Saturday, February 16, 2019


I was sorry to find out that the Puebla de Los Angeles grocery store recently closed.  The building it inhabited, 722 Fifth, was put up for sale last year, along with next-door 720, and 719 across the street, at just under $10M.  An ad listed four retail units and 21 rent-stabilized apartments "with future rent growth potential."  Keep an eye on those rents. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019


Mlle. Lavallière in her boudoir in a characteristic pose - The Theatre, Vol. XIV, 1911

Ève Lavallière (born Eugénie Fenoglio) had planned a tour of the United States but never made it. She did get into the American papers though. She had quite a life. Born into chaotic & violent family circumstances in 1866 - her father shot her mother dead & then killed himself - she rose to become a star of the French stage, with a career that spanned from the 1890s to World War I.  While she took both light and tragic roles, she was most famous for the comic ones.  Lavallière became fabulously wealthy and had a string of lovers and patrons. Towards the end of her career, when she was in her mid-forties, she had her hair cut short by society hairdresser Antoine de Paris. It's said the new style was to make her look younger for an ingénue part but whatever the reason the style caused a stir.  She was the first French actress to wear a bob.

A Theater interview of 1911 suggests an off-stage sensibility more Bohemian than Belle Époque:

Sitting there, clad in a dainty old-rose kimono, shedding a hint of sadness, because of ill-health and the anxiety of a serious operation drawing near, the actress looked more some interpreter of mysterious Maeterlinckian princesses ... than the most witty, daring, fantastic comedienne of the French stage.  The small dark head, the waving hair, a suggestion of red in it, worn short like some Roman or Grecian boys, the oval face, alive with sensibility and sensitiveness, and an earnest, serious intelligence, the eyes very large, of a deep and beautiful brown, with heavy lashes, deep set and luminous, of an almost tragic intensity ...

A few years later Lavallière's stage career was over.  In 1917, exhausted & in a state of crisis, she retreated to a chateau near Tours, along with her personal companion, Leonia Delbecq.  Under the influence of a local priest, Father Chesteigner, she apparently underwent a religious conversion, and along with Leonia adopted a life of prayer, missionary work and meditation.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 December, 1926

She died in 1929.

If you look online for Lavallière today most of the initial search results come from Catholic websites; she's still a poster child for bad girl-gone-good, an irredeemably wanton soul who even entreated Satan to restore her looks miraculously drawn to the light.  Books of period vintage offer a similar angle, and many of them draw on a particular image.

The woman remains stubbornly opaque, locked into a role that runs too perfect an arc, more stylized and sentimental than her stage performances.  And how, we wonder, was the directorial control divided between the Church & Lavallière herself?  I'd love to see a (deconstructed) film version.

Monday, February 11, 2019


The warmer weather brought a winter thaw at Green-Wood, and water dripped down the cemetery walls on 23rd Street.  Next time I walked by the thermometer had dipped again and icicles were hanging from the stonework crevices.  They weren't very big - half a dozen inches at most - and they snapped off easily.  Perfect little winter daggers, here for the deed at hand and gone again.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Playing at the Montauk Theater, January 1901

NYPL Digital Collections

Maude Adams looks the scion of the Bonaparte-Hapsburg union to the life. One never thinks of her as a woman from the beginning of the play to its sad last scene. In every pictorial and superficial attribute her portrayal is flawless. Not a gesture or a pose is out of place or awkward. She wears her garments as if used to them all her life. The mask is a fine study, and the play of features is surprisingly varied and effective, while the young artist’s integrity of purpose, her dramatic aptitude, and sympathy shine through all the performance, and her own uncommon personal charm is continuously exerted.  (NY Times)

The Montauk Theater opened at 585-7 Fulton Street in 1895.

A decade later it was forced to make way for the construction of the Flatbush Extension & the theater building was moved to nearby Livingston, at Hanover Place. 

In 1907 the theater moved again to a spot on Flatbush Avenue Extension right across from its original location.  It had a series of owners, names & renovations over the next thirty years or so, ending as Billy Minsky's Brooklyn Burlesque.  It was demolished in 1940.

Adams, who started her stage career as a child, became one of the most successful and highly paid actresses of her time.  Her most popular role was the lead in J.M.Barrie's dramatization of Peter Pan. She retired from the stage in 1918, but returned to acting for a number of years in the 1930s.  She collaborated with General Electric and Eastman on improvements in stage lighting and color photography, and headed the drama department at Stephens College in Missouri.  She died in 1953, and was buried next to the grave of her longtime companion Louise Boynton.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Incurables

Then I started wondering about the location of the terrible-sounding Home for Incurables where Ella Wesner and her sister Mary spent their last days.  I ruled out the first Home for Incurables I came across, because it was founded in the Bronx.  It became St. Barnabas Hospital, still in the Bronx today.  The Faith Home for Incurables, at Park Place & Classon, though relatively close to Ella's Clinton Hill home, was also in the wrong borough.  I then considered the Free Church Home for Incurables at 149 Second Avenue (9th Street), in today's East Village, but it closed in 1915, two years before Ella's death. The only real possibility was the Hospital for Incurables on Blackwell's Island.  The name was a little different, but it was the only hospital I could find within the boundaries of Manhattan that fit the date.  If anyone can solve the mystery for sure, I'd love to know. 

New York Times, December 16, 1869

NYC Department of Records & Information Services

In addition to the Hospital for Incurables other nineteenth-century facilities on the island included a penitentiary, an almshouse, a workhouse, a charitable hospital and an asylum for the insane. What a grim place of exile for the city's unwanted.

Attached to the Almshouse are the Hospitals for Incurables, which consists 
of two one-story buildings, 175 feet long, and 25 feet wide. One is devoted 
to men and the other to women. In these buildings are quartered those who 
are afflicted with incurable diseases, but who require no medical attention.

Brooklyn Genealogy

Through the years of the Almshouse and its related entities, Blackwell’s Island name also changed. It became Welfare Island in 1921, a name chosen to reflect the large number of institutions it held.
Institutions included the Almshouse, Charity Hospital, Metropolitan Hospital, City Home, the City
Hospital, Welfare Hospital, Central and Neurological Hospital, The Children’s Clearing Bureau and the Incurable Hospital. In 1968 residential development began on the island, thus ending the era of the Almshouse. To reflect the changing times, in 1973 Welfare Island was given its present name, Roosevelt Island. One hospital from the Almshouse era continues to function on the island, NYC Health &Hospitals Corporation/Coler, formed by the merging of Bird S. Coler Hospital and Goldwater Memorial Hospitals (formerly Welfare Hospital).  (National Archives)

The Museum of the City of New York has a number of photographs of Blackwell's Island in its collection.  They don't show the Hospital for Incurables, but they certainly summon the spirit of place.

Blackwell's Island, The Female Almhouse - Jacob A. Riis, ca. 1890

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.), ca. 1896

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

On Stage: Ella Wesner

Ella Wesner and British-born Annie Hindle were the most popular male impersonators of the 1870s and 80s.  Wesner, born in the States in 1841, grew up in a family of vaudeville singers and dancers, and began performing as a child.  She is said to have worked as a dresser for Hindle at one time, and to have begun working as a male impersonator in the 1860s.  In 1870 she debuted at the theater of vaudeville impresario Tony Pastor. Her stage career ran until the turn of the century.

Brooklyn Eagle, March 1875

Both Wesner, "the veteran personator of swells" (Eagle) and Hindle were known for their 'realistic' impersonations, and described as convincingly masculine in appearance: "(Wesner) might easily walk Broadway in male attire without her sex being suspected" (The Clipper).  Gillian Rodger, in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity, describes the routines and performance styles of male impersonation in the period. Performing in the mid-to-late 1800s, women such as Wesner and Hindle were allowed far greater sexual license & freedom of gender expression in male costume than in women's - both as artists and as queer individuals.  They could play themselves as well as the characters they impersonated.  Rodgers suggests that a strong element of their appeal to male audiences also lay in their varied and sympathetic constructions of class and masculinity.

Both Wesner and Hindle had publicly-known relationships with women. Hindle was married three times.  The third time - identifying herself as Charles - she married her dresser, Annie Ryan.  Details of the marriage were revealed in the popular press, but the two lived openly together until Ryan's death in 1891.  In 1872, Wesner, who was fast becoming a stage sensation, caused a scandal by eloping to Paris with Helen "Josie" Mansfield, mistress of both the Gilded Age Robber Baron Jim Fiske, and his murderer Edward S. Stokes.  The romance cooled however, and Wesner returned to perform in the States in 1873.  Any other relationships Wesner may have had with women went unreported.

The Eagle has adverts for a number of Wesner's performances in Brooklyn theaters. "Streams of Overjoyed People at Every Performance" boasts a notice for a 1889 show at the Gaiety Theater on Fulton near Hoyt.

By this time, however, Wesner's career may have peaked.  A few years later, in 1896, her billing is a sad one:

"Among the performers will be Ella Wesner, who used to be the best male impersonator on the stage."

Gillian Rodger traces a change in society's attitudes towards male impersonation towards the end of the nineteenth century.  The masculinity that Wesner and Hindle embodied (and their audiences embraced) was no longer deemed acceptable.  Impersonators were expected to be seen as women 'playing' and never convincingly presenting themselves as men.  "Mannishness" was not welcome; a more feminine portrayal of manhood was required, as was (at least overtly) a clearer distinction between an impersonator's stage performance and a conventionally acceptable private life.

Ella Wesner gave her last performance in 1902. Her last home was a Clinton Hill brownstone; she died in 1917, in the Home for the Incurables.  She asked to be buried in one of her stage costumes.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 12th, 1917

Photographs - NYPL Digital Collections