history

Writing

The best way to research New York City

Despite the many glorious old buildings still kicking in New York, it can be hard to get a picture of what the city used to look like.

Well, not literally, because the library has thousands of them, and I just found out about it, and now you do too.

OldNYC is a mapping project using the New York Public Library's thousands and thousands of photos — from the year 1800 to the year 2000. The photos are laid out on a map of the five boroughs. Clicking on a red dot in a location will bring up all the old photos associated with that place.

And there are so many, y'all.

OldNYC's photos, unfiltered.

OldNYC's photos, unfiltered.

You can filter the years to show specific time periods, but the slider was a little finicky for me. But I filtered down to 1907 - 1929 and Manhattan is still packed with promising red dots to click on.

I first heard about this project when I was touring St. John the Divine with my friend Austin Chant. It's the largest cathedral in the world, and the OldNYC project hosts what seem to be hundreds of photos of its construction, which began in 1892.

This is a hell of a resource if you're writing historical books, or if you simply want to look at the city in younger years.

Reading List

5 queer artists from the 1920s you should know about

In honor of Pride Month, here is an abbreviated list of five badass queer people who were prolific in the 1920s and beyond. They were groundbreaking and brilliant, and all of them surrounded by queer friends and lovers and communities.

History is a marvelous warren of changing social mores. When we talk about queer rights let's never forget that queer people have always been out and about and making art, damn the consequences.

1. Bessie Smith (1895 - 1937)

Bessie Smith was an absolute blues legend, Notorious Bisexual and noted Person Who Didn't Give A Shit what people thought of her. Of her singing, a reviewer said "That wasn't a voice [...], it was a flamethrower licking out across the room."

Langston Hughes said that Smith's songs expressed sadness "not softened with tears but hardened with laughter; the absurd, incongruous laughter of a sadness without even a god to appeal to."

Basically, her voice was so powerful that it compelled people to write equally powerful sentences.

Despite her success, she didn't have a terribly happy life. She grew up poor and sang on the street for money. Even then her talent was noted, and by 1923 she recorded her first single. It sold 2 million copies in six months and catapulted Smith to legendary status.

Smith dealt with horrendous racist bullshit throughout her career. Notably she stood up for her darker-skinned chorus girls when a manger wanted them replaced with lighter dancers. At the peak of her fame she transported her whole company in a private railway car so that they wouldn't have to risk looking for lodging in the south, which was often a dangerous and difficult prospect for black performers, who were welcomed onstage and abused off it.

Smith in the 1920s

Smith in the 1920s

She was a contemporary of many other incredible black women singers like Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Gladys Bentley and Ethel Waters — all of whom were also queer.

One story from her niece says she bailed Ma Rainey out of jail after Rainey was arrested for cavorting with naked women, which is frankly A REALLY GREAT STORY.

She was unfortunately saddled with a shitty, abusive husband, who she ditched multiple times throughout her life. She had affairs with a few of her chorus girls, and basically enjoyed a good horny party — she was friends with the proprietress of a Detroit buffet flat, who had a place for Smith whenever she rolled into town.


2. Richard Bruce Nugent (1906 - 1987)

nugent-richard-bruce-2017.jpg

Nugent was a writer and painter, and part of the social group that frequented Gumby's Bookstore in Harlem. The owner, Alexander Gumby, was a gay black man and historian, and the bookstore was patronized by the most brilliant minds of the Harlem Renaissance — people like Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston.

In the '20s his art and writing explored sexuality, race, and gender, and the ways they intersected. His poem "Shadow" was supposedly pulled out of a trash can by Langston Hughes (would that we all could say the same about our writing that we hate...), and has been interpreted as an allusion to race, or an allusion to sexuality, but let's be real it's probably all of of the above.

Nugent was also a dancer and an actor because sometimes people are really good at everything!!! That's just how it is!!


3. - 4. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap (1886 - 1973, 1883 - 1964)

Margaret Anderson photographed by Man Ray, of course.

Margaret Anderson photographed by Man Ray, of course.

Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap are one of my favorite historical couples. From All-Night Party:

By day, Margaret and Jane swam and rode horses like seasoned wranglers, [...]. By night they worked on the Little Review by the glow of a kerosene lamp. Jane drew cartoons and Margaret played the piano on a Steinway she'd secured from a shop in San Francisco at no cost. They ate fudge for breakfast and lolled about until noon. They talked endlessly, incessantly. Their talk began at lunch and climaxed at tea. By dinner they were "staggering with it." By five the next morning they were "unconscious but still talking," said Margaret. "This was what I had been waiting for all my life"

Their whole lives are unbelievable like that.

Margaret Anderson puts shame to the idea that historical women were ever obedient. She described herself as a "perfectly nice but revolting girl," moved alone to Chicago as a young adult, spent money so recklessly that her family cut her off, and used her extremely powerful personality to fund a revolutionary literary magazine: the Little Review.

She spent summers living in a tent city that she built on the shores of Lake Michigan. She and Jane Heap moved to California and then New York, and they entertained ... literally everyone. She was uncompromising in her views on art, and avant garde as hell.

Jane Heap looking dapper as hell.

Jane Heap looking dapper as hell.

Jane was handsome, dressed in suits, and had a dangerous wit. Her columns in the Review were published only under her initials, "jh."

In 1921 both women were charged with obscenity for publishing James Joyce's Ulysses as a serial in the Review (among many other poems and stories that were considered obscene — Ulysses was just one of many that got people wound up).

Heap took over publication of the magazine in 1924, and the women separated, though they stayed in touch throughout their lives. The Little Review closed in 1929.

Heap spent the rest of her life in London, where she became the lover of Elspeth Champcommunal, the first editor of Vogue Britain. Basically she was a boss, and everyone wanted a piece of her.


5. Ivor Novello (1893 - 1951)

Ivor Novello was a composer and actor and extremely hot person. He was an incredibly popular entertainer: there's a songwriting and composing award named for him, and his funeral procession was attended by thousands.

It seems like Novello knew just about everybody. His list of friends is a Who's Who of influential queer men of the era: Siegfriend Sassoon, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, Tom Driberg, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham... need I go on.

The great thing about Ivor Novello is that it's more likely than not that he boned down with all of them. I love me a slutty, beloved historical figure.

Novello was a big silent film star in the '20s, but in later life he was far more well-known for his music. Of casting him, director Adrian Brunel said, "the problem was to find someone as beautiful as Ivor to play opposite him."

IvorNovello6.jpg

In 1916 he met Bobbie Andrews, who would be his primary partner until Novello's death. He remained a massive flirt throughout his life, and had relationships with many men. As noted in Sassoon's biography, Novello "collected lovers as he gathered lilacs." ("We'll Gather Lilacs" is, of course, one of his popular songs.)

Here's an absurd anecdote about him wearing a kilt:

He fancied himself in a kilt.

He fancied himself in a kilt.

When he was co-starring opposite Gladys Cooper in Bonnie Prince Charlie (1923), he liked his kilt so much, he wouldn't take it off, even when he wasn't shooting. Cooper warned him that the locals resented his appropriation of their national costume. Several hundred hostile Scots followed him throughout shooting on the isle of Arran. "But I wouldn't have cared if there had been thousands," he later told the News of the World. "I fancied myself in my kilt!"

 

Happy pride, y'all. :)

 

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. 

dummy.jpeg

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.

Podcast rec: The Bowery Boys

The Bowery Boys podcast first caught my attention this summer, with their short series on New York in the 1920s — but they've been around a hell of a lot longer than that.

This podcast has 255 episodes, all chronicling the history of New York City. The episodes often focus small, on neighborhoods, buildings, or people.

Don't let the number of episodes intimidate you. I've been skipping around to explore the topics and time periods that catch my eye, and it's been a great way to pass the time on my commute, and keep learning when I'm too tired to read. Also of note: each episode has a post on their site with tons of historical pictures and references.

Here are some of my favorite episodes. You'll notice a theme, obviously — I'm currently devouring as much information as I can about the early 20th century. The podcast has been pretty invaluable to me, and I hope you enjoy it too!

Texas Guinan was a total boss who hosted at many illicit nightclubs during the '20s. She is also now my hero.

Listening to this made me want to get all my friends together at a fancy hotel so they could roast the shit out of me.

"Why is it called that?" "Oh God, that's why."

AKA how buckwild can this story get.

Feat. how those tenements worked, which had me pumping my fist and shouting YES, YES THANK YOU.

Which I'm now going to be mad about for the rest of my life?

Another total boss who deserves her own movie.