… Yeah, a helluva town– if hell froze over! The windchill this morning was -4. That’s right– four degrees below zero.
I’ve spent the better part of this week in NYC, doing research at the storied New York Public Library. It’s my first time doing research here, even though I am currently well into writing a book that is mostly about New York. I even regularly teach a course titled “Three Decades of New York City.”
The fact is—[voice dropping to a hushed whisper]– I really do not like New York. There’s nothing mysterious about my dislike. I hate the same things about it that everyone does, even people, I imagine, who live here. It’s crowded. It’s loud. The people who live here think they’re incredibly cosmopolitan, when in fact they’re often yawningly insular, provincial in the classic sense of term. Plus, it’s really hard to find places to go pee. You know, that kind of stuff.
But I’m on sabbatical. They’ve got things here that I can’t find anywhere else. And a friend of mine offered me the use of her apartment while she is away teaching in Paris this semester. I knew I was taking a risk by planning a research trip in early February, but I figured that I might just as well be cold and miserable in New York as in Baltimore.
Luckily I was able to avoid the snowstorms (Juno! Kerry! Linus!) marching across the continent. (As a side note, winter storms happen like this every year. Do we really have to give them names?) But it was really, really cold here this week. So cold, in fact, that I wussed out and decided to take an earlier bus back to Baltimore. I was going to do some sightseeing today, but after a week of trudging for miles, often with a rolling carry-on in tow, and not sleeping well at all (a combined 7 hours the previous two nights– I underestimated how hard it would be to sleep in a room that you can’t make dark!), I’m done in. Done.
But I also got a helluva lot done. I planned this week as a foraging mission: I wanted to scope out the NYPL and its enormous collections, and lay the groundwork for future trips. I spent half my time here looking at a magazine that only fourteen (14) libraries in the entire world– nearly half of them in New York, where it was published– appear to have any copies of: the Verdict, a humor magazine that appeared weekly between 1898 and 1900.
I’m interested in this magazine because George Luks, one of the painters I’m writing about in my book, left his lucrative position on the comics staff of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World to become a cartoonist at the Verdict. And he left the Verdict— and cartooning altogether– in 1900 to become a painter. Certainly his year-long stint at this magazine must have been significant in some way to his development as an artist. My hunch was that he was attracted to the Verdict because he would be able to do more sophisticated work with color than was possible in the World’s comics pages, which were printed on rough newsprint. As a painter, after all, Luks would become known for his bold use of color.
The only examples of illustrations from the Verdict that I’d seen had been reproduced in black and white and very small, less than 1/8 of the original size. I wanted to see them in their full glory. And while the NYPL copies of this magazine are in very poor condition– they are literally crumbling into dust– the images are, in fact, glorious. You need to imagine these at full size– about 16″ high and 24″ wide; all of them are color lithographs, printed in black, vermilion, teal blue, and acid yellow.
This is Luks’s first cartoon for Verdict (Jan. 2, 1899). Here you can clearly see the different plates Luks used: just three colors, black, vermilion, and teal. Just a few months later, you can see how sophisticated Luks’s use of color lithography has become:
This cartoon is one of several Luks drew for Verdict showing how dangerous the streetcars were. If you look very closely at the image, you can see how he used the lithography crayon to create very subtle shading in the flesh tones on the different figures.
And this one is great also, from just a month later:
Yes, Luks hated the trusts. He also hated Mark Hanna, senator from Ohio and the Karl Rove of his day. Here’s another Hanna cartoon, showing Hanna’s relationship to his puppet, McKinley (he even looks like “Dubya” in this cartoon, doesn’t he?). This is one that had struck me when I saw it in black and white as needing to be in color to be understood:
They are pretty cool, no?
It turns out Luks was quite productive in his year at this magazine, producing dozens– perhaps nearing a hundred– cartoons, most of them full-page, full-color cartoons, and many of them centerfold spreads.
Also, after a quick confab with the librarian at the Dorot Jewish Collection at NYPL, and another with the librarian at the periodicals desk, I was able to locate dozens of stories and journalistic pieces written by the Jewish Irish writer Edward Raphael Lipsett, who is going to be the focus of chapter 4 of How the Other Half Laughs. Lipsett published some really clever stories in the 19-teens depicting a fresh-off-the-boat Irish kid named Denny Nolan from Ballintemple, who decides that he’s going to try to pass as Jewish so that he can tap into all the commercial opportunities he sees available to Jews on the LES. Much hilarity ensues.
I’d seen in various places that Lipsett had written in various Jewish periodicals during the first decade of the twentieth century, but hadn’t been able to locate any of them. With a few tips from the librarians, they magically appeared–mostly on microfilm held at the NYPL, which was delivered into my hot little hands in less than an hour. I’ve now scanned many of these pieces off the microfilm, and will spend the next few weeks reading them.
So, it was a very successful research trip. I was only there for a few days, and didn’t have time to do much else. But I did venture forth into the cold this morning to visit Russ & Daughters, to buy Matt what he loves: stinky fish. Russ and Daughters is on the Lower East Side, where I was staying, and has been in business since 1914 (right in the middle of the time period I’m writing about in my book).
The whitefish and smoked salmon spread is as amazing as they say. Can’t wait to try the other things I got– kippered salmon, smoked yellowtail tuna, some knishes, & some “herring roll-ups,” whatever they are!
The fishes is delicious, but I still don’t like New York.
I close with the following from the film On the Town, which sums up my feelings pretty well:
New York, New York, a visitor’s place,
Where no one lives on account of the pace,
But seven millions are screaming for space.
New York, New York, it’s a visitor’s place!
Of course, the seven millions are now, according to the most recent census data, more like twenty millions. They’re not just screaming for space, but clawing for air. (You may complete the metaphor at your leisure.)
Incidentally, the video clip I included from On the Town replaces the mild expletive “helluva” with “wonderful”– I don’t recall this from the movie, but perhaps it was censored?? If anyone has any hard info on this, please enlighten me!