TIMES SQUARE WAS ALREADY the sex capital of New York by the early years of the twentieth century. The brothels of the Tenderloin had moved north along with the restaurants and theaters: in 1901, vice investigators identified 132 sites where prostitutes plied their trade in the area bounded by Sixth and Eighth Avenues and 37th and 47th Streets. In many of the hotels around 42nd and Broadway, including the celebrated Metropole, where the old gunslinger and newspaperman Bat Masterson held forth at the bar, prostitutes and their pimps controlled dozens of rooms. Forty-third Street between Broadway and Eighth, where The New York Times was to move its office, was known as Soubrette Row, for most of the brownstones on the block functioned as brothels. A man could scarcely walk a few blocks in the area at night without being propositioned. As a form of commerce, sex could scarcely have been more open and unabashed, despite constant attempts at suppression.
As a form of culture or entertainment, on the other hand, sex, or rather sexuality, remained largely taboo. The more degraded forms of popular culture, like the concert saloon, were essentially prostitution in the form of entertainment. The high culture of theater, on the other hand, remained largely starchy and histrionic. Between these poles lay the frolicsome light operas in which Dreiser’s Carrie made her living and the more risqué burlesque-type shows, like the venerable Black Crook, where voluptuous women danced the cancan and trafficked in heavy-handed double entendre. What Broadway lacked, at the turn of the century, was a figure who could fuse the naughty sexuality of the streets and the saloons and the burlesque show with the savoir-faire of lobster palace society—someone who could make sex delightful and amusing. What it lacked was Florenz Ziegfeld.
Ziegfeld was an upper-middle-class figure with refined tastes and low-brow instincts—a much improved version of Willie Hammerstein. Ziegfeld’s father, a German (but not Jewish) immigrant, was a classical musician who ran a music school in Chicago. Ziegfeld absorbed his father’s standards, and his dignified bearing, but from an early age demonstrated a Barnum-like aptitude for promotion and flimflam. While still a teenager in the 1880s, he bought a huge bowl, filled it with water, and charged admission to an exhibit of “Invisible Brazilian Fish.” The fish flopped, but Ziegfeld then toured with the Great Sandow, a celebrated strongman. Ziegfeld understood that Sandow was not just a power lifter but a sex symbol: he substituted a pair of skimpy shorts for his star’s circus-era leopard-skin cloak, and then persuaded several society ladies to feel the biceps of this near naked Apollo—thus causing, as he had intended, a tabloid sensation.
But Sandow was only a way station. Ziegfeld began dabbling in theater, and in 1896 he sailed to London in search of affordable talent. There he became utterly smitten—professionally and personally—with Anna Held, an adorable, toy-sized creature who had no great gifts as a singer or dancer, but whose tiny waist (eighteen inches), insinuating manner, impressive embonpoint, and dark, flashing eyes had made her the darling of the stage in both London and Paris. Wresting Anna away from Europe, and from her managers, with a combination of fabulous gifts and equally fabulous promises, Ziegfeld arranged a triumphant arrival in New York. Anna’s ship was met by Diamond Jim Brady, Lillian Russell, a thirty-piece band, and a large contingent from the press. (Much the same welcoming committee was to reassemble several years later for the arrival of George Rector, Jr., and the recipe for filet de sole Marguery.) Once he had established Anna in a magnificent suite at the Savoy Hotel, Ziegfeld concocted a preposterous tale about the restorative milk baths she allegedly took that somehow held the newspapers of the day transfixed. Anna became the most celebrated beauty of the age—a new, hummingbird type as against the beloved but lumbering Valkyrie Lillian.
Ziegfeld created a series of flimsy vehicles designed to exploit Anna’s famous charms, including Mam’selle Napoleon, in 1903, and the more daring Parisian Model of 1906. These were negligible works of theater. One New York reviewer wrote of The Parisian Model: “Real merit the concoction has none, the music being reminiscent, the humor bewhiskered and hoary, and the plot imperceptible.” The same critic described one of Held’s dances as “quite the most disgusting exhibition seen on Broadway this season.” But that was more or less the point. In that number, called “A Gown for Each Hour of the Day,” Anna ducked behind a screen composed of taller chorus girls for each of the many costume changes. Those girls themselves disrobed behind painter’s easels in a number called, with typical Ziegfeldian lubriciousness, “I’d Like to See More of You.” And yet Ziegfeld had a finely calibrated instinct for opening the floodgates of appetite so far, and no further; he was always saved by his sense of taste. In the words of one of his biographers, Marjorie Farnsworth, “Ziegfeld knew the subtle line between desire and lust, between good taste and vulgarity, and never crossed it. He came close a few times, but he never quite crossed it.”
Ziegfeld was not a director, and certainly not a writer. His proper title was “producer,” but this barely does justice to the influence he exercised. Ziegfeld’s own life was a very conscious work of theater, intended to be consumed by the public through the medium of the newspapers, and to keep a gorgeous sense of luxury, romance, and inspired recklessness washing back and forth between the life and the stage. Ziegfeld was a handsome, dark-eyed man who dressed impeccably; and he understood how to stage-manage his serial romances in a way that Donald Trump could only envy. He fell in love with Anna, and then with an endless succession of beauties; these liaisons ensured that both he and they remained in the spotlight. Ziegfeld plied his beloved, whoever she was, with an endless stream of sable coats and diamond pins and hotel suites and private railroad cars; everything in their lives was the best, the biggest, the shiniest. The love was real, but the display was calculated. Ziegfeld was such a shameless promoter that when Anna’s $250,000 jewelry collection was stolen, she suspected he had done it to create a sensation; and when the same thing happened to the actress Billie Burke a decade or so later, she lodged the same accusation.
Ziegfeld was said to be coldhearted and selfish—his principal biographer seems to have loathed him—but he was also a magnificent character. His plays made him fantastically rich, but his recklessness kept him perpetually teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. His insouciance was legendary. P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, who wrote the book for several of Ziegfeld’s plays, describe him at a casino in Palm Beach: “Ziegfeld was standing by a table with a handful of the costly green chips, dropping them carelessly on the numbers and turning to talk to the woman next to him without watching the wheel. He won, but went on talking, leaving the chips where they lay. . . . Only when his companion squealed excitedly and pointed to the piled-up counters did he motion languidly to the croupier to push them towards him.” An awestruck Bolton says, “You feel that hundred-dollar bills mean no more to him than paper matches to a cigar store”; to which Wodehouse responds, “And half the time he hasn’t enough to buy a waistcoat for a smallish gnat.” This was Ziegfeld’s life; but it was also a myth—or what we would now call a lifestyle—every bit as potent as the dreams of giddy passion Ziegfeld retailed in his plays.
Ziegfeld’s own art was the presentation of female beauty. He sought, he said, “the embodiment of every man’s dream of the ideal woman.” And this was no vaporous ideal. He once explained that “in a really beautiful face, the height of the forehead should equal the length of the nose, the length of the nose equal the distance between the septum of the nose and the chin, the distance between the eyes equal the length of one of them.” He considered the “Titian beauty” the rarest of all; preferred the temperaments, if not the legs, of short girls; abhorred the knocked knee; and insisted that “thighs to be beautiful should exactly touch each other.” It is somewhat shocking to read that Ziegfeld’s ideal choral novice should be no more than sixteen, though of course at the time not many girls remained in school beyond that age. Ziegfeld taught these teenagers how to walk—breasts out, shoulders back, chin up—how to dress, how to talk, how to behave in public. Once he had turned them into Ziegfeld beauties, he added costumes, lighting, makeup, music: the magic of the stage.
Ziegfeld really hit his stride with the Follies of 1907. The Follies was hardly an innovative production: it was a remake of the popular Parisian “revue,” a series of skits and songs poking fun at the leading figures of the day, the shows, the crazes, the stars. And yet the show exuded a sense of cosmopolitan refinement, of dash and wit, that made it a tremendous success. It was also short—forty minutes—and moved at a head-spinning velocity that only added to the sense of excitement. The Follies were widely imitated but never eclipsed. Ziegfeld rechristened the show Ziegfeld’s Follies, turning it into a kind of branded product. He used the show to introduce his new beauties, as well as rising stars like the singer Fanny Brice. Every year the girls’ dresses grew more revealing and their headgear more fantastically involved; and every year the show became faster, more elaborate, and more polished. In 1909, Ziegfeld featured Lillian Lorraine, whom he had proclaimed “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and with whom he was then conducting a clandestine affair. Lillian appeared as a replica of Maxfield Parrish’s famous cover girl from Life magazine and sang “Nothing but a Bubble” from what appeared to be the inside of a soap bubble; later she appeared at the controls of a prop airplane hanging from the rafters as she sang, “Up, Up, Up in My Aeroplane.” The first act closed with “The Greatest Navy in the World,” in which the girls pressed lights attached to their costumes, went behind a screen, and produced the effect of forty-eight illuminated battleships riding on the waves of New York harbor.
The Follies was not wholly a matter of delivering up chorus girls under conditions of high velocity and precision engineering, for Ziegfeld employed the leading choreographers, lyricists, writers, and performers of his day. He provided a home for many of the great vaudevillians of his time, including brassily Jewish singers like Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker. And Ziegfeld brought the Follies to a much higher level of sophistication after the show moved in 1913 from the Jardin de Paris, the roof garden of the New York Theatre, to the main stage of the New Amsterdam—a major step up in prestige. Indeed, it took Ziegfeld to bring to the New Amsterdam a sense of glamour in keeping with the theater itself. The great impresario often presented stars like Will Rogers, W. C. Fields, and Eddie Cantor in a single show. And as designer—one might almost say “cinematographer”—Ziegfeld hired Joseph Urban, a Viennese émigré who was the leading set designer of his day and an artist of very great talent. Urban turned the giddy Follies into a unified work of art. For the 1917 Follies, according to Ziegfeld’s biographer Charles Higham, “Urban created a Chinese lacquer setting, which dissolved in showers of colored water, followed by three sets of crossed red and gold ladders. Sixty girls in Chinese costumes climbed up and down in unison while the ladder rungs glowed in the dark. . . . An opalescent backdrop was laced with what seemed to be thousands of pearls.”
All the great cultural critics of the day felt called upon to anatomize the Ziegfeld revue; it was, like the Berlin ragtime song, a central piece of cultural property. Edmund Wilson found its air of mechanical perfection frigid. On the other hand, it was just this air of polish that delighted the essayist Gilbert Seldes, who took the position that mechanical perfection was our destiny whether we liked it or not. The revue, Seldes wrote in The Seven Lively Arts, was the foremost expression of the “great American dislike of bungling, the real pleasure in a thing perfectly done.” And Ziegfeld was its foremost exponent. “He makes everything appear perfect by a consummate smoothness of expression,” Seldes wrote. “It is not the smoothness of a connecting rod running in oil, but of a batter where all the ingredients are so promptly introduced and so thoroughly integrated that in the end a man may stand up and say, This is a Show.” Ziegfeld didn’t aim at greatness; he aimed at delight. He was, in this and so many other respects, the very incarnation of Broadway.
THE LIGHTNESS, THE SPEED, the wit that Ziegfeld infused into his shows, and that his rivals supplied to their own revues and that sparkled in the roof gardens along Broadway, began to alter the climate of Times Square. The lobster palace came to seem increasingly formalistic, even dull. Julius Keller, the owner of Café Maxim, wrote in his memoirs that he realized some time around 1909 that customers would no longer be satisfied with lobster thermidor served on gilded platters. They needed action. Keller recalled the waiters who used to bawl out tunes at the German dive in the West Twenties where he had worked as a young man. And so, he says, one evening he planted two male and two female performers, dressed in evening clothes, like the rest of the clientele, at a table near the Hungarian orchestra. “At a prearranged signal,” Keller writes, “they broke into song.” Keller knew that he was onto something when his customers burst into applause. From that moment, he says, “Maxim’s never suffered from ennui”—the one fatal ailment of all Broadway establishments. When the customers tired of popular tunes, Keller hired “dark-eyed señoritas with their castanets and Spanish dances,” Russians with “their quaint native costumes,” Hawaiians with ukuleles, and “beautiful girls who wove their way among the tables and with adoring eyes poured forth their ballads of love.”
Thus was born—or by some other means was born—the cabaret. Soon almost all the great restaurants of Broadway had cleared out space for performances. The Folies Bergère opened its doors in 1911 as New York’s first full-time cabaret, a theater with strolling orchestra, circulating waiters, a balcony promenade, and a series of shows mounted on a stage. But the Folies didn’t last out the year, for the whole power of cabaret lay in its intimacy. Keller’s innovation, if it was his, of stationing the performer among the diners was essential, because in erasing the footlights that had traditionally separated entertainer from audience it engaged the fantasy that the diner was part of the intoxicating and risqué world of the entertainers. The most desirable tables were right on the edge of the cabaret floor, where you could see and touch and talk to the performers. The cultural historian Lewis A. Erenberg has described the sense of liberation brought on by the “action environment” of the cabaret and the café: “Seated among the fast crowd, women of the town, ethnic entertainers, and guests from out of town, respectable urbanites were open to the flux of public life that the city offered. . . . Instead of letting gentility define the limits of their public lives, respectable urbanites were realizing they could enter a wider world of spontaneous cosmopolitan gaiety and experience ‘the whirl of life’ itself.”
A passage in Rupert Hughes’s 1914 novel What Will People Say? summarizes the astounding velocity with which the habits and mores of Broadway changed in the years after 1909 or so. A party has gone to the upstairs room of the fictitious Café de Ninive, and a middle-aged woman reminisce about very recent history:
A few winters ago we thought it was amusing to go to supper at a good restaurant after the theater, have something nice to eat and drink, talk a while, and go home to bed. We thought we were very devilish, and the preachers railed at the wickedness of late-supper orgies. . . . Then somebody started the cabarets. And we flocked to that. We ate the filthiest stuff and drank the rottenest wine and didn’t care so long as they had some sensational singer or dancer cavorting in the aisle. . . . But it has become so tame and stupid that it is quite respectable. At present we are dancing in the aisles ourselves, crowding the professional entertainers off their own floors. And now the preachers and editors are attacking this. Whatever we do is wrong so, as my youngest boy says, “What’s the use, and what’s the diff?”
The really shocking thing about this passage is that a woman of mature years is adopting both the slang and the morals of her youngest son; it indicates how drastically the revolution in entertainment upended settled forms of behavior. It all began with cabaret, which mixed respectable urbanites with the fast crowd of Broadway, leaving respectability much the worse for wear. Cabaret was still a passive experience, like theatergoing. But almost immediately, restaurants and what were known as cafécabarets began encouraging diners to get up off their seats and get onto the floor. And this proved an even more dizzying sensation than the cabaret itself. Dancing in couples was still a new and quite daring phenomenon; nineteenth-century American dances such as the Virginia reel had been performed by groups, in a ballroom. Yet the dance craze spread so rapidly that early in 1911 Irving Berlin wrote “Everybody’s Doin’ It,” a celebration of dance fever. (“Everybody’s Overdoing It,” the columnist Franklin P. Adams groaned.)
Berlin was a principal agent of this dismantling of Victorian mores along Broadway, and far beyond. Only a few years earlier he had been an urchin belting out tunes in Tony Pastor’s, but in that extraordinary year of 1911, when he was all of twenty-three, Berlin wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a song that, like “Everybody’s Doin’ It,” was both about a craze— for ragtime—and the most vivid popular expression yet of that craze. “Alexander” was the most popular song ever written to that time, selling a million copies of sheet music in a few months. The song had a thrilling urgency to which everyone seemed to respond. Berlin himself wrote, “Its opening words, emphasized by immediate repetition—‘Come on and hear! Come on and hear!’—were an invitation to ‘come,’ to join in, and ‘hear’ the singer and his song.” That invitation, Berlin said, became part of the song’s “happy ruction.” The wild public reaction to “Alexander” changed the musical world, for the tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley gave up their sentimental ballads and dialect songs for the more modern, urban, and black sound of ragtime. The music scholar Philip Furia goes so far as to say that “Alexander” “crystallized a crucial cultural moment as well, one when people fully realized that they were living in a truly modern age.”
The overnight success of “Alexander,” “Everybody’s Doin’ It,” and other ragtime tunes created an insatiable demand for danceable music; and the dance craze changed Times Square from one moment to the next. The essayist and flaneur Julian Street wrote Welcome to Our City, a gimlet-eyed delineation of Broadway, in 1912; the following year he was forced to add a preface to a new edition because he had failed to take account of dancing. Broadway, he wrote ruefully, “changes faster than the main street of a mining town.” By 1913, virtually every big restaurant in Times Square offered dance lessons, afternoon thés dansants, and revolving dance floors; or elaborate cabaret performances; or both. Indeed, Claridge’s, the fine restaurant of an elegant hotel, made a lonely plea for the remaining sedentary diners: “We prefer to believe that there are some people in this city who would rather dine in silence and dine well than dine to music and go hungry.” But probably there weren’t many. When Harvey Forbes, the southern military officer who is the hero of What Will People Say?, comes to New York and takes a room in a 42nd Street hotel— this is also in 1913—he falls in with a crowd of well-bred fun-lovers who invite him to go “turkey-trotting.” Forbes gasps with shock. “Do nice people—” The beautiful young socialite Persis Cabot cuts him off to say, “We’re not nice people, but we do.” And another friend adds, “That’s all we do.”
Persis and her crowd were nice people, but nice people wanted to be naughty. The dance craze always involved a balance, which teetered first one way and then the other, between the idea of erotic abandon and the idea of aristocratic restraint. The first dance celebrities were Vernon and Irene Castle, who had made a career teaching social dancing to the children of Fifth Avenue until the all-important year of 1913, when they opened up Sans Souci at 42nd and Broadway. The Castles were impeccable in matters of dress and deportment, and their aristocratic style had the effect of shielding dance from its lower-class associations and its black and Latin origins. Indeed, Irene’s way of talking about freshly arrived dances gave the impression that she and her husband operated a laboratory for the neutralization of virulent dance germs. “We get our dances from the Barbary Coast,” Irene once explained, using a euphemism for the black world. “Of course, they reach New York in a very primitive condition, and have to be considerably toned down before they can be used in the drawing room.” A particularly low item called “Shaking the Shimmy” had “just arrived,” and Irene said that “the teachers may try and make something of it.”
The social hierarchy remained perfectly undisturbed in the mansions and the clubrooms of Fifth Avenue, but the Corybantes scrambled whatever was left of the old order in Broadway. As Julian Street wrote, “Practically any well-dressed person who is reasonably sober and will purchase supper and champagne for two may enter” a restaurant that offered dancing. “This creates a social mixture such as was never dreamed-of in this country—a hodge-podge of people in which respectable young married and unmarried women, and even debutantes, dance, not only under the same roof, but in the same room with women of the town.” They might, in fact, dance with each other. Restaurants and cabarets provided men, typically of dubious background, as partners and dance instructors for the unescorted women who appeared at the afternoon thés dansants. This practice provoked scandalous rumors and much public debate; even Variety, the unofficial trade publication of Times Square, warned about the dangers of “tango pirates.”
And no amount of Castling could disguise the erotic abandon encouraged—almost compelled—by dance. Even the names of the dances implied a new openness toward the body and toward touch: the turkey trot, the black bottom, the bunny hug, the tango. These steps typically required the partners to lock in a tight embrace and to fling themselves around the floor in wild gyrations. In “Everybody’s Doin’ It,” a “ragtime couple” “throw their shoulders in the air,” “snap their fingers,” and shout, “It’s a bear, it’s a bear, it’s a bear.” Julian Street described a performance by Maurice (“the French pronunciation, please!”), the dance master at the rooftop cabaret of Louis Martin’s, a traditional lobster palace: “Suddenly, the man flings the girl away from him violently, as a boy throws a top. Holding to his hand, she spins until their arms are outstretched. Then with a jerk, he draws her back again, revolving, to his arms.” Faster and faster they go, until the climax: “With a leap, she alights astride her partner’s hips and, fastened to his waist with the hooks of her bent knees, swings outward and away from his whirling body like a floating sash.”
One can judge the impact these dances had on received moral principles from the reaction of the courtly Lieutenant Forbes in What Will People Say? Early in the evening, he is already disgusted by the spectacle: “Motherly dowagers in ball costumes bumped and caromed from the ample forms of procuresses.” By the end of the evening, with exhaustion erasing inhibition, he concludes, “There was no mistaking the intention of some of these dancers. It was vile, provocative and, since it was public, hideous.” And yet Forbes eventually becomes perfectly inured to the idea of locking knees, arms, shoulders, with a woman whom he wishes to place on a pedestal and worship. The pedestal thing, he understands, is gone with the wind.
The city ultimately tried to control the passions unleashed by dance by passing an ordinance—this is still 1913—requiring cabarets to close at two A.M. But the law was no match for unleashed appetite. Cabaret owners simply opened up private “clubs,” which came to be called nightclubs, and which could remain open all night long. One could dance at Castles in the Air, the rooftop cabaret of the 44th Street Theatre, to which the Castles moved in 1914, and then go down to the “Castle Club” in the basement for still more drinking and dancing, perhaps with Vernon and Irene themselves. And so before long the old lobster palaces had spawned not only cabarets and dance floors, but nightclubs as well.
In 1915, Florenz Ziegfeld, still very much the patron saint of the sexual frisson, created a companion to the Follies known as The Midnight Frolic, staged on the New Amsterdam’s terribly glamorous roof garden. This was the ne plus ultra of Times Square nightlife. The “garden” was an immense enclosed space, perhaps forty feet high, with great windows running up the sides and a skylight set into the roof. It accommodated as many as six hundred people, and featured a special roll-away stage that allowed the whole crowd to dance before and after the Frolic. It was a select crowd: the cover price of $5 kept out the pikers and the college freshmen, and the late hour attracted that part of the Broadway set which prided itself on never going to bed before dawn.
This was not the shirtsleeved rooftop crowd of 1892; the women wore narrow, clinging dresses and the men wore top hats and tails. They drank champagne and ate pistachio nuts while the masterful Ziegfeld ran his sparkling parade of beauties across the stage and into the crowd, including Sylvia Carmen and Her Balloon Girls, who sang “I Love to Be Loved” while they invited gentlemen to pop their balloons with lit cigars. The show, with admirable candor, was called Nothing but Girls; it featured songs like “My Tango Girl,” “My Spooky Girl,” and “My Midnight Girl,” as well as the wild gyrations of Mlle. Odette Myrtill, “Apache Violinist.” A glass ramp led up to a glass parapet lining three walls; sometimes the girls would march up the ramp, cast lines over the edge and go “fishing” for gentlemen; once they were on the parapet, their undergarments could be plainly seen from below. The sexiness, the frivolity, and above all the liberating sense of silliness that Ziegfeld had mined in the Follies reached its zenith in the midnight revels atop the New Amsterdam. Each table came equipped with wooden mallets, and patrons were encouraged to bang the mallets and rattle their silverware in a merry din; revelers could use telephones to call one another. The tables also included dolls and funny hats and other toys. It is safe to assume that many of the patrons got merrily plastered. Here was a setting in which not just conventional morality, but adulthood itself, had been temporarily suspended.
The Times Square of 1915 would have been practically unrecognizable to the denizen of 1905. The rules of self-restraint and delayed gratification—that is to say, the Protestant ethic—that had been drilled into generations of Americans had been lifted, if not quite obliterated. Barriers that had governed relations between men and women, the rich and their “inferiors,” high and low culture, tottered and often toppled. A new subculture of cosmopolites had appeared; Julian Street called them the Hectics. These were the terribly fashionable, giddy young men and women who raced from restaurant to theater to cabaret to roof garden. “He has a golden cigarette case,” Street writes acidly, “she a gold-mesh bag; receptacles in which, it is believed, they carry their ideals.”
If one looks back even further, to the Broadway of 1895, the difference is even more drastic. “Broadway” barely appears in the upper-crust literature of the 1890s; in novels like Brander Matthews’s His Father’s Son, mentioned earlier, the reader has, in fact, almost no sense of street life, of crowds, of a “public,” for the action is largely confined to parlors. But Broadway is a topic of never-ending fascination for the New York writers of twenty years later—for Julian Street, for Rupert Hughes, and for George Bronson-Howard, the author of Birds of Prey: Being Pages from theBook of Broadway. For these writers, Broadway is life itself—the speed, the lingo, the cynicism, the brittleness, the desperation. Bronson-Howard, for example, writes story after story about the relationship of mutual exploitation between chorus girls and the men who pursue them. The only moralists on Broadway—the only people who think like the characters in a Brander Matthews novel—are fools. It’s a cold, glittering, gorgeous world. “Remember,” Julian Street writes, “New York is the national parlour for the painless extraction of ideals; get a new set made of gold.”