Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ten holiday gift ideas for history buffs: The best reads of 2014 with Robert Moses, Coney Island and the Statue of Liberty

Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City

GIFT GUIDE What do you get for that history fanatic in your life?  Afraid of buying them a book that they may have already read?  Here are nine books published in 2014 that I've had the pleasure of reading this year, illustrating wild and colorful corners of New York City history. I've reviewed a few of them in postings earlier this year if you'd like more information.  Oh, and there's one book on here that I actually haven't read. But how could I leave it off? I'm just assuming I'm getting that for Christmas.

New York Mid-Century 1945-1965
Annie Cohen-Solal, Paul Goldberger, Robet Gottlieb

After World War II, New York reinforced its international power and influence by becoming a vanguard in the arts. The city embraced new ideas by artists, writers, actors, architects and dancers who then went on to influence each other.  This magnificent coffee-table book sits their towering achievements side-by-side and in full color -- the work of Mark Rothko, the architecture of Philip Johnson, the movements of Martha Graham, the photography of Weegee, the stage magic of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Even the Rockettes! In placing high and low performing arts together with conceptual design and abstract expressionism, New York Mid-Century convincingly illustrates New York as the world's culture crucible.

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island
Headhunters, Luna Park and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century
Claire Prentice

Inspired by an unusual photograph of native people around a fire -- taken in Coney Island -- Prentice explores the sad but true story of the Igorrotes, a Filipino tribe, taken from their home for profit and exploitation to America's recreational seaside capital.  The exhibitor Truman Hart was a would-be P.T. Barnum, a charlatan profiting from the tribe's appearances at Luna Park. He eventually unravels, drinking heavily and running into problems with the federal government.  This is light but fascinating window into the stark reality of Coney Island entertainment.

A History of New York in 101 Objects
Sam Roberts

In a 2012 column, the venerable New York Times writer and editor recruited 50 precious objects into service of the story of New York City, a tale that began over 13,000 years ago.  He elaborates on those objects in this new book and expands the contours of his itemized history with 51 additional items.  From artichokes to Gilded Age clocks, rusty spikes to the New York Public Library lions,  Roberts' history is a friendly, colorful way to experience New York City, a Whitman's Sampler of our city's past.

Chop Suey USA
The Story of Chinese Food in America
Yong Chen

America's love for Chinese food predated America's love for its Chinese residents. The original Chinese settlers from the West produced a variation of their homeland cuisine that was easily prepared and extraordinarily flavorful, allowing immigrants to make strides in urban areas and, eventually, throughout America.  Chen carefully places America's craving for dishes like chow mein into the context of racial prejudices against Asians in the 20th century.  And if this makes you a little hungry, you're in luck -- the author presents some of his favorite recipes for steamed fish, Kung Fuo chicken and moon cakes.

Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells
The Best of Early Vanity Fair
Various Authors; Edited by Graydon Carter with David Friend

For the one hundredth anniversary of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter has put together a collection of stories from the magazine's first incarnation, from P.G. Wodehouse's take on the fitness craze of 1914 to Allene Talmey's survey of New York nighclubs in 1936. The entirety of the Jazz Age in contained between them -- the fashion, the reverie, the amusement, the agony. But most of all -- the modernity. If anything defines most of these spectacular entries, it's the coy observations of change, how America left the Gilded Age to became something awkward but none the less brilliant.

The Race Underground
Boston, New York and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America's First Subway
Doug Most

The subway is one of the defining creations of New York's Gilded Age, but it was hardly a foregone conclusion.  Both the underground systems in Boston and New York benefited from great genius and even greater wealth. As Boston Globe editor Doug Most notes in his captivating read, the systems even shared wealthy benefactors -- the brothers Henry and William Whitney, one in each city, negotiating a host of political and technical speed bumps on their quest to build the country's first subterranean route. Most's story is especially fascinating in outlining the difficulties of these ambitious projects. What seems an absolutely sound decision today was deemed highly risky and politically fraught in its day.

Supreme City
How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America
Donald L. Miller

This snappy, crowded tale, among the most entertaining books on New York City history I've read in the past couple years, is indeed an epic about New York City in the Jazz Age, but it's a wildly different tune than the one in which you're familiar. This is a tale of architecture and invention, of a boldness and proportion that New Yorkers take for granted today. Miller recounts the invention of Midtown Manhattan, but it's also about a spiritual shift in urban life. Industrial visions and personal journeys alike culminate in the year 1927, a watershed date for New York, and arrive within the Manhattan grid system, mostly along 42nd Street between Eighth Avenue and Lexington Avenue, the nucleus of a new urban vision. The story ventures out through the entire city of course but always to the beat of this new Midtown.

The 1964-65 World's Fair And The Transformation Of America
Joseph Tirella

The United States experienced an incredible social transformation in the mid-1960s. Unfortunately for Robert Moses, these soaring changes to American life clashed with the rosy and naive vision of his second World's Fair in Flushing-Meadows, Queens.  You may have read about the fair before in other books, but Tirella takes care to place it within a larger context, allowing you to marvel at the strangeness of the fair's futuristic visions. Embarked upon as the launching pad for progress and modern technologies, Moses' pet project became a symbol for forgotten and outdated values.

Liberty's Torch
The Great Adventure To Build The Statue of Liberty
Elizabeth Mitchell
Lady Liberty represents so many lofty sentiments that we forget what she actually was almost 140 years ago -- an impetuously complex enterprise by a group of French thinkers to embody a way of thinking onto an edifice of copper.  As ridiculous as it is monumental, Liberty was the product of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi's extraordinary vision, a production process borrowing from centuries of French metallurgy and the tireless efforts of fund-raisers on both sides of the Atlantic to convince the people of America of the statue's noble intent. In essence, by the end of Mitchell's narrative, you'll be impressed that the Statue of Liberty was even created at all!

And here's one that comes out on December 23 and I haven't even read it! So let me just merely call it to your attention...

Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City
Pierre Christin, Olivier Balez

Will a graphic novel about the life of Robert Moses that's less than 1/10th the length of The Power Broker adequately convey the ambitions, the motivations and the sheer destructive force of his legacy? Probably not. But Chilean illustrator Oliver Balez brings a bold and stylized luster to the landscape of New York skyscrapers and highways. And the graphic representation of Moses brings him one step closer to being an outright comic-book villain (or anti-hero, depending on you read it).

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

History In the Making 12/16: Miss Average Rockette Edition

Hmmm. The ludicrous graphic above ran in the New York Times Magazine, November 12, 1967. Keep in mind the word 'topographically' is most often used when describing places.  When I mentioned this graphic to a friend, he said, "They probably ran it so that admirers would know what size jewelry and furs to buy their favorite Rockettes."  That is literally the best case scenario for a graphic like this.

Some links of interest:

"Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded": In my column for A24 Films and A Most Violent Year, I look at the New York Native, the newspaper which first reported on a mysterious affliction killing gay men in early 1981. And a rather startling article in New York Magazine which ran the very same day. [1981]

Troubled Wealth:  The lost Upper West Side mansion of Dom Eugenie Faria Ganzales de Teixeira, Marquis of Aguila Branca. [Daytonian In Manhattan]

The Crossroads:  Why has Union Square so important to protest movements throughout the centuries? [Off the Grid]

Stalled: An abandoned construction site on the Williamsburg/Greenpoint border becomes a haven for cats and chaos.  [New York Times]

Traces of Opulence: Wandering around Lyndhurst, the mysterious old castle of Jay Gould. [Scouting New York]

Steampunk or Stupid:  What's going on with the advertising campaign behind an unusual condominium in lower Manhattan? [Gordon's Urban Morphology]

Frozen:  Did you know there was a Petrified Sea Garden in upstate New York? [Atlas Obscura]

That Bites:  A classic Greenwich Village bar has become a place to buy boutique hot dogs. [Jeremiah's Vanishing New York]

PLUS: Fifty years ago this week, the Rockettes were profiled in a cover story in Life Magazine.   The lead image in the prior post is from that photo spread. How about some more of their rehearsals? Photos are by Arthur Rickerby You can read the article online here.

Friday, December 12, 2014

American Kicks: A History of the Rockettes

Lifted spirits: The Rockettes practice for a 1964 productions. (Life/Arthur Rickerby)

PODCAST The Rockettes are America's best known dance troupe -- and a staple of the holiday season -- but you may not know the origin of this iconic New York City symbol. For one, they're not even from the Big Apple!

Formerly the Missouri Rockets, the dancers and their famed choreographer Russell Markert were noticed by theater impresario Samuel Rothafel, who installed them first as his theater The Roxy, then at one of the largest theaters in the world -- Radio City Music Hall.

The life of a Rockettes dancer was glamorous, but grueling; for many decades dancing not in isolated shows, but before the screenings of movies, several times a day, a different program each week.  There was a very, very specific look to the Rockettes, a look that changed -- and that was forced to change by cultural shifts -- over the decades.

This show is dedicated to the many thousands of women who have shuffled and kicked with the Rockettes over their many decades of entertainment, on the stage, the picket line or the Super Bowl halftime show.

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.

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Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #174: American Kicks: A History of the Rockettes

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The first New York home of the Rockettes (as the Roxyettes) was the Roxy Theatre, almost as large as Radio City Music Hall and located just nearby. (MCNY)

Radio City Music Hall, which opened in 1932, was quickly transformed into the world's largest movie house after a notorious opening night.  It would be here that the Rockettes would perform a few times a day, seven days a week, for over fifty years. (NYPL)

The Rockettes, 1935, in a 'Cavalcade of Color', choreographed and directed by Leon Leonidoff. The constant high-kicking routines required great athleticism, precision and balance. (MCNY)

The Rockettes in 1937, beauty in duplication. (Courtesy the Rockettes)

In 1939, the Rockettes gave salute to the Gay Nineties in these extravagant costumes. (Courtesy the Rockettes)

Faces of the Rockettes: A few of the dancers from the 1935 configuration.. These photos are by the Wurts Brothers, from the Museum of the City of New York Collection. You can see the complete group here. Unfortunately there are no names attached to the portraits but if any of these women look familiar, drop me their names in the comments section!


The Rockettes in the 1950s

In 1967, many Rockettes went on strike for a month to demand better wages to compensate for their vigorous schedule and unpaid rehearsal time. Needless to say, they got everybody's attention. (Courtes Kheel Center).

Pam Palmer and Kim Heil, two Rockettes from the late 1970s. (Photo by Jay Heiser)

The Rockettes at a Fleet Week event in 2006. (Photo by Gabriela Hurtado)

Various newsreel footage of the Rockettes, including images of the troupe rehearsing on the roof of Radio City!


 The Rockettes at the 1988 Super Bowl halftime show:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

'The Walk': The World Trade Center in 3D?

Robert Zemeckis, the Oscar-winning director of Forrest Gump, is turning the best documentary of 2008 Man on Wire -- about Philippe Petit's unbelievable tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 -- into a feature length film. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  In 3-D. And, apparently, on IMAX.

So what do you think? I'm sort of dumb-founded this movie has to exist but I trust the talent behind it, so we'll see.

For comparison here's the trailer to the 2008 documentary:

Philippe Petit, just 25 years old, was not done with New York City after his death-defying tightrope walk between the Twin Tower. Just three weeks later, he strung a tightrope across the length of Belvedere Lake in Central Park and skillfully walked the length of it, all the way to the tower of Belvedere Castle,  to the delight of thousands of on-lookers.

This sounds far less dangerous than his WTC stunt, of course, but Petit was reportedly still frightened as he did not know how to swim!  Three lifeguards stood along the side of the lake, prepared to jump in should the aerialist stumble.

One week later, he tackled a more imposing body of water, walking a wire over the Great Falls in Patterson, NJ. (Picture courtesy Physical Comedy)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

And Now ... Two Christmas Poems By Robert Moses

My new column for A24 Films is up over on their 1981 site (in support of the film A Most Violent Year). 1981 was the year that Robert Moses died, and his death sparked new discussions into what his legacy to the New York City area truly was.  In a word: automobiles.  You can read my article here.

But that's a little depressing. How about I tell you about the time that the New York Times published a couple Christmas poems written by Moses?

That's right, the Santa Claus of Long Island, bearing gifts of bridges and highways, did occasionally get into the Christmas spirit, albeit dripping in vitriol and sass.

Moses in 1934 during his failed campaign for governor. (Courtesy New York Daily News Archive)


This loosely poetic speech first manifested in print during the last gasps of Moses' failed bid for New York governor in 1934.

As the Republican candidate running against incumbent Herbert H. Lehman, young Moses failed to connect with voters, and the experience soured him on elected positions. He was soundly defeated by Lehman, the investment banker-turned-politician aligned with new president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who had preceded Lehman as governor).

His final words as a candidate were spoken on radio station WEAF and printed the following day.  Those words paid an awkward homage to the great Christmas poem written by Clement Clarke Moore. Despite the fact that the election was in early November, his point in conjuring the visage of Old St. Nick would become clear.  It's hardly rhythmic. Imagine this read in his gruff, determined voice:

"'Tis the night before election, and nothing much is stirring throughout the state.

The stockings in Democratic homes are hung by the chimney with care, in the hope that Jim Farley soon will be there.

The Big Bag Man is dressing himself up as Santa. He doesn't really look the part, but that's not important.

Neither is the fact that all the presents were bought on credit, and that Santa Claus is running up a tremendous bill.   

The important question is:  Has he plenty of presents to go around for the boys and girls who have been good?

Governor Smith expressed the fondest hopes of the Democratic party, and summed up the strategy of the whole Democratic campaign when he said that he thought the people would not shoot Santa Claus before a hard Christmas."

Jim Farley (pictured at right, 1938) was considered a 'kingmaker' in Democratic politics, responsible for the election of FDR.  He would become Roosevelt's U.S. Postmaster General.  The James A. Farley Post Office across from Madison Square Garden is named in his honor.

Using the Santa analogy, Moses was taking a dig at Democratic programs that would soon shape FDR's New Deal.  Of course, as New York's power builder, Moses would later benefit greatly from these programs so perhaps he shouldn't have been complaining.

In 1948, Robert Moses received the very first honorary degree from Hofstra University, along with Robert Gannon, the president of Fordham University.  However, that year it would be a phony university that would inspire Moses to pen a sassy Christmas verse. (Courtesy Hofstra University)


Perhaps more unusual was the poem which ran the day after Christmas in 1948, an inside joke between men of influence.

By the late 1930s, Moses had amassed several positions of responsibility and power and had pushed through a great number of vast, expensive projects, including the Triborough Bridge. Moses had to routinely pitch these projects to the New York Board of Estimate -- the men who held the purse strings -- which included Henry M. Curran (Deputy Mayor), Newbold Morris (City Council President), and James Lyons (Bronx Borough President).

Curran was a bit of a grammar nerd -- the kind who cringes at improper usage of words -- and recoiled during debates when Moses (at right) and the others misused the English language.

According to the Times, Curran organized among the men a hierarchy of language correction, (jokingly?) referred to as Curran University.  One could only 'graduate' from this phony university by excelling in their verbal and written debates with grammatical aplomb.

During a board meeting where the fate of the old Claremont Inn was discussed, Moses used the phrase 'coign of vantage' which scandalized Curran but suggested that Moses' verbal skills were improving.

Then, one day, Moses wrote a memorandum to Lyons using the phrase 'high-falutin' as well an apparent mis-use of the word Aurignacian.  This threw his superiors into a light-hearted conniption.

"We tried to help.  But Moses has failed, flunked.  Up with the bars!  Let Mose wail -- without -- not within," wrote Curran.

Moses, who would become more powerful than all three men combined, responded in an unusual way -- he wrote a biting Christmas poem.  The following verse, penned by Moses, was delivered to Lyon, who "promptly converted it into a Christmas card -- with embellishments -- and passed it along to his superior officer."  The poem, as published in the Times:

To Chancellor Henry H. Curran

Great Chancellor of Curran U
Greetings from Borough Hall and Zoo.

Assorted barks and roars and honks

From the four corners of the Bronx.

Gannon, Osborn, Robbins and Moses

Greet you with laurel, rhinos and roses.

Cheerios and loud hosannas

From Pelham Bay and the Bronx savannas.

Great critic of the spoken word,

Greetings with the proverbial bird.

From every coign and height definitive

We greet you with a split infinitive.


James J Lyons, Dean
Robert Moses, Sophomore Cheer Leader

So remember: the next time you have a friend correct your grammar, remind yourself, "Hey, I have something in common with the Power Broker!"

Below: A New Yorker cartoon from 1960, the year when his grammar pal Morris took the job of Parks Commissioner from Moses.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Special Year-End Podcast: Ask the Bowery Boys!

For the end of the year, we're going to try a new experiment -- a year-end question show, where we 'unplug' for a bit and answer reader's mail. Give you a true behind-the-scenes of how we produce the show and what our personal thoughts are about New York City and history in general.  This is our thanks to you for helping us make it through another terrific year of podcasts.

Do you have anything you want to ask us -- about New York City, about the making of the podcast, about ourselves? Favorite shows or favorites places in the city?  Just email us at and put ASK THE BOWERY BOYS in the header.  We will go through your questions and read some of them on the air.  We'll also give you a shout-out for sending in the question.

NOTE: We want to keep this bonus show easy since it's our vacation show so please save any particular historical quandaries for another email.

In the meantime, we'll have another full-length podcast for you in a couple weeks.

Above: Sammy's Bowery Follies, pic courtesy New York Public Library.  This show was a throwback anything-goes style entertainment which ran in a theater at 267 Bowery for over 35 years. More information on the Bowery Follies here.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Maude Adams: Fashion icon and America's first Peter Pan

Tonight NBC's unveils its live theatrical experiment Peter Pan with Girls star Alison Williams in the cross-dressing role of the boy who never grows up.

We can all have our debates about who's been the greatest stage Peter Pan in history.  Most will say Mary Martin, a sizable minority will claim Sandy Duncan, and a few smaller voices may even cry the name Cathy Rigby. However the first and most popular woman to ever play the role was most likely the actress who originated the role on the American stage -- Maude Adams.  

Her rendition was so popular that it inspired one enduring fashion trend.

Peter Pan made its New York debut on November 6, 1905 at the Empire Theatre at Broadway and 41st Street.  The theater was owned by one of New York's most powerful producers Charles Frohman. Adams was one of his greatest finds, casting her in several productions when she was just a teenager.

Adams had played a boy on stage and had even starred in a prior play by Peter Pan's author J. M Barrie (Quality Street).  Barrie himself came to New York to witness rehearsals with Adams and the show 70-odd cast members.

At right: The bizarre visage of Maude Adams as illustrated in the New York World, November 1905

The audiences loved Adams, but not the critics. From the New York Tribune the following day:  "As an actress Miss Adams is incarnate mediocrity -- for she possesses neither imagination, passion, power, depth of feeling or formidable intellect and her faculty of expressive impersonation is extremely limited" -- OUCH -- "but as a personality, she is piquant, interesting and agreeable ... she has shown to advantage and she causes the effect of commingled merriment, sentiment and momentary thought."

Others criticized her physical size, calling her "plump and prancing." "She was a trifle overweight for a fairy, but she carried herself lightly and gracefully and didn't scare the children in the least."

Audiences loved her, however, Adams proceeded to play the role of Peter Pan, off and on, for over a decade. In fact, Maude Adams was the actress most associated with the part for fifty years.  Mary Martin then took the role to Broadway in 1954, won the Tony Award for Best Actress the following year and then became the model for which all subsequent actors have looked to.

More important, Adams inspired a popular fashion trend -- the Peter Pan collar.  Her costume, by John White Alexander, took great liberties with Barrie's descriptions of Peter's garments.  Women soon clamored for dresses with a similar floppy collar.  The play was still running at the Empire when the collars soon appeared at department stores.  This ad is from April 1906:

Her belted waist also took the fashion world by storm.  The "Peter Pain waist," a traditional shirtwaist bound with a thick black belt, was called "decidedly chic," "particularly becoming and stunning in effect."

The front of the Empire Theatre, where Peter Pan made its New York debut:

Pic courtesy New York Public Library

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

New York City just opened up its New Amsterdam records, including Peter Stuyvesant's rules for drinking responsibly

From A New and Accurate Map of the Entire New Netherland, engraving believed to be by Carolus Allard, courtesy the Department of Records  

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the New York City Department of Records just blew the minds of history geeks everywhere.  They released the first batch of digitized documents from the first years of the city's existence, back when it was the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam.

You can find the first batch of released documents at the city's attractive new portal here.

This is the equivalent of pulling out old photo albums of you playing with birthday cake in your high chair.  This first round of documents show "the early development of the City’s government: ordinances drawn from the Records of New Amsterdam for the period of 1647 to 1661, and their corresponding translations, maintained by the Municipal Archives and Municipal Library."

Don't speak Dutch? No problem. Translations of the old ordinance pages pop up as you peruse them, and there are 19th century historical translations included underneath.

Below: The Duke's Plan, drawn to celebrate the British take over of the Dutch property of New Amsterdam

This is the first round of documents provided by the Department of Records.  Future updates will feature "early documents granting lands to settlers in Brooklyn and Queens, maps and other primary resources."

Peter's Rules For Drinking Responsibly

Among these pages are the first edicts made by new director-general Peter Stuyvesant and the Common Council, including a laundry list of new restrictions regarding drinking and selling alcohol in the chaotic settlement.

The documents note that New Amsterdam's excessive alcohol consumption "causes not only the neglect of honest handicraft and business, but also the debauching of the common man and the Company’s servants and what is still worse, of the young people from childhood up, who seeing the improper proceedings of their parents and imitating them leave the path of virtue and become disorderly."

And so the following list of edicts were laid down including rules on bar fights, drinking on Sunday and providing liquor to Indians:

1. "Henceforth no new taproom, tavern or inn shall be opened."

2. "The taverns, taprooms and inns, already established, may continue for at least four consecutive years, but in the meantime the owners shall be obliged to engage in some other honest business at this place."

 3. "The tavern-keepers and tapsters are allowed to continue in their business for four years at least, but only on condition, that they shall not transfer their former occupation."

4. "The tavern keepers and tapsters shall henceforth not be allowed, to sell or give beer, wine, brandy or strong waters to Indians or provide them with it by intermediaries."

5. "To prevent all fighting and mishaps they shall daily report to the Officer, whether anybody has been hurt or wounded at their houses, under the penalty of forfeiting their business and a fine of one pound Flemish for every hour after the hurt or wound has been inflicted and been concealed by the tapster or tavern-keeper."

6. "The orders, heretofore published against unseasonable night tippling and intemperate drinking on the Sabbath, shall be obeyed by the tavern-keepers and tapsters with close attention."

7. "They shall be held, not to receive any beer or wine or distilled waters into their houses or cellars, directly or indirectly, before they have so reported at the office of the Receiver."

8. "Finally, all tavern-keepers and tapsters, who intend to continue in their occupation, shall eight days after the publication hereof present themselves in person and give their names to the Director General and Council and there solemnly promise, that they will faithfully obey what rules have been or may be made."een o

r may be made.... March 10, 1648.
Images from the Municipal Library, also available on the site