Friday, January 22, 2016


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chapter 8 Part 1

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Eight (Part 1) - BLOSSOM TIME IN BOHEMIA

When I first went to Montreal, on the Wiman trip, where I had the honor of meeting Governor-General Sir Patrick McDougall, the only titled member of the clan I ever came across, I won enough money in a game new to me, table-stakes-poker, to buy an imposing fur-lined over-coat. At that period no gentleman wore such a garment in the daytime except when driving; only nigger minstrel men and gamblers affected them upon all occasions. I changed all that.

When J. P. beheld the impressive spectacle I made he was charmed, and thereafter a fur coat was quite a customary Christmas present to members of the staff. He never gave me one, perhaps fancying that they never wore out; he used to give me diamonds or hard cash. Soon bank presidents, doctors, head waiters and clergymen were wearing them about town as if born in them. This coat got me into trouble, but it was worth it.

On the occasion of the Crosby Street horse-car riots, the first in our history, if I am not mistaken, I was sent with James Creelman, then our brightest star reporter, to the scene of anticipated carnage, and in order to miss nothing of the expected scrimmage I marched with the first rank of the policemen. There was no opposition beyond the dumping of coal and cobblestones on the tracks, until the force reached the west side of town, but everywhere the sidewalks and roofs were filled with yelling crowds. Coming down toward the North River, bricks began to shower down and bounce off the hard heads and stout bodies of the cops. The front rank received the most of the missiles, it was quickly noticed, but we never wavered, marching onward like heroes. Suddenly a captain spoke to me in a voice of deep emotion and concern.

"Fall back a few ranks, me lad, and let them other fellers get a bit of this!" he commanded. "Them people up there think you're the owner of this goddam horse-car line, and they're tryin' to bump you off!"

Needless to say, I fell back, but the coat was still the target until the supply of bricks ran out farther up the street and I was everywhere as welcome to the cops as the plague. Jim Creelman wrote a realistic account of the episode, in which he fittingly described my bravery under fire, and I got my name in the paper in a new spot, but I never again flaunted a fur coat in the face of the proletariat. Nowadays, at a meeting of plasterers, photo-engravers, painters or masons, you may see nothing but these plutocratic garments, but it was different then.

When Archie Gunn [it amazes me that I cannot find a link to a decent bio of Archie Gunn online! – Allan], famous in London as "Chicot," a delineator of pretty girls, whose picture of a nude beauty at a telephone saying: "No, I've nothing on to-day!" is still cherished by connoisseurs, arrived in town in the middle of a notable January thaw, he was attired in a big black bearskin, having been informed that the winters were very inclement in New York. This garment was lined with heavy blanket, with a quilted bombproof of felt or something, between that and the bearskin. It weighed about sixty pounds and the thermometer was soaring at about the same figure. I told him to prowl about town for two or three days to get the lay of the land, and solemnly cautioned him to keep on the shady side of the street as winter sunstrokes were usually fatal in our climate.

He was a charmingly modest, handsome young Scot, giving no hint of his powers of mimicry or his vocal and artistic talents, and, like most Scots, he knew almost nothing of the geography of The States. As he was about leaving, he observed that he thought he would "walk out to the Falls," but it left me unimpressed. Two days later, having partly recovered from his fatigue, he related that he had walked up Broadway to 42nd Street, which was as far north as any civilized person ever went in the eighties, and there he accosted a genial policeman and asked to be told the precise location of Niagara Falls. When the officer guessed that it was more than four hundred miles away, Archie thought he was spoofing him, until the patient cop explained that he had gone to said Falls on his honeymoon and it had taken a day and a night on the Erie to get there. The stunned youngster began to retrace his steps.

This was the noisome period when the gas leaking from the old mains permeated the soil and the sewers, causing many explosions daily and much caustic comment. As he reached 31st Street a man-hole blew up, sending the iron plate four stories aloft. Archie said that he jumped clear across Broadway. At 24th Street another volcano exploded and he leaped back again, but at 19th Street a third blast convinced him that this must be a matter-of-fact routine in American life and he stood still to study the effect, which, indeed, used to be very striking.

He was very versatile and popular. He constructed a typically English Punch and Judy outfit, for private view only, and composed a puppet-drama which satirized everybody in the World office, but I can only recall that its main comedy effects consisted in sudden appearances of a gross caricature of J. P. shouting "Reduce Seleries!" and the repeated demands of dainty blondes and brunettes for admission into my "studio."

George Luks took a leaf from Gunn's book of comedy in after years. Gunn was giving an exhibition of pictures in a New Jersey country club, when Luks appeared lit up like the Edison booth at the Electric Show and, as usual, well disposed to add to his burden—and Gunn's. Archie got him into his bedroom and locked him in before his presence was observed. After he fell asleep, he took George's trousers away to prevent any reappearance.

At noon next day Luks awoke and, finding his trousers missing, he donned a gauzy ballet skirt which he found among Gunn's studio effects in a trunk. Then he tossed out the fire-escape rope and slid down it to startle and scandalize a choice group of Archie's art patrons who were drinking tea on the lawn, by demanding in a shrill falsetto voice:

"Where is my false husband, Archie Gunn? He locked me in a room upstairs and deserted me, but he can't get away with that stuff! I am his true lawful wife and I can prove it!"

Roy McCardell has told how Gunn came to America prepared to kill Indians and buffalo near Buffalo, N.Y., and claims that he has testified that the only Indians he ever saw were Tom Powers, Walt McDougall and R. O. Anthony. Now, how McCardell happened to name me in this connection I cannot imagine, but he also is getting along in years and very likely his mind is growing feebler, for I protest that he must have meant to write his own name. I have quoted this uncertain authority only because he mentions Ripley O. Anthony.

Now, there was the real unadulterated Bohemian, as such were invariably termed in the waning of the Victorian era. A master of drawing with a knowledge of tone-values rare at the time, with histrionic talents of a high order, a graduate of the August Will school, he combined these with every variety of gay insouciance that was known. Those were the days when a man's personal habits were of no consequence in the newspaper business; in fact, most persons imagined that artists and writers were continually intoxicated. The truth is that they were sober more than half the time.

Ripley died young but I conjecture that few hours of his short life were wasted in regrets or self-commiseration, and many of these hours were spent in amusing others. Once he was given a hundred dollars and sent to Asbury Park to make sketches for a Sunday story. Thursday came without sketches or any word from him, and, supposing he had fallen by the wayside, I hastened to the seashore resort, but with little hope of any practical result. I could find no trace of him in the hotels, drugstores or restaurants, and late at night I gave up the search.

I was walking back to my hotel through one of the side streets, the full moon threw the balconies of the six-per-week boarding houses into inky shadow, no sound but the earnest hum of the diligent mosquito was audible, the July air was tempered by a cooling breeze, certainly a night to be enjoyed far from a city. Suddenly the stillness was punctured by the soft tinkling plunk-plunk of a mandolin accompanying a rich voice singing "Non E'Ver."

I listened for two seconds and barked joyfully:

"Hellow, Anthony! Where are you!"

He recognized my sawmill voice instantly:

"Hello, Mac! Come on up! I'm up on this piazza. The stairs are at your left."

Finding them, I went aloft to discover Anthony in his birthday suit strumming a mandolin. On his arrival he had gone in bathing in a porous bathing suit, remaining in the water for three or four hours and becoming so sun-burned that he could not put his clothes on. He had spent the intervening hours in growing a new skin, but without a Chinaman's chance to spend a cent of his money!

At Maria's celebrated table d'hote, Anthony was one of the main attractions. Maria was a great buxom dark creature who on a time kept a forty-five-cent Italian restaurant in McDougall Street, where Joe Stoddart, Lathrop, Julian Hawthorne, Du Chaillu, Clara Louise Kellogg and other delightful companions gathered to eat the spaghetti in the informal manner. We persuaded her, by guaranteeing the rent, to move to Twelfth Street near Sixth Avenue, and in time, owing to the atmosphere of good-fellowship pervading the place, it was nightly filled with congenial, unpretentious and liberal-minded diners whose disputes and criticisms gave the place quite the air of home. Then somebody, in need of cash, printed an engaging account of our nightly diversions, and Maria's became one of the city's sights. But before this occurred, there had passed a year or two of most pleasant, even hilarious companionship among a goodly number of men and women who now look back upon those evenings with wistful, dim eyes. To mention their names would be to call the roll of nearly everybody in journalistic, artistic and theatrical life, although the place was but a little dingy, low-ceilinged and unattractive basement.

When Maria, swelled with her fame, spread out into the back yard, her original customers, the lions whose feeding-time antics had brought to her the vulgar rich public, left her, to create another unconventional and inexpensive dining place, but the attempt fell flat. These things are sui generis and cannot be made to order. Maria was compelled, in order to retain her new clientele, to employ entertainers; eventually the place became stupid and dull and dirty, and away flew her butterflies. I have conjectured that our simple California-red-ink revels were the germ of the modern cabaret show.

When after dinner Anthony would snatch off the tablecloth, throw it toga-like about his lank figure, and burlesque Edwin Booth or Mansfield, when Gunn would sing his "Wooden-armed Man" song, Douglas Jerrold or Kate Masterson recite an original poem or Billy Scanlon sing, it gave the place the atmosphere of a home for incurables, perhaps, but ah, what incurables!


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