New York City

Teaser

The saga of the enormous Wrigley's sign

I can vividly picture Times Square in 2018. It's a cesspool of lights and people, truly hideous advertising, and architectural crimes.

But I'm not writing Times Square in 2018. I'm writing it in 1923, and I know it's still a cesspool but damn me if I don't need a little more detail than that, and that is why I spent a solid hour spiraling over the location of the enormous Wrigley's sign.

Here's the story:

One of my characters is visiting a friend. The friend is staying in the Hotel Astor, which existed on the west side of Broadway between 44th and 45th.

Say a prayer for the Hotel Astor because now it's a 54-story high-rise and I want to die! (Photo:  Shorpy )

Say a prayer for the Hotel Astor because now it's a 54-story high-rise and I want to die! (Photo: Shorpy)

Okay! Let's take a look at my first stab at this, which I wrote during NaNoWriMo this year.

Max had nearly choked on his drink. "Ev, what are you doing here?"

"Came to see you, darling. Can we go, please?" The bartender was starting to notice him with narrowed eyes. The Astor crowd was more restrained, and next to the black-suited men that crowded around the bar Ev stood out like a cheap necklace. What he needed was to speak to Max in private.

Five floors up, Max's room overlooked Times Square and was bright with the light of streetlamps and flashing neon signs. Ev circled in front of the windows while Max poured them a drink.

So this lacks flavor, doesn't it? The interaction with the bartender was driven by the HISTORY FACT ALERT that the Astor bar was a famous meeting place for gay men as long ago as the 1910s, but gay men were expected to congregate at one end of the bar, and straight men at the other, so that nobody got freaky.

My character, Ev, is very visibly queer, and wouldn't be terribly welcome at the Astor bar.

After NaNo I did an edit pass on this part of the book that was largely focused on simplifying the language, and streamlining events.

He walked slowly back towards Times Square and the Astor Hotel. Ev stood out here like a cheap necklace, but he found Max's room all right. It overlooked Times Square from five floors up, and it was bright with the light of street lamps and flashing neon signs. Max was surprised to see him, but let him in and poured him a drink anyways.

I dropped the bartender interaction because it derailed the scene. Instead, we've got a little more focus on the area. But neon and street lamps and blah. It's all so generic. What we need. What we really need.

Is some flavor.

Enter the Wrigley's sign.

This horrible sign came to my attention when I was desperately googling "TIMES SQUARE 1920s" over and over as if I could take the temperature of a place via Google search. Well, you can take the temperature of a place via the New York Public Library, which offered this article. The Changing Face of Times Square is a compressed history full of delicious photos:

(Photo:  NYPL )

(Photo: NYPL)

 

The Wrigley’s sign seen above was in place from 1917-1924 and was a full block long. Crowds would come just to stare at this sign, and during World War I, it helped to promote war bond sales.


Now that is flavor. My story needed this ENORMOUS WRIGLEY'S SIGN.

Historical re-enactment of me putting two and two together here.

Historical re-enactment of me putting two and two together here.

A cursory Google search revealed a postcard for a TEN-STORY TALL WRIGLEY'S SPEARMINT GUM ELECTRIC SPECTACULAR SIGN. And where was it?

Why, it extended a full block from 44th to 45th streets on the east side of Broadway.

Okay, but this Wrigley's sign was supposed to be from 1936 and my Wrigley's sign was in 1923. I needed photographic proof of the Wrigley's sign co-existing with the Astor, and I wanted it to be on the east side of Broadway, so help me God.

At this point a reasonable person, seeing that they were mere pages from finishing an edit pass, may have decided to leave the precise historical placement of the Enormous Wrigley's Sign for a time that wasn't 10 p.m the night before a work trip. Not so! I needed the GUM SIGN, BABY.

Of course there's a crucial piece of information missing here, and it's that I already knew where the freaking Wrigley's sign was. 

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It's at this point that I'd like to emphasize that I don't get all my historical info from late-night Google searches, but when I do, I fixate on ephemera for no reason.

So the sign wasn't, as far as I know, perfectly across Broadway from the Astor. But like, good enough, so let's count this as a victory.

Give me the flavor

Here's how the scene turned out after my emotional spiral was over, and I had internalized hundreds of photos of the hotel:

THE HOTEL ASTOR, BETWEEN 44TH AND 45TH, ON THE WEST SIDE OF BROADWAY.

THE HOTEL ASTOR, BETWEEN 44TH AND 45TH, ON THE WEST SIDE OF BROADWAY.

The Astor was right on Broadway; a French-looking building in bright red brick with stripes of white, and a green roof. It used to be the finest thing in the Square. Now it squatted over the cars and trolleys packed nose-to-tail, and the flashing signs for department stores starched collar shirts, cigarettes, gum, and the latest revue.

Inside, it was still the Astor. Ev stood out here like a cheap necklace.

Max was surprised to see him, but let him in and poured him a drink anyways. It wasn't so noisy up here, but the huge Wrigley's sign across the street washed the room in waves of green light.

"You're closer to your editors here," Ev commented. "But then I suppose you've gotten to enjoy them battering on your door, isn't that right?"

AND SCENE!

As you can see, almost everything changed from my NaNo draft to my current one, except I'm super attached to the description of Ev as a cheap necklace.

What I like about where it ended up is that — hopefully — it says all we need to know about interior of the hotel in two sentences, while also describing my character. This was a rich-ass hotel, with multiple themed ballrooms and fancy restaurants. It had a rooftop garden, because New York is New York and we fucking love rooftops. Presidents partied there.

(And now it's a high-rise! Never forget!!)

Anyway, thanks for joining me on my hell-journey into Google. Don't look up "WRIGLEY'S SIGN TIMES SQUARE 1920s," it's deeply unhelpful and wrong.

Another shot of the hotel, and the sign to the left.

Another shot of the hotel, and the sign to the left.

Writing

Looking for Hemingway in all the wrong places

I am on a quest to find a beautiful copy of The Sun Also Rises. I'm not out here looking for a shitty copy.

Here are books I do not want:

They are ugly.

They are ugly.

As my search has drawn on I've gotten increasingly irrational about the copy of Sun that I'm going to buy. I can't just buy one online. I'm going to find one, I'm going to find one in a used bookstore, and I'm going to find it because Hemingway's ghost led me there.

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I went on an odyssey of sorts to the East Village to scour used bookstores for my perfect copy of Sun which exists out there and I will find it. Yesterday ... was not that day.

But I did find some books that want to share with y'all.

The Strand - 828 Broadway

The Strand is an enormous bookstore, and the best and worst part about it is that there are racks of $1-5 books that line the block outside. I didn't have time to go through these yesterday, and also it would have taken five hours, but it kills me to think that my Sun might have been there. Anyway, I went straight inside to the Hemingways and was waylaid by something even better: An LGBTQIA book display on the main floor.

And that's where I found Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes.


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Nightwood

Barnes was a writer and an artist active during the 1920s in New York and Paris. She had a lot of bad relationships with men and then swore off men, and then had a lot of bad relationships with women and swore off love altogether. She was known for, according to Andrea Barnet, "reams of sardonic poetry, dreamlike plays, short stories, and several edgy novels with lesbian themes."

Nightwood is one of those novels. It definitely sounds like it's going to be one of those classic "it's the 1920s so this lesbian is gonna fuck up her whole dang life" kind of stories, but also that was kind of like, Djuna Barnes' whole deal? Write what you know.

I'm very excited to get into this one, and look how beautiful the cover is. If some people (Ernest Hemingway) could manage to have covers that beautiful, then I would own a copy of The Sun Also Rises by now.

The Splendid Drunken Twenties - Selections from the Daybooks 1922-1930

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I found this book when I went to the basement of The Strand, looking for Leslie Blume's Everybody Behaves Badly, a biography of Hemingway's early years. I found a different biography with that picture of Hemingway pointing a gun at the camera on the cover and I'm not about that life, but while I was wandering forlornly in the stacks I stumbled upon The Splendid Drunken Twenties.

Carl Van Vechten was a writer and photographer who wrote another book that is extremely fucking racist but that book is not this book, in that this book I would actually take on the subway, and have in my home. Van Vechten ran in the same circles as Djuna Barnes and was also That White Dude that was obsessed with Harlem and the black artists of the time (they didn't need his patronage at all). Van Vechten noted down his daily activities in his daybooks, which are printed here. It's full of stuff like "had lunch with George Gershwin" and "went to a party at A'lelia Walker's" and it's all the mundane daily shit that is perfect research fodder.

Alabaster Bookshop - 122 4th Avenue

This place is quite literally around the corner from The Strand, going towards Union Square, and I like it because well ... it's a tiny used bookstore. In one of the most hopping parts of New York. Next to New York's most famous and biggest used bookstore. It's the kind of perfect used bookstore that is packed up to the ceilings, with books tumbling all over the floor.

All Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913 - 1930

This book is not an in-depth biography by any means, but rather a thrilling, breezy account of the lives of some of the amazing women of the time. It covers five of the women in their own chapters, with another chapter devoted to salons. But it opens with a "Cast of Characters" providing paragraph-long biographs of some twenty notable women, and I want to read books about every single one of them.

I actually found this book at Alabaster in September and checked it out at the NYPL in ebook form. I really enjoyed it, but I kept not finishing it before my hold was up so I gave in and decided to go back and buy it. This I explained in a sort of stammer to the kind and patient bookseller who will hopefully not remember me.

I love this book as a jumping-off point, and as a fucking inspirational text. It does a few things really well. The cast of characters got me pumped and made me want to go out and find someone who thinks women never did anything in history and then bash them over the head with this book. It's a litany of baller women who left their homes, made their own way in life, wrote revolutionary prose and poetry, made art, and were celebrated for it. Many, many of them were queer.

The book also includes wonderful tidbits about contemporary life that are so useful — things like what bars people hung out at. These are the kinds of details you can only get from reading biographies or contemporary writing, and I love it.

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Where the book falls short: the author is white, and though there are chapters about the black women who were killing it at the time, I haven't read them yet because they're ... in the back of the book. The introduction mentions in a sanitized way that these black women artists were fighting both racism and sexism, and acknowledges that blues and jazz were the product of a "much-neglected" black America. But I would argue that "neglected" is nowhere near strong enough a word to describe the black America that was living under segregation, had seen the end of government-sanctioned slavery a mere fifty-odd years before, and was thriving in the decade that saw a major resurgence of the freaking KKK.

On one level I understand, because the whole tone of the book is about feeling very good about the accomplishments that women made. But it would be a disservice to women like Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter if we don't acknowledge the whole, awful truth of the odds that were against them. Both were lesbians, by the way.

I think All Night Party does tend to revel in the glamor of the '20s, and avoid some of its ugliness. That's mostly okay with me (mostly, see above) as long as we remember that ugliness on our own. Fredrick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday did that in '31 and it's a great read.

East Village Books and Records - 99 St. Mark's Pl.

Okay, I did not actually buy any books here because I felt fragile after accidentally spending so much money elsewhere — BUT. I had never been this bookstore before and I'll definitely go again. It's another hole in the wall, absolutely lined with books.

They also had shelves upon shelves of discount books in front and in a sort of shed in the back. I came so close to finding what I wanted here, y'all. But it just wasn't my day.

If anyone has other used bookstore recommendations please throw them my way! They're not easy to find, and apparently neither is a good-looking copy of The Sun Also Rises.