Wednesday, August 28, 2013

83. Colorful New Yorkers: Diamond Jim and Texas Guinan

Looking a bit glum.  Maybe Lillian had just
rejected him ... again.

      Diamond Jim Brady (1856-1917) is remembered as the most prodigious eater and the most jewelry-adorned man-about-town of the Gilded Age.  Born to a poor Irish family on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, his father a saloon keeper, he started work at a young age as a hotel bellhop and messenger, studied the wealthy patrons, their talk and dress and manner, and set out to imitate them and become one of them.  One of these men took an interest in him, sent him to school to learn bookkeeping and penmanship, then offered him a job in baggage at Grand Central Station.  There he rose quickly to station agent and then general manager of the station, and in time became a salesman of handsaws, and then of railroad supplies, charming his customers as he sold them everything from seat cushions and hydraulic breaks to steel undercarriages.  Remarkably successful in this line of work, he became, with the help of investments in the stock market, a millionaire many times over.  If he sat in his office doing business from 9 to 5 daily, after that he gravitated, as he put it, to "where the white lights glowed."

     A perennial and gregarious bachelor, he was a familiar figure in the Broadway night life, an eager dancer and big tipper, and a frequent patron of the upstairs poker and baccarat tables at the Waldorf-Astoria.  Often dining with fellow lovers of the night, including attractive women above all, he would consume no alcohol but, so legend has it, vast amounts of food.  His breakfast was said to consist of eggs, breads, muffins, grits, pancakes, steaks, chops, fried potatoes, and pitchers of orange juice.  In midmorning he'd devour two or three dozen clams or oysters, then lunch at Delmonico's or some other fashionable restaurant on more oysters and clams, lobsters, crabs, a joint of beef, pie, and more orange juice.  Then, after an afternoon snack of more seafood, he'd typically dine on three dozen oysters, a dozen crabs, six or seven lobsters, soup, steak, and for dessert a tray full of pastries.

     Did he really consume such huge amounts of edibles, or has legend exaggerated his culinary prowess?  One restaurant owner described him as "the best twenty-five customers I ever had."  And a broker friend told of seeing him consume a pound of candy in five minutes.  When he died of a heart attack years later, doctors examining the body are said to have found that his stomach was six times the size of that of an average person.

     What was indisputable was his affinity for jewels ("my pets," he called them), especially the diamonds -- some 12,000 of them -- that gave him his nickname.  He wore them on his buttons, watch, belt buckle, scarf pin, eyeglass case, rings, tie pins, cane, and cuff links.  In the handle of his umbrella shone a gem worth $1500, but the prize of his collection was a 35-carat emerald surrounded by six 14-carat diamonds, the whole made into a ring worth $20,000 (about $420,000 today).  He rotated his pets, displaying diamonds one night, rubies the next, and emeralds the night after that.  And in his pockets, they say, he kept a stash of loose diamonds.  "All that glitters is not gold," Shakespeare opines.  True enough in this case, it was diamonds.  When Diamond Jim went out on the town, he absolutely glittered.  Garish?  Vulgar?  The incorrigible poor taste of the nouveau riche?  Said Brady, "Them as has 'em, wears 'em."

File:Lillian Russell cph.3b20676.jpg

   One of his best friends was actress and singer Lillian Russell, the reigning beauty of the day known for her voice and style and magical stage presence, as well as her hour-glass figure (a wasp waist with amplitudes above and below) and feathered hats.  Theirs seems to have been primarily a long-term friendship, though he evidently proposed more than once and was turned down, Lillian explaining that marriage would ruin their friendship.  If Jim remained a bachelor, it was wisdom; man about town that he was, he wouldn't have been a very good husband.  And Lillian, going through three marriages until she stuck at last in the fourth (she believed in marriage until divorce do us part), was probably not the ideal loving wife, and may have seen in their friendship a needed bit of stability.  What they shared was a love of life and good food, Lillian's appetite all but matching his own, and he generously helped support her lavish lifestyle, which included a bike custom-made for her by Tiffany, its handlebars inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and its wheel spokes displaying her initials set in diamonds.  Which goes a long way toward explaining why they call this the Gilded Age.

Lillian and her gem-studded bike.
Of course one notices the hat.

     But cycling may not have been quite his style.  In 1895 he was the first New Yorker to acquire that newfangled contraption, an automobile, then had his chauffeur drive him in town at a preannounced time and place, so his fellow citizens could gawk.

     The bluebloods of Manhattan would not have welcomed Diamond Jim or Lillian in their elegant parlors, he being the son of an Irish saloon keeper, and she an actress, and both of them guilty of the shameless display of wealth.  But Jim and Lillian didn't care; they were having too much fun.

     An aside on dreads:  Respectable families of the time nursed two haunting dreads: (1) That the son would fall in love with an actress; (2) That the daughter would elope with the coachman.  Good-looking young coachmen must have had trouble finding work.

     In time Diamond Jim's eating habits caught up with him and he was beset with gallstones, heart problems, diabetes, and stomach ulcers.  In 1917 he died of a heart attack, leaving money to various charities, $1200 to his favorite Pullman porter, and the bulk of his fortune to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

     The true confirmation of a legend in this country is its embodiment in a Hollywood movie, and both Diamond Jim and Lillian make the grade, Jim in the 1935 film Diamond Jim, starring Edward Arnold, and Lillian in the 1940 film Lillian Russell, starring Alice Faye.  I saw them both as a child and recall being quite indignant that the Lillian Russell film including some new song about an evening star that smacked of modernity; a budding history buff, I wanted "After the Ball" and others of that vintage, and not some romantic nonsense about an evening star.  (Wherein I erred.  I learn now that the evening star song was indeed of the period!)

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      Another lover of the nighttime Broadway scene was Texas Guinan (1884-1933).  Born in Waco, Texas, to Irish-Canadian immigrants, she later convinced the press that she had ridden broncos, rounded up cattle single-handed on a ranch, run off from school to join a circus, and in 1917 gone to France to entertain U.S. soldiers before they confronted the fearful Hun in battle.  Also, she told of receiving a medal from General Joffre during the battle of the Marne -- an interesting detail, since that battle occurred in 1914, long before we entered the war.  All of this was baloney; she was a gifted liar.

     A mediocre singer and slightly less mediocre actress, she started out in vaudeville, touring the vast hinterland of America, charming audiences less with her warbling than with her Wild West spiel and witticisms.  In 1917 she came to New York, where she landed roles in silent films -- 300 of them, she claimed, though it was really 36 -- and even appeared on Broadway.  But if she hoped to streak cometlike across the firmament of Gotham, so far her career had shown less flash than fizzle.

     All that changed in 1920, with the advent of Prohibition.  Prohibition in the feisty, guzzling Babylon on the Hudson?  Ridiculous!  Impossible!  Fuhgedaboudit!  Almost overnight speakeasies began opening all over the city.  Tired of "kissing horses in horse operas," in 1922 Texas, then 38, sensed her true vocation.  After working up her act as M.C. in two high-class joints, she teamed up with Larry Fay, a nightclub owner with the right underworld connections, whose El Fay Club on West 45th Street featured opulent décor, boisterous entertainment, and abundant overpriced alcohol.  Backed up by a scantily clad chorus line, Texas lured a wide range of patrons that included Wall Street financiers, Ivy League college boys, celebrities, politicos, and mobsters.  Why did they flock?  Because the El Fay Club had something that no other speakeasy had: a bejeweled blonde named Texas Guinan.

     Who came?  Ring Lardner, Damon Runyan, Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan; Harry Thaw, the murderer of architect Stanford White; Jimmy Walker, soon to be the fun-loving mayor of New York; and a host of others.  "Hiya, Suckers!" Texas would say by way of greeting, and the patrons would chorus back, "Hiya, Texas!"  Armed with a clapper and a police whistle, clad in ermine and sporting an outsized hat, she would circulate among them, sowing wisecracks far and wide; they loved it.

     There was just one catch: this business was illegal.  Whatever Larry Fay's connections were, they didn't prevent the police from raiding his club, then another that he opened to replace it, and then, when that one too was raided, yet another.  Texas, now a celebrity, presided over each of them, and as a result was jailed repeatedly, jewels and furs included, as recorded by the tabloids of the day, but she was never in for long.  "I like your cute little jail," she remarked, upon release from a night in Durance Vile.  "And I don't know when my jewels have seemed so safe."  As for serving liquor, she denied ever having done such a reprehensible thing; the patrons must have brought the stuff in.  The publicity attending these inconveniences brought still more patrons to the next club she opened; they couldn't get enough of Texas.

     Finally Texas decided to break with Larry Fay and strike out on her own.  Appalled at the prospect of losing his meal ticket, Fay threatened her, so Texas hired some bodyguards and acquired an armored car.  Chastened, Fay sent her flowers and good wishes for her new club, the Club 300, which opened on West 54th Street.  It immediately caught on, became a place the elite simply had to be seen at.  On July 4, 1926, some four hundred of them crowded in to celebrate champion golfer Bobby Jones's return from a triumph in England.  Following Jones's lead, others joined him in dancing the Charleston, among them the captain of a Cunard liner, two U.S. senators, and an ex-president of Cuba.  Then, at 3:00 a.m., five policemen in evening clothes and two policewomen disguised as flappers announced that the club was being raided.  Music and dancing stopped, celebrities vanished, and Texas was arrested and then released upon posting bail, whereupon she went home to the West 8th Street apartment that she shared with her aging parents.

     The 300 Club soon reopened and was frequented by George Gershwin, Pola Negri, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, John Barrymore, and others, a perfect roster of Roaring Twenties celebrities.  Then, on February 16, 1927, an army of policemen raided her yet again -- Texas's sixth raid.  At the 47th Street police station she entertained a multitude of arrested patrons, reporters, photographers, police, and federal agents in renderings of "The Prisoner's Song," a hit tune of the day, sparking up a party that lasted for nine hours; the public read about it in the morning papers.

File:Aimee Semple McPherson.jpg
     Of course the club reopened yet again, but the next challenge came from a different quarter when Aimee Semple McPherson, the celebrity revivalist, left her home base in the City of the Angels to convert the wild and  wanton city of New York.  Like Texas, Aimee was a superb self-promoter and performer, her services on occasion featuring such embellishments as flying angels, a camel, a police motorcycle.  When it came time for the offering, she would announce, "Brothers and sisters, I don't want to hear the clink of small change.  I want to hear the rustle of those dollar bills!"  Now, white gowned, perfumed, and glamorous, she survived the spectacle in a Village dive of the Black Bottom, then fast supplanting the Charleston as the most popular dance of the day, and toward 3 a.m. made a beeline for the Club 300.  The queen of West Coast revivalism confronting the queen of East Coast speakeasies in her den of iniquity?  Yes, it really happened.

     Undaunted, Texas urged her guests, "Give a hand for the brave little woman!"  Sister Aimee and Texas stood arm in arm, and as the patrons cheered wildly, the new arrival urged them all to look to the well-being of their immortal souls, invited them to attend her meeting later that day, and graciously departed.  So that afternoon Texas and her chorus girls, all properly clothed and in furs, showed up at the Glad Tidings Tabernacle on West 33rd Street, and with cameras clicking, joined in the prayers and hymns, and listened quietly to Aimee's soaring exhortations.  Some accounts have Texas converted by Sister Aimee, but this is nonsense; Texas simply escorted her girls back to the club.

     With 1929 came the stock market crash, and the Roaring Twenties dwindled to a whimper.  In her clubs, each one closed in time by the law, the crowds had long been thinning, and the free spenders of recent years now vanished.  "An indiscretion a day keeps the Depression away," quipped Texas, who in 1931 took her troupe to Paris, only to be sent back home by the French government, who wanted no competition for their own performers in these new hard times.  Desperate, she and her troupe toured the provinces -- a comedown after years of glory -- but in Vancouver she suffered an attack of ulcerated colitis and died there on November 5, 1933, age 49, just one month before the repeal of Prohibition.  Twelve thousand attended her funeral in New York.  A fitting sendoff, since she had said on her deathbed in Vancouver, "I would rather have a square inch of New York than all the rest of the world."

     Coming soon:  Next Sunday, the Titan of the Met (with an account of the fiery Callas, and my choice for the most ludicrous opera production ever staged).  Next Wednesday, more Colorful New Yorkers: the Mad Poet of Broadway, Fernandy, and the Mephistopheles of Wall Street.  Warning: These projections are tentative and assume no more mysterious disappearances of drafts, such as have plagued me recently.  But last Sunday's post on war profiteering had the most views in one day to date: 184! 

©  2013  Clifford Browder

Sunday, August 25, 2013

82. Who makes money when America goes to war? New York City, 1861-1865.

     When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Southerners, convinced that "cotton is king," predicted that New York City, deprived of cotton and other Southern products, would soon see grass growing in its streets.  But the city saw no more grass in its streets than usual -- which meant next to none --  for the government now found itself suddenly in need of every kind of supplies and rushed to obtain them.  Since Washington, Baltimore, and even Philadelphia were thought to be too close to the theater of war, New York was where, in the East, contracts were offered for, among other things, Springfield and Enfield rifles, cannon, bayonets, boots and shoes, uniforms, wagons, mess pork, kiln-dried cornmeal, prime Rio coffee, rice in stout oak barrels, and quantities of "good hard soap."  Needless to say, patriotic New Yorkers rushed to oblige.  "You will rake in hugely," one patriot had written another at the outbreak of war, and events proved him outrageously right.  Of the three categories of New Yorkers who profited from the war -- contractors, speculators, and bounty brokers -- let's have a look first at the contractors.


     What might an enterprising commission broker with the right contacts manage to accomplish?  Quite a bit, as for instance five thousand barrels of not quite prime mess pork delivered to the commissary general at a thumping price in regulation solid oak casks bound each with two iron hoops; a subcontract, bought from the brother-in-law of a captain, for six thousand overcoats of wool that he satisfied with the best cheap shoddy on the market, which, dyed sky-blue, might – or might not – turn spongy if exposed to heavy rain; and twelve thousand pasteboard and shingle-stiffened boots passed with a wink by the inspector – a smooth deal topped off afterward by a toast at the Astor House bar to the “old flag, the true flag, the red, white, and blue flag” by himself and the inspector, clinking glasses with the assistant quartermaster general.  And if the boots did fall apart in the rain, he had a ready explanation to any investigating committee: "Gents, those articles were meant for the cavalry!"

      And how might a contractor accomplish all this?  Not just by scanning the assistant quartermaster general's announcements in the papers.  It was just as useful to mingle with contractors and subcontractors, commissary agents and quartermasters, and brokers of every breed and spiel at the Astor House Hotel on busy Broadway, where rumors circulated and deals were hatched over a brandy and soda or a gin sling in a spacious but crowded barroom with a long curving bar backed by huge mirrors in thick gilt frames.   

     That all was not well, that outrageous prices were being paid, and often for substandard goods, soon became apparent.  The young J.P. Morgan loaned money to a dealer who bought defective carbines from a government arsenal for $3.50 each and then resold them to the government for $22.  Morgan has been denounced for this deal ever since, but he may have been only a creditor.  Steamboat operator Daniel Drew chartered two almost obsolete steamboats to the government for seven hundred and eight hundred dollars a day, and Commodore Vanderbilt, never to be outdone by others, chartered four steamships to the government at the astonishing rate of two thousand dollars a day.  Meanwhile it was rumored that Mayor George Opdyke had made a fortune through secret partnerships with contractors.  The influential politician Thurlow Weed accused him of making fraudulent claims against the government, prompting Opdyke to sue him, but the mayor failed to convince the jury.  Meanwhile Weed himself was lining his pockets with commissions for letting out government contracts.  To sensitive nostrils the aroma of corruption was rank.  

     Subsequent Congressional investigations would uncover some interesting facts: supplies furnished by a supplier without prices being predetermined and without competition, the "fair mercantile profit" allowed by the quartermaster being 40 percent; contractors realizing huge profits by subletting contracts to other parties who assumed all the responsibilities and risks, yet themselves realized profits matching those of the original contractors; an alleged government agent who purchased a buggy and horses, then took them for himself and disappeared without paying the seller; an inspector who reported rejecting 500 or 600 felt overcoats out of 6,000 because they were too thin; and vessels chartered without inspection of their boilers, the government relying completely on the seller's word for their condition.  Yes, someone -- a lot of someones -- were raking in hugely.

File:Carriage Central Park.jpg
A carriage today in Central Park.  Not too different from the carriages back then.
Rainer Halama

     And they were spending hugely.  Parading in shiny equipages on the Drive in the new Central Park, with uniformed coachmen, and liveried footmen sitting erect in rumble seats, were what came to be known as the Shoddy Aristocracy, the women in brocaded silks and thousand-dollar camel's-hair shawls, and bonnets with frills and lace and ruffles and maybe a stuffed hummingbird on top, while their silk-hatted escorts sported velvet coats, gold chains, breast pins, and gem-studded rings.  And at their balls and receptions the hostesses greeted their multitudes of guests, some of whom they barely knew, in low-cut dresses edged with fluted ruffles, smiling under top-heavy tiaras, or towering pyramids or waterfalls of gold-powdered curls, often augmented with imported horsehair and adorned with amber or pearl or jet or garnet beads, or small seashells, or gilt coins jingling in flashy profusion.    The simplicity of the old Knickerbocker society of years past was gone forever; Shoddy reigned supreme.


     "The battle of Bull Run," said a financier, "makes the fortune of every man on Wall Street who is not a natural idiot."  He knew that the North's initial defeat meant a long war was inevitable, with vast government expenditures, a flood of paper money, and rising prices for all goods generally.  He at once bought 75,000 shares of stock, since stock prices too must go up.

     The gentleman was right.  As government contracts proliferated, railroads saw their profits soar, businesses paid off debt, provisioners were swamped with orders, industry thrived, and the stock market surged.  War, it turned out, was good, very good, for business and certainly for the stock market.  By 1863 the public had flocked to Wall Street and everyone was up to their ears in speculation: merchants and their pallid clerks, feisty steamboat skippers, waiters, dowagers reclining on cushions in carriages at their broker's door while their servants fetched quotations, and clergymen who in one quick scoop in the market could top their salary for a year.  There were markets also for mining stocks and petroleum shares, an Open Board providing continuous daytime trading of stocks, countless minor fly-by-night markets, and a number of evening exchanges, so that New York, alone of all the cities in the world, had facilities for trading stocks twenty-four hours a day.
     The prospects and prices of stocks were talked of in clubs, on the street, in theaters, and in the most respectable of brownstone parlors.  Brokers reaped huge profits, their members lost their voices on the trading floor, and their clerks toiled at their desks until late at night.  Successful speculators in rich silk vests dined regularly at Delmonico's on partridge stuffed with truffles; but since what the market giveth, the market taketh away, the same parties might be seen a few weeks later shuffling in seedy clothes, breakfasting on hash and coffee, or panhandling: "dead ducks" in the parlance of the Street.  But for every warrior laid low on the Wall Street battlefield, a dozen fresh recruits took his place.

File:"View in Wall Street from Corner of Broad." New York - NARA - 513348.jpg
Wall Street in the 1860s, looking east from the corner of Broad.
The temple-like building on the left is the Custom House, now Federal Hall.

     But the rage for speculation involved much more than stocks.  There was a Cotton Exchange and a Corn Exchange, and speculation in wool, dry goods, grain, lumber, sugar, coal, pork, and molasses.  But nothing matched the speculation in gold.  At the outbreak of hostilities gold went into hiding as the public, beset with uncertainties, hoarded it.  Then, in 1862, the government started issuing greenbacks, paper money unsecured by gold and backed only by the credit of the government.  Wall Street took note: gold was esteemed but in hiding, whereas greenbacks were plentiful but risky, good only if the North won the war, since otherwise they might be repudiated and become worthless.  So what should a patriotic Wall Streeter do?  Speculate!  With every Union defeat the price of gold in greenbacks would go up, and with every Union victory it would plunge, dancing in savage counterpoint to the fortunes of the nation.  Gold!  The very thought of it, the very sound of the word made the blood race, the brain quicken.  Buy gold if the North is winning, but dump it if the North is losing.  Get the news before anyone else, and trade, trade, trade!

A cartoon attacking the Lincoln administration, with the Secretary of the Treasury
in shirt sleeves on the left, cranking a machine to turn out greenbacks.  Lincoln
is seated in the center rear, remarking, "All this reminds me of a capital joke."

     And trade they did, feverishly.  Every bulletin from the battlefields sent gold up or down, and fortunes once amassed over years or decades could now be made -- or lost -- in months, weeks, or days, even minutes.  "Gold is going up!" preached the brokers.  "Fortunes can be made!"  To get word first of a battle, big operators bribed telegraph men and secretaries to the great in Washington, but even small traders saw their profits grow.  On the street stable boys sported diamonds, and former coal shovelers were seen driving the fanciest of rigs.  How could one not buy gold?  It was the chance of a lifetime, an opportunity to be seized at once, or missed and regretted for the rest of your life.  Driven from the stock exchange, which lacked facilities for their expanding operation, the gold traders took refuge in an ill-lit den called the Coal Hole, then in Gilpin's News Room nearby, and finally in a home of their own, the Gold Room on William Street, where traders shrieked and traded in a frenzy surpassing anything seen before on Wall Street.  At news of a Northern victory, exultant bears sang "John Brown's Body"; at news of a defeat, bulls whistled "Dixie" and whooped.  Gold surged to 220, 250; brokers predicted 300.  While multitudes fought and died on the battlefield, in New York City greenhorns from the provinces and veteran Wall Street traders were locked together in the perfumed thorny garden that was gold.  It hit 285.

     "What do you think of those fellows on Wall Street who are gambling in gold at such a time as this?" the President asked Governor Curtin of Pennsylvania in April 1864.  "They are a set of sharks," replied Curtin.  "For my part," said Lincoln, banging his clenched fist on a table, "I wish every one of them had his devilish head shot off!"

     All through 1864 the fever continued.  Rubbing elbows on Wall and William Streets were displaced Southerners, quirky Yankees, and Westerners in broad-brimmed hats, their moods and fortunes rhythmed by the dance of gold.  With Grant hammering at the gates of Richmond, the big operators had  agents on either side of the lines; for them even sooner than for Lincoln in the White House, couriers galloped, telegraphs clicked.  Atlanta fell, Sherman was marching to the sea.  Gold plunged, rallied, plunged.

     On William Street that winter a mass of traders huddled under black umbrellas, ankle-deep in slush, collars up, scarved against the whip of the wind, their eyes riveted on an overhead indicator announcing the latest price of gold.  Inside the Gold Room, brokers exhaling winy vapors and tobacco shrieked, jostled, and gesticulated, buying and selling a metal they had never seen, dealing only in certificates and statements of account -- paper, shadows of gold!  An observer might well have called the whole scene insane, even hellish, as demonic faces sang "John Brown's Body" or "Dixie," while onlookers stood on chairs and screamed.

     The madness ended only with the final defeat of the South.  Gold never got to 300; it plunged.  A few were rich, many were poor.  The public deserted Wall Street.  The Gold Room experienced -- for a while -- an unearthly calm.  It was over.

Bounty brokers

     The bounty broker was a new species of war profiteer who came into existence with the initiation of the draft in 1863.  Any male liable to be drafted could buy an exemption for $300, which meant that from then on it would be a rich man's war but a poor man's fight.  In New York the result was the Draft Riots of July 11, 1863, when for three days angry Irish mobs ruled the streets, burning draft offices and lynching blacks, whom they blamed for the war and the draft.  The riots ended when troops fresh from Gettysburg rushed back to patrol the streets, but the only way the government could get more men for the army was by imposing quotas on each state and county.  To fill these quotas, the federal, state, and local governments began offering bounties for volunteers.  The bounties were for any recruit who presented himself, but brokers began rustling up recruits by offering them a portion of the bounty while keeping the rest for themselves.  Some recruits agreed to the arrangement voluntarily; others did so out of ignorance.

     Who were these bounty brokers?  In New York City, anyone accustomed to providing live bodies to whoever needed them, as for instance boarding house runners paid by a boarding house to grab arriving immigrants off the gangplank and coax, cajole, or drag them to the boarding house, while fighting off rival boarding house runners if need be; some immigrant were all but torn asunder in the process.  Tammany stalwarts also came naturally to such work since, for a remuneration, they had ushered drunks, moochers, almshouse invalids, asylum denizens, and inmates of the county jail to polls on election day.

     Imagine, then, a seasoned bounty broker in 1864 who, with the war still raging and a triple bounty from federal, state, and county governments available, had five recruits in tow: three farm boys green as apples, a broken-down actor too fond of the joy of gladness, and a loony with a torn slouch hat, a week's stubble of beard, and a dirty-sock smell all about him.  (No, I'm not exaggerating; these things really happened.)  The farm boys, whom he or an agent of his had lured off their farms upstate with promises of glory, of being a hero whom their grandkids would one day worship, were no problem, if he could just keep them quiet while he boarded them cheap in the city, waiting for the bounties to go up again; he could always send them to Barnum's Museum to see the hippopotamus or the educated rats.

File:Recruiting in the New York City Hall Park in 1864. Illustration from a sketch by George Law, published in Frank Leslie's - NARA - 535914.tif
Recruiting in City Hall Park, 1864.  Federal, state, and county bounties were all available,
totaling $677, with another $100 for veterans.  Also, $15 in "hand money" for anyone
bringing in a recruit, which explains some of what's going on.

     The other two would be a challenge.  The drunk was an old hand at the game, having enlisted and deserted three times, but he would have to be sobered up and his red nose chalked a bit, with maybe a dash of mint spray in his mouth, and no chance at a swig of the stimulating.  As for the loony, he would need clean togs from a gents' furnishings, a bath and a shave, and a touch of coal tar to darken his gray hair.  Then, if he could disguise his limp and manage to walk a few steps straight, he might squeak by the surgeon, especially if the provost marshal was hard up for recruits, and the surgeon a pal of the broker's, maybe someone he'd liquored with a time or two in the past.

     Not all brokers were as discreet as the one just imagined.  Some of them kidnapped boys, seized unwary immigrants, used force, or befuddled their "recruits" with drink.  Under the influence, many a potential recruit became convinced that he could lick Jeff Davis and Stonewall Jackson combined, then woke up a day later in uniform on an army base, wondering how he ever got there.  Among those accepted with a wink by surgeons, the press reported, were cripples, lunatics, boys of fifteen or sixteen, men over sixty, soldiers discharged for a physical disability, and men with an "incurable disease," probably venereal.  Of the $300 bounty offered by New York County (i.e., New York City), it was estimated that only $100 usually went to the recruit, the broker getting the other $200.  The most enterprising brokers got rich.

     But not all recruits were naive; some enlisted repeatedly, getting the bounty for themselves and then deserting, so they could enlist and get the bounty yet again, a practice known as bounty jumping.  The authorities of course got wise to this and determined to prevent desertion.  A farm boy who enlisted upstate out of patriotism told how he and some eight hundred others were marched through the streets of Albany under strict guard, while onlookers viewed them with disgust and small boys, taking them for bounty jumpers, jeered at them and pelted them with mud balls.  Taken by steamboat to New York, they were marched down Broadway to the Battery, where a steamship awaited them.  When four broke loose and tried to escape, hoping to disappear into the slums of the city, the guards shot all four dead.

     When news came to the city on April 3, 1865, that Richmond had fallen at last with Lee in full retreat, everyone knew the war was almost over.  Immediately lawyers and merchants and clerks poured out of offices to celebrate; flags were flown from public buildings and churches and hotels; cannon boomed; soldiers were surrounded by crowds who thanked them for their service and handed them wads of cash; banks and the Gold Room were deserted; traffic stopped; men estranged for months clasped hands and shared the joy; and Wall Street reverberated with the strains of hymns and patriotic songs.  Only a few held aloof, aware that their best days were over: the bounty brokers, who muttered in their beards, wondering how a patriot now could make an honest living.

War profiteering today

     So who are today's contractors, speculators, and bounty brokers?

     Regarding contractors, one need only google "war profiteering, Iraq" to be inundated with info.  Here are a few salient facts:
  • The giant multinational Halliburton, one of the world's biggest oilfield service companies, billed government agencies for $17.2 billion in war-related revenue from 2003 to 2006 alone.  It didn't hurt its prospects that Dick Cheney, Secretary of War under George H.W. Bush (Papa Bush), then bridged the gap between Bushes by becoming Halliburton's chairman and CEO, and subsequently served as vice president under George W. Bush (Baby Bush) from 2001 to 2008.
  • Veritas Capital Fund, a private equity fund, got $1.44 billion through its DynCorp subsidiary for training Iraqi police forces.  It didn't hurt its prospects that its top honcho, Dwight M. Williams, was a former chief security officer in the Department of Homeland Security, with close ties to a number of defense agencies.
  • Perini Corporation got a $650 million contract, and URS Corporation some $792 million in fees, for environmental cleanup work in Iraq from the government.  It didn't hurt their prospects that the wife of financier Richard Blum, who controls both companies, is Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who serves on the Senate's Military Construction Appropriations Subcommittee.
  • The construction and engineering giant Bechtel got a huge no-bid contract worth $2.4 billion to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure.  Among its accomplishments: shoddy school repairs, and failure to finish a large Basra hospital on time and within budget.  
  • Blackwater, a private security firm, got lucrative government contracts worth millions to guard officials and installations, train Iraq's new army, and otherwise support coalition forces in the country.  Blackwater guards were subsequently involved in a number of random shootings in Baghdad, resulting in the death of Iraqi civilians, and the firm's expulsion from Iraq.  This protean company has now changed its name -- again -- to Academi, and in its new persona hopes to get more work in Iraq.  (Its past names: Blackwater USA, Blackwater Worldwide, Xe Services.  It says something about a company if it feels the need to keep changing its name.)
And so on and so on; the list is endless.  No further comment is needed.

File:Richard Cheney 2005 official portrait.jpg
Vice President Cheney, 2003.
A patriot who has lots to smile about.

     As regards speculation, I know of nothing matching the gold speculation of the Civil War, but that may simply reflect my ignorance.  As for bounty brokers, they do not exist now as such, for there is no draft and therefore no compulsion to fill up quotas.  But how about quotas for volunteers?  In Michael Moore's 2004 film Fahrenheit 911 we see two recruiters planning to find volunteers in a shopping mall frequented by the less affluent.  Whether they have quotas is unclear, but their recruiting obviously targets lower-class Americans, leaving those better off untouched, rather like those who in the Civil War could buy immunity from the draft for $300.  As always, a rich man's war but a poor man's fight.  So there is today, after all, a counterpart to the bounty brokers of the Civil War.

The Richness of Summer, the Frightening Intensity of Life

     This summer day is rich and glorious, but the morning was a bad one for the blog.  When I went to my computer, I found that two future posts that I had spent hours on had disappeared without a trace, and I have no idea why.  One of them I have a backup for, but the other, the one on which I had spent the most time, is probably gone forever, and I doubt if I have it in me to try to recompose it.  These recent glitches are so maddening that I’m not sure I can continue the blog.  I’ll consult an Apple genius on Tuesday, but I seriously doubt if the lost posts can be recovered, though the genius, being a genius, can probably suggest some precautions for the future.  Alas, rain is predicted for Tuesday, so even this recourse is in doubt.

     With this in mind, I needed a lift, so after I lunched alone at a favorite Chinese restaurant, I decided to take a walk toward the river.  Crossing Seventh Avenue, I headed west on Perry Street.  The two blocks between Waverly Place and Bleecker are quiet, shady residential blocks with old brick-fronted houses and well-kept brownstones, quite charming.  In front of one were three potted plants with huge leaves, and I stopped to look at them (probably the only passer-by to do so): white leaves with green veins, leaves mixing black and green, and leaves of a rich, deep crimson – beautiful!  Here was life, and only I seemed to be noticing.

     Continuing west toward the river, I encountered throngs of people, on bikes and on foot, out enjoying the day: another intensity of life.  And when I got to the river and started walking along it, the murky gray water was rippled by breeze and flecked with streaks of silver: intensity of life yet again.  And on Pier 45 there was the usual multitude of Sabbath sunbathers, all sexes (yes, more than two, maybe three or four), including a young man with the skimpiest bikini, bejeweled and glinty, and a young woman with the skimpiest bra, likewise bejeweled and glinty: among the sexes, glitter was evenly divided.  And on one side of the pier I knew to look down and see, growing out of cracks in the rotten wood of the old pier, vibrant stalks with stiff green leaves that I can easily identify, even without the flowers, as seaside goldenrod, a late-blooming goldenrod that grows only near the ocean.  So Pier 45 too was throbbing with the intensity of life. 

     But why frightening, you may ask?  Because any intensity becomes, in the end, threatening.  Among the various images of nature that appear on my computer screen are huge flowers in full bloom, filling the entire desktop screen: rich, exuberant vaginal blossoms that threaten to devour the viewer: again, intensity of life.  I’ll let the Freudians analyze this as a personal obsession of mine, but I insist that it applies to us all, that any intensity of life implies destruction and intensity of death, following which life will rise again.  Okay, a cliché, a stereotype.  Can’t help it, that’s what potted plants with huge leaves, and goldenrod sprouting out of rotten wood, and sunbathers basking in the life-giving but lethal sun say to me.  (“Lethal”? you may ask.  Just check with your dermatologist, and maybe a meteorologist as well.)  So once again I celebrate the richness of summer, the frightening intensity of life.  And I hope we all do, each in our own way.

     Coming soon:  Next Wednesday: Diamond Jim and Texas Guinan -- he of the 10,000 sparklers, and she who, jailed for the sixth time when her speakeasy was raided, remarked, "You have a cute little jail."  Plus a glance at Jim's pal Lillian ("Luscious Lillian") Russell, displaying her hourglass figure on a bike.  Next Sunday: The Titan of the Met.  Can you guess who?  Opera buffs will know.  He had his hands full with Maria Callas.  (I don't mean literally!)  In the offing (among other topics): Fifth Avenue and the Mrs. Astor, and the brownstone that was labeled the house of death.  (The perfect note to end on.)

©  2013  Clifford Browder

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

81. Colorful New Yorkers: Battling Bella and the Queen of Mean

     This post is about two assertive women, born in the same year only twenty days apart, who became celebrities, one of whom it's hard not to like, and one of whom it's hard not to hate.

Battling Bella

Bella Abzug 1971-11-30.jpg
Bella in 1971.
     Bella Abzug (1920-1998) was New York born and bred; she looked it, sounded it, and acted it.  She was born Bella Savitsky in the Bronx, both of her parents Russian Jewish immigrants, her father a kosher butcher.  When her father died, Bella, age 13, went against tradition by saying the Mourner's Kaddish for her father, who had no son, perhaps the first of many feminist gestures to come.  President of her high school class, she went on to Hunter College and then to Columbia, where she got her degree in law.  Practicing labor law in the 1940s, she took to wearing wide-brimmed hats so as not to be taken for a secretary -- not stylish hats, to judge from photographs, but rather plain ones with the wide brim that would become her trademark.  Soon she was taking on civil rights cases in the segregated South and advocating liberal and feminist causes.  "This woman's place is in the House -- the House of Representatives," she announced in 1970, and in the following decade got herself elected to the House from Manhattan's West Side for three terms.

    When Bella hit Washington, the Old Boys' Club was jolted by a rampaging tiger.  She was soon known for her hats, her intelligence, her flamboyance, her New York chutzpah.  Not to mention her voice, which Norman Mailer said "could boil the fat off a taxicab driver's neck."  Assertive, aggressive, not given to compromise, she stepped on many toes.  "I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine," she wrote in a journal, "and knock the crap out of the political power structure."  Always an advocate of change, she spoke scathingly of the Congressional club, the seniority system, the log-rolling and back-scratching typical of Congress.  She delighted in being one of the first, if not the first, in embracing what seemed to be radical causes: Nixon's impeachment (she was on his enemies list), getting out of Vietnam, women's rights (she was a friend of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan), gay rights, national health insurance, laws against employment discrimination.  Ralph Nader said that her sponsorship of a measure often cost it 20 to 30 votes.  And Jimmy Breslin told how during a quarrel over scheduling she punched one of her campaign workers, then phoned him the next day to apologize; "How's your kidney?" she asked.  Even so, in a survey her colleagues named her the third most influential member of the House.  And if she made enemies, she also made friends.  Said her lifelong friend Gloria Steinem, "She's fierce and intense and funny.  She takes everyone seriously.... And she's willing to change her mind."

Bella with Mayor Ed Koch (left) and President Jimmy Carter, 1978.
     I never encountered Bella face to face, but my partner Bob once, quite by chance, heard her giving a campaign speech to a crowd of several hundred in Sheridan Square from a platform mounted on the back of a pickup truck.  Far from flamboyant, she was level-headed and talked sense, but with warmth; the spectators applauded with enthusiasm.  So impressed was Bob that he registered for the first time ever, so he could vote for her in the mayoral election.  Alas, she lost in the primary to Ed Koch.

     On weekends Bella returned to her residence on Bank Street in Greenwich Village to spend time with her husband, Martin Abzug, whom she had married in 1944.  A stockbroker and author, he had little interest in politics but stuck by her through thick and thin; she called him her best friend and supporter.  They had two daughters.

     In the long run her abrasive manner hurt her career.  She ran for the Senate in 1976 and lost narrowly in the primary, then ran for mayor in 1977 and lost in the primary to Ed Koch.  Other defeats followed, but she continued to practice law and worked tirelessly for women's causes.  It's not surprising that she failed to accomplish many of her goals in Congress; she was too blunt, too unsubtle, too fierce.

     "I've been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prizefighter, a man hater, you name it," she wrote in a journal that was published in 1972 as Bella.  "But whatever I am -- and this ought to be made very clear at the outset -- I am a very serious woman."  That she was.  If one is out of the reach of her abrasiveness, one can't help but like her.  Certainly I can't.

     In her later years Bella kept up her busy schedule of work, even though she traveled in a wheelchair.  She died in 1998 from complications following open heart surgery.  She has been inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, the site of the first Women's Rights Convention in 1848.

The Queen of Mean
File:Leona Helmsley cropped mug.jpg
This photo has been cropped; see below.

     Leona Helmsley (1920-2007) was born Leona Mindy Rosenthal in Marbletown, New York, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland, her father a hatmaker.  She grew up in Brooklyn and dropped out of college allegedly to become a model, though her modeling career remains unsubstantiated.  Certainly she had business skills and an outsized ambition.  In time she joined a New York real estate firm and became a condominium broker, finally working for real estate mogul Harry Helmsley.  She was already a millionaire and twice divorced when, in 1972, she married Helmsley, who divorced his wife of many years to marry her.  From then on she worked with him to build a real estate empire that included the Tudor City apartment complex on the East Side of Manhattan, the Empire State Building, the Helmsley Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue, and many other hotels in New York City, Florida, and elsewhere.

The Helmsley Palace Hotel, now the New York Palace Hotel, on Madison 
Avenue.  In the foreground is the Villard Mansion, built by railroad magnate 
Henry Villard in 1884.  Behind it is the 55-story tower built by Harry 
Helmsley.  The hotel combines the two.

     A lackluster millionaire before the marriage, Helmsley's life was sparked up afterward.  He and Leona moved into a ten-room duplex with an indoor swimming pool atop their luxurious Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South, but soon also acquired an estate in Connecticut, a condo in Palm Beach, and a mountaintop hideaway near Phoenix, not to mention a private hundred-seat jet with a bedroom suite so they could gad about in comfort.  Leona is said to have had a minimum of twelve pictures of herself in every room of her residences.  She gave lavish birthday parties for her husband ("my pussy cat, my snooky, wooky, dooky"), and on her own birthday her snooky floodlit the Empire State Building with her favorite colors at a cost of $100,000 ("Less than a necklace," said the pussy cat).  As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked, "The rich are different from you and me."

     I recall lavish ads for the Palace Hotel showing her, dressed in the height of fashion and crowned with a tiara, inspecting her troops, the hotel's uniformed employees, with the caption "The Queen stands guard."  Indeed she did, being a demanding and tyrannical monarch.  A friend of mine was once interviewed for a job with her as chef, and was warned by the interviewer that he would have to be available 24/7, in case Mrs. Helmsley planned a dinner for seventeen at 2 a.m.; he didn't get the job because "your personality would not meld well with Mrs. Helmsley's."  When she took her early morning sessions in her swimming pool, a more compatible liveried servant was on hand with a platter of fresh-cooked shrimps; at the end of each lap she would command, "Feed Mama," and he would hand her a shrimp.  But her anger was fierce.  Discovering a wrinkled bedspread, she shouted, "The maid's a slob!  Get her out of here.  Out!  Out!"  And a lawyer friend who once breakfasted with her has told how, when a hotel waiter brought him a cup of tea with a tiny bit of water spilled in the saucer, she grabbed the cup from him, smashed it on the floor, and made him get down on his hands and knees to beg for his job.  No wonder she came to be known as the Queen of Mean.

File:Leona Helmsley.jpg
The uncropped photo, her mug shot upon
her arrest in 1988.  The most radiant mug
shot I've ever seen.  After her conviction
she looked less radiant.
     All this changed in 1988, when U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani (the future mayor) brought charges against the Helmsleys for evading federal taxes by illegally billing the expenses of remodeling their new mansion in Connecticut to their hotels as business expenses.  Harry Helmsley's deteriorating health led to a court ruling that he was mentally and physically unfit to stand trial, so Leona faced the charges alone.  At the trial her arrogance and greed were amply demonstrated, and a former housekeeper testified that she had once told her, "We don't pay taxes.  Only the little people pay taxes."  She denied having said it, but it was consistent with her character.  When I heard that statement, I knew that the IRS would nail her, and sure enough, in August 1989 she was convicted on numerous charges that included conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax evasion.  While she sobbed quietly in the courtroom, her lawyer pleaded with the judge not to make her serve time in prison, which might endanger her health.  The judge was adamant, but her attorney was able to get a reduced sentence, and she was ordered to report to prison on the day federal taxes are due, April 15, 1992.  She was released on January 26, 1994, with 750 hours of community service to perform.

     Was she sobered by her time in prison?  Had she changed?  She had always insisted that she had done no wrong, that she was targeted because she was a woman.  Assigned to a hospital in Arizona to do community service, she was required to stuff envelopes and wrap presents for volunteers to give to the patients.  There she complained that the staff "gawked at her" and were "less than charitable," so the court permitted her to do the service at home.  But the judge soon learned that she had assigned much of it to her servants and so added another 150 hours of service.

     As a convicted felon Leona Helmsley couldn't run enterprises with liquor licenses, so she had to give up managing the hotels.  When her husband died in 1997, she said, "My fairy tale life is over.  I lived a magical life with Harry."  Estranged from her grandchildren and with few friends, she lived alone in her lavish apartment atop the Park Lane Hotel with her Maltese dog, Trouble.  Her face was now frozen into a scowl by multiple face lifts.  When she died of heart failure in 2007, she left the bulk of her fortune to a charitable trust, and $12 million to Trouble, this last being ranked third in Fortune's "101 Dumbest Moments in Business"; the bequest was later reduced by a court to $2 million.  She and Harry are buried in a luxurious Greek-style mausoleum with stained-glass windows in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Westchester County.  Trouble, the richest dog in the world, died in December 2010, her every need seen to around the clock, and watched over by a full-time security guard because of death and kidnapping threats.  Her keeper had spent $100,000 a year on her care.

File:Harry Helmsley mausoleum.jpg
The Helmsley Mausoleum in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

     Did Bella and Leona ever meet?  Not to my knowledge.  If they had, it would have been epic.  I can't imagine them hitting it off.  The Queen of Chutzpah vs. the Queen of Mean -- how the fur would have flown!

     Coming soon:  Next Sunday, Who makes money when America goes to war?  New York, 1861-1865 (with glances at today).  Next Wednesday, Colorful New Yorkers: Diamond Jim and Texas Guinan, but with Jim's pal Lillian ("Luscious Lillian") Russell and her famous hour-glass figure thrown in.  In the works: the Titan of the Met, who claimed to have a heart of stone, and an aristocrat of the people who, like Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker, believed that money should be spread around like manure in order to make things grow.

©  2013  Clifford Browder