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Friday, February 25, 2011

Wonderful Town and My Sister Eileen

Today marks the anniversary of the opening of the musical Wonderful Town, which premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre on February 25, 1953. The musical—by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green—was one of many adaptations of Ruth McKenney’s memoir, My Sister Eileen. The show focuses on the book’s last two chapters, which take place during Ruth and Eileen McKenney’s six months living at 14 Gay Street in Greenwich Village.

The McKenney sisters moved from Ohio to New York in the early 1930s. Eileen was a struggling actress; Ruth, a writer, eventually landed a job working for the New Yorker chronicling their lives. In 1938, those stories were collected into My Sister Eileen.

Though Wonderful Town is today the most famous adaptation of the book, the story has been produced many times on stage, screen, radio, and TV.

In 1940, a stage adaptation of My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov opened at the Biltmore and ran for 864 performances. By the time the play was set to open, Eileen had married novelist Nathaniel West and they’d moved to California, where she worked for Walt Disney. Four days before the Broadway debut, Eileen and West were killed in an automobile accident en route to the airport to fly to New York for the opening. Ruth went into mourning and never saw the play.

Two years later, Hollywood adapted the Fields/Chodorov play into a film with Rosalind Russell as Ruth and Janet Blair as Eileen. The movie was then adapted for CBS radio; in 1946, Russell and Blair reprised their roles for a half-hour radio play that served as a pilot for a regular series. However, instead of picking up the series, CBS instead began airing My Friend Irma—which seemed to be enough of a knock-off that Ruth McKenney ultimately received a settlement from the network.

This finally brings us to February 25, 1953, and Wonderful Town, which took the Fields/Chodorov play and set it to music.

Once again, Rosalind Russell played Ruth; in this incarnation, Edith Adams played Eileen. Interestingly, though the book is set in Ruth and Eileen’s basement at 14 Gay Street and the original play in a “one-room Greenwich Village studio near Christopher Street,” Wonderful Town moves the action to Christopher Street itself. The show’s memorable opening number, Christopher Street, has a tour guide showing gawking out-of-towners around the Village. He shows them the “painters and pigeons” in Washington Square; Waverly Place (a “bit of ‘Paree’ in Greenwich Village”), and everything else that America’s Left Bank was supposed to have (“Poets! Actors! Dancers! Writers!”). Bernstein, Green, and Comden—who had worked at the Village Vanguard as a group called the Revuers—clearly knew the scene they were parodying.

Wonderful Town won five Tonys in 1953, including Best Musical and a nod for Rosalind Russell’s performance as Ruth. A 2003 revival also earned a number of Tony nominations, ultimately only winning best choreography.

There were two more notable adaptations of My Sister Eileen after the success of Wonderful Town. A new film version came out in 1955; it was a musical, too, but it wasn’t the Broadway show. When the film rights to Wonderful Town proved too costly for Columbia Pictures, they simply hired Jule Styne and Leo Robin to write a new score. The film starred Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, and Bob Fosse. In response, Wonderful Town was then filmed for television and aired in 1958. (You can see an excerpt of Rosalind Russell performing Swing! here.)

Finally, in 1960, the original Ruth McKenney stories served as the basis for a television series called My Sister Eileen, which ran for one season with Elaine Stritch as Ruth.

Today, there’s still a studio apartment in the basement of 14 Gay Street (between Waverly and Christopher); indeed very little on the street has changed in the 75 years since Ruth and Eileen called it home. If you are the area, take a stroll; who knows—maybe Poets! Actors! Dancers! or Writers! will suddenly appear and serenade you.

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Read more about Greenwich Village -- and take a walking tour -- with
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Remember the Maine!

Today marks the anniversary of the sinking of the USS Maine, which went down in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, and sparked the Spanish-American War. Though the war is less remembered today than perhaps it should be, it was very important to the United States territorially. By the end of the conflict, America had gained control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, and had established a military presence on Cuba that remains to this day.

The war is also famous in New York for ratcheting up the so-called "yellow journalism" of Joseph Pulitzer's World and William Randolph Hearst's Journal American. Together, these two newspapers whipped up the reading public's frenzy for war and against Spanish imperialism. (Though not often quoted today, the full slogan of the war was "Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!")

As we write in Inside the Apple:

As Cuban citizens struggled for their independence from Spain, the U.S. sent the battleship Maine to Havana to patrol and protect American commercial interests. On the night of February 15, 1898, the Maine’s forward ammunition magazines exploded and the ship sank. Two days later, Pulitzer’s World asked: “Maine Explosion Caused by Bomb or Torpedo?” Hearst’s Journal didn't bother to frame it as a question, merely stating that the “Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy.” (A hurried investigation by a U.S. Naval board of inquiry determined that the Maine had been felled by a Spanish mine; in truth, the cause of explosion will likely never be known, but may have been caused by a spontaneous explosion in the coal boiler.) 
Two days later, Hearst upped the ante by announcing a “National Maine Monument Committee” to raise funds to commemorate the 258 men who’d died in the explosion. With the rallying cry “Remember the Maine!” on everyone’s lips, the United States officially called on Spain to leave Cuba. A month later, Spain declared war on the United States. 
The most famous example of yellow journalism is also probably apocryphal. As tensions in Cuba were mounting, Hearst sent artist Frederic Remington to create illustrations for the Journal. Bored at the lack of action, Remington is said to have telegraphed: “There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst allegedly blasted back: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Though this story was reported as early as 1901, the telegrams in question no longer exist and many scholars believe the incident was created.
Hearst's "National Maine Monument Committee" took 15 years to do its work (even though the war only lasted four months), but in 1913, the Maine monument was unveiled at the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park.

The figural group at the front of the statue (pictured above) is called The Antebellum State of Mind: Courage Awaiting the Flight of Peace and Fortitude Supporting the Feeble (we kid you not), and represents America preparing for war. Once upon a time, the young man on the prow of the ship would have clutched a sword; it was stolen years ago.

Around the back of the monument is The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War (though, again, the sword is missing).

Atop the monument, covered in gold, is the goddess Columbia emerging triumphant from the sea. Underneath the gold leaf, the statue is made from the munitions from the USS Maine that were dredged from the bottom of Havana harbor.

If you are in the vicinity of Central Park today, stop by and pay tribute to the 258 young men who perished on the Maine 113 years ago today.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Feb. 11, 1916: Emma Goldman's Arrest for Promoting Birth Control

One of the best-remembered--and least understood--figures from early 20th-century New York is Emma Goldman. Variously described as a Communist, an anarchist, a freedom fighter, and a criminal, Goldman was one of the leading activists of her time. On February 11, 1916, Goldman was arrested. This, in itself, was not news--Goldman was arrested frequently. But this time she was arrested for distributing "obscene, lewd, or lascivious articles." The subject? Birth control.

Goldman was born in Lithuania (then part of Russia) in 1869 and came to New York in 1885. She is perhaps best known for the plot by her friend and lover, Alexander Berkman, to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892; Berkman hoped this act would cause the workers at Carnegie Steel to unite against their oppressive bosses. (Not only did Berkman fail to kill Frick, the Carnegie Steel workers leapt on Berkman, beating him senseless.) After Berkman's arrest and conviction, Goldman became a popular speaker, campaigning during the Panic of 1893 for workers' rights (she served ten months in prison for inciting a riot), founding the journal Mother Earth, and even standing up for the rights of Leon Czolgosz, President McKinley's assassin, who claimed to have been inspired by one of Goldman's speeches.

In 1914, Goldman met Margaret Sanger, who had just coined the term "birth control." During an earlier stint in prison, Goldman had begun studying nursing and midwifery and became convinced that one of the great scourges of a city like New York was unwanted pregnancy. Goldman argued that birth control would not only improve the health of women, it would empower them as well. She launched a cross-country speaking tour in 1915 and though she and Sanger parted ways in 1916 (the same year Sanger founded Planned Parenthood), Goldman continued lecturing on birth control.

What exactly sparked her arrest in New York on February 11, 1916, is unclear. She was held on a violation of the Comstock Law, which forbid the dissemination of information about birth control across state lines. The fine was $100, which Goldman could have paid; instead, she chose to serve out her two weeks sentence in the prison workhouse in order to spend time with those she felt had been dealt a raw deal by the government.

Goldman's birth control arrest was her penultimate run in with the law in New York City. By 1917, Alexander Berkman had been released from prison and had joined her in opposing World War I and the newly instituted draft. Both Berkman and Goldman were arrested for their draft opposition, convicted, and deported to Russia. Though initially supportive of the Bolsheviks, Goldman ultimately fled the new Soviet Union and lived in Canada, dying in Toronto in 1940.

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Read more about politics in early 20th-century New York in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Fate of Frederick MacMonnies's "Civic Virtue"

Yesterday, the Daily News—in a column titled “The Eyesore Next Door”—examined Frederick MacMonnies’s Civic Virtue, which is slowly disintegrating in Kew Gardens, Queens. Though the article mentions that the work once graced City Hall Park in Manhattan, it didn’t delve into the fascinating details of this work by one of New York’s great Beaux-Arts sculptors.

Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937) is best remembered today for his statue of Nathan Hale that still stands in City Hall Park,* but at the end of his own lifetime, he was better known for the controversy surrounding Civic Virtue, which essentially ruined his public career.

The statue’s story begins in 1894 with the death of Angelina Crane, an eccentric, rich widow who lived in the Hotel Brunswick on Madison Square. In her will, Mrs. Crane left $5 to her daughter (who had treated her in “a most undutiful and unnatural manner”), a few thousand dollars to a handful of charities, and the bulk of the money—upward of $50,000—to the City of New York to erect a drinking fountain in her honor.

After a round of lawsuits, in which Mrs. Crane’s daughter was unable to prove that her mother was insane, the city began the process of creating a statue to fulfill Mrs. Crane’s bequest. In 1909, Mayor George “Max” McClellan hand-picked MacMonnies to create the sculpture. (MacMonnies had recently completed a statue of the mayor’s father, Civil War General George B. McClellan, in Washington, DC.) It took MacMonnies five years to create the preliminary designs, which were for a massive work, 57-feet tall, which depicted Virtue (a large male figure) vanquishing Vice (a supine female). The Parks Commissioner and the city’s Art Commission hemmed and hawed over the piece: it was too big; it didn’t take advantage of its proposed location in City Hall Park; it was too architectural for MacMonnies to execute properly. The city told MacMonnies to go back to the drawing board and convinced him to allow architect Thomas Hastings to help him with the new plan. Somewhere along the way, the idea that this be a "drinking fountain" (as stipulated in Angelina Crane's bequest) seems to have been dropped.

In 1919, MacMonnies’s revised (and much smaller) Civic Virtue was approved and the finished work was unveiled in 1922. In the new work, MacMonnies continued to represent Virtue as a club-wielding man, while Vice was now depicted as two female women being trampled beneath Virtue’s feet. New Yorkers were immediately up in arms. Virtue was instantly nicknamed “The Rough Guy” in the press and women complained that MacMonnies was unfairly vilifying their sex. The statue stirred up so much public debate that the city held a public hearing on its propriety. At the hearing, Elizabeth King Black of the National Women’s Party declared: “Men have their feet on women's necks, and the sooner women realize it the better!” Popular Mechanics reported the reactions of passersby: "It ain't art to have a guy stepping on a girl's neck that way"; "Huh, those women represent vice--the man doesn't. That's why the women are kicking about it."

MacMonnies didn't help himself by wading into the fray. "God Almighty made men strong and women beautiful," he told the New York Times. "The female form is used to suggest grace and beauty, being combined with the form of the sea-monster to to suggest treachery and guile....when we wish to symbolize something tempting we use the woman's form." MacMonnies also chided people for misreading the statue, pointing out that Virtue's feet stood on two rocks--not on the two women--and that if women didn't understand their own anatomy that wasn't really his fault.

Despite the bad press and poor public reception, there were no immediate plans to do anything about MacMonnies's work. However, by the early 1930s, the city’s newly elected mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, and his Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, had began to publically discuss moving the piece. In 1941, the statue was removed from its original basin (which was destroyed) and relocated to a spot near Queens Borough Hall, where it stands to this day. Though MacMonnies defended the work throughout his life, it was his last major public commission in New York and signaled the beginning of the end of his career.

For good pictures of Civic Virtue as it looks today, visit And if you are interested in the fate of the statue, there's a Facebook group, "Restore Civic Virtue."

* The Nathan Hale statue was put in the park to commemorate the spot
where he supposedly regretted having but one life to give for his country.
Historians now agree that Hale was hanged elsewhere.

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Read more about City Hall Park
(and take a self-guided walking tour of the area) in

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