Friday, February 05, 2016


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chapter 8 Part 3

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Eight (Part 3) - BLOSSOM TIME IN BOHEMIA

When it was announced that Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty would shortly arrive in America, there was no commotion, as the sculptor had a weak press agent. I made a cartoon showing Liberty with her skirts hoisted to her knees, wading about dejectedly in the mud of the Harbor seeking a site. John R. Reavis, an energetic hustler whom J. P. had found in Missouri, was inspired by the picture to suggest the formation of a fund raised by public subscription to build a pedestal. It was several days before J. P. would accede to his urging, and then he reluctantly put John in charge of the most popular and successful of all of the World's many undertakings. He raised over a hundred thousand dollars in a very short time, and the name of Joseph Pulitzer is inscribed upon the tablet on the pedestal—but Reavis is not mentioned.

Grozier, who died in 1924, was a small, impetuous and very ambitious city editor who was willing to try anything once. When the blizzard of '88 had buried the city a dozen feet deep, all news sources were stagnant. A harum-scarum reporter named Jack Farrelly informed Grozier that he was an expert snowshoeist and proposed to go forth into the suburbs to learn the fate of many delayed trains, about which startling rumors had begun to drift in. Eddie, delighted, gave Jack money to purchase the Indian footgear, and he bought a bottle of excellent whiskey, took a room at the Astor House and climbed into bed.

At eventide he produced an epic that brought the perils and sufferings of a blizzard home even to those who had experienced the horrors of a winter in Tuxedo. It was a gem. It told of a train in the remotest wilds of Westchester buried deep in snow, gave the number of the engine, the names of the conductor and engineer, and with keen sarcasm mixed with pathos, described how rapacious unfeeling farmers had sold sandwiches at a dollar each, and coffee at fifty cents a cup, to the famished passengers, many of whom he had interviewed, to the extent of four or five columns.

The next day Grozier bought fifteen pairs of snowshoes and sent a corps of reporters into Staten Island with instructions to learn to use them while they gathered the news. The results were negligible, most of the boys returned bruised, knee-sprung and frostbitten, all but Jack Farrelly, who brought in another grand bit of realism dealing with conditions in darkest Jamaica and points east.

About two or three years afterward Grozier was editing the World Almanac. At that time the task consisted mainly in compiling a modest record of the paper's glorious achievements of the past years. I asked him if he had mentioned his notable snowshoe expeditions. Strangely, he had overlooked this luminous spot, and he at once proceeded to transcribe a fitting account of the performance. An hour passed, and then I asked casually if he had ever heard the true story of Farrelly's blizzard yarns. When I related the amusing tale, Eddie was so chagrined that he tore up all he had written and the Almanac has never referred to this proud achievement.

The Astor House, corner of Broadway and Vesey Streets, built on the site of my grandfather's cabinet and furniture factory, although as a hotel swiftly becoming an antique, still retained a large restaurant trade, and its circular barroom (it had also a select, cloistered drinking room on the second floor) was the resort of almost all of the great men of the city. There one might encounter Mayor Gilroy, Collis P. Huntington, Austin Corbin, Hamilton Fish, Senator Conkling, Bob Ingersoll, Chauncey Depew, Elihu Root, Jake Hess, Inspector Byrnes, Ed. Lauterbach, at noontide, with a sprinkling of literary stars like Howells, John Brisbin Walker, Alden, Curtis, Lathrop, Hawthorne, Habberton and Gilder, and mingling with them the rising journalists, such as Julian Ralph, James Metcalf, Irving Bacheller, W. J. Lampton, J. K. Bangs, Howard Fielding, Julius Chambers, Jimmie Huneker and Edward Marshall, belonging, many of them, to the high-browed and select Lantern Club down in William Street.

The men who made whiskey, whose names were blown into bottles and printed on labels, fraternized here with the men who consumed it, and the eminent wine-agents like Osborne, Heckler and Somborn, who were civic institutions, all began their daily rounds of joy in this circular temple of Apicius.

 One of the town sights was the Chemical Bank at 270 Broadway, where strangers halted to catch a glimpse of Hetty Green, the richest woman in the world, who would not have her photograph taken and whom one could always throw into a panic by pretending to make a sketch of her from the doorway, for she was always accessible. The average bank had not yet taken on the solemnity of a cathedral, but the Chemical possessed an awful, sublime dignity. When Bill Nye and I received our first checks from Major Smith of the American Press Association, we repaired to the Chemical Bank. Bill presented his check and the cashier rather testily informed him that he would have to be identified.

"Do you mean I've got to go and find somebody who knows me and whom you know before I can get the money?"

"Precisely," assented the cashier. "Step aside and let that gentleman get to the window."

"Oh, he's with me," said Bill. "He can identify me."

The cashier, not knowing me, demurred and an argument ensued. Finally Nye asked him, in turn, if he knew Grover Cleveland, De Witt Talmage, Senator Breckenridge and Queen Victoria, eliciting a snappy "No!" ach time, whereupon he said, with a protesting gesture: "There! You see, you don't move in my set! How can I find anybody who knows us both?"

Then he pulled out that morning's paper, exposed his portrait, and took off his hat. The cashier glared, melted and, with a grin, began to count out the money. Then Nye introduced me and he cashed my check, after which we invited him out to lunch and found him to be entirely human and companionable.

In 1887, in front of a wooden house in Greene Street, there hung a large faded sign, "Laura's." In my early teens almost every house on the street bore such an advertisement, and the simple Jersey commuter wended his way to and from the ferry through a section given over to sin. In time the growing needs of the provision business evicted the fair occupants of the establishments, filling the ground floors with potatoes and the upper floors with virtuous Levantines and Armenians. The Red-light District, an actuality and not a mere name, then shifted to the region south of Macy's new store in Fourteenth Street, but the practice of hanging out signs ceased.

This district, with its monotonous rows of silent houses darkened by day, with its flow of cabs by night, was awesome and fascinating to growing, curious, palpitant Boyhood. As I endeavor to form a picture of the night-wanderers of those times, I get an impression of furtive forms, rather pathetic, of seemingly middle-aged, drab women, none under twenty, at any rate, and certainly not a hint of the brazen, flippant creatures of thirteen and fourteen who at present give color to our garishly lighted thoroughfares.

About the period when Mrs. Grannis began to agitate against the segregation of vice, business needs drove the Cyprians northward to the Thirties. Then, in Thirty- first Street, the newspaper men established the Tenderloin Club in an old mansion opposite the notorious "House of All Nations," and Gunn, Luks and I did the decorating of the interior in an entirely novel manner. Everybody who was anybody, it seems, belonged to the club; it had a membership of seventeen hundred and its reputation was simply devilish, but it was actually a worker's club and generally as dull as dishwater.

Nothing more exciting than a boxing match in the back yard or a poker game on the top floor ever happened, but before it went into bankruptcy it had witnessed "the suppression of recognized vice" and seen the painted women driven from brothels into private flats, lodging houses and homes, some twenty-five thousand of them. Its sophisticated members predicted evil to follow. When I recall the tawdry attractions of such oft-assailed dens of iniquity as Billy M'Glory's Armory Hall, Tom Gould's subterranean dive at Sixth Avenue and Thirty-first Street, Huber's Prospect Garden and Theiss's on Fourteenth, Harry Hill's dingy hall and the Haymarket, I marvel at the crudity of those remote, uncultured days and rejoice that all that sort of thing is done away with, as the prophets predicted it would be when vice was no longer "recognized." Gould would be shocked, however, at the goings-on in dance halls, supper rooms and public parks today. Perhaps "strip-crap" games, necking parties and nude exhibitions are some of the fruits of knowledge disseminated by the twenty-five thousand Phrynes. Also, another ripe fruitage may be the vast increase in a certain class of hotels.

At this time "Citizen" George Francis Train was largely in the public eye, due to his conspicuous appearance, eccentric manners and thirst for publicity. I early became acquainted with him, but how, I have forgotten. He was tall and well-built, with a countenance so different from the common herd's as to attract instant attention, and he wore the oldest of clothes in a distingué manner. He was then, I suppose, well into the fifties. A millionaire and an owner of steamships at nineteen, promoter of the underground railways in London, and a master mover in the Crédit Mobilier, he dressed negligently, lived in a cheap hotel, subsisted by turns on peanuts, apples or oatmeal, and spent the daylight hours on a bench in Madison Square with children and sparrows as his preferred company.

At times Train's talk was wild and disjointed, and his fine eyes flashed a weird and feverish light; he would talk with anybody and he was almost always surrounded by an admiring, if sometimes too familiar, group of workmen, tramps and out-of-town visitors, who regarded him as one of the city's sights. He wrote doggerel in alternate lines of blue and red, and I have still a "poem" written by him not long before his death, in terms of friendly but preposterous eulogy. 'Gene Field had this same queer custom of writing in various tints.

But Train was not, as many supposed, a man insane. Perhaps in his early strenuous life too much concentration upon self had developed a mild form of megalomania, but his food fads and health hobbies were no more extreme than those of many a physical-science professor of today and his megalomania never blunted his wit, sarcasm or apperception. I think he stepped aside from the world of action voluntarily and adopted the odd pose of clown and seer combined in response to an instinct that the role has always been popular with the common people.

One of his pet fancies, which he never abandoned, was the notion of a comic Bible; he believed that if I would illustrate it we would make a fortune. I am afraid that I assisted in this delusion, for I often suggested a sacrilegious picture which, if ever published, would have brought down upon us the wrath of all the elect of the earth.

He and Bob Fitzsimmons used to take the same early Sunday morning train for Jersey when I lived in Glen Ridge, where Train's daughter resided. Train used to take an inexplicable pleasure in suddenly introducing Bob and myself to the passengers on boat or train, using extravagantly laudatory language and affording the passengers, many of whom knew him by sight, immense amusement. To poor Fitzsimmons and myself, although we were accustomed, as professional beauties, to the spotlight, it was painfully embarrassing to be held up to public admiration after a long hard night at poker. Train, wiry and ruddy, believed that he would live to an extreme old age. John L. Sullivan held the same belief. Train would not wear an overcoat or gloves, and often bared his chest to the winter blast at the bow of the ferryboat. He was taken off by pneumonia at about seventy-seven.

It was always a mystery what he had done with the fortune he had so early acquired; indeed, he must later have made considerable money from his lectures, some of which I had heard in my teens with immense astonishment and enjoyment. They always filled a theater. It was about the time when the same class flocked to the absurd performances of "Count" Joannes, who travestied Shakespeare in a screamingly funny manner, although apparently perfectly serious, and was barraged with ancient eggs, vegetables, dead rats and pennies by his audiences. Nothing of that sort ever happened to George Francis Train. He made them laugh but he compelled them to think by his logic and his striking, if often quite obscene, diagrams.

Sam Gompers, then working at his trade of cigar-maker, short and slight and extremely opinionated, used to frequent my office, where he debated with B. B. Valentine, who wrote the Fitznoodle Papers for Puck, and Bill Sulzer, then a good imitation of the young Henry Clay and already making an impression on Dick Croker; D. Frank Dodge, the scenic artist, recently arrived from California and still unused to stone pavements and regular meals, used to amuse and amaze us with his incredible bear stories, Irving Bacheller, just starting in the syndicate business, Lafcadio Hearn, sloppy and purblind but a genius, Abe Hummell, seeking diversion from a fast-growing law business, Harry Dixey, then playing in "Adonis," and Lew Dockstader, with a theater on Broadway and losing a fortune every week, M. Quad, Dave Warfield, Paul Boyton, Billy Muldoon, Marshall P. Wilder, John Kendrick Bangs, Albert Payne, Moses P. Handy, John Mackey and, occasionally, Herrman, the magician, at whose performances the beautiful Alice Raymond played the cornet as it has never been played since—these and dozens of others made my office just such a forum as my father's or Matt Morgan's had been.

Charles Dana Gibson was just beginning to amaze us with the grace and humor of a new style of illustration that was to alter the very figures of our boys and girls and create hundreds of imitators. I imagine that nothing but the hurry and stress under which I worked prevented me from becoming the most slavish of his imitators, but to acquire the apparently careless line of Gibson necessitated constant drawing from life, and a man turning out from five to twenty drawings daily saw life on the jump, with little time to reflect or meditate.

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