Monday, April 30, 2012

'Mad Men' notes: Executive (and bohemian) dining



A square meal: The Tower Suite's packed dining room   


WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC. If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here.

In trying to contrast the life-altering decisions made by two of 'Mad Men's central characters, the writers certainly did an excellent job last night in choosing two appropriate and familiar locales.

Don Draper (with Megan in tow) made a last-ditch effort to win over a difficult client by dining at the Tower Suite in the Time & Life Building. (The offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce were actually several floors below.) The restaurant on the 48th floor served as an executive dining room during the day called the Hemisphere Club, one of a number of elevated lunch spots in midtown Manhattan. The destination for businessmen looking to impress -- waiters were dressed as butlers  -- was opened by George Lang of Cafe des Artistes fame in 1961.

By many accounts however, the Tower Suite was considered a starched and even dreary dining experience. And quickly passe. In 1970, New York Magazine intoned "[T]he Tower Suite is still ideal for enchanting sheltered in-laws, teenagers, the hopelessly in love and out of town clients from Saginaw."

Peggy Olsen, meanwhile, had a more personal dilemma to attend to downtown in the heart of Greenwich Village where she's seen much of her personal growth. She's presented with a decision to make over dinner at Minetta Tavern, a corner Italian restaurant on MacDougal Street at the foot of small Minetta Lane.

This was the former location of The Black Rabbit, one of Greenwich Village's best known speakeasies, operated by Eve Addams. Her infamous tearoom Eve's Hangout right up the street was one of New York's first lesbian hangouts. The Black Rabbit switched to proper Italian cuisine in 1937.

The tavern had been immortalized the previous year in Joseph Mitchell's ode to eccentric bohemian Joe Gould, who frequented Minetta's in his later years. 'Joe Gould's Secret' would become one of Mitchell's best  known New York tales. (It was also be his last book.)

With the Tower Suite long gone, you can no longer enjoy its faux-butler service, but Minetta Tavern was renovated and reopened in 2009 by restaurateur Keith McNally.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Partners In Preservation: Help out a NYC landmark!


For almost five years, we have been extolling the virtues of New York's greatest and most treasured landmarks in our podcasts. At last, we can actually bring to your attention a very special project where you'll get to interact with some of these places and help get them get sorely needed funding.

The Bowery Boys: New York City History will be blog ambassadors for the Partners In Preservation initiative, sponsored by American Express in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  The initiative has helped historic sites in Chicago, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Boston, Seattle-Puget Sound, San Francisco and New Orleans in prior years. Finally they've come to New York City!

Partners In Preservation is providing $3 million to be given away to historic sites who have submitted grants. Each place has a different need in mind -- basic maintenance, renovation, site expansion, you name it.

Here's how we all come in. You can vote once a day for a particular site you want to support. Go directly to the Partners In Preservation webpage or vote on their Facebook page. The four sites that get the most votes will have their grant requests fully funded, and the remainder of the pot will be split between other sites chosen by an advisory committee made up of civic and preservation figures here in New York.

The list of 40 nominated sites is listed below, after the jump. We have spoken about a great many of them in our podcasts and here on the blog. Over the next few weeks -- up until the voting deadline of May 21 -- we will turn our focus on a few more of these great places. Our new podcast next week will feature one particular spot and its relation to one of our favorite early New Yorkers.

As for the contest itself, we don't have a particular horse in this race. The choice is yours. Just look through the list and find a spot that you have either a particular love for or a place you feel passionate needs the support. There are big places and very small places.  Spread the love! Go here to vote once a day. In a couple days I'll have an interface for the blog and our own Facebook page.

Next weekend (May 4-5), all 40 sites will have an open house with special events. Have fun with this! Visit and explore a place you've never been. And come back here for our take on a few of these interesting sites.

The nominees are:


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

No Nonsense: Fifth Avenue lingerie from Brooklyn factories


Store: Kayser Hosiery
545 Fifth Avenue at 45th Street

German immigrant Julius Kayser didn't start off being so intimate with women. When he opened his first factory in 1880, he specialized in simple cotton gloves, and soon moved to the silken kind, the sort a proper woman wore to the opera or a masquerade ball. He even patented a 'process for reinforcing fingertips' which quickly made Kayser a rich man.

By 1913, Julius had expanded to hosiery, veils, swimwear and undergarments that were sold in all the most notable department stores. He employed a staggering 2,500 people in Brooklyn (in today's DUMBO area and later in Clinton Hill**) and several other New York state plants, manufacturing not only standard 'knit' underwear but the more exotic 'Italian silk underwear'.

Kayser brought his selection of women's delicates to 545 Fifth Avenue in the 1930s, with a renovation a decade later that included an 'extensive use of mirrors, both inside and outside the shop'. [source]

Further innovations -- like the 'nimble toe' pantyhose -- brought further expansion in the 1950s and a new three-story store at 425 Fifth Avenue and 38th Street, which featured a 1,200-seat 'Theater of Intimate Apparel' for fashion shows and a rooftop garden to display swimwear and outdoor fashions.

Kayser is still atop the women's undergarment pile. The company joined with Chester H Roth in 1958, and the merged company Kayser-Roth debuts the affordable No Nonsense brand of undergarments in the 1970s. I'm not sure if the current company still makes silk gloves, which got them started in the first place.

**222 Taaffe Place, to be exact. I just wanted to say that because Taaffe Street is one of my favorite street names in New York for some reason.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

History in the Making: Double Decker Delight Edition




Ladies in their most decorative hats enjoy a sunny ride from a double-decker in the fleet of the Fifth Avenue Coach Company. Anybody recognize this street corner? There's an advertisement for McMullen's White Label Bass Ale, Guinness Stout, Appolinari's mineral water on the building in the background. (Photo by Alice Austen, courtesy NYPL. Labeled 1896, but most likely much later, perhaps early-mid 1910s)


Sage Advice: Sixteen tips and observations from an opinionated 1916 New York tour guide. "Another characteristic of New York, and one that applies to all grades of society, is the lavish and conspicuous mode of dress adopted by New York women on the public streets" [Cenedella]

Evergreen: It's Barbra Streisand's 70th birthday! Find out where she -- and 19 other extraordinary female vocalists -- got their start in New York's hustling nightlife in an older 2010 post from this blog. [Bowery Boys]

On the Menu: Dying to go to the Howard Johnson's restaurant depicted on last Sunday's 'Mad Men' episode and partake of a big, BIG orange sherbet? The Plattsburgh location is closed, but The Retrologist takes you to an original restaurant that's still open in Lake George. [The Retrologist]

Good Golly: The History Chicks podcast takes a look at the Titanic's most famous lady, the 'Unsinkable' Molly Brown. [The History Chicks]

The Wire: There are mysterious, almost invisible wires strung from lampposts all around the city. Ever notice them? [Slate]

Continuing Story: The latest on the embattled St. Mark's Bookshop, one of the last independent bookstores in the East Village. [Jeremiah's Vanishing New York]

Bronx Tracks: A meticulous truly adventurous walk along the old New York, Westchester and Boston Railway in the Bronx, with sights along Gun Hill Road, Dyre Avenue and stops near the old Freedomland amusement park. [Forgotten New York]

Commodious: The Brooklyn Historical Society takes a leap into the records of the Brooklyn Bureau of Sewers. [Brooklyn Historical Society Blog]

And, now, big news! We are very happy to announce our involvement as blog ambassadors for the Partners In Preservation grant program, sponsored by American Express and the National Trust For Historic Preservation. Forty historical places in New York City have been chosen to compete for $3 million worth of funding. It's a great chance for us to finally give back to some of New York's most treasured places we've spent years talking about. And you can help choose the grant awardees. More information on that this Thursday! [Partners In Preservation]

Monday, April 23, 2012

'Mad Men' notes: New York becomes an LSD playground



A mind-twisting exhibit at the Riverside Museum, formerly at 310 Riverside Drive/103rd Street, makes it on the cover of a national magazine. But not everybody would enjoy the trip.


WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC. If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here.

Sure, it's 1966. I thought maybe Peggy Olsen might be the one to trip the light fantastic. (She was otherwise engaged this week.) But I never expected hallucinogenics to materialize as they did on last night's 'Mad Men'. After a staggeringly serious dinner party narrated with empty philosophical conversation, Roger Sterling and his wife are invited to take the drug LSD by their host. Far from the dorm rooms and basement clubs of Greenwich Village where one might expect such experimentation, this evening of psychedelia was presented as a drawing-room intellectual exercise, with serene music unspooling from a reel-to-reel and no object more trippy than a mantel mirror.

Lysergic acid diethylamide, which I doubt can actually be said while experiencing its effects, was considered a mind-opening tool for some early psychiatrists, laying bare subconscious feelings and forcing the user to confront difficult issues in a surreal environment. By the mid '60s, its leading advocate was Timothy Leary (below), a psychologist who had studied the benefits of psychedelic drugs to explore the mental capacities. Today we might naturally lump him with the trappings of '60s counter-culture, but in 1966, with the parameters of psychiatry still in flux, his experiments also appealed to intelligentsia.

The depiction of 'Mad Men's after-dinner drug soiree seem to follow Leary's instruction quite explicitly. In 1966, he advised, "Don't take LSD unless you are very well prepared, unless you are specifically prepared to go out of your mind. Don't take it unless you have someone that's very experienced with you to guide you through it. And don't take it unless you are ready to have your perspective on yourself and your life radically changed, because you're gonna be a different person, and you should be ready to face this possibility."

An article in March 25, 1966, LIFE Magazine laid out the details of the drugs in almost an introductory fashion. "A black market dose costs only $3 to $5. But that's enough to send a person on a 10-hour 'trip'."

The same article also underscored a growing fear: "A few pounds of it dumped into the water supply of a major city would be enough to disorient millions."

The federal government had been concerned of this supposed conspiracy as early as the 1950s, fearful that Russians might pollute New York's water and "turn drug-addled American citizens against their own government." [source] Of course, the CIA itself experimented with LSD during this period with its covert Project MKULTRA, which conducted experiments in New York during the mid-50s, using prostitutes and junkies they found in local bars in Greenwich Village. An experiment performed on CIA operatives themselves led one agent in 1953 to leap from a window at the Statler Hilton, today's Hotel Pennsylvania. (Or was it murder?)

By the 1960s, the drug had become a virtual entrance exam for New York's blossoming counter-culture music scene, or so the more hysterical believed. "In New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, a girl just off the bus from Boise can find it quicker than the YWCA merely by asking around for 'a trip'," warned Life Magazine.

The fear of an unwitting populace overtaken with LSD only grew with the 1960s, and this time, some thought it was New York's counter-culture rebels itself who may be wielding it.  A 1967 journal opined on the urban legend with all seriousness. "[A] single ounce will provide fuel for 300,000 trips, reported one periodical, and it is believed that a few pounds dumped into the water supply of New York City would disorient the nearly 8,000,000 residents."

Perceptions of LSD were slowly divorced from its supposed therapeutic qualities, especially as the drug soon found itself as the subject of films like Roger Corman's 'The Trip' and 'Enormous Midnight', where town water supply is poisoned with LSD and turns its citizens into orgiastic zombies. In New York, LSD entered the club world; hallucinogenic mid-60s destinations like Cerebrum and the Electric Circus (which became Andy Warhol's preferred spot in 1966) seem almost conceivable without it.

New York legislators quickly vowed to outlaw the new drug. Bellevue Hospital reported over 200 new patients affected by the drug. In April 1966, two local crimes energized the press: a Brooklyn girl accidentally ingested a sugarcube coated with LSD, and a week later, a ex-mental patient killed his mother-in-law, allegedly under the influence of the drug. With the Stagger-Dodd bill in 1968, the possession of LSD became illegal in the United States.

While that effectively ended the living-room therapy sessions such as the one experienced by Roger Sterling, the drug, now underground, would increasingly influence all aspects of New York bohemian culture.

From the Cerebrum club mentioned above:






Pictures courtesy Newsweek and Life Google Images. For more information on the CIA's LSD experiments, you might be interested in watching this video.


If you're watching 'Mad Men' when it broadcasts at 10 PM EST, then follow along with me on Twitter at @boweryboys. I'll be giving a live fact-Tweeting, dropping little factoids about the events being depicted on the show

Friday, April 20, 2012

The missing: Revisiting the Etan Patz disappearance in SoHo and holding on to memories of a transformed neighborhood



The scene at Wooster and Prince Street on April 19, 2012.

 The world has changed since the disappearance of Etan Patz from the streets of New York on May 25, 1979. At least it seemed that way yesterday when the FBI and the New York Police Department reopened the cold case of the boy's disappearance and focused its attentions on a building in SoHo at 127 Prince Street. Etan went missing after leaving his home at a few doors down, at 113 Prince Street, on the way to the bus stop.

The neighborhood today is a concentrated collection of boutiques, franchise clothing stores, art galleries, cafes and an Apple Store. The building that may hold the secrets to one of New York's most famous unsolved mysteries holds a Lucky Brand jeans boutique on its ground floor.

Etan would be about my age now. But I have never lived in SoHo. For Etan, it was the only place he ever called home. The SoHo of today is a broad caricature of that neighborhood he lived in. It's sunny and mostly welcoming now but oddly dispiriting. One block way is a two-story retailer entirely devoted to Crocs.

It's a neighborhood that has changed dramatically in tone over the past thirty years, even if its appearance has remained almost identical thanks to its designation as a historic district in 1973. (Given the madness of development along the neighborhood's western edge, could you imagine what would have happened here without it?) Its sleek, bustling character is of fairly recent invention, a perversion of the 1970s art and fashion scene which flocked here, attracted to the abandoned old factories and warehouses garbed in striking cast iron.

Below: Crosby and Spring Street, 1978 (Flickr/straatis)

The district was pulled from the jaws of destruction -- Robert Moses' failed project, the strange and insane Lower Manhattan Expressway-- in the 1960s, then became populated with adventurous young creatives drawn to the neighborhood's relative isolation and large lofts. Former storage rooms for textiles and other dry goods became ideal for art galleries and performance spaces. The 'cast iron district' may have itself informed the creativity that flocked here. Gallery owners could think ambitiously. High ceilings, canyons of uniform metal, and stark cobblestone streets appealed more to the avant garde.

There was still something mysterious about SoHo in the mid-1970s, a time before high-end fashion became entrenched in the windows. It allowed artists and bohemians to thrive in a place that in many ways seemed off limits from the rest of the city, more rarefied. SoHo took on a different artistic hue from the East Village where art mixed with poverty. Quirky (and expensive) clothing boutiques soon arrived; Betsey Johnson, for instance, opened her first store in SoHo in 1978.

The elevation into a sort of edgy high culture was palpable enough that it soon seeped into pop culture. Between horrifying visions of death, Faye Dunaway traipsed the streets here in 1978's 'The Eyes of Laura Mars'. Martin Scorsese paid homage to its eccentricity in his 1985 film 'After Hours'.

But SoHo would not have been immune to the New York's deteriorating infrastructure of the 1970s. Or its escalating crime. While perhaps not unsafe during the day, this stretch of Prince Street where Etan would have walked in 1979 had far less foot traffic on a weekday, clearly free of today's starving artists, latte sippers and jewelry and tee-shirt sellers. By 1984, when New York Magazine proclaimed SoHo was "on the verge of becoming a downtown Madison Avenue," the crime rate was actually increasing. The depths of the neighborhood's swift gentrification were clashing with reality.

It would take a financial upswing in the late 1980s and early 1990s for SoHo itself to change again. Wealthier residents moved in, as did high-end retailers -- and then, slightly less-than-high-end retailers along Broadway. This forced out a great many of the original galleries, now drawn to a new area of warehouse-filled remoteness in West Chelsea.

When Etan Patz disappeared in 1979, the tragedy literally changed how Americans thought about missing children. The search erupted into a media frenzy with detectives fielding hundreds of false leads driven by lost-child flyers that blanketed New York City.

It became the "widest and longest search for a missing child undertaken by the city's Police Department in decades" [source] and quite possibly the most publicized child abduction in America since the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's infant son in 1932.  In 1983 President Ronald Reagan established National Missing Children's Day on May 25, the day of Etan's disappearance. He became the first missing child to adorn a milk carton.

And so, over 30 years later, this case now leads right back here to a building in SoHo a short distance from his home, in a place he might find unrecognizable and in a country transformed by his disappearance.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The South Street kidnappings: During Prohibition, did 'shanghai gangs' really lurk in the shadow of the ports?



The old port at night was no place to be. Weathered taverns and boardinghouses sit next to uninhabited warehouses, separated by dimly lit South Street from the shadow of rocking masts and creaking piers that sank into the black water of the East River. A lonely sailor, soused from the wares of the cheapest Water Street saloon, stumbles down the cobblestone. A figure emerges from the corner. A whistle. Another man steps from behind. And the lonely sailor has vanished.

The fear of 'disappearing' in New York kept many awake at night in the 19th century. In a world where everybody was essentially 'unplugged' and 'off the grid', there was a sense that people could simply vanish, almost as if absorbed into the urban environment without a trace. Moral crusaders, in a tirade against personal independence, warned parents to keep close watch on their daughters for fear they would be snatched from the street, plied against their will with opium and turned into prostitutes. Some thought this might have been the fate of 'cigar girl' Mary Rogers back in 1841. And as late as 1911, some speculated this was the fate of the socialite Dorothy Arnold, one of the most prominent disappearances of the Gilded Age.

But it was men who were often the victims of street kidnapping. The transient nature of the New York port world mixed with the influx of new immigrants -- many of them younger men -- fostered a disturbing cottage industry of so-called impressment (or 'shanghaing' in the old vernacular), where drunken men were either forcibly taken off the street or taken advantage of in their inebriated state and put to work on a sailing ship.

In 1870, a sailor 'under the influence of liquor' was tied up and dragged onto a boat. A Fort Hamilton soldier in 1882 was kidnapped and placed aboard a ship off Staten Island. While his message, thrown overboard in a bottle, was received, officials were unable to rescue him as the boat sailed for its destination: Hamburg, Germany.

Below: The forest of masts along South Street, 1890

It's impossible to know exactly how many men were forced onto boats along New York's port, as the victims were frequently drunk, thrown onto boats that embarked on long voyages and then failed to press charges when they returned. An article in 1910 claims that '[h]undreds of sailors were captured [in New York Harbor], usually in the saloons, beaten into insensibility, to awake when the ship was at sea and the Captain an absolute tyrant."

There would be an actual, near legal version of shanghaiing called crimping where the sailors, still taken at will, would be forced to sign an agreement, paid for their services but not allowed to leave. They would embark on often long voyages, and by the time they got back, "his anger is likely to have died out."

By the late 1910s, federal laws protected the rights of seamen, and most shanghaiing and crimping practices were abolished. Except, of course, for those in illegal industries, and especially a brand new one created by the advent of Prohibition in 1920.

This type of kidnapping was perhaps the most frightening of all. "South Street Whispers of Shanghaing" announced a rather in-depth New York Times article in 1925. Now, instead of 'crimps', who lurked in sailor's boarding houses, looking for possible captives, it was whole 'shanghai gangs' that ruled the shadows of the seaport.

"I have been drugged and held captive on a ship," claimed one note found in a bottle and mailed to the police. An anonymous shipping master reported hearing of a victim "drugged in one of these newfangled speakeasies that are run as drug stores. They said along the street that a shanghai gang had got him, stole his money and shipped him to sea....The man is gone, and who can trace him?"

Below: South Street in 1920 in a snowstorm during the first year of Prohibition (Courtesy Flickr/wavz13)

The destination for these unlucky men wasn't a long-distance voyage but rather a line of near-invisible vessels permanently moored off the American coast. 'Rum Row' facilitated the distribution of alcohol into the United States, with product passing to smaller boats and shady, midnight deals made between mobsters and smugglers. It was an unpleasant and dangerous job, constantly under the fear of capture, betrayal and accident. In an illegal industry with few rules, unwilling men could be discarded.

This also made Prohibition-era impressment a mystery and something of an urban legend. How much forced capture really went on? The Times report interviews several sailors and even a salty South Street bartender, but their names are kept out of the story. Two men, thrown aboard a Rum Row schooner, "were made to work, starve and suffer for water, under threats," only escaping when the vessel was captured by authorities.

South Street's changing fortunes may have prevented a widespread problem of the sort which occurred in the 19th century.  The old pubs and grog houses were closed or turned to speakeasies, and heavy shipping had moved on to other ports throughout the harbor, on the Hudson River side, and in Brooklyn and New Jersey. The ports themselves were heavily controlled by mob bosses -- and the promise of mob money -- which perhaps made such forced recruitment unnecessary. And of course the success of illegal Prohibition industries relied on knowing which laws to abide and which to skirt.

Yet the fear of vanishing kept men on their toes at night as they passed through the neighborhood, keeping in the light as they stumbled down South Street.

At top: Drawing by Barbara Latham courtesy New York Times.  It accompanied the article mentioned above.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Commodore Nutt: Barnum's dwarf star, NYC police officer

The attentions of most New Yorkers 150 years ago today were understandably occupied by the events of the Civil War. The general mood in April 1862 had turned cynical and grim. It had been one year since the first battle at Fort Sumter. The bloodiest skirmish yet, the Battle of Shiloh in northwestern Tennessee, left thousands dead on the battlefield just two weeks before, and attention now turned to the standoff at Fort Pulaski.

And yet the city in April 1862 was overflowing with distraction. The jewellers Ball Black & Co. displayed a framed personal letter from Queen Victoria, thanking New Yorkers for their well wishers following the death of her husband a few months earlier. Across the street, at Niblo's Garden, theatergoers could delight in 'The Enchantress', featuring actor William Wheatley, who would later stage the world's first Broadway musical, 'The Black Crook', on that very stage. Merry gentleman and naughty ladies drank up in lower Manhattan's various concert saloons, bracing for the effects of a new law passed that month that would effectively close down such bawdy amusements. (Luckily, the law had little effect.)

But New York's merry king of showbiz in 1862 was P.T. Barnum, his American Museum still New York's most popular attraction. That April, Barnum featured a 'living hippopotamus' and two beluga whale in its basement, and among the museum's many shows at Broadway and Ann Street was the feature 'Hop O' My Thumb, or The Ogre And The Dwarf' starring Barnum's biggest small star General Tom Thumb.

Thumb, however, was not Barnum's only dwarf star in 1862. Earlier that year, Barnum unveiled a New Hampshire teenager afflicted with dwarfism and presented him with the stage name Commodore George Washington Nutt. Known as the '$30,000 Nutt' due the amount of money he was supposedly paid (although later disproven), the young man was advertised as "the Smallest Man in Miniature in the known world" and "Most Attractive and Interesting human being ever known."

At right: Nutt in an illustration from Harpers Weekly, February 1862, 'bursting out of his shell'

Although Nutt would perform at the museum, he was frequently used as an instrument to promote Barnum's many endeavors. He would serve as Tom Thumb's friendly rival for the hand of diminutive actress Lavinia Warren (whom Thumb later married at Grace Church in 1863) and tour throughout Europe with Barnum. But on April 17, 1862, Nutt had a local duty to perform -- at the headquarters of the New York Police Department.

According to the Daily Tribune, Nutt met with local police commissioners in an effort to get an officer specifically assigned to Barnum's museum. And just in case the idea would be met with indifference, Nutt himself applied to become a New York police officer, although his height of three feet might have precluded him from such an occupation.

A uniform was immediately ordered for the young star, and by telegraph to the Ninth Precinct, he claimed he would hold 'extraordinary powers to arrest' troublemakers at the Museum. It appears, however, that Nutt held few responsibilities for the police force.

During his tour of the police facilities, including the famed Rogue's Gallery, the charming performer even got in a rather dirty joke. According to the article, "Some one said that on the stage the Commodore had been seen to kiss a girl on the mouth. 'Well, that was the right place, wasn't it?' was the reply."

Top picture courtesy NYPL




Monday, April 16, 2012

'Mad Men' notes: The numbing horror of the New Haven line


The train gang: Grand Central Terminal, 1961, photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt (LIFE images)


WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC. If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here.

Oh, the mundane ritual of the daily commute! Of all the conformities of modern living, what is it in particular about the commute along the New Haven line -- from Grand Central to points of suburbia along the south shore of Connecticut -- that must drive the perpetually frustrated Pete Campbell to the edge of insanity?

In past 'Mad Men' episodes, we've seen the eager and ambitious adman strive for the trappings of '60s urban success. He's achieved a certain degree of material status, from a beaming, pregnant wife to a small but lovely home in Connecticut, equipped with a monstrous (some might say coffin-shaped) hi-fi stereo console. But the banality of a regular commute, robbed of privacy and forced into polite chatter -- with the same insufferable people, day in, day out -- has forced Campbell into taking driver's education courses with teenagers.

The New Haven line has been a popular transportation route almost since the advent of the railroad itself. First laid and operated in 1848, Appleton's was proclaiming a decade later that the shoreline railroad was "the most expeditious way between New York and Boston," linking the Connecticut city with Williams Bridge in the Bronx (pictured at left, from 1865, courtesy NYPL). From there, a connecting track, shared with the Harlem Railroad, took trains directly down to the train depot at 27th Street and Fourth Avenue. When city laws forced the depot up to 42nd Street, that old depot became a storage shed and, later, the first Madison Square Garden.

Few urban professionals attempted daily commutes to and from New York until the early 20th century, when post-war lifestyles, affordable automobiles and an expensive and overcrowded city facilitated an exodus to the surrounding areas. By 1950, the suburbs were such an entrenched place -- a lifestyle unto themselves, with unique social requirements -- that people even began speaking of the exurbs, communities even further outside the chain of traditional suburbia. "[T]he suburbs are the first 25 miles out; the 'exurbs' are the next 25 miles out," according to author Irving Lewis Allen, and initially appealed to the most wealthy professionals from "advertising, broadcasting and publishing."

We can thank city planners like Robert Moses for much of this change, obsessed as he was with highway building. But new roads alone couldn't facilitate the move to suburbia. Mass transit was required to provide a convenient and cost-effective alternative for the 'second wave' suburbanites -- those aspiring professionals wishing the emulate the lifestyle behaviors of their bosses without the paychecks to secure it. People, say, like Pete Campbell.


Above: A whimsical graphic from a 1966 New Haven Railroad timetable attempts to distract its passengers.

Unfortunately, the massively unprofitable New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, no longer just a long-distance passenger train service, was never fully capable of handling the thousands of commuters traveling to and from the city. Once considered 'profitable, clean and punctual' according to Robert Caro, the line was bankrupt by the mid-1960s, operating overcrowded, less-than-comfortable trains solely on federal money by 1965. Some considered it worse than even the crippled, dysfunctional Long Island Railroad.

The New Haven was such an undesirable property that the newly merged New York Central Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad (aka Penn Central) was literally forced to take possession of the line in 1968 by the Interstate Commerce Commission. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was especially concerned that a deterioration of the New Haven line would create an traffic burden which would reverberate through the entire northern New York City-Westchester County corridor.

Oh, things would only get worse for the New York area railroads in the 1970s! So I hope Pete's taking copious notes in his driver's education classes and that those gruesome Signal 30 films are hitting home.


Friday, April 13, 2012

Doctor Alice, the Saks heiress, and the accidental nanny: Fascinating New York women who survived the TItanic



The Waiting Game: Down at the White Star Line's Broadway offices near Bowling Green, anxious New Yorkers line the streets waiting for news about the sunken vessel. 1912

Over fifteen hundred people died the night the Titanic sank, April 14-15, 1912. The early reports from the New York newspapers, of course, spent their time mourning the city's most connected figures to society. Even from some of the most obsessive sources on the Titanic, the details on the lives of dozens of men and women who died below deck are sometimes hard to locate.

There's always been something slightly unsettling to me about using primary news sources for Titanic research. The weight of wealthy lives over poor ones -- of women over men, and of American and British lives to all others -- can be a little unsettling. For instance, an anecdote from an April 20, 1912, article in the New York Times: "...[I]t became known among those saved from the Titanic were six or eight Chinamen who were among the steerage passengers on the big liner. It seems that they climbed aboard one of the lifeboats without anybody making objection, despite the fact that many of the women in the steerage of the Titanic went down with the ship."

Steep yourself in the gravity of this weekend's many centenary Titanic remembrances fully knowing they sometimes embody a Gilded Age slant towards the great loss to New York high society. But this was indeed a tragedy that shook most of the entire world to its core and, in particular, changed the lives of many Americans, from tenements to townhouses.

The old-family names and the wizards of business (Astor, Straus, Guggenheim) have been well documented. But here I present the fates of five well-off but perhaps lesser-known New York women who survived the sinking of the Titanic with intriguing stories of their own to tell:


Dr. Alice Farnham Leader 
Born in New York, May 10, 1862
Alice would have been among the second generation of women trained in medicine, and a career in pediatrics was one of the few that a women of her day could ably progress towards. As late as 1907 she was employed at Bellevue Hospital as 'a social service nurse'.  However she wasn't a practicing doctor by the time she boarded the Titanic; the 49 year old had retired when her husband died in 1908.


She was rescued by lifeboat no. 8, commanded by one of the Titanic's most famous names: Noƫlle Rothes, the Countess of Rothes. "The countess is an expert oarswoman and thoroughly at home in the water," Alice told the press, who sadly seemed more interested in the fate of the the titled gentry than of this mysterious doctor who appears to have avoided the spotlight for the remainder of her life.

Afterwards: Dr. Leader is mentioned in a Utah newspaper in 1916, discussing the crisis of graying hair.  Her solution: "A head exercise for circulation is to lie on the couch with the head projecting beyond the couch. Bend the head forward, backward, to each side, to each side, then rotate."
Died: April 20, 1944

Irene (Rene) Harris
Born: June 15, 1876
A New York stage actress with some considerable credits to her name, Harris boarded the Titanic with her husband Henry Birkhardt Harris, the theater impresario and partner (with Jesse Lasky) in the Folies Bergere, which has just opened in midtown the year before.

 Irene made it to a lifeboat but her beloved husband perished on the Titanic. The Times recounts her cable to the Hudson Theater: "Praying that Harry has been picked up by another steamer."

Afterwards: Returning to the New York theater in grief, she sued the White Star Line for a large petition of damages, and perhaps with good reason; she discovered when she got home that her husband was nearly bankrupt from the Folies Bergere venture and other flops. So she decided to make her own money, soon becoming one of Broadway's first female producers with such shows as 'Lights Out' and 'The Noose' and buying a Park Avenue apartment.

But her wealth didn't make it out of the Great Depression, and she spent her last days living in Manhattan hotels.  In 1958, she was subjected to a screening of the Hollywood film 'A Night To Remember'. "I think your film title is a mistake," she said. "It was a night to forget."
Died: September 2, 1969


Margaret Hays
Born: December 6, 1887
If not for the tragic sinking of the Titanic, Margaret Hays' fate might have made a charming family comedy. The young woman lived at 304 West 83rd Street and had gone to Europe with two school friends Olive and Lily. And there was another lady, or rather, Lady, Margaret's Pomeranian dog.

All three friends and her little dog too made it to a lifeboat, but Margaret's story was just beginning. Onboard the rescue ship Carpathia were two small frightened French boys. They had been separated from their father Michel who was never found. Hays, who spoke French, took the boys into her care during the somber voyage and well after they arrived in New York. They stayed at her home on West 83rd -- she distracted the distraught boys with carriage rides up Riverside Drive -- until their mother arrived from France.

On her arrival, it was revealed that their father had taken the two boys against their mother's will during a bitter divorce battle.

Afterwards: Hays married a Rhode Island doctor and lived in relative comfort, dying during a vacation in Argentina.
Died: August 21, 1956

Below: The 'Titanic orphans', named Michel and Edmond (not Louis & Lola!), below with their mother at Hays' West 83rd Street townhouse.


Leila Meyer
Born in New York, September 28, 1886
The young socialite and daughter of Andrew Saks (founder of Saks Fifth Avenue) met aspiring Wall Street broker Eugene Meyer and married him in 1909. While traveling, Leila was wired the tragic news that her father had died. (Later, she discovered that a sizable part of their fortune had been willed to her.) Leila and her husband boarded the Titanic to return home. She made it to a lifeboat; her husband died aboard the ship.

Afterwards: She later remarried and lived the remainder of her life at 970 Park Avenue, rarely speaking to the press about her tragedy, although her spectacular jewelry collection was frequently remarked upon in women's magazines.
Died: November, 27, 1957


Mrs. Charlotte Appleton
Born in New York, December 12, 1858
Charlotte was well versed in the thrill of ocean travel. Her father, once a well-known dry goods importer, worked for the firm which operated the Black Ball Line, one of the oldest shipping companies in New York and no stranger to a few shipwrecks of its own. She married into the prestigious Appleton   publishing family and was on the Titanic with two sisters, returning from a funeral in England.

Afterwards: Mrs. Appleton's name is familiar with Titanic buffs as she was an acquaintance of Col. Archibald Gracie IV, the great-grandson of the man who built Gracie Mansion and one of the more notable bold-faced names on the Titanic. Mrs. Appleton lived the remainder of her life at 214-33 33rd Road, the oldest house in Bayside, Queens.
Died: June 25th, 1924

Some pictures and many of the birth/death dates above are courtesy Encyclopedia Titanica. Top picture courtesy the Library of Congress.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post accidentally killed off Archibald Gracie IV on the Titanic! The gentleman survived. In fact, his survival memoir became one of the core sources for early Titanic historians. More about that in our podcast on his ancestor, the first Archibald Gracie and Gracie Mansion.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sigourney Weaver boards an off-Broadway 'Titanic' in 1976


Queen of the world: Weaver sets an uncharted course on a small SoHo stage.

Perhaps you are as confused as I am by the picture above, one that appears to put the lovely young Sigourney Weaver's face upon the body of a child. Ah, the magic of the theater! The future film star was in her late 20s when she joined this peculiar production of the 'Titanic' tragedy, written by her friend and frequent collaborator Christopher Durang.

The bizarre one-act made its debut at the tiny Midtown theater before making a proper off-Broadway launch at the Van Dam Theatre (today's SoHo Playhouse) in May 1976. Far from concerning itself with the eventual tragedy, Durang's comic-farce is a sex romp which eventually pairs up provocative combinations of the show's cast, a ribald smorgasbord of sexual fluidity.

Weaver, playing the role of Lidia, transforms into a variety of different women, including the daughter of the captain of the Titanic. Critics proclaimed her the "principal attraction" of the unusual play. "She begins in pigtails and tiny skirt as a sexy Shirley Temple and ends as a predatory black widow in deep decolletage," said Times critic Mel Gussow.


This was not the only doomed ocean liner lampoon by Weaver and Durang! Inserted astride 'Titanic' was a Brechtian cabaret co-written by the pair, called 'Das Lusitania Songspeil'. In 1980, an expanded version of this randy show made its debut on the boards of the Westside Theater in Hell's Kitchen, a late-night wintertime smash that earned the pair Drama Desk nominations.

Keep in mind this is a few months after the release of her breakthrough film 'Alien', whose sequel (which she also starred in) was directed by James Cameron, who would also find later inspiration on sunken ships. Although I think most of us prefer her as a Hollywood star, Weaver's off-Broadway credits were so impressive by this time that New York Magazine referred to her in 1981 as "just about the best all-purpose actress in town."

Durang's 'Titanic' -- which he himself considers a "really difficult play" -- is sometimes revived on college campuses. Broadway would eventually embark on its own 'Titanic' in 1997, an expensive musical production by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone that would debut at the Lunt-Fontanne at 205 W. 46th Street*. Although dogged with early technical difficulties and critical skepticism that would parallel the issues faced by "Spider-Man: Turn Of The Dark," it became a modest hit, thanks in part to the film version directed by James Cameron.

*Currently home to 'Ghost' a musical based on a film.

Pictures above are courtesy Christoper Durang, a website that has lots more information about this curious play.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Where golf balls fly: Pier 59 at Chelsea Piers



The West Side Elevated Highway zooms past Pier 59, still in operation but long past her prime. (1951) Courtesy NYPL

There are very few angles on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy that aren't being excessively covered in other places this week. So instead of focusing on the ship and its passengers, I thought I'd look at some Titanic-associated places in New York that haven't been as breathlessly described or breathlessly refitted for 3-D..  For instance, the Chelsea Piers golf driving range.

The once-great West Side piers of the Gilded Age's finest luxury vessels sat mostly haunted and decrepit by the 1950s. The lust for ever grander vessels ultimately created boats that were too big for the piers to accommodate. Midtown piers took most of the traffic by the 1940s, and there seemed little to save along the western waterfront by the 1970s. Some piers burnt down and were never replaced; others became drab parking garages; and still others, a wonderful place to find a gay hustler.

Pier 59 had once been the berth of the White Star Line with a glamorous Beaux-Arts dock designed by Warren and Wetmore of Grand Central Terminal. By the 1990s, developers looked again hopefully for the pier to draw people of means. "This is where we'll put the golf driving range," said a developer of the Chelsea Piers Sports Complex to New York Magazine in December 1994. The immense rehabilitation project had already begun by then and would soon envelop four former piers.

The driving range arranges players on multiple levels, an innovation taken from Japanese driving ranges and described as "golf as imagined by Terry Gilliam." [source]

In June 1911, this pier welcomed its largest visitor, the White Star Olympic liner, on its maiden voice. The Olympic just happened to pass the Cunard's Lusitania in the New York harbor that morning. Of course, Pier 59 was to have greeted the Titanic on its arrival here on April 17, 1912, and leave again on April 20. But the gloom that hovered over the pier  hardly slowed ocean traffic. The Olympic would continue to use the pier until it was pulled from service during World War I. On August 13, 1914, the ship Philadelphia arrived here with the first Americans fleeing the war.

Although most of the shipping industry avoided using Pier 59 by the 1960s, it did occasionally get some unusual arrivals. In 1960, the freighter Pioneer Tide arrived here with some unique passengers -- 13 one-humped camels.

Monday, April 9, 2012

'Mad Men' notes: The secrets of the New Yawk accent



On the upper floor -- or flooah? -- with the upper crust: Ladies coats at Sak's Fifth Avenue in 1960, photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt (LIFE)


WARNING The article contains a few spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC, so if you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode.

A culture clash between New Yorkers from different races and classes came barreling through the storyline of 'Mad Men' this week. While Peggy Olson had an awkward bonding moment with the new black secretary Dawn, a morbidly ill Don Draper took out his emotional tensions on the new Jewish copywriter Michael Ginsberg.

As revealed last week, Ginsberg is a 'real' New Yorker, living in a tiny apartment with his very devout father with a thick Yiddish accent. This week, Draper chastised the casual, Brooklyn-esque tone of Ginsberg voice, possibly implying a dig at the character's Jewish roots. In response, Ginsberg defended his 'regional accent' and pointed out that Don, too, had an accent. The new kid eventually shines at a pitch meeting emulating a presentation style (and even vocal techniques) ripped from the Draper playbook

On a personal note, I've been fighting with accents my whole life, born with an Ozarks drawl only to develop the standard Midwestern 'newscaster' voice by high school, then living in New York for almost two decades and now slowly beginning to sound like it. So I found Don's personal affront particularly interesting, as everything about him is a facade, including the voice. (I also went to school with fellow Missourian Jon Hamm, but that's for another posting.)

Until last night, it never occurred to me that the secret to New York's modern local tone -- the many borough-specific variants of the New Yawk accent, if you will -- was actually 'discovered', academically speaking, in a published study released in 1966, the year this season of 'Mad Men' is set.

Linguist expert William Labov was a Columbia University doctoral student in the early 1960s when he embarked on an extraordinary and influential study of the New York accent, the results of which were released as The Social Stratification of English in New York City in 1966.

The standard New York accent was historically presented as street jargon, whether it be the New York Times writing out the words of newsboys phonetically ("Dere's tree t'ousand of us and we'll win sure") or the broad slang-filled movies of the Bowery Boys acting troupe ("Whadda ya hear! Whadda ya say!"). Upper class New Yorkers from old families frequently carried a New England lilt in their voices.

What seems inherent from comparing those two examples was flatly proved by Labov's fascinating experiments done in three New York City department stores -- the affordable S. Klein's in Union Square, the higher priced Macy's in Herald Square, and the very exclusive Saks Fifth Avenue -- attracting shoppers from different social classes.

Below: Klein's 'on the Square' in 1936, photo by Berenice Abbott.

I would have loved to have assisted Mr. Labov out with his experiments. Throughout the day, he asked employees from each store where the women's coat department were located. In the case of these three stores, it was on the fourth floor. Or the fowth flooah or even the fowt flooah. When asked to repeat what they said, people would most likely restate 'fourth floor' with the -r more carefully said, as though it was their accent that had caused the confusion.

Those employees of S. Klein were far more likely to lose their -r sounds, while those from Saks were least likely. But Labov's study found an additional quirk. On higher floors, where more expensive items were sold in each case, people more likely kept their -r sounds.

His conclusion found that "rhocity increased with the prestige of the department store" and that it even increased within the store itself. How the words were clearly pronounced and presented did not specifically depend on the geographical origin of the speaker, but on socioeconomic considerations. Labov concluded that New Yorkers of the 1960s generally disliked their own accents and subconsciously chose to mask it. "The term 'linguistic self-hatred' is not too extreme to apply to the situation," he stated in his report. "As far as language is concerned, New York City may be characterized as a great sink of negative prestige." [source]

Labov's 1966 study is considered one of the most important linguistic findings of the late 20th century. Today Labov is considered the father of sociolinguistics. Whether his conclusions still apply today is a question for modern researchers. But they add an interesting new context to this burgeoning competition between Draper and Ginsberg, a symbolic competition between the 'fake' and the 'real'.

Friday, April 6, 2012

New York and the World of Radio: Live and on the air, inventors and stars at the dawning of the AM airwaves

Amateur radio operators at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side, 1940. Courtesy the Milstein Archives

PODCAST The discovery of radio changed the world, and New York City was often front and center for its creation and development as America's prime entertainment source during the 1930s and 40s. In this show, we take you on a 50-year journey, from Marconi's newsmaking tests aboard a yacht in New York Harbor to remarkable experiments atop the Empire State Building.

 Two of the medium's great innovators grew up on the streets of New York, one a fearless inventor born in the neighborhood of Chelsea, the other an immigrant's son from the Lower East Side who grew up to run America's first radio broadcasting company (RCA). Another pioneer with a more complicated history made the first broadcasts that featured the human voice, the 'angelic' tones of a Swedish soprano heard by a wireless operator at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

 The second half of our show features the creation of the great radio networks and many local New York stations that are still around today. What indispensable station got its start as a department-store radio channel? What borough was touted in the very first radio advertisement? What former Ziegfeld Follies star strapped on a bonnet to become Baby Snooks? At right: the logo for the NBC Red Network

 Featuring tales of the Titanic, the rogue adventures of amateur operators, and a truly scary invasion from outer space!

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.


Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: New York City and the World of Radio

MINOR CORRECTION: The radio show of yore was obviously called Everready Hour, not Everready House!


Harold Bride, the only surviving wireless operator from the Titanic, is escorted off the rescue vessel Carpathia.



Lee de Forest, one of the first inventors in New York to practice with broadcasting human voices. He eventually set up an experimental station in the Bronx. (NYPL)


The rather cozy studios of WJZ, date unknown. WJZ, originally a Newark station (notice the JZ for Jersey), moved to New York by the mid-1920s and became the anchor station for the NBC Blue network.


Stars of the Eveready Hour, broadcast on WEAF, featuring Will Rogers and the Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra. (Courtesy PDX Retro)


David Sarnoff at the World's Fair in 1939 out in Flushing Meadows. (NYPL)

Songstress Jessica Dragonette, one of the most successful stars of the NBC stable during the 1930s, and one of many stars who struggle to find fame once television came along.

The lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the home of studios for the National Broadcasting Company. Photo by the Wurts Brothers

Manly music: The robust tones of U.S. Coast Guard Quartet, recording at an NBC affiliate station in New York



The complete broadcast of 'War of the Worlds', broadcast by the Mercury Theater on the Air from the CBS Studios at 485 Madison Avenue.


A Baby Snooks Show from 1938:

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The toy radio magic of Fulton Street's Electro Importing Co.


If you were the type of child who idolized the inventor over the sports hero, then the decade of the 1900s was something of a creative revolution. Children enamored by the flurry of new inventions in the late 19th century -- the railroad, the telegraph, the camera -- could only imagine interacting with these devices. The Lionel train set, introduced by a toy store on Cortlandt Street in 1900, was a perfectly marvelous device. It just wasn't the real thing.

But with new wireless telegraphy (soon to be called 'radio'), one needed only the basic technology -- the battery, the tubes, the coils. No tracks, no excessive lengths of wiring, no expensive film processes. A curious child could jump right into the world of radio, into the very same airwaves being used by adults.

Radio technology was barely a decade old when a marvelous company appeared in downtown Manhattan called the Electro Importing Company which opened for business in 1905. They soon moved to permanent offices on 233 Fulton Street. (An ad below also listed an office at 245 Fulton Street.) Although they also sold radio parts to adult wireless operators, basic receivers and transmitters could be produced and sold to children as sophisticated toys. As radio was vastly unregulated before World War I, a young boy or girl could literally send and receive transmissions from their own bedroom, sending out Morse code and picking up messages from miles away.

Just imagine having that power as a 12-year-old. One hundred years later, children would be dazzled by handheld technologies (video games, cell phones) that not even adults could explain how they work. With Electro products, children could emulate professional wireless operators and quickly understand how the core processes worked. In essence, anybody could imagine themselves on the path to becoming a great inventor. In fact, the early Electro products were almost an exact duplication of devices used by radio inventors Gugliemo Marconi and Lee De Forest.

Below are a few advertisements for Electro Importing products advertised in various issues of Popular Mechanics magazine from the 1910s. Although the products were aimed at all radio enthusiasts and in one ad are explicited advertised as 'not a toy', their yearly catalogs -- as amply illustrated for the cover above -- make it clear who their desired audience was 'every wide-awake American boy'. [source]





Perhaps this is coincidental, but a few years later, New York's famed Radio Row soon developed in the neighborhood surrounding the Electro Importing offices. A mere block away, on Cortlandt and Greenwich streets, retailers specializing in home radios sprouted up in the early 1920s. Radio Row soon became the place to buy the latest in home console entertainment.

In the 1960s, the former offices of the Electro Importing Company and all of Radio Row was demolished to make way for the construction of the World Trade Center.

Below: Radio Row in 1936, photo by Berneice Abbott


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Love on the airwaves: New York's first female radio operator

She's not exactly a Howard Stern or a Robin Quivers, but Anna A. Nevins does deserve to be considered as something of a radio pioneer in New York.

One hundred years ago, 'wireless telegraphy' was mostly used to communicate with vessels crossing the Atlantic Ocean. And these weren't signals with human voices, but rather in the dots and dashes of Morse code. Experiments with sending vocals over the airwaves were already being conducted in New York by Lee De Forest as early as 1907, but radio wouldn't seriously be considered as a means of voice transmittal for almost another decade.

It was a tool mostly used by the U.S. Navy and commercially by the telegraph companies. It was from the ashes of a De Forest company that the United Wireless Telegraph Company was formed in 1906. It heralded dozens of receiving stations throughout the country and, in particular, three in New York. Their corporate office at 42 Broadway was one, extremely convenient to the offices of the major passenger ship lines of the Cunard (25 Broadway) and the White Star (9 Broadway). They had another out at the luxury hotel spot Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, where some wealthy New Yorkers spent the summers.

But by far the most notable of these wireless stations in Manhattan was atop the original Waldorf-Astoria, one of the most famous hotels in the world, at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. (Above: Drawing of the Waldorf-Astoria in 1904 by Joseph Pennell.) From here, operators could send messages to ships hundreds of miles away and even to other cities like Chicago. "The operating room is a model in every respect," claimed Modern Electrics Magazine in September 1909. "This station without a doubt is the most popular one in New York.... [T]he lofty aerial stretches its wires clear over one side of the famous roof garden."

Below: the United Wireless telegraph station atop the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, 1909


But they had another badge of pride -- America's first female wireless operator. Young Anna A. Nevins, 22 years old, worked eight hours a day at the Waldorf-Astoria station, considered by her colleagues "an expert in wireless instruments" By virtue of her sex, this was a news item in papers across the country in 1909.


It was not entirely shocking to see a women at a telegraph desk, but the newness of wireless technology and challenges of early radio would have made Anna's skills rather unique. It's believed she trained under De Forest as early as 1906.


The juicy spin, of course, was romance. According to reports, Nevins had a beau "Jack" on the steamship Oceana (below)), a Hamburg-American line traveling to destinations in the West Indies. The young wireless operator would send 'messages to her sweetheart' over the wireless, alleged as far as 1,000 miles away, engaging in an 'aerial conversation' believed to be the longest exchange of its kind for the day. (Then again, this sounds like newspaper hyperbole!)


Did reporters seem fascinated to ask about what it was like to be the sole woman working within a new technology? Not when you can ask her about love! In a syndicated article from 1909, she's quoted as admitting, "Yes I know the young man. When he's in town, I see him. But almost every day I hear from him."


The Waldorf station was the jewel in United Wireless' crown. Unfortunately, United's reputation as a corrupt company tied to Wall Street shenanigans and perpetually hounded with legal issues caused its demise in 1912, when it was sold to American Marconi. As for Anna, I can't locate any trace of her after these initial reports. Perhaps she met and married 'Jack', whoever he was. Hopefully, years later, she was asked more interesting questions of her career.