If an energetic couple had decided to hike from one end of Coney Island to the other on a summer Sunday in the late 1880s, their five-mile journey would have taken them through four wildly diverse communities.
Landing at the old steamboat dock on Coney’s extreme western edge would have plunged them into seedy old Norton’s Point. Though now grandly renamed the West End, it remained a year-round colony of crooks and unfortunates where, in season, rowdies congregated for prizefights, gambling, and prostitution. Respectable sorts gave the area a wide berth.
About a mile and half along the beach, past thickening numbers of bathhouses and makeshift eateries, our trekkers would have arrived in West Brighton and found themselves engulfed in noise—brass bands, hand organs, the shrieking whistles of arriving and departing steamers and locomotives, and the happy chatter of tens of thousands of merrymakers. The throngs poured out from Culver Plaza, where the Prospect Park and Coney Island Rail Road, popularly known as the Culver Line (a name that lives on to mystify today’s F line riders), debouched Brooklynites. Manhattanites headed for West Brighton could take a steamer to Bay Ridge and transfer to the New York and Sea Beach Railroad (1879), for a round-trip fare of only a quarter.
In West Brighton our visitors, if keen on gaining a panoramic overview, could have headed for the three-hundred-foot Iron Tower, which Andrew Culver had carted back from the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, and ascended by elevator to a vantage point higher than Trinity’s steeple.
If hungry, they might have hustled directly to Charles Feltman’s Ocean Pavilion, a gigantic restaurant-cum-entertainment center. In the early 1870s Feltman, a German immigrant, had opened a shanty stand at the beach and begun selling clam roasts, ice cream, lager beer, and what Harper’s would call a “weird-looking sausage, muffled up in the two halves of a roll and smoking hot from the vender’s grid-iron.”
Coney Island Panorama, c. 1880. From its low end at Norton’s Point (on the far left), through West Brighton, Brighton Beach, and Manhattan Beach (on the far right), Coney’s atmosphere became progressively more refined. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)
From Feltman’s, they might have walked to see the Elephant, a wood-framed, tinskinned hotel, 150 feet long and 122 feet high. It had thirty-four rooms in its head, stomach, and feet, a cigar store in one foreleg, a diorama in the other, and a dairy stand in its trunk. “Seeing the Elephant” became New Yorkese for going down to Coney. Equally dazzling landmarks were the two-thousand-foot Iron Piers, erected by steamboat companies in 1879 and 1881, amusement centers on a par with those at Blackpool and Brighton, England.
If our visitors sought excitement, they could have headed for the chaotic and exhilarating carnival quarter. West Brighton’s beachfront properties had been leased and subleased into tiny plots, on which small immigrant businessmen, showmen, and vendors had erected hundreds of pavilions, platforms, tents, kiosks, sheds, and shanties. Here visitors could play with lung testers, throw rings at cane stubble, shoot clay ducks, and try to hit a Negro on the nose (his head, stuck through a hole in a cloth, bobbing and weaving to elude the balls). They could get their pictures taken, their fortunes read, their strength tested, their weight guessed. As exiled Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti, entranced by Coney Island, reported to a Bogota newspaper in 1881, “to North Americans to weigh a pound more or less is a matter of positive joy or real grief.”
If our hikers were venturesome souls, they might have beelined for the mechanized rides, advertised in the World’s Sunday edition by amusement entrepreneurs like Peter Tilyou and his son, George. Merry-go-rounds were an old divertissement but had been steam powered only since 1865. And only since the mid-1870s had Charles I. D. Looff, a German immigrant carver who worked out of a small Gravesend factory, been crafting the fabulous animals and birds that adorned West Brighton’s carousels. In 1883 the first Loop-the-Loop opened for scary (and occasionally mortal) business. In 1884 its offspring the roller coaster was born, the progeny of LaMarcus A. Thompson. His trains, which tore up and down a giant steel structure, were an amalgam of the switchback railroads used in coal mines and the new elevateds crisscrossing the cities.
The roller coaster momentarily relieved riders of their inhibitions, providing welcome opportunities for romance. So did the beach. Many on the strand were tenement families in search of wholesome sea breezes. Mothers rented blue flannel suits and coarse straw hats, changed in the crudely built but affordable bathing houses, then cozied with their husbands while their all too often tubercular children buried one another in the sand. Singles displayed a more boisterous intimacy. At antebellum resorts each sex had taken its turn in the ocean on a fixed time schedule; in the 1880s they tumbled in together. Thousands, of both genders, shed cumbersome beach outfits for tighter-fitting, more revealing costumes and jettisoned much of their reserve as well, with women hugging fellows met minutes before.
Fellows wanting more than hugs repaired, as did flashily dressed sporting men, to the “Gut,” a ten-square-block area up toward West 8th Street, in whose wooden shanties and sheds more carnal appetites were attended to. The Gut’s brothels, dance halls, peep shows, and gambling dens provided plentiful helpings of sin, though not without peril. Knockout drops flowed freely, while crooks and swindlers found it easy to avoid the none too vigilant oversight of the Gravesend police.
Teeming West Brighton might well have reminded our sightseeing couple of the Bowery—indeed one of the principal saloon-lined thoroughfares was called “the Bowery”—and it was, overwhelmingly, a working-class pleasure ground. Skilled craftsmen and small shopkeepers tended to come on organized outings; garment workers, clerks, saleswomen, and servants came on their own or in small groups. Many were on Saturday half-holidays, the new summertime practice of closing at one P.M. adopted in the late 1880s by numbers of manufacturing and retail establishments. Others were at Coney on unpaid holidays: when broiling summer days turned Brooklyn’s iron foundries, sugar refineries, and glassworks into infernos, owners shut them down.
The Coney Island Roller Coaster. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 24, 1886. (General Research. The New York Public Libraiy. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
If our revelers had stayed on into the evening, they could have tried “Electric Bathing” in the flare of the arc lights newly installed along the shore, or gone to one of the well-lit music halls and open-air theaters, often managed by Irish barkeeps from New York. There they could have seen and heard pianists, dancers, female impersonators, ballad singers, and comedy acts as broad as the beach. These establishments provided jobs for thousands of recent immigrants, many of whom became full-time Coney residents. They worked as bartenders, cooks, bathhouse keepers, musicians, domestic servants, vendors, and hotel waiters (many of the latter listing their occupation as artist or actor). The percentage of blacks in the year-round population—8.3 percent—was far higher than in Brooklyn or New York, though their numbers at the beach were far fewer.
If our hypothetical hikers had torn themselves away from West Brighton and pressed on east, they would soon have reached a relatively empty stretch of beach, paralleled by a tree-lined concourse and bisected by Ocean Parkway—Coney Island’s Great Divide. Roughly three-quarters of a mile from the Elephant, they would have come upon the grounds of the enormous, low-slung, mansarded, stick-style Brighton Beach Hotel.
Our travelers had entered Brighton Beach—a different world from West Brighton, and differently peopled too. Sitting on the great hotel’s broad verandas, strolling on its vast lawns down to the boardwalk at surf’s edge, or listening (after 1888) to Anton Seidl direct serenades at the bandstand were large numbers of what one 1890 paper called “good middle-class Brooklynites.” Brighton drew businessmen and their families, doctors and lawyers, white-collar office workers, clerks in insurance firms, and salesmen with manufacturing companies.
Brighton Beach reflected the unified vision and ownership of William A. Engeman, a New York-born carpenter who had made a wartime fortune selling mules to the Union Army. Captivated by Coney and its pecuniary possibilities, Engeman tracked down the various owners of two hundred acres of marshland and sand dunes and bought them out cheap. Then he constructed the four-hundred-foot-wide, two-story Brighton Beach Bathing Pavilion (ready for the 1878 season), and the following year he opened the Brighton Beach Racetrack, a mile-long course that by 1882 was netting him two hundred thousand dollars a year.
Meanwhile, a powerful consortium of Brooklyn businessmen and politicians—including Henry Murphy and William Kingsley of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Company—had bought half of Engeman’s property and on it erected the Brighton Beach Hotel. The group also built the Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Coney Island Railroad to deliver passengers to its doorstep, placing BF&CI stations conveniently near middleclass Bedford, Clinton Hill, Ocean Hill, and Prospect Park. Brooklynites could train down for a music programme and be home by a reasonable hour, or entire families could settle in for the summer while husbands commuted to work in the cities. The hotel also attracted racing devotees, including Wall Street high rollers, politicians, actresses, and socialites.
Finally, if our trekkers had headed eastward one more time, they would have crossed another half-mile gap, then come upon two magnificent edifices: the Manhattan Beach Hotel with its turreted roofs and pinnacles, and the moorish Oriental Hotel, replete with fanciful minarets. It would not, however, have been easy for our beachcombers to have got near these palaces, as a high fence surrounded the area, and Pinkertons at the private railway station monitored arriving coaches of the New York and Manhattan Beach Railway to screen out undesirables.
Manhattan Beach was the brainchild (and property) of New York railroad magnate and banker Austin Corbin. In the depressed 1870s he had picked up over five hundred acres of shorefront marshland for $16,500 and given it a glamorous name. Then he inaugurated the railway that whisked Manhattanites directly to his two hotels within an hour. To ensure exclusiveness, he charged the highest prices in the country. To ensure even greater exclusiveness, he banned Jews in 1879.
Corbin’s hostelries succeeded in attracting an elite clientele, almost up to Newport standards. The Oriental drew leading businessmen, visiting aristocrats, famous entertainers, and powerful politicians. The Manhattan Beach Hotel attracted a racier crowd—notably members of the Coney Island Jockey Club, whose leaders August Belmont Jr., Leonard Jerome, Pierre Lorillard Jr., and William K. Vanderbilt organized the nearby Sheepshead Bay Racetrack in 1880, helping make Kings County one of the nation’s top turf centers.
PLEASURE AND COMMERCE
Coney Island, in the space of a decade, had leapt from marshy obscurity to preeminence among the world’s beach resorts. It was remarkable for its size and for its segmentation—the way its component parts were sorted and sequenced by class, from “low” to “high,” with each zone governed by its own conventions. Even more remarkable—and alarming, to guardians of the traditional order—was the way West Brighton encouraged unconventional behavior. Reformers called it “Sodom by the Sea.” They were upset by the doings in the Gut, of course, but also by the spooning on the beach, the frolicking in the waves, the way people acted (said one shocked observer) “precisely as if the thing to do in the water was to behave exactly contrary to the manner of behaving anywhere else.”
West Brighton was also disconcerting in the connections it was fostering among New York’s immigrants. On Sunday ethnic groups that during the week were segregated by work or neighborhood mixed and mingled at the shore. At Coney’s rides and beaches, diverse peoples swam, ate, played, and rode together, encouraging development of an interethnic—albeit white—“New York” sensibility, an eclectic camaraderie that paralleled and perhaps undergirded such multiethnic entities as the Central Labor Union and Henry George campaign. Ever since Petrus Stuyvesant’s day, the city’s upper classes had tried to suppress plebeian ways of having fun that appeared to undermine established authority. But this quest took on added importance in the 1880s, a time when unions, Catholics, ethnic nationalists, and new immigrants—the very people gamboling and gambling at West Brighton—were boldly challenging the city’s political, economic, and religious status quo.
In this context, what seemed most unnerving about West Brighton was its unembarrassed air, the way it exuded a sense of entitlement to a band on the city’s recreational spectrum. The entire structure of Coney Island seemed to reinforce this claim. All the communities, after all, had undergone their explosive development simultaneously, and they shared the same strand. This temporal and territorial equivalency suggested a moral and cultural equality—as if styles, tastes, and practices at either end of the beach were equally “legitimate.”
Worse, West Brighton’s wayward ways seemed impervious to criticism or correction, in part because its cultural independence was sustained by powerful businessmen. Entrepreneurs of leisure, since the tavern keepers of New Amsterdam, had always resisted regulation. But never before had entertainment been such big business.
Among those developing amusement parks around the metropolitan area were transportation, real estate, and brewery magnates. Pleasure gardens had become all but extinct in Manhattan, victims of rising land values, but were being reborn, in far grander format, on the urban periphery. Their developers sought to increase traffic on streetcar lines, lure consumers to selling grounds, and enhance property values. In the early 1880s Bowery Bay (site of today’s La Guardia Airport), then far from the nearest village, had been a popular Queens destination for picnickers. In 1886 piano potentate and nearby land baron William Steinway, along with brewery industrialist George Ehret, transformed the isolated strand into Bowery Bay Beach (renamed North Beach in 1891). Soon it was festooned with beer halls, supplied exclusively by Ehret, and swarming with tens of thousands of patrons, who arrived on Steinway-owned mass transit. North Beach grew ever more boisterous, yet ever more profitable, and its owners ever more averse to bluenose interference. And big businessmen had more clout than their smaller predecessors.
This was particularly evident at Brighton and Manhattan Beach, which even more than West Brighton represented substantial investment by large-scale capitalists. Most East End amusements were dignified and genteel, to be sure, but the racetracks, on which much hotel patronage depended, were (in the opinion of reformers) nearly as subversive of public morals as the Gut. In 1877 state legislation had banned the old auction betting system, in hopes of curbing racing. Instead it nourished a new variety of betting, done by at-the-track bookmakers. The growing ranks of professional gamblers, together with the rich horsemen of the Coney Island Jockey Club, formed another influential constellation in favor of cultural laissez-faire.
Both ends of Coney, moreover, had powerful political protectors. The island was beyond the jurisdiction of either New York or Brooklyn—legally an appendage of the independent town of Gravesend, which was the bailiwick of John Y. McKane. A stoutframed, red-bearded man, McKane had been born in County Antrim in 1841, had been brought up in Gravesend from 1843, and worked as a farmhand and as a clam digger in Sheepshead Bay, then opened his own carpentry shop. He went into politics and with the help of fellow Irish immigrants supplanted the old Dutch town leaders. Between 1878 and 1893 McKane was Coney’s government. He was effective at delivering water and electricity and disposing of sewage. He was also corrupt, assisting those businesses that hired his construction firm, which is to say virtually every hotelier on the beach. McKane permitted gambling throughout West Brighton—making the occasional raid, to quiet moral critics, after warning the targets he was coming. He also protected the tracks from overzealous enforcement of the penal codes, in alliance with sportsmen and gamblers who had their own lines to the Democratic Party.
All these phenomena—the growing vigor of a multiethnic popular culture, the rapid commercialization of entertainment on a hitherto unmatched scale, the emergence of novel kinds of mass amusement forms, the loosening during leisure time of constraints that governed elsewhere in the city—were present elsewhere in the New York’s far-flung and fast-flowering world of entertainment. In Manhattan, as in Coney, the clashing and blending enclaves of commercial culture were laid out quite tidily along a spatial axis. Here the journey from “low” to “high” ran south to north, rather than west to east. A tourist determined to grasp the city’s complete range of entertainment possibilities would have to begin in the raunchy and interethnic precincts of the Bowery; travel to the Union Square Rialto, now home to the novel and interlinked phenomena of vaudeville and pop music; head on to the peculiarly multipurpose, multiclass venue of Madison Square Garden; and finally reach “Broadway,” the newly transplanted center of the “legitimate” stage (unless a wrong and westward turning had plunged the unwary into Satan’s Circus).
ALL THE WORLD’S ONSTAGE
The Bowery, long the heartland of working-class amusements, had been flagging a bit, weakened by competition from new forms of entertainment, amusement parks among them. Melodramas, downtown’s favorite performance style, were still in evidence, to be sure. Each night on the Bowery boards, working-class heroes triumphed over rich men whose pockets were stuffed with bonds, and poor but pure shopgirls or seamstresses escaped the villain’s machinations (as in Charles Foster’s Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl). Many plays, as before the war, used the city as backdrop, with offerings such as The Waifs of New York, Outcasts of a Great City, and the inspirational Tom Edison the Electrician. But what revivified Bowery theater in the 1880s and 1890s, infusing it with terrific new energy, was the establishment of zestful new immigrant communities, which had imported new cultural traditions and the audiences to sustain them.
Yiddish theater, born in Odessa and Bucharest in the late 1870s, blossomed in New York City in the 1880s and 1890s. Amateur companies took the lead, their actors shuttling between stage and sweatshop. The first production came in 1882, and soon there were regular weekend shows at the Bowery Garden, National, and Thalia theaters, starring unknowns like sixteen-year-old Boris Tomashefsky. In 1884, a year after czarist Russia banned Yiddish theater, professional companies were performing in playhouses along the Bowery, and they flourished over the next decade.
Yiddish melodrama provided glamorous diversion and emotional communion for tenement dwellers and a sense of empowerment for the politically impotent. Ghetto audiences cheered historical spectacles of Jewish heroism, oohed and aahed at tableaux of ancient kings and prophets, shouted denunciations of villains, howled with laughter at tomfoolery and clownishness, demanded popular songs be repeated, and often kept performances running till midnight.
The plays were packed with topical references to life along East Broadway, helping greenhorns learn their way around an alien land. They also evoked heartbroken recollections of loved ones left behind; Tomashefsky always worked a mama song (like “A Letter to Mother”) into his plays no matter what the subject. Masters of bricolage, these Lower East Side playwrights ransacked all European drama for bits of theatrical business and mingled opera tunes and synagogue chants with abandon. They desacralized Shakespeare with a vengeance, domesticating the Bard, turning Capulets and Montagues into feuding Jewish sects; after the first Yiddish Hamlet the crowd was so pleased it called for the author. In the 1890s, a new generation of performers and intellectuals—notably playwright Jacob Gordin and actor Jacob Adler—warred against cheap “three-hankie” melodramas and called for “serious” theater. But even then Yiddish drama would remain grand and flamboyant, an affair of shouts and whispers, deeply in touch with the lives of ordinary immigrants.
Poster advertising a performance at King Solomon at the Thalia Theater. (Library of Congress)
Popular Italian dramaturgy followed an almost identical course. Amateur actors took to the stage in 1882, with a farce at Concordia Hall. Soon there were several theatrical clubs in action, like the Circolo Filo-Drammatico Italo-Americano (1885), which played in halls like the Bowery’s Germania Assembly Rooms, and offered special performances on saints’ days in church basements. Like their Yiddish counterparts, Italian actors offered long and varied evenings: thrilling melodramas, commedia dell’arte skits, Pulcinella farces, songs and dances in Neapolitan or Sicilian, and comedies like Pasquale, You ‘re a Pig. Again, theatrical pastiche was the norm, with Schiller, Sardou, and an Italianized Shakespeare sharing time with local dramas set in Little Italy. In the 1890s Italian theater too entered a more polished phase with the arrival of professional actors lured by the popularity of the circolo groups. Antonio Maiori, who came in 1892 and established a company, had a harder time of it than Jacob Adler, however, as opera remained the art form of choice in the community.
New York Chinese theater began with professionals. In June 1889 the traveling Swin Tien Lo (Most Sublime Company) arrived from San Francisco and performed at the Windsor Theater on the Bowery. In 1893 the community got its own company when a wealthy merchant rented a Doyers Street basement, hired thirty actors, and opened a Cantonese theater.
VARIETY: THE SPICE OF BOWERY LIFE
While these cultural stewpots bubbled on their separate burners, the Bowery’s variety stage—another pastiche performance form—was absorbing many of their assorted traditions into a more commercialized culture.
Variety emerged as a distinct branch of the entertainment industry only in the 1870s and 1880s, but the presentation of brief entertainment bits by singers, dancers, and monologuists had long been part of New York’s theatrical tradition. Until the fifties, variety acts had been interpolated in, or ancillary to, the main dramatic event. Then managers determined to upgrade their houses banished comics and song-anddance men. Variety acts quickly resurfaced inside minstrelsy and became standard elements of the concert saloon repertoire. When minstrelsy began to fade away—in 1883, for the first time in forty years, New York City was without a resident minstrel troupe—and concert saloons came under attack for harboring prostitution, variety came into its own.
Variety was strictly a downtown affair, housed in Bowery showcases like the London Theatre, Miner’s Bowery, and the Globe Museum. These houses jumbled acts together in a way calculated to please a diverse constituency. Minstrels too had presented a succession of turns, but all were performed by members of the same troupe. Variety assembled a melange of performers, a division of labor that allowed for greater range and specialization. The result was a potpourri of entertainment bits, unconnected by persona or plot, that drew upon a host of plebeian entertainments. From the Turn-verein and Harmonie-Bund came gymnastic and musical routines; the circus provided animal acts and acrobats; dance competitions supplied Lancashire and hornpipe clogs and jigs.
Variety’s staples were its songs and comic sketches. Skits were often ribald and physical, geared to the male and working-class audience. Performers set their topical gags and routines in the city’s saloons, sidewalks, and shipyards. The most popular bits were ethnically oriented, with performers mimicking New York’s diverse populations, doing Irish turns and Dutch (German) shtick.
Black comics were not numerous in variety. African Americans did pour into minstrelsy in these years, on the strength of the argument that they could “act the nigger”—depict grotesque caricatures of plantation slaves—“with greater fidelity,” as the Clipperargued of Haverly’s Colored Minstrels, “than any ‘poor white trash’ with corked faces can ever do.” White comics fled to variety, where they did their old dialect putdowns of shiftless and irresponsible darkies or used blackface as a cover for raunchier humor than they could get away with if clad only in their own white skins.
As new immigrant groups arrived they were quickly added to the cast of comic characters, with sharp-witted Jews, song-loving Italians, and opium-smoking Chinamen tossed in among the pugnacious Irishmen, lazy Africans, beer-drinking Germans, tight-fisted Scots, and ignorant farm rubes who peopled the virtual Lower East Side. These personas varied from good-humored to derogatory, benign to malignant, and the songs and spiels conveyed both the antagonisms and alliances between groups. Most variety skits never rose above one-dimensional stereotyping, but some did, and in the process gave rise to a new entertainment form, the ethnic sitcom.
“PROMINENT TYPES WHICH GO TO MAKE UP LIFE IN THE METROPOLIS”
Edward “Ned” Harrigan, born in New York in 1845, left home at eighteen to become a traveling song-and-dance man. Tony Hart (originally Anthony J. Cannon), born ten years later, left an Irish slum in Worcester, Massachusetts, and also took to the stage. They teamed up in 1871 and, for the next nine years, settled into Josh Hart’s Theatre Comique, a variety house at 514 Broadway. Soon they were among the most popular performers in New York City.
Where other variety houses rejuvenated their weekly bills by bringing in all new acts, the Theatre Comique relied on Harrigan and Hart to constantly turn out fresh bits themselves. The talented Harrigan wrote comedy sketches in profusion, as well as lyrics for the songs to accompany them. For fresh scenes and characters, Harrigan turned to the Lower East Side. His “The Mulligan Guards,” one of over forty sketches he churned out in the team’s first three seasons, was a takeoff on the city’s hundred-plus immigrant “target companies,” pseudomilitary outfits that on Sundays donned homemade uniforms and went to Jones’ Wood or Hoboken, where they marched, caroused, and shot at targets.
Harrigan’s loving spoof was a smash success, and in 1879 he began turning out a series of full-length plays that developed the character of Dan Mulligan, along with his family, friends, and ethnic neighbors—the “prominent types,” said Harrigan, “which go to make up life in the metropolis.” In fashioning his characters, who were of far greater range and depth than the traditional stereotypes, Harrigan took to the streets to catch “the living manners as they rise.” His daughter, Nedda, remembered him following people around, learning their walk and talk, observing how and where they lived, at times buying the clothes off their backs to use as costumes. Harrigan used realistically painted backdrops to set his scenes on Lower East Side streets, in the Mulligans’ dining room, in black-run barbershops where men gathered to talk sports.
Harrigan and Hart’s comedies were no more into a grim realism than was melodrama or minstrelsy, nor did they completely transcend stereotyping. Harrigan’s Irish were rowdy, garrulous, quick tempered, intemperate; his Germans were slow witted, stubborn, coarse eaters, heavy drinkers; his blacks loved to dress up in overly elaborate costumes, use long words, and mangle syntax. Yet all these characters had redeeming qualities. The Irish came off best, no doubt: Paddy, though given to drink and disorder, was also witty and generous, hardworking and brave. Remarkably, Harrigan’s black barbers and servants were equally complex and, though played for laughs like everyone else, weren’t subjects of ridicule. The Chinese came off much the worst: rat-eating, opiumsmoking, pidgin-English laundrymen with a penchant for stealing clothing.
Perhaps most significant, Harrigan and Hart’s assorted characters got on with one another—rather as did many of their real-life contemporaries at West Brighton, or in the CLU, or in the George campaign, or on the Tammany picnics organized by Big Tim Sullivan. H&H’s Lower East Siders also exuded a collective sense of downtown’s selfworth and power, particularly in relation to the snooty uptown sorts, that appealed to heavily ethnic working-class audiences.
As ethnicity reigned in the melodrama and variety houses, burlesque was ruled by raunch. Lydia Thompson and her impertinent “British Blondes” had created an uproar back in 1868 as much for their streetwise language, male impersonations, and mockery of bourgeois culture as for their revealing costumes. Since then burlesque had been stripped of its more radical components and gone downtown, downscale, and downhill. The dozens of troupes that sprang up in Thompson’s wake eliminated cutting-edge criticism and stuck to displaying female bodies to male audiences—the “leg business”—though women on Bowery stages “peeled” only down to their tights.
A Bowery concert saloon, with a “re-fined singing and dancing act” in progress, c. 1890. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)
Sex was the mainstay of concert saloons too, like old Harry Hill’s, on Houston and Mulberry, which still offered alcohol and licentious entertainment to male audiences, attracting rugged Bowery types, celebrities like Bennett Junior and Edison, and slummers out for a walk on the sinful side, hoping to pick up immigrant girls. But the Bowery’s range of sensual possibilities—like the diversity of its ethnic-based offerings—was expanded in this era by new arrivals on the scene, the men called “Nancys” and “fairies.” Ralph Werther, who occasionally went by the name of Jennie June (the celebrated fashion magazinist), moved to the metropolis in 1882 in part because “in New York one can live as Nature demands without setting every one’s tongue wagging.” Werther, a middle-class student, attended college uptown but spent much of his free time, usually in drag, at the Columbia Club on the Bowery at 5th Street. Better known as Paresis Hall—paresis being a medical term for the insanity one could supposedly contract by consorting with fairies—the establishment resembled most working-class variety haunts. It had a modest barroom and a small beer garden out back and offered nightly music and comedy routines. Here, however, the performers were men, often of upper- or middle-class background, painted, powdered, and attired in evening dresses, who sang (according to one disapproving observer) “songs with immoral lyrics” that encouraged lewd dances and other acts of depravity. Male prostitutes solicited men at tables, and the upper two floors had small rooms that could be rented by the hour or the night.
There were several such nightspots downtown. Charles Nesbitt, a medical student from North Carolina who visited the city around 1890, went on a slummer’s tour and stopped in at beer gardens along the Bowery where, he later recalled, “male perverts, dressed in elaborate feminine evening costumes, ‘sat for company’” and were compensated, as were waiter-girls, with commissions on the drinks clients bought them. The Slide, where waiters with rouged necks sang filthy ditties in falsetto voices, was often recommended by city-smart types to tourists in search of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Headline and drawing from the New York Herald, January 5, 1892. Wrote a reporter for the paper: “Let a detective be opportuned by people from a distance to show them something outre in the way of fast life, the first place he thinks of is the Slide, if he believes the out-of-towner can stand it.” (General Research. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation)
The Slide was also, however, a place where fairies felt free to socialize with one another as well as tourists. By the 1890s they had established a community in the interstices of the working-class neighborhood. Nesbitt attended a ball at Walhalla Hall, a Lower East Side establishment popular with local ethnic social clubs. There he found some five hundred male couples waltzing sedately and quite a few “masculine looking women in male evening dress” dancing with other women. So many seemed of “good” background, Nesbitt marveled, that he could almost imagine himself “among respectable people.”
Ralph Werther reported at least one instance in which solidarity went beyond mere socializing. In 1895 he was invited to join a little club called Cercle Hermaphrododitos, open only to those who “like to doll themselves up in feminine finery.” Its goal was to unite for defense “against the world’s bitter persecution”—making it conceivably the first homosexual rights organization in the United States. Persecution was less prevalent in the working-class neighborhoods than in uptown quarters, the fairies found; Werther enjoyed good relations with Irish and Italian youths. But while Bowery males tolerated these sexual newcomers, they did not respect them, and gang members brutalized them from time to time, as they did the Chinese, well aware their victims would not complain to police.
Traveling up the Bowery or Broadway brought amusement seekers to the Union Square Rialto, center of a very different kind of cultural production. Union Square remained the hub of the nation’s theatrical industry, and managers and actors lived by the hundreds in area apartments and theatrical boardinghouses. The stock company system completed its collapse in this era. Lester Wallack’s group disbanded in 1887, leaving just Augustin Daly’s old troupe and one newcomer, Charles Frohman’s Empire Theater Stock Company. The stage was now completely given over to combination companies, the assembled-to-order groups that went out on prearranged tours. In the 1881—82 season 138 companies took to the road. In 1894-95 234 groups were hoofing their way across the country, and variety artists and minstrel performers were also assembling troupes and traveling. As the combination system grew ever more reliant on big-name attractions, duly certified success on the New York stage grew ever more critical.
Actors did not leave such crucial notices to chance. Thespians led vivid lives, fashioned personal legends and glamorous personas, and employed dramatic agents to publicize their reputations across the country. Richard d’Oyly Carte, the entrepreneur who produced Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience at the Standard, arranged for Oscar Wilde, whose “aesthetic” movement the play spoofed, to tour the country giving talks. His prospectus promoting Wilde to out-of-town booking agents promised that “he will be first announced, advertised, and worked up in N.Y. City.” Ballyhooing techniques had developed since P. T. Barnum packaged Jenny Lind. New York talent brokers now drew on methods advertising executives used to market brand-name corporate products. Theatrical portraits of famous personalities were displayed everywhere—in shop windows, hotels, restaurants—and cheaper reproductions graced cards inserted in cigarette packages.
Union Square’s specialization in theatrical marketing, coupled with its proximity to genteel precincts, made it the crucible for the emergence of vaudeville, a new entertainment form that would soon sweep the city and the country. The impresario most responsible for this development was the fat, genial, and handlebar-mustachioed Antonio “Tony” Pastor, a master of the variety stage who set out in the 1880s to change its image. At the age of twelve, Pastor, born in Greenwich Village in 1834, gave his first paid performance, as a blackface minstrel singer, at Barnum’s Museum. Later he joined the circus as an acrobat, singer, and clown, then returned to New York, where he sang topical songs at a Broadway saloon. In 1865 he took over the old Volk’s Garden at 201 Bowery and rechristened it Pastor’s Opera House; there he ran a successful variety show for many years.
In 1881 he moved up to Union Square, opening Tony Pastor’s New Fourteenth Street Theater in Tammany Hall. Following in Barnum’s footsteps, Pastor decided to repackage variety—a brash, plebeian, and male-oriented entertainment form—and make it suitable for a broader and more profitable audience, one that crossed class and gender lines. Union Square was ideally situated for such an initiative, as vast numbers of respectable women came every day to the area’s shops and to Ladies’ Mile, thriving a scant few blocks away. The Sixth Avenue Elevated had poured customers onto the strip that ran from Macy’s at 14th Street up to McCreery’s at 23rd. More giant department stores went up in the 1880s and 1890s, each determined to outdo the others as a spectacular stage for marketing goods.
Pastor launched an ad campaign, aimed at wives, sisters, and sweethearts, announcing the birth of “clean variety.” He barred liquor, banned prostitutes, and sheared the entertainment itself of excessive vulgarity. Once again a cultural entrepreneur had set out to buff the rough edges off downtown culture in order to sell it to uptown audiences. A new form required a new name, and Pastor’s 1881 advertisements proclaimed “the first specialty and vaudeville theater of America, catering to polite tastes.” Variety was associated with drink, sex, and the working class; “vaudeville” had French associations and suggested respectability and “class.”
There was in fact no structural difference between variety and vaudeville, each being a series of acts strung together, but Pastor’s vaudeville was more “tasteful.” His offerings included demure dancers, blackface comics, spoofs of uptown light operas, Irish acts, magic lantern shows, puppetry, city sketches (“The Mysteries of Gotham,” “The Bowery by Day and Night”), and Tony himself, singing favorites like “Lula, the Beautiful Hebrew Girl” or “Sarah’s Young Man” (“On her I grew love sick / She was a domestic / And lived in a mansion / On Washington Square.”)
Pastor, though a great success, at first had little wider impact—most variety stages continued much as before—largely because the performer-manager had no ambitions beyond his own theater. It would take an empire builder to press the transformation farther. At the time Pastor was launching vaudeville, Benjamin Franklin Keith came to town to work at Bunnell’s Museum, one of the fifty dime museums flourishing in New York City in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Keith was not a performer but an entrepreneur, and after a year at Bunnell’s, displaying collections of human curiosities, wax figures, and two-headed chickens, followed by a year on the road with P. T. Barnum’s circus, he opened his own Pastor-style vaudeville operation, the New York Dime Museum, in Boston in 1883. Over the next decade, Keith worked out and standardized the vaudeville formula, while his partner, Edward F. Albee, designed special-purpose theaters.
By the time Keith and Albee moved into New York’s Union Square Theater in 1893, they had industrialized the master’s approach. The Union Square offered “continuous performance,” repeating acts throughout the day. Each was no less than seven and no more than twenty minutes long and fit for family viewing. The theater itself was refined too, staffed with a corps of boy ushers in Turkish costumes and with ladies’ room maids in lace caps and frilly aprons. Perhaps most important, the managers hired bouncers to cope with any men or boys who, accustomed to stag-house laxity, might shout obscenities at female performers from the galleries. They also banned smoking, hat wearing, whistling, stamping, spitting on the floor, and crunching peanuts. Not surprisingly, Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach established tasteful music halls in which they offered patrons the new and respectable vaudeville.
THE ROOTS OF TIN PAN ALLEY
Union Square’s sheet music houses had long served primarily as distribution agencies for established songwriters, but in the 1880s, in tandem with the rise of vaudeville, they began producing what one advertised as “Songs Written to Order.” In 1886 Witmark and Sons, a Jewish firm like many of the new companies, segued from commercial printing into sheet music publishing and song production. The youthful brothers quickly discovered that test marketing before live audiences was the key to success. At first they kept the operation in the family: Julius, “the boy soprano,” became a popular performer at Tony Pastor’s, and gave stage-play to songs Isidore wrote. Those that caught on were quickly printed up and marketed.
As new entrepreneurs poured into the business, song salesmanship became a ferociously competitive affair. Rival song “pluggers” stalked popular vaudeville vocalists, snared them on streetcorners, and sang them their songs amid the passing throng. To get real stars to work their ditties into an act, pluggers would buy them drinks or dinners in Union Square restaurants, pay their board bill, purchase their railroad tickets to distant cities. They also wooed bandleaders, managers, and waiters, hired boys in the galleries to take up the chorus, and got organ grinders to spread their melodies throughout the city. In addition, they cultivated the growing number of vaudeville agents who worked in the Union Square area booking agencies supplying acts and songs to theaters and amusement parks across the country.
In the 1890s the stakes and purses grew larger, as evidenced by the Cinderella success of Charles K. Harris. Like most free-lance songwriters, Harris was at the bottom of the emerging industry, way below publishers and performers. When the Witmarks offered him an eighty-five-cent royalty check for one effort, the enraged Harris opened his own company and began churning out melodramatic songs about women wronged and vice reproved. In 1892 Harris wrote “After the Ball,” a pathetic tale of a young man doomed to eternal bachelorhood (“Long years have passed, child, I’ve never wed / True to my lost love, though she is dead.”) Harris got songstress May Irwin to introduce it at Tony Pastor’s, and within a few years it sold over two million copies.
Other million-plus sellers followed in the early 1890s, with some of the biggest hits packaging and marketing images of life in New York. “The Bowery” (1892), first sung in the musical comedy A Trip to Chinatown, was about the misadventures of a genteel young man who, on his first visit to the metropolis, disregarded advice to stay away from the working-class boulevard:
Oh, the night that I struck New York, I went out for a little walk.
Folks who are onto the city say, better far that I took Broadway.
But I was out to enjoy the sights: there was the Bowery ablaze with lights;
I had one of the Devil’s own nights, I’ll never go there any more.
In succeeding verses the hapless tourist is bilked at an auction, bounced from a variety hall, and battered in a bar (“I struck a place that they called a dive. I was lucky to get out alive”), with each crisis punctuated by the pointed refrain: “I’ll never go there any more.”
More appealing metropolitan portraits were furnished by “The Sidewalks of New York” (1894) and “The Band Played On” (1895), the latter a song about Matt Casey’s stylish social club in a rented hall where on Saturday night he and his cronies would grease the floor with wax, don their Sunday clothes, and waltz with strawberry blondes. Most of the big hits were waltzes, with lyrics that got to the point as quickly as an advertisement and memorably melodic choruses that made it easy for audiences and parlor performers to sing along.
These blockbuster successes, which kept New York life in the nation’s ear, inspired dozens of other songwriting firms to try their hand. Most continued to locate around 14th Street, until the flourishing Witmark brothers moved uptown to West 28th Street, nearer the new theatrical district. By the late 1890s almost every major music publisher had followed them, creating a new center for the popular music industry soon to be dubbed Tin Pan Alley.
BIG TENT ON MADISON SQUARE
While Union Square mediated between Bowery and Broadway, Madison Square, a few blocks north, accommodated both simultaneously.
Ever since the old New York and Harlem Rail Road shed at Madison and 26th had been rendered obsolete by Grand Central Depot, the Vanderbilt family had leased the old terminus to various theatrical entrepreneurs. In 1873 P. T. Barnum used the premises, remodeled as the Great Roman Hippodrome, for performances of the world’s first three-ring circus. Later, bandmaster Patrick S. Gilmore rented it for boxing matches, marathon running races, and the first Westminster Kennel Club Show (1877).
In 1879 William Kissam Vanderbilt reasserted family control over the site and rechristened it Madison Square Garden, appropriating for indoor halls a word long associated with outdoor “pleasure gardens.” In the early 1880s Vanderbilt focused on sports events, relying heavily on six-day-long marathon runs and boxing “exhibitions” featuring John L. Sullivan. But in 1885 a clampdown on the still illegal sport cut off that income stream, and events like the National Horse Show, which started that year, failed to replace it. Vanderbilt decided to raze his “patched-up, grimy, drafty, combustible old shell” and sell out to a syndicate of titans that included J. P. Morgan (president), Andrew Carnegie, James Stillman, and W. W. Astor.
Their Madison Square Garden Company raised over $1.5 million, solicited Stanford White to design the new structure, and launched construction with a workforce of over a thousand men. Eleven months later, one of the largest public entertainment halls in the world opened its doors. Its vast buff-and-yellow base, girdled by pedestrian arcades and embellished with terra-cotta, was crowned by a three-hundred-foot-plustall tower modeled on Seville’s Moorish Giralda. Exceeded in size only by Pulitzer’s World Building, the tower became an instant attraction and emblem of New York City. After 1891 elevators carried the public to a loggia, from which stairs provided access to an observation platform 289 feet above the street that afforded bird’s-eye views of the metropolis, and on higher still to a two-person perch at the 304-6101 level. At the pinnacle, a Saint-Gaudens statue of Diana was unveiled on November i, 1891, with a grand illumination of red fire, colored lights, and rockets. When the bombs bursting in air revealed that Diana was nude, moralists condemned it as an outrage, but J. P. Morgan liked it, and it stayed.
The Garden offered bourgeois audiences orchestral performances, light operas, and romantic comedies in the Garden Theater, as well as an array of deluxe facilities including a ballroom-concert hall, an adjoining supper room-foyer, a restaurant, men’s and women’s withdrawing rooms, and a roof garden enclosed in glass that could be removed during the summer. The Garden’s colossal amphitheater—with no boxes and brilliant illumination from incandescent lamps—became home to elite affairs like the annual National Horse Show, the first big event of each season, and the Westminster Kennel Club Show. After 1891 it hosted the annual French Ball, still an unbuttoned affair. At the 1894 ball, New York clubmen tossed laughing courtesans, bare bosomed, from the dance floor into lower boxes. On one occasion, the bediamonded Miss Western, a leading madam, held court in the Astor family’s private box—in the Queen’s very seat—as hundreds of males passed by to pay her homage.
As a financial proposition, however, the Garden was a disaster. Elites alone couldn’t support the lavishly equipped complex, which seated five thousand (twelve thousand at special events) and cost $240,000 a year to maintain. Stanford White tried fashioning some large-scale popular entertainments—re-creations of Shakespeare’s House and the Globe Theatre—and the management brought in P. T. Barnum’s and John Ringling’s circuses. Madison Square Garden thus became an institution that oscillated, from night to night, between patrician and plebeian entertainments.
North and west of Madison Square lay the sin-drenched Tenderloin—or Satan’s Circus, as the clergy were fond of calling it. It started at Sixth and 23rd, where since 1879 Bryant’s Opera House, one of the last minstrel venues in the city, had been leased by Adam Bial and John Koster for their Koster and Bial’s Music Hall. A glorified concert saloon, where patrons in balcony boxes or at ground-floor tables could drink and watch Lillian McTwobucks do a Bowery version of the cancan or listen to barrelhouse baritones, Koster and Bial’s was rather tame, though the Times called it “lurid.” A few blocks north things were considerably lustier.
The notorious Haymarket, on Sixth just south of 30th, had a veneer of outward decency. It forbade its wealthy clientele from close-up dancing with prostitutes and expelled working-class girls who turned out for an evening’s fun if they displayed their ankles. At the same time, it thoughtfully provided curtained galleries behind which discreet sex could be practiced. Visiting firemen or men-about-town could also repair to the Haymarket’s balcony level, where cubicles featured sex exhibitions or “circuses.”
Elite bordellos too had ensconced themselves in the Tenderloin, having pursued their respectable clients northward, like camp followers in the train of an army. As fashionable theaters had now banned third-tier operations, prostitutes met their patrons at the doors of the Metropolitan Opera House or Wallack’s or Daly’s and escorted them to nearby establishments, like the almost solid row of whorehouses on West 29th Street.
An evening of high culture was hardly a prerequisite for commercial sex, however. Elevated railroads put the area within easy reach of distant patrons. The same el that brought respectable women to shop at genteel department stores by day brought respectable men by night to shop for women. “Ladies’ Mile” took on a different meaning at night, as Sixth Avenue between 14th and 34th streets became a brightly lit whore’s promenade. A block farther west, patrols of black prostitutes gave the strip of Seventh Avenue between 23rd and 40th streets the name of “African Broadway.”
Gambling resorts too settled here in the 1880s and 1890s. Of New York’s hundreds of faro banks and policy shops, most of the first-class houses were Tenderloin operations. John Daly, the city’s kingpin gambler, had been drawn to New York from Troy by the success of John Morrissey, and his famous house at 39 West zgth, open since 1878, paid a rumored one hundred thousand dollars in annual protection. The era’s rising star was Richard A. Canfield, who had started as a poker-room operator in Providence, traveled to Monte Carlo and European spas to learn how aristocrats gambled, then moved to New York. In 1888 Canfield opened the Madison Square Club at 22 West 26th; a more dignified, luxurious, and honest operation than was customary at the time, it would soon win him international renown.
BEST OF BROADWAY
Those who left Madison Square Garden but stuck to the straight and narrow northward path found themselves in the heartland of the “legitimate” stage, which had fled the old Rialto to upper Broadway between 23rd and 42nd. The chain of theaters began with the Lyceum (1885), the first New York playhouse lighted by electricity, which had been personally installed by Edison. Augustin Daly, the first to gamble on a northward drift, had relocated his stock company to Broadway and 30th in 1879, and Lester Wallack had followed close behind in 1882. Then came the Bijou, the Abbey, the Casino (famed for its Moorish design and novel roof garden), and the Empire, at the very edge of Longacre (not yet Times) Square. By the early 1890s this once sparsely settled stretch of Broadway was ablaze with electric lights and thronged by crowds of middle- and upper-class theater, restaurant, and cafe patrons.
What kept these houses packed—even during the blizzard of 1888—was partly New Yorkers’ traditional devotion to the stage, partly a great surge in out-of-town tourists and businessmen who stayed at the nearby hotels, and partly the greatly improved transportation network of ferries, elevateds, and streetcars, which expanded the accessible theatrical hinterland. Communication technology helped: prosperous Manhattanites with call boxes connected by wire to the nearest telegraph office for summoning a messenger boy to pick up a telegram could also use their device to order tickets from Daly’s Theater, which then were delivered by hand.
For the most part, the content in these new playhouses was as respectable as their audiences. The Lyceum was the favorite haunt of the Four Hundred who, dressed in formal evening attire, took in its drawing-room dramas. Fashionable audiences packed Daly’s for its lavish productions of Shakespeare and mingled during the intervals in its richly furnished lobby. Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert’s H.M.S. Pinafore opened at the Standard in January 1879—they arrived for a visit and were given a gala reception at the Lotos Club—but the Casino became the city’s new temple of light opera, drawing many patrons clad in the new tailless evening coat, the “tuxedo.” Frohman’s did well with English and European comedies and dramas. While some of these offerings could approach the mildly risque, uptown promoters assured bourgeois audiences their plays met minimum standards of decency.
Edwin Booth, New York’s (and America’s) greatest tragedian, strove to make thespians as well as theater more respectable. Society packed the playhouses but kept players at arm’s length, even the most highly reputed. Sarah Bernhardt’s 1880 American debut at Booth’s Theater was the talk of the town a year before she arrived, and the haute monde paid up to forty dollars a ticket to see her, but ladies refused to invite her to their homes, and her Century Association reception was for men only.
Booth, impressed by London’s Garrick Club, where actors mixed with fashionable society, decided that a New York counterpart would help in “the elevation of the stage.” In 1888 he and his friends bought a stately 1845 house on Gramercy Park, had Stanford White remodel it, and reopened it as the Players Club. Actors flocked to its subdued and dignified precincts. Those of too bohemian a bent were blackballed; they could, however, betake themselves to the Lambs Club, a more uninhibited and convivial watering hole, or to Keens Chophouse, which Albert Keen, the Lambs’ manager, had opened on 36th Street in 1885.
This trend toward respectability was hailed by important voices in the larger theatrical community. The city’s leading trade paper, the New York Mirror (1879; later the Dramatic Mirror), urged players to attend church every Sunday. And the genteel drama critic at the Tribune exhorted the profession “to instill, to protect, and to maintain purity, sweetness, and refinement in our feelings, our manners, our language, and our national character.”
For all this, there was nothing like a whiff of forbidden sensuality to sell tickets, and the boundary between Broadway and the Tenderloin proved a porous one. A series of ravishing overseas visitors such as Lily Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt took to the boards, and the arrival of glamorous Lillian Russell turned out to be a classic case of downtown infiltrating uptown.
Russell was born Helen Louise Leonard in Clinton, Iowa, in 1861. At age two she was taken to Chicago by her father, a newspaperman, and her mother, Cynthia Leonard, a strong-willed feminist and crusader for women’s rights, and placed in the Convent of Sacred Heart for eight years; she first studied music in church choirs. In 1877 Helen’s mother, eager to work with the suffrage and socialist movements, took her seventeenyear-old daughter with her to New York. Intending Helen for an opera career, Leonard placed her with famed teacher Leopold Damrosch and then plunged into feminist work: in 1888 she would become the first woman to run for mayor of New York City. Helen, equally strong willed, abandoned her lessons and joined a chorus, where she caught the eye and ear of Tony Pastor. The variety entrepreneur assigned her a new name and launched her career with a major role in The Pie-rats of Penyan, a vaudeville burlesque of uptown operettas.
Russell soon shifted from satire to the real thing, landing a role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. In short order the silvery-voiced singer had become the Casino’s resident light opera prima donna and was pulling down a salary on a par with those of steel executives and Wall Street brokers. Sexually magnetic—her 165 pounds corseted into the requisite hourglass figure—Russell became one of the most lusted after women in America, with tycoons pleading to drink champagne from her slippers, yet all the while she maintained a reasonably respectable cachet.
The genteel theater, for all its reservations about actors, public sensuality, and the commercialization of sex, itself dabbled in the “leg-itimate” business (as one downtown burlesque show chortled). Its marketing of personalities, moreover, was directly tied in with the marketing of commodities. The daily doings of famous actresses were chronicled in the women’s magazines, and their choice of clothes, jewelry, and millinery began to set national trends. Women adopted their coiffures and tried to imitate their figures (for a time Bernhardt’s “spiral silhouette” banished the bustle). Makeup moved out of theatrical dressing rooms into respectable parlors, beauty shops became almost as common as barbershops, and photographs of Lily Langtry’s flawless complexion soon graced ads for Pear’s soap.
Manhattan and Coney islands were incubating a new mass commercial culture, but their assorted entertainment zones were strung out over such distances that it was hard for even the most diligent pedestrian to grasp the new phenomenon as a whole. There was one source, however, that even armchair investigators could easily consult and master: Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, which was itself a prize example of the new order.
After the Gvil War Pulitzer had moved to St. Louis, worked as a reporter for a German-language paper, got into politics, practiced law, formed the Post and Dispatch, and become a successful publisher. By 1883 he was ready to tackle New York again, but the city’s field of metropolitan dailies was a crowded one, filled with such potent competitors as Dana’s Sun, Bennett Junior’s Herald, George Jones’s New York Times, and Whitelaw Reid’s Tribune—just among the morning papers.
There was also the World, once the organ of Swallowtail Democrats, now Jay Gould’s plaything. Deep in the red, it nevertheless had an Associated Press franchise and a Democratic lineage in a Democratic town, so Pulitzer bought it from the hardbargaining financier for an outrageous $346,000, payable in installments. Pulitzer had his foothold in Manhattan, and a staggering debt as well. Simply to survive he needed a fantastically rapid rise in circulation.
He got it. When he took over in 1883 the World was selling perhaps fifteen thousand copies a day. It passed the sixty thousand mark in a matter of months. The Herald, Times, and Tribune, acting like rival railroad magnates, slashed their prices to keep up, but to no avail. Within a scant two years the World’s circulation topped 150,000, and in 1890 Pulitzer capped his triumph by erecting the world’s tallest building.
Pulitzer succeeded by navigating the course charted back in the 1830s by those master pilots of the penny press, Bennett Senior and Benjamin Day. He also seized on the possibilities of the 1880s: the industrialization of communications technology, the techniques developed by the advertising business, and the strategies deployed by the mass entertainment entrepreneurs on Coney Island, the Bowery, Broadway, and Union Square.
The World adopted a breezy and colloquial style. “Condense, condense!” Pulitzer commanded his reporters, following admen in opting for the simple nouns, vivid verbs, and short sentences that made the paper accessible to immigrants learning the language. When chastised by E. L. Godkin of the Evening Post for breaking with genteel conventions, Pulitzer replied: “I want to talk to a nation, not to a select committee.”
World news stories scrapped leisurely chronology for snappy analysis, putting the who-what-when-where-and-why into an easily graspable lead paragraph. This, together with smaller pages, was a boon to hurrying commuters, explained a trade paper in 1887, as New Yorkers “read largely in the horse cars, the elevated railroads and the omnibuses”—crowded and noisy venues. “We do not want a paper which requires a whole conveyance in which to turn its pages.”
Pulitzer reformatted the front page. Even penny press papers like the Herald and the Sun had stayed with single-column headlines, simply adding subheads to denote particularly important stories. The World went with multicolumn banners that contemporaries likened to department store displays designed to grab shoppers’ attention.
He plunged into pictures. Graphics had long been central to weekly magazines and illustrated papers like Frank Leslie’s, and in 1880 the New York Daily Graphic had supplemented its zinc etchings and photoengraved line illustrations with the first halftone photograph ever reproduced in a New York newspaper, a picture labeled “Shantytown.” But in the regular daily press, it was Pulitzer who first routinely deployed images to accompany text—an enhancement that, like bold heads and terse prose, appealed to the barely or recently literate. He also furthered the development of cartoons (the Daily News had run a strip since 1884) and broke new ground in 1894 with the first colored comic strip—also, curiously, called “Shantytown.” This was followed by the introduction of “Hogan’s Alley,” featuring a hairless, single-toothed street urchin dressed in flowing yellow robes. The “Yellow Kid” would be spun off as a strip in its own right.
Pulitzer’s content, like his style, appealed to a mass audience. Immediately on assuming control, he had called his inherited, dignified staff together and announced: “Gentlemen, you realize that a change has taken place in the World. Heretofore you have all been living in the parlour and taking baths every day. Now I wish you to understand that, in future, you are all walking down the Bowery.” This unnerving prospect prompted several on-the-spot resignations, allowing Pulitzer to bring in replacements from his St. Louis paper.
Pulitzer, like Harrigan and Hart, drew on working-class life for material. The World chronicled ordinary people, using human interest stories to spotlight and dignify members of the metropolitan crowd. Pulitzer’s reporters routinely quoted the kind of New Yorker who had rarely appeared in print before, like the gashouse laborer who had just learned of the existence of Central Park and attended a Sunday concert there: the World passed on to the world his remark that “to-day I have been as happy as a king.” Graphically too the paper was broad gauged. It filled its pages with visages of hotel clerks, artists, cooks, and cops, as well as portraits of judges, politicians, and financiers. The paper also practiced skillful tribal journalism, scorning the English on behalf of Irish readers, providing Kleindeutschland with news of Bismarck’s doings, and paying close attention to Jewish holidays for patrons on the Lower East Side. Pulitzer covered, as well, aspects of commercial culture usually relegated to specialized journals like the Spirit of the Times, Clipper, and Police Gazette; he inaugurated a sports page in the 1880s.
The World treated as front-page news such dramatic moments in the life of the city as the Festival of Connection marking the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. It promoted investigative reporting: World reporter Nellie Bly (nee Elizabeth Cochrane) feigned insanity, got herself committed to the Blackwell’s Island Asylum, and wrote up a story on the abominable conditions there that led to a grand jury investigation.1 Pulitzer certainly exploited sentiment for the sake of sales, but his paper also promoted public generosity and helped foster an ethos of civic solidarity.
Pulitzer made his paper news as well as newsmaker. In 1885 the Statue of Liberty languished unassembled in France, efforts to raise money for a pedestal having stalled. Crying, “Let us not wait for the millionaires to give this money,” Pulitzer appealed to “the people” to rescue the monument and avoid an “irrevocable disgrace to New York City.” Tens of thousands of small contributions rolled in, the pedestal was constructed, and, in the process, the World became associated indelibly with the enterprise (Pulitzer even incorporated the statue into the paper’s nameplate).
The World took great pains to attract women readers, a constituency most dailies gave scant attention. Pulitzer understood, as did manufacturers and purveyors of consumer goods, that in the 1880s women did most household purchasing, and their patronage was therefore the key to attracting advertisers. The World accordingly argued that “what the New York woman of the higher order is likely to have as her special denotement is style,” unlike her Boston sister who was “severely intellectual or burdened with scholarship.” Maintaining this stylish lead was a difficult and never-ending process, and the World was there to help.
The World also walked a fine line between the prudery demanded by genteel opinion and a sale-boosting prurience. The paper’s pages, for all their surface propriety, were suffused with erotic innuendo, sternly condemning sinfulness in general while recounting in detail the doings of particular sinners. The World served up scandals, particularly when they involved the respectable and prosperous, and waged campaigns against prostitution, abortionists, variety shows, and opium dens—campaigns simultaneously sanctimonious and titillating.
Pulitzer adopted a similar strategy in depicting violence, wrapping concupiscent accounts of bloody deeds in pious disapproval. Sensational headlines—“Who Murdered Mrs. Bush?”—dragged attention to graphic coverage of gruesome incidents, often accompanied by precisely labeled crime-scene sketches (“Bed Covered with Blood”; “Sink in Which the Knife was Found”). Executions were featured because judicial murders were simultaneously gory (“Dragged Resisting to a Prayerless Doom”) and legitimate. Reviving an ancient urban practice, the very first issues of the revamped World carried lurid accounts of executions, dwelling on the last hours of condemned killers.
If Pulitzer paid extravagant attention to most sensational aspects of the urban underworld, affording bourgeois readers the opportunity for armchair slumming, he provided equal opportunity voyeurism in the World’s society pages, peeps inside the grand châteaux that afforded the twin pleasures of virtuous condemnation and vicarious sybaritism. The paper attacked the culture of the “watered-stock aristocracy” and lit into the ostentatious glitter of the new and “vulgar wealthy,” denouncing their urban châteaux, Newport palaces, and valet-guarded boxes at the Metropolitan Opera House. It was equally scathing about the old guard, ruthlessly lampooning the “snobocracy” and its pretensions to noble lineage.
Pulitzer also kept a critical edge on reporting about the everyday life of the working classes. Proclaiming that the World would henceforth be “dedicated to the cause of the people rather than that of purse potentates,” he ran stories on squalid tenement housing, impure milk, infant mortality, female and child labor, and strikes. In one of the earliest instances of what would later be called muckraking, Pulitzer denounced Rockefeller’s Standard Oil as “the most cruel, impudent, pitiless, and grasping monopoly that ever fastened upon a country,” and his crusades for antitrust legislation helped pass the Sherman Act in 1890.
The World pointed out and excoriated the connection between big money and politicians—if they were Republican politicians. In the 1884 presidential race, when 180 financiers attended a sumptuous Delmonico’s dinner for candidate James G. Blaine, the Worlddenounced “the Royal Feast of Belshazzar.” A huge front-page political cartoon depicted Blaine and the “Money Kings”—with precise caricatures of Gould, Vanderbilt, Astor, Depew, Carnegie, Seligman, Sage, and others shown drinking “Monopoly Soup” and downing “Lobby Pudding,” heedless of the pleas of an unemployed worker, his emaciated wife, and his ragged child for crumbs from the groaning board. The World also made much of Blaine’s meeting, earlier the same day, with a group of Protestant New York clergymen at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. The spokesman, the Rev. Samuel D. Burchard of the Murray Hill Presbyterian Church, had suggested the Democrats were the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” A tired Blaine failed to contradict the remark, a silence the World converted to vigorous assent to a proposition that affronted Catholic citizens.
Despite its sharp, even shrill attacks on great wealth, the World was not a radical paper. It railed at the Rockefellers but rejected socialism and anarchism, arguing that an enlightened capitalism could avoid class warfare if—with the help of the press—it rid itself of excesses. For all its quarrels with corruption, it was a staunch Democratic Party organ. In the 1886 mayoralty campaign it supported Abram Hewitt, not Henry George.
The World was a triumph, but Pulitzer proved unable to enjoy it. Long burdened with psychological problems (he was probably a manic depressive), his eyes and nerves deteriorated, forcing him to spend much of his time in a darkened room, and he became extremely sensitive to unexpected sounds. In his later years, the man who had mastered and marketed the city’s cacophonous commercial culture would retreat to a McKim, Meade and White mansion on 73rd Street; its utterly noise-proofed annex—double walls packed with mineral wool, and triple-glass windows—served as Pulitzer’s refuge from the slightest city sound, a burden the neurotic publisher now found intolerable.