Luc Sante's wonderful Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York is in some ways a pendant piece to Up in the Old Hotel. Though Sante's vision is darkLuc Sante's wonderful Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York is in some ways a pendant piece to Up in the Old Hotel. Though Sante's vision is darker, and he has a keener eye for the con, it's as if both he and Mitchell were coming at the material from different angles. Sante is a cultural historian; Mitchell's focus by contrast is more on the individual. But both have a special forcus on the gritty demimonde of the Bowery in the late 19th century and, after its decline, marked by the death of Big Tim Sullivan in 1913 (See "A Sporting Man"), its move to new digs on lower Broadway. Here for instance is a quote that might be right out of Sante's Low Life:
At that time, in 1894, the Bowery was just beginning to go to seed; it was declining as a theatrical street, but its saloons, dance halls, dime museums, gambling rooms, and brothels were still thriving. In that year, in fact, according to a police census, there were eighty-nine drinking establishments on the street, and it is only a mile long." p. 128
The stories -- perhaps profiles is the better term -- are brilliantly written in a straightforward expository style, and often laugh-out-loud funny. "Lady Olga," for instance, is a profile of circus sideshow bearded lady Jane Barnell in her sixty-ninth year. "Professor Sea Gull" is about the inimitable Joe Gould, that woebegone lecturer of the streets and coffee houses (when someone else was paying), about whom Mitchell would later write a longer piece, "Joe Gould's Secret," also included here. Mitchell's summary of Gould's nine-million word treatise "An Oral History of Our Time" (unpublished) is fascinating and alone worth reading, yet the essay offers so much more.
In many essays, it's as if Mitchell is simply taking testimony. "The Gypsy Women" is mostly a verbatim talk that was given to the author and two novice NYPD detectives by the longtime Commander of the Pickpocket and Confidence Squad. In "The Deaf-Mute Club" he relates a visit to that self-same club where he exchanged long handwritten notes with the club's president, which are transcribed without interruption. In one essay we learn of the penniless drifter who wrote improvised checks on paper bags for many thousands of dollars to kind people who'd helped him; and the man who couldn't abide swearing and so started the Anti-Profanity League in 1901.
Mitchell, like Whitman, celebrates the individual, and like the great poet he has a penchant for the catalog, which he uses to brilliant effect. His rhythms, moreover, his prosody, can be downright sonorous. He has a fantastic ear for colloquial speech and the writing is jam-packed with vivid description, yet never overly freighted.
What's tremendously cool for me as a New Yorker is the sense of place I get from the essays. All the streets I've walked for so many years -- past McSorley's Ale House off Cooper Square, the old Police Headquarters on Centre St. and so on -- take on rich historical depth. I can see now how Mitchell's book will serve as a nice stepping stone to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Burrows and Wallace, a doorstop that's been unread on my shelf for too long. Ah, the joys of reading....more
This is a fascinating tour of New York's Bowery which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a hotbed of gambling, prostitution, and nefariousThis is a fascinating tour of New York's Bowery which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a hotbed of gambling, prostitution, and nefarious cons working every conceivable angle on the city's unsuspecting and credulous. It is a breathtaking and enormously entertaining catalog of roguery, well written and researched, that left this reader filled with admiration. Highly recommended....more
Author John Lukacs starts with a description of the funeral in 1900 of the painter Mihály Munkácsy. The huge size of the man's funeral and its elaboraAuthor John Lukacs starts with a description of the funeral in 1900 of the painter Mihály Munkácsy. The huge size of the man's funeral and its elaborateness, Lukacs suggests, says much about the high esteem in which the city held its artists. Such reverence for the artist simply does not exist today. Lukacs then goes into a brief history of each of the city's 10 districts. (There are 23 today.) I enjoyed the descriptive writing, the architectural assessments, the overview of city planning in general (especially when augmented with photos from the web). The sophistication of Budapest at this time is truly stunning. It's the little Paris on the Danube, though distinctly Hungarian in its culture.
My interest in the book grew from reading Gregor Von Rezzori's novel, Memoirs of An Anti-Semite. That astonishing book showed me how very little I know about Eastern Europe, especially the states along the Danube. Lukacs shows us how Pest, once smaller than Buda, grew to dominate the city we know today. He marshals a lot of statistics, and is always careful to show how Budapest stacked up against the other major European cities in 1900. For that is the year he views as the city's high water mark or richest elaboration. We are briskly taken from the tiny Celtic settlement to Rome's establishment of Aquincum on the Buda side--for some reason the Romans did not often cross the river--to the Magyar settlement in 896, the Mongol invasion of 1241, the establishment of the royal seat of the Hungarian kings in the 14th century, the conquest two centuries later by the Ottoman Empire, and the reconquest 145 years later by the Hapsburgs.
There is one laughable passage in which Lukacs suggests that the lack of police evidence of homosexuality means that there was none. This is attributed to the stark masculinity of the local culture. The intimation being, I suppose, that all homosexuals are effeminate. Now, if that isn't bias I don't know what is. Funny, in this one instance he neglects the evidence of neighboring Danube states, a comparison he uses frequently at other times. The author resorts to some cheerleading in Chapter 5, "The Generation of 1900," for Hungarian arts and culture. One finds instances of inflationary prose like this on page 106:
Whether optimists or pessimists, the people of Budapest, even in this bourgeoise period, were expressive. They wore their minds, if not their hearts, on their sleeves. Their concerns, problems, strengths and failures were evident in their conscious expressions of all kinds, rather than suppressed or submerged on subconscious levels.
I find it ridiculous to claim that the citizens of an entire metropolis are without certain basic human psychological traits. Recommended with keen reservations.
PS: Lukacs' comment about Casablanca, directed by Hungarian Michael Curtiz--which he calls an "imbecile movie"--angered me. Granted, the picture's far from perfect. (The sets, for example, seem cheap and flimsy.) But it's Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman! Their performances alone diminish the flaws, if they don't annihilate them altogether....more
A portrait of Hapsburg Vienna about a generation before its dissolution. The monarchy is a class-driven machine producing much punctilio but apparentlA portrait of Hapsburg Vienna about a generation before its dissolution. The monarchy is a class-driven machine producing much punctilio but apparently little in the way of strategic planning. The growth of nationalism among its polyglot population is viewed by Emperor Franz Joseph with trepidation, but ultimately the official attitude is wait and see. We as readers know these nationalist pressures will tear the Empire apart in 1914 when, in Sarajevo, Serb Gavrilo Princep blows a hole in Archduke Franz Ferdinand's neck. But in 1888 the monarchy seems either oblivious or in denial, perhaps a little of both. Only Crown Prince Rudolph and those of his immediate circle possess insight into the unsustainable imperial trajectory.
The Crown Prince is a fascinating paradox. He's well educated and liberal, a noble who's at heart a republican. His fondest wish is to see his kind expunged from state affairs. He knows the government is in desperate need of reform. Yet despite his lofty rank, his legions of admirers, he possesses no real power to effect change. The emperor employs his intelligence apparatus to spy on him. Agents follow him about and monitor his telegrams. The burden of protocol is overwhelming, but Rudolph seems to bear up well until the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. The occasion is Emperor Franz Joseph's fifty-sixth birthday. Rudolph, who prefers the company of the so-called commoners to the moribund aristocracy, despises Wilhelm for his empty pan-German rhetoric. Yet he must toast him, must follow him about like a puppy, so the Kaiser won't grandstand at this or that reception about the virtues of the Greater Reich. He's stuck in this empty diplomatic role, smiling and toasting a man he despises. He's good at it. His manners are Old World. Understandably, he grows depressed.
There can be no question of Rudolph taking a mistress from among the nobility. His marriage to a cipher was a function of politics, not love. The noble ladies set their sights on him but he is emphatically not interested. Things look bleak indeed. Then he sees Mary Vetsera at one of the few social events where commoners and nobles can intermingle. At the new Court Theater they observe each other with opera glasses. Mary is 18 and Rudolph is 30. He's heard of her, of course. Mary's mother is a skillful social climber who's handed her gifts on to her daughter. Mary's a "lady of fashion" whose every new ensemble makes the society pages. Their liaisons are complex, arranged by a Vetsera family friend. There is much scuttling about labyrinthine corridors, much zigzagging about town to shake persistent tails.
Soon they are both dead from a suicide pact. Mary's corpse is spirited away by family members and buried without ceremony. Rudolph is given a funeral the likes of which are perhaps no longer seen in our day. His death rocks the empire. Of his final messages for others, he leaves not one word, not a syllable, addressed to his father.
The book is a portrait of a vanished era as much as it is a tale of star-crossed lovers. Along with Rudolph and Mary's story we're given a look at the cultural life of Vienna. The artist bios are beautifully compressed. We peek into the young lives of Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo Wolf, and Sigmund Freud--all in their twenties--as well as older established artists like Aaron Bruckner and Johannes Brahms. Vienna is a vast overwrought Baroque wedding cake. Morton brilliantly transforms the boulevard of braggadocio, the new Ringstrasse, into a fitting central metaphor for the posturing and decorum of a vast, fragmenting empire oblivious of the ticking clock. Wonderfully vivid and highly recommended....more