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Friday, January 29, 2010

J.D. Salinger's Early Life on the West Side

J.D. Salinger on the cover of Time, 1961

Yesterday brought the sad news of the death of J.D. Salinger, author of the classic New York tale Catcher in the Rye.
The New York Times obit mentioned briefly that Salinger had been born in Harlem, so we decided to do a little digging and found that he'd been born just south of Trinity Cemetery at 3681 Broadway (at 153rd Street). The building, Halidon Court, was built in 1910 and designed by Emery Roth, who would later go on to build such famous Upper West Side edifices as the Eldorado and the Beresford -- and another of Salinger's future homes. This handsome building still stands.
The Salinger family moved within a year of J.D.'s birth to an apartment on the Upper West Side at 113th Street and Riverside Drive. According to biographer Paul Alexander, "between 1919 and 1928, the Salingers moved three more times before they ended up in a pleasant apartment on West Eighty-second Street."

That "pleasant" apartment was at the Myron Arms at 221 West 82nd Street, then a relatively new building, which had also been designed by Emery Roth. Though Salinger moved out of the neighborhood for the Upper East Side, Salinger later attended the McBurney School on West 64th Street for two years before flunking out. The McBurney School appears in Catcher in the Rye; it's the school to which the fencing team is heading when Holden leaves the foils on the subway. (The school later moved from West 64th Street and that original building no longer stands.)

The Myron Arms is still there, however -- just across the street from Barnes & Noble -- so if you're heading in that direction to replace your dog-eared copy of
Catcher in the Rye or Nine Stories
, take a moment to admire Salinger's boyhood home. 

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Read more about the Upper West Side -- and take a self-guided walking tour -- inInside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.
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Monday, January 25, 2010

Richard Tucker -- The Tenor from the Lower East Side

Tonight, January 25, 2010, marks the 65th anniversary of Richard Tucker's debut at the Metropolitan Opera. One of the most popular tenors in the company's history, Tucker had a career that spanned nearly thirty years and took him to stages around the world (as well as appearing on numerous recordings, radio broadcasts, and television shows).

However, Tucker's singing career began not with arias but with prayer -- he was a cantor at Tifereth Israel synagogue on Allen Street.

Born Rivin Ticker in Brooklyn in 1913, Tucker's musical aptitude was apparent from a young age and by the time he was six he was singing under the tutelage of Samuel Weisser at Tifereth Israel. (The synagogue -- now gone -- stood at 128 Allen Street, just north of Delancey.) Within a few years, young "Ruby," as he was then known, was singing solos and was much in demand at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Eventually, he worked his way up to a full-time gig at Temple Adath Israel in the Bronx. (The photo here shows Tucker dressed as a cantor.)

However, in 1936, Tucker married Sara Perelmuth, whose brother was up-and-coming operatic tenor Jan Peerce. Soon Tucker's own musical path had changed and on January 25, 1945, he sang the role of Enzo in La Giocando at the Met to rave reviews.

If you are on the Upper West Side today in the neighborhood of Lincoln Center (maybe going to see Placido Domingo in Simon Boccanegra?) check out Richard Tucker Square, the small triangle of land just south of 66th Street. In it sits a bust of Tucker by Milton Hebald; engraved on the base are the names of the 31 operas in which Tucker performed.

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Read more about the Metropolitan Opera and the creation of Lincoln Center in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Bombing of Fraunces Tavern -- January 24, 1975

Thirty-five years ago this week, on January 24, 1975, a bomb blast ripped through the Fraunces Tavern annex, killing four people and injuring more than 50 others.

The bomb exploded at 1:25 p.m. -- just in the middle of the lunch rush -- destroying the entryway, windows, and interior staircase of the tavern's 19th-century annex at 101 Broad Street (the building to the right in the photo above). While diners at the tavern's main restaurant were shielded from the blast by the building's thick walls, patrons upstairs at the Anglers' Club of New York City were not so lucky.

That afternoon, police received a tip that the bomb had been the work of the F.A.L.N. (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional), a Puerto Rican nationalist group. Formed in the late 1960s, the F.A.L.N. had already claimed responsibility for two smaller operations, a series of bombs that had gone off in October 1969 (causing no injuries), and one in Harlem about a month before the Fraunces Tavern bombing that had injured a police officer, ultimately causing him to lose his eye.

The F.A.L.N. directed the police to a phone booth in the Financial District where they found a note explaining that the Fraunces Tavern bomb was a retaliation for "the CIA ordered bomb that murdered Angel Luis Chavonnier and Eddie Ramos, two innocent young workers who supoorted [sic] Puerto Rican independence" as well as the "maiming of ten innocent a Mayaguez, Puerto Rico dining place on Saturday the eleventh of January, 1975."

Until its dissolution in the early 1980s, the F.A.L.N. would remain one of the most destructive terrorist groups in America. Throughout the rest of the decade numerous bombs were placed -- mainly in New York and Chicago -- causing millions of dollars in damages and a few injuries. The next fatality did not occur until August 1977, when Charles Steinberg was killed at the Mobil Building on 42nd Street. The F.A.L.N's last bombing in New York was took place on December 31, 1982, when bombs were exploded at Federal Plaza, One Police Plaza, near Foley Square, and in Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn. Three NYPD officers were badly injured in the blasts.

The F.A.L.N. dissolved in 1983; no one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the Fraunces Tavern attack and no plaque or other commemoration adorns the building to memorialize the loss of life that day.

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Read more about Fraunces Tavern and its role in the American Revolution in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Thomas Nast's Democratic Donkey

One hundred forty years ago today, in the January 15, 1870, issue of Harper's Weekly, cartoonist Thomas Nast launched one of his most enduring images: the donkey as a symbol of the Democratic party. In the cartoon, Nast was lambasting the copperhead faction of the party -- which had opposed the Civil War -- and those Democratic papers that continued to criticize Lincoln's recently deceased Secreteary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Nast's critique is not terribly subtle: Stanton is "lionized" by the cartoonist and the Democrats are branded jackasses.

In fact, the donkey had an association with the party dating back to President Andrew Jackson, who had been openly called a jackass by his opponents. But it was Nast's ongoing use of the symbol in the 1870s that brought it lasting popularity. In 1874, he introduced the elephant as his representation of the Republicans, minting the symbols that the parties still use to this day.

Nast (who also gave us such enduring images as Santa Claus) was a vitriolic cartoonist and he often drew horrible anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, and anti-immigrant screeds. However, despite this hate, it is an urban myth that the word "nasty" is derived from his last name.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Elvis in New York: The Early Years

Friday marks what would have been the 75th birthday of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, who was born January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Though most associated with Memphis -- where Elvis and family moved when he was 13, where he cut his first, influential Sun Records tracks, and where he later lived in the mansion/shrine Graceland -- the King had an important relationship with New York City, especially during the earliest part of his career.

Elvis first came to New York on March 23, 1955 to audition for Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, a CBS program that showcased unheralded talent. Though he had already cut his first single, "That's All Right"/"Blue Moon of Kentucky," for Sun, Elvis was virtually unheard of outside the south and was still mainly playing the high school concert circuit. The trip to New York was his first plane ride. Elvis and the other two members of his trio (Scotty Moore and Bill Black) spent the day sightseeing before the audition, which took place at Godfrey's offices at 501 Madison Avenue.

The audition did not go well -- Elvis was nervous and deemed too outlandish for Godfrey's mainstream audience -- and the next night the trio was back on stage in the Marianna, Arkansas, high school auditorium. (The one bright spot of the trip was seeing Bo Diddley, one of Elvis's idols, perform at the Apollo in Harlem.)

Just a few months later, however, Presley returned to the city. Now fully under the management of Colonel Tom Parker and under contract to RCA records, Elvis returned in November 1955 for a round of publicity photos and in January 1956, he was back again to make his first national television appearance on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show, where he performed "Shake, Rattle & Roll"/"Flip Flop and Fly" and "I Got a Woman."

Elvis in the RCA Studios, July 1956

But perhaps the most important contribution New York made to Elvis's early career were the tracks he cut at the RCA Studios in January, February, and July 1956. On January 30, the King reported to the studios at 155 East 24th Street (now, sadly, demolished) and over the next two days recorded a string of songs that would appear on his debut album, including the hit "Blue Suede Shoes."

In February (after another Dorsey Brothers appearance), Elvis returned to 24th Street to cut "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "Shake Rattle & Roll." Then on July 2, he cut one of the biggest singles of his career: "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel." In the six months since his first national TV appearance, Elvis's popularity had skyrocketed. Moreover, he'd become both confident and meticulous in the studio: "Hound Dog" took 31 takes to perfect and "Don't Be Cruel" was recorded 28 times. (Granted, in the days before overdubs almost all playing was "live" in the studio and the only way to rectify a mistake was to start from the beginning.)

When "Don't Be Cruel"/"Hound Dog" was released it spent 11 weeks at the top of the charts and Elvis was a certified phenomenon. In September he appeared on Ed Sullivan -- his first number famously shot so that the TV audience would not see his swiveling hips -- and the program brought in an 82.9% share of the television audience.

While Presley would return to New York later in his career, most notably for concerts at Madison Square Garden in the 1970s, he never recorded another track here.

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Interested in more Rock and Roll history? Take our NYC Rock and Roll audio tour -- hosted by famed DJ Ken Dashow -- and produced by our partners at

Read more about New York in the 1950s in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City

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