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Literary Landmarks of New York City, Part Two
by Rocco Dormarunno
Part Two of Three Parts
From Lower Broadway to the Algonquin Hotel
Today, the term "Broadway" summons the image of the bright lights, restaurants and theaters surrounding Times Square. However, Broadway below 14th Street was the pulsating commercial and theater district of the 19th Century. As the 1870 photograph below depicts, the great avenue was jammed with people, carts, horses, and omnibuses. At night, even more vehicles took theater-goers to the Astor Theater or, maybe, the Olympic Theater to catch a performance of Macbeth by the great actor Edwin Booth, the brother of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
In his poem, "Broadway" (1888), Walt Whitman celebrated its seemingly inexhaustible vitality and vibrancy:
"What hurrying human tides, or day or night?
What passions, winnings, losses, ardors, swim thy waters!
What whirls of evil, bliss and sorrow, stem thee!
What curious questioning glances--glints of love!
Leer, envy, scorn, contempt, hope, aspiration!
Thou portal--thou arena--thou of the myriad long-drawn lines and groups!"
Whitman's favorite hang-out was a pub called Pfaff's (no longer extant) on Broadway and Bleecker Street. He often held court there, composed poems, and greeted other writers. (William Dean Howells visited Whitman there; he was warmed by Whitman's charm but he thought Pfaffs was a dump.) But when he wasn't imbibing, however, Whitman loved to stroll endlessly up and down the avenue. To Whitman, Broadway was the embodiment of the ideal of American democracy:
"Trottoirs throng'd, vehicles--Broadway--the women--the shops and shows,
The parades, processions, bugles playing, flags flying, drums beating;
The free city! no slaves! no owners of slaves!
The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and masts!"
From "Mannahatta" (1860)
It is impossible to know for sure if Whitman had read Frederick Douglass' "My Escape from Slavery" (1845), but it is equally impossible to believe that he hadn't. If he did, however, it must've warmed Whitman's heart to know that Douglass' first day of freedom was spent wandering Broadway:
"My free life began on the third of September, 1838. On the morning of the fourth of that month, after an anxious and most perilous but safe journey, I found myself in the big city of New York, a FREE MAN--one more added to the mighty throng which, like the confused waves of the troubled sea, surged to and fro between the lofty walls of Broadway. Though dazzled with the wonders which met me on every hand, my thoughts could not be much withdrawn from my strange situation. For the moment, the dreams of my youth and the hopes of my manhood were completely fulfilled."
"The ideal of quiet and of genteel retirement, in 1835, was found in Washington Square, where the Doctor built himself a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house, with a big balcony before the drawing-room windows, and a flight of marble steps ascending to a portal which was also faced with white marble. This structure, and many of its neighbours, which it exactly resembled, were supposed, forty years ago, to embody the last results of architectural science, and they remain to this day very solid and honourable dwellings... I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable."
From Henry James' "Washington Square"
Doctor Sloper wasn't the only one to feel the need for a "quiet and genteel" oasis in Manhattan.
Manhattan, always a bustling but manageable town in the 18th century, underwent incredible population explosions in the first half of the 19th century. Approximately 65,000 people lived in New York City in 1800. By 1820, that number had increased nearly four-fold to 245,000, and by 1860 it leaped again to well-over half a million people. This expansion was spurred mostly by the promise of jobs in the busy port city. However, it was also fueled by the growing number of free blacks and blacks escaping slavery, then by the ever-increasing number of German refugees fleeing the political and social upheaval in their country, and finally by the famine Irish of the 1840s and 1850s. Over these decades, the city's burgeoning population pushed Manhattan's border further northward beyond Canal Street.
Real estate developers of the time noted this movement uptown and hit upon an idea. "Why not take that plot of land that used to be a pauper's graveyard and public gallows, and transform it into a park, and name it after our beloved first President?" And they did just that in 1826. Then, in 1829, they built a row of Greek revival homes, made of Flemish brick, along the park's northern end. (Pictured below.) Although Henry James' house on Washington Square was demolished during his lifetime, these beautiful homes have survived, one of them being Doctor Sloper's. Ironically, the fictional character's house outlived the author's.
Also of note, 7 Washington Square North (partly obscured by the trees on the right) still exists. Edith Wharton lived here with her mother in the 1880s.
In the 20th century, the Park was a magnet for bohemians, artists, writers, and political activists. Perhaps Anatole Broyard best described the Washington Park scene of the 1950s:
"It was like Paris in the twenties--with the difference that it was our city. We weren't strangers there, but familiars. We lived in the bars and on the benches of Washington Square. We shared the adventure of trying to be, starting to be, writers or painters."
From "Kafka Was the Rage"
130-132 MacDougal Street
With her eyes on her work Jo answered soberly, "I want something new. I feel restless and anxious to be seeing, doing, and learning more than I am. I brood too much over my own small affairs, and need stirring up, so as I can be spared this winter, I'd like to hop a little way and try my wings."
"Where will you hop?"
"To New York. I had a bright idea yesterday, and this is it... I shall see and hear new things, get new ideas, and even if I haven't much time there, I shall bring home quantities of material for my rubbish."
From Louisa May Alcotts "Little Women" (1868)
In 1867, after her horrific experiences in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, Louisa May Alcott moved into this pair of 1852 row houses which were owned by her uncle. There is some debate over whether she wrote all or just some of "Little Women" in this house. However, since she remained here until 1870, and the book was published in 1868, it seems to me that the entire book was written right here. (Then again, we New Yorkers want to take credit for everything.)
133 MacDougal Street
Just across the street from Alcott's row houses is the site of The Provincetown Playhouse. This theater group was instrumental in launching the career of Eugene O'Neill. His first play, "Bound East for Cardiff" was produced here in 1916, as were several of his early works. Today, the theater is home to The Playwrights Theater of New York. (Although I took my own photograph of this building, I think the WPA photograph below, taken in 1936, better reflects the grimness of several of O'Neills early dramas. Incidentally, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature the same year this photo was taken.)
14 West 10th Street
"Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution -- these can lift at a colossal humbug -- push it a little -- weaken it a little over the course of a century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."
Understandably identified with the Mississippi River, few people realize that Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain) spent more than just a few years between the Hudson and East Rivers. He had several residences hereon Fifth Avenue, on Wave Hill, in The Bronx, etc. However, this 1850 mansion, which he purchased around 1900, was his personal favorite. He threw luxurious parties here, and it was the only place he would hold interviews, for a while. Today, West 10th Street is a comparatively quiet Manhattan street, very elegant, and positively a place in which Huck Finn would NOT feel comfortable.
129 East 18th Street
Time for lunch. Pete's Tavern opened to the public in 1864. It is the longest continuously operating pub and restaurant in The City, earning it an official landmark status. As most guidebooks will tell you, the place looks practically the same as it did when it opened-with the exception of the electric appliances and the presence of women.
Important to our discussion, William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, was a patron here for many years. It is claimed that he wrote several stories in the nearby jail to pay off his debts-one of them being his tab to this joint. However, we do know with certainty that he penned "The Gift of the Magi", "The Last Leaf" and several other stories here in the fabled "booth by the front door".
Chelsea and The Hotel Chelsea (aka The Chelsea Hotel)
222 West 23rd Street
"With all my misgivings about the Chelsea, I can never enter it without a certain quickening of my heartbeat. There is an indescribably homelike atmosphere which at the same time lacks a certain credibility. It is some kind of fictional place, I used to think."
From Arthur Miller's "The Chelsea Affect"
The Chelsea neighborhood, on Manhattan's west side roughly from 14th to 34th Streets, was once an estate owned by Clement Clarke Moore, and it was on this property that he is credited with writing "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (better known as, "Twas the Night before Christmas"). Until very recently, the area was mostly working class, and more commercial than residential. Joni Mitchell stayed at a friend's apartment here and composed "Chelsea Morning", a song which William and Hillary Clinton loved so much, they named their daughter... well, you know.
Built in the mid 1880s, The Chelsea Hotel was New York's tallest hotel until 1902. Dozens of writers of every generation since its opening have lived here, both long- and short-term. The list includes, but is not limited to, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe, Edgar Lee Masters, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Mary McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur C. Clarke and William Burroughs. It was in this building that Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel, Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch, and Clarke wrote 2001. In the 1960s, the hotel entered into an economic and structural decline, and became associated more with alcoholics and junkies than literary types (although some of those literary types were guilty of the same vices). Recently, however, new life has been breathed into this glorious hotel and, I hope, more literature will come out of it.
The Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44th Street
"The Algonquin is everything a literary hotel should be. Snug, discreet, cozily retro, the perfect rendezvous for the creme de la creme of the literary and publishing worlds, as well as theater lovers, with armchairs so welcoming comfortable that they are taken by storm every evening at cocktail time."
From Dorothy Parker's "The Algonquin"
A mile uptown from The Chelsea Hotel stands an equally important literary hotel: The Algonquin, or "The Gonk" or "The Grand Gonk" to which it is affectionately referred. The Algonquin was opened in 1902, in response to the booming popularity of the nearby theater and publishing districts. However, the hotel's chief claim to fame is that it was home to the notorious and influential "Round Table", a group of writers, critics, columnists, actors and actresses who influenced the American culture of their generation and beyond. However, this was no collection of stodgy, professorial types. This witty, volatile, acerbic group set high standards for themselves and other writers, and Heaven help anyone who disagreed with them or took themselves too seriously: they would be cut down, chewed up and spat out in no time.
How the Algonquin Round Table got started is open to some debate, but we do know that it began just after World War One when three writers from nearby Vanity Fair magazine, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Robert E. Sherwood, began eating lunch there regularly. When New York Times theater critic Alexander Woolcott returned from his stint as a war correspondent, a roast was thrown in his honor by Parker, Benchley, Sherwood, and Woolcott's friends. They had such a good time that they did it again the next day and again the day after that. Soon, ferocious poker games took place every weekend. Thus, in June 1919, the Round Table was formed and agreed to meet at The Gonk practically daily. Eventually, the group expanded to include Edna Ferber, Peggy Wood, Franklin P. Adams, George S. Kaufman, Heywood Broun, Harpo Marx and Marc Connelly. This 1929 caricature by Will Cotton shows the gang at one of their card games. That's Parker on the left border and she's leaning on the cigar-chomping Sherwood; the bespectacled gentleman at the bottom right is George S. Kaufman; the heavy set man in the striped shirt at dead center is Woolcott. This group had as many awards-Pulitzer and otherwise-as they do chips on the table. But it was not only their own works that the Round Table supported; they were extremely influential in promoting the careers of several talented young writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
In 1929, the Round Table had disbanded. Partly as a result of The Great Depression, partly for personal reasons, everyone went their separate ways. Still, when this group is remembered, if they are remembered at all, it is usually for the biting barbs they launched at society, art, and life.
"This novel is not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force." (Parker)
"Defining and analyzing humor is a pastime of humorless people."(Benchley)
"Having imagination, it takes you an hour to write a paragraph that if you were unimaginative would take you only a minute." (Adams)
However, it must be remembered that for an entire decade, the Round Table was a highly influential group that contributed so much talent to America's literary landscape. Now, please excuse me, but I must step out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini. (Woolcott.)
In the next installment: Times Square, Tiffanys, Central Park, Harlem, and other places.
Rocco Dormarunno was born and raised in New York City. He earned his BA in Humanities from Brooklyn College, his MA in English literature and language from Rutgers University, and was a student at the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop. He has taught at each of those institutions, and currently teaches at he College of New Rochelle, Manhattan Campus. Along with his passion for literature, he also concentrated his studies in American and, specifically, New York City history. He and his wonderful wife Jenny live close to the city in West Orange, NJ.