detectives actually re-enacted the murder with the doctor and his wife.

From the New York Sun:  "The detective took the part of the assassin, creeping at dusk among the hemlocks and crawling, pistol in hand, to the window of Dr. Carman's office through which Mrs. Bailey was shot."

At left: A map of the murder scene from the New York Sun

Guilt eventually rested on Mrs.Carman, who was arrested exactly one week after the murder.

Meanwhile, Bailey's murder swept away all other news of the day, filling the New York newspapers for weeks with the possibility of a salacious scandal.

Here's the Doctor with his daughter Elizabeth Carman, who later took the stand to defend her mother:



Florence was brought up on charges of murdering Bailey, and evidence was brought before the Freeport Justice of the Peace.  In October, the case went to trial in the nearby town of Mineola.

The following photographs were taken outside the courthouse.




Florence's defense rested on the testimony of Celia Coleman, the Carman's maid, who produced a solid alibi for Mrs. Carman, proving she was inside the house the entire time, not on the porch, and thus not the "woman in white."

However, by October, Coleman claimed that Florence had in fact crept out the back door moments before the fatal murder.  Then she testified....


The reasons for her conflicting stories are muddled, but she may have been covering for her employer then later told the truth.  Or else, she was bought off, as a later conspiracy theorized, brought forth a more tantalizing story to the delight of newspaper men everywhere.


The dashing Dr. William Runcie also took to the stand in regards to the presence of the Dictaphone and whether it was an indication of her mental state.

Runcie had come to the house on the evening of the murder, and Florence had told her then of hiding the machine in the office. But she urged Runcie not to tell her husband this fact.  He tried to brush away this fact.  "While it is out of the ordinary, I cannot see why so much importance is given to it." [source]



Another witness named George Golder, who had originally testified of Mrs. Carman's guilt, now "made an affidavit practically repudiating his identification of the doctor's wife as the woman he saw on the porch." [source]  His testimony was later used to cast guilt upon Doctor Carman.

Below: A jury of her peers?


The family of the deceased woman made a dramatic entrance.  This is Lulu's daughter, mother and husband.



A little sex appeal was brought into the courtroom with the appearance of Florence Raynor, specifically there to contradict the testimony of another man who claimed to have seen Mrs. Carman on the porch that night.



In the end, the jury could not come to a consensus regarding Mrs. Carman's guilt.  Wrote the New York Times, "After deliberating for thirteen and a quarter hours, the jurors in the trial of Mrs. Florence C. Carman for the alleged murder of Mrs. Lulu D. Bailey filed wearily into the Supreme Court room at 10:58 o'clock this morning and the foreman announced that it was impossible for them to come to any agreement."

She was re-tried in May of 1915 and given a vigorous grilling on the stand. The New York Times makes note of the soft-spoken woman raising her voice for the very first time -- evidence, so goes the inference, of the trial taking its toll upon her.  The jury sympathized with her and finally acquitted her of the murder.

By this time, of course, the story was relegated to the back pages, as world events -- and other local murder cases -- monopolized the attentions of New Yorkers.

To this day, the murder of Lulu Bailey has not been solved.  It's unclear whether justice was really served that day.  "I do not believe a jury in Nassau County can be brought to convict a woman of murder in the first degree," said the district attorney.



All the photographs above are courtesy the Library of Congress.



Friday, July 11, 2014

Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton: The duel at Weehawken and the terrible consequences of an ugly insult


PODCAST Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met at a clearing in Weehawken, NJ, in the early morning on July 11, 1804, to mount the most famous duel in American history. But why did they do it?

This is the story of two New York lawyers -- two Founding Fathers -- that so detested each other that their vitriolic words (well, mostly Hamilton's) led to these two grown men shooting each other out of honor and dignity, while robbing America of their brilliance, leadership and talent.

You may know the story of this duel from history class, but this podcast focuses on its proximity to New York City, to their homes Richmond Hill and Hamilton Grange and to the places they conducted their legal practices and political machinations.

Which side are you on?

ALSO: Find out the fates of sites that are associated with the duel, including the place Hamilton died and the rather disrespectful journey of the dueling grounds in Weehawken.

To get this week's episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #168 DUEL! Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton
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And we would like to thank a new sponsor Audible, the premier provider of digital audiobooks. Get a FREE audiobook download and 30 day free trial at www.audibletrial.com/boweryboys. Over 150,000 titles to choose from for your iPhone, Android, Kindle or mp3 player Audible titles play on iPhone, Kindle, Android and more than 500 devices for listening anytime, anywhere.
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CORRECTION: Alexander Hamilton had his fateful dinner as the house of Judge James Kent, not John Kent, as I state here.

SOURCES: Many of my research materials include the books on my Riffle list of 25 Great Books About the Founding Fathers (And Mothers).
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Alexander Hamilton, leader of the Federalists was a played out, stressed out, heavily in debt politician by June 1804. This is John Trumbull's painting of Hamilton, completed almost over a year after the duel.


The Hamilton Grange, a beautiful home on the Hudson that Alexander only lived in for a couple years. (NYPL)


Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States, was a played out, stressed out, heavily in debt politician by June 1804. This is John Vanderlyn's portrait of Burr from 1802.



View of the Weekhawken dueling grounds in 1830s.  This area most likely still saw some duels at this period.  Note the small monument/obelisk marking the spot allegedly where Hamilton fell. (NYPL)


Thomas Addis Emmet's quaint depiction of the dueling grounds was created in 1881, long after the actual grounds were destroyed by railroad construction. (NYPL)


From the New York Tribune, July 1904, a look at the Hamilton bust that once sat in Weehawken.  Several years later, vandals took the bust and hurled it off the cliff.



The William Bayard house in later years, with the lots surrounding it obviously sold and built up around it. (NYPL)


The Hamilton tomb at Trinity Church, picture taken in 1908, although it looks pretty much the same today! (Wurts Brothers, Courtesy MCNY)

Broadway and Wall Street. Tomb of Alexander Hamilton, Trinity churchyard.
 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Richmond Hill: West Village's former Vice Presidential mansion and the lonely refuge of Aaron Burr

[Richmond Hill, residence of Aaron Burr.]


Richmond Hill, the spacious mansion and 26-acre estate on the outskirts of town that had once been George Washington's headquarters and later the home of John Adams, was also home to another vice president -- Aaron Burr.  This was the place he lived on that fateful day, July 11, 1804, when he entered into a duel with Alexander Hamilton.

Here's a lovely description of the home from an 1861 biography of Burr by author James Parton:

"[Burr's] style of living kept pace with his increasing income.  In a few years we find him master of Richmond Hill, the mansion where Washington had lived in 1776, with grounds reaching to the Hudson, with ample gardens, and a considerable extent of grove and farm.  Here he maintained a liberal establishment and exercised the hospitality which was then in vogue.

The one particular in which Richmond Hill surpassed the other houses of equal pretensions, was its library.  From his college days, Colonel Burr had been a zealous buyer of books, and his stock had gone on increasing till, on attaining to the dignity of householder, he was able to give to his miscellaneous collection something of the completeness of a library.

It is evident enough, from his correspondence, that his favorite ethos were still those whom the 'well-constituted minds' of that day regarded with admiring horror.  The volumes of Gibbon's History [The Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire] were appearing in those years, striking the orthodox world with wonder and dismay.  They had a very hearty welcome in the circle at Richmond Hill."

--  the Life and Times of Aaron Burr, by James Parton, 1861

After the duel, Burr liquidated his assets, selling Richmond Hill to John Jacob Astor.  With the grounds heavily cut up and sold, he had the mansion rolled on logs to the newly carved street corner and turned into a theater and opera house.  At this time, he also moved the carriage house further north, where it was later re-purposed and today houses the romantic restaurant One If By Land, Two If By Sea.

It made for a very sumptuous opera house, it appears.  According to author Eric Homberger, "Boxes at the Richmond Hill were furnished as though they were an extension of the elegant parlors of St. John's Park, with 'light blue hangings, gilded panels and cornice, arm-chairs, and a sofa.'"

It was parallel in style, perhaps, to the Astor Place Opera House across town.   Eventually it deteriorated into a lowly roadhouse and saloon -- but certainly, the most gorgeous one in town -- called the Tivoli Saloon before being torn down in 1849.

Richmond Hill House or Theater.

Today the site of Richmond Hill and its former ground are occupied by this building, currently the home of WNYC, and the surrounding blocks of this area of the far West Village.


Top image courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

New York's amusement palace Niblo's Garden returns (sort of)



It's the return of Niblo's Garden, the 19th century pleasure garden and entertainment palace once on Broadway and Prince Street!  Except this time around, it's in a cemetery.

Niblo's is perhaps most famous as being the site of the first Broadway musical (at least, some form of it).  The venue's impresario William Niblo is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery, and it will be here this Saturday that Niblo's vaudevillian spirit comes alive.  In fact, his mausoleum here was meant to host entertainment!

From Green-wood's event site:

"Imagine an outdoor pleasure dome, strung with lights, adorned with fountains and featuring the top musicians, dancers and entertainers of the time. That was the scene at Niblo’s Garden – the premier entertainment house of the 19th century.

Niblo himself had a habit of turning his Green-Wood mausoleum – built years before his death – into a pleasure garden of its own, with friends, picnics and goldfish-stocked ponds.

Join author, historian, and Niblo expert Ben Feldman to bring the glory of Niblo’s Garden to Green-Wood! Enjoy an evening picnic around the beautiful glacial pond Crescent Water, and take in an evening of showmanship in front of the grand Niblo mausoleum.

Bring a blanket, some snacks and drinks, and you’ll be dazzled by fire jugglers, singers, even famed knife thrower Throwdini! – all under paper lanterns and a starry sky."

Saturday, July 12, 7:00 pm - 10:00 pm 
Green-Wood Cemetery
500 25th Street, Brooklyn
Cosponsored by The Victorian Society New York.
$30 for members of Green-Wood and Brooklyn Historical Society/$35 for nonmembers

Not quite familiar with the legend of Niblo's Garden?  The pleasure garden was the subject of one my favorite solo podcasts from a few years back.  Give this a listen to

 





Photos courtesy Library of Congress

Monday, July 7, 2014

25 Great Books About the Founding Fathers (and Mothers)

Independence Day may be over, but our celebration of the Founding Fathers continues all this week, culminating in a brand new podcast this Friday! I thought I'd share some of my favorite books on the subject of America building, great reads on the personalities of the men and women who helped form America.

 Included here are some of my favorite biographies, as well as narrative histories of events between 1783 and 1817. And there's a couple event-specific books on the Revolutionary War, for some context.  I've purposely chosen recently written books (and thus readily accessible) with one exception -- Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention by Catherine Drinker Bowen, written in 1966.  Not only is it still a fascinating read, but it was the first book I ever read as a kid about the early days of America.

Do you have any favorites from this time period that I've left out? Include your choices in the comments! (Please note it may take a few hours for comments to appear below.)