A Colorful Upper West Side Neighborhood
1/Isaac Bashevis Singer
121 West 72nd Street between Columbus Avenue and Broadway.
Writer I. B. Singer, who chronicled Jewish life in Poland and America and won a Nobel Prize for his novels and stories, lived in this apartment building with his wife, Alma, from 1959 to 1962. She worked at Saks, the department store on 34th Street while he spent the day writing in his flat here and taking long walks in the neighborhood. He would eat lunch in a favorite coffee shop or cafeteria, observing the people who would often end up as characters in his fiction. Singer’s novel The Magician of Lublin was published while he lived in this building as well as The Slave and the short-story collection called The Spinoza of Market Street. Singer and his wife moved to larger quarters in the Belnord apartments in 1962 where they stayed until his death in 1991 (see this section, Tour 8, Number 4).
119 West 71st Street between Columbus Avenue and Broadway.
The great jazz cornetist was twenty-one years old in September 1924 when he arrived in New York City for the first time. Beiderbecke lived in this building during that period. At first he caught on with a Chicago band called the Wolverines; before long he was playing with other groups and traveling around the region. When he returned to Manhattan a year later, he stayed with fellow cornetist Red Nichols at the Pasadena Hotel, located at 10 West 61st Street. Bix and Red partied often at the Pasadena and among the guests was Bix’s pal, Babe Ruth, who loved hot jazz. By the late 20s, when Beiderbecke was playing with the Jean Godkette Orchestra at Roseland in midtown, he had gained stardom and was considered to be the first important white jazz performer.
137 West 71st Street between Columbus Avenue and Broadway.
Novelist, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin purchased this five-story white brick residence in 1965. He brought his mother, Emma (Berdis) Baldwin to live on one floor, his sister, Paula, to live on another, and Baldwin himself took the ground floor apartment. On one of his walls, he hung a large painting by Beauford Delaney of a black boy playing with snowballs. Baldwin’s book of essays, The Fire Next Time, had been published the year before and sold more than a million copies. In April 1964, his play Blues for Mr. Charlie, about the racially-motivated murder of Emmett Till, had opened a successful run on Broadway. Baldwin owned this building on 71st Street until his death in 1987. His mother continued to live here in the following years.
155 West 71st Street between Columbus Avenue and Broadway.
Michael Igor Peschkowsky—he later became the actor and director Mike Nichols—came to America from Germany as a young boy in 1939. His family had fled from the Nazis after the execution of Nichols’s grandfather who was a leader of the German Social Democratic Party. In New York, after the death of his doctor father, Nichols lived with his mother and younger brother in a drab, drug-infested apartment in this building. He described the place later as “one of those tiny apartment houses with podiatrists on the first floor.” Nichols was a loner and a social outcast during most of his school years—he attended the Dalton School on East 89th Street—until he went to the University of Chicago where he became involved in theater. It was there that he met Elaine May and, by the late 1950s, the two had formed the comedy team of Nichols and May.
160 West 71st Street at Broadway (southeast corner).
The Yankee slugger lived in this building, then called the Hotel Alamac, in 1929. His first wife, Helen, had died in the previous winter and when Ruth returned to New York after spring training in April, he was free to marry his girlfriend and companion of the last six years, Claire Hodgson. She lived a few blocks north of here at 219 West 80th Street and the Babe split his time between there and here at the Alamac whenever he was in New York. Finally, on April 17, 1929 (opening day of the baseball season), Babe and Claire were married at St. Gregory the Great Roman Catholic Catholic church at 140 West 90th Street (see this section, Tour 8, Number 2).
154 West 70th Street at Broadway (southeast corner).
In early 1946, Albert Camus, then thirty-two years old, came to New York from France and stayed for three months. During the first part of his trip, he stayed in the twelve-story Embassy Hotel here (it’s now the Embassy Towers). He spoke at Columbia University on March 28th before an enthusiastic audience. Camus was fascinated with New York and enjoyed exploring the city on long walks. “It is beyond human power,” he said, “to give an idea of the curious way in which eight million bison live in this elevated amusement park that geographers call New York, in which 102,000 green, red, and yellow beetles that entomologists call taxis circulate, stop, start, and cross one another…” Camus moved to the Century Apartments in the spring of 1946 (see this section, Tour 1, Number 4).
107 West 68th Street between Columbus Avenue and Broadway.
In 1908, the twenty-three year old Jerome Kern was just establishing himself as an up-and-coming composer whose songs were featured in a number of Broadway musicals. In that year he rented a bachelor apartment in this building, moving in soon after the sudden deaths of his mother and father. On a trip to England, Kern had met Eva Leale, the daughter of a pub owner and, after they were married in October 1910, the couple occupied Kern’s flat here on 68th Street as their first home together. While he lived here, Kern composed his first complete stage score for the musical The Red Petticoat. In 1913, the Kerns moved uptown to a larger apartment at 206 West 92nd Street (see this section, Tour 8, Number 1).
140 West End Avenue between 66th and 67th Street.
The huge Lincoln Towers apartment complex, with its over 4,000 units, was built in the mid-1960s as part of this neighborhood’s slum clearance program. Lincoln Towers was the last home of Duke Ellington. The musician lived in a spacious apartment on the twenty-second floor with his longtime companion, Evie Ellis. The flat featured a fountain in the entrance hall and a living room full of exotic plants. In a special room next to the bedroom, Duke kept all of the hundreds of gifts he had received over the years and they were so well cataloged in his mind that when friends visited him here, he would often dart into the room to retrieve a present he’d been given years before to prove that he hadn’t forgotten their kind gesture. Ellington continued to maintain a vigorous travel schedule with his orchestra until the end of his life and he was away from New York much of the time. This was his official residence when he died of cancer on May 24, 1974.
9/Robert Moses and Jerome Kern
261 West 70th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.
Robert Moses—New York’s most powerful unelected government official ever—lived in this four-story white brick building in the late 1920s with his wife, Mary, and two young daughters. This was his Manhattan residence—he spent much of his time at his second home in Babylon, New York, on Long Island. While Moses lived here on 70th Street, he was beginning to consolidate his power in city and state government. As president of the Long Island State Park Commission (appointed by his friend, Governor Al Smith), Moses planned and began construction of the string of state parks on Long Island that made him so popular with the citizens of the region. In 1930, after the death of his mother, Moses and his family moved to a large apartment at 7 Gracie Square on the Upper East Side.
Across the street from number 261 is Public School Number 199 and just to the east where the playground of the school stands, songwriter Jerome Kern lived in an apartment with his wife, Eva (the address was 226 West 70th Street). They occupied it from 1914 until 1916, then moved to Bronxville, an hour north of Manhattan. While Kern lived on this block, he composed his first hit musical The Girl from Utah which included one of his greatest songs, “They Didn’t Believe Me.” The tune soon became the biggest musical hit in the country and eventually sold two million copies of sheet music.
345 West 70th Street between West End Avenue and Freedom Place.
This building, called the Santa Monica, was the 1913 home of Sinclair Lewis’s first wife, Grace Livingstone Hegger. When she met the twenty-nine year old Lewis, an unknown and impoverished writer, she lived in an apartment here with her mother. Lewis came to dine often with Grace during their courtship and, according to Lewis’s biographer Mark Schorer, she was not sure that she loved him until one night in September 1913 when he appeared at her apartment with the proofs of his novel Our Mr. Wrenn. They were married in April 1914 and moved to a house in Port Washington on the north side of Long Island. Lewis was still five years away from writing the novel that made him famous—Main Street.
243 West End Avenue at 71st Street (northwest corner).
Poet Sara Teasdale occupied a penthouse apartment in this building early in 1929. He place was then called the Hotel Cardinal. By that time, her marriage to Ernst Filsinger was in trouble and she lived here alone while she planned a divorce. After spending a summer in Reno, Nevada to satisfy residency requirements in that state, her divorce was granted and she moved back to the Hotel Cardinal, this time taking a furnished flat. Alone and depressed, Teasdale now found it difficult to write and she was able to produce only a handful of poems before she embarked on a trip to Europe in the summer of 1930. In September she moved again, this time to the Hotel Bolivar at 230 Central Park West (see this section. Tour 3, Number 20).
346 West 72nd Street near Riverside Drive.
The Chatsworth apartments, designed in the Beaux Arts style, was the home of the young Irving Berlin for ten years. The songwriter was twenty-four when he moved to a luxurious apartment here in 1912 with his newly-wed wife, Dorothy Goetz. Tragedy struck almost immediately—on their honeymoon in Cuba, Dorothy came down with typhoid fever and she died at age twenty, only five months after their wedding day. Berlin continued to live at the Chatsworth as a bachelor and, to combat his grief, threw himself into his work. He wrote the songs for the musical Watch Your Step in 1914 and for Stop! Look! Listen! in 1916 which featured his popular tune “I Love a Piano.” In 1917, he entered the U.S. Army and produced the show Yip! Yip! Yaphank featuring one of his most famous songs, “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” Berlin lived at the Chatsworth until 1922 when he moved to the theater district at 29 West 46th Street (see Section Two, Tour 5, Number 20).
270 West End Avenue at 73rd Street (southeast corner).
In the spring of 1944, Marlon Brando’s mother, Dorothy Pennebaker Brando, rented a ten-room apartment in this building. Dorothy, an alcoholic, had temporarily separated from Marlon’s father who was living in Chicago. The actor’s two sisters, Frances and Jocelyn, lived here with his mother and Marlon himself often came to stay with them for varying periods of time. He was nineteen years old and had only been in New York for a short time. Soon after he arrived, he enrolled in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village. Marlon’s mother welcomed his friends and the West End Avenue apartment was usually swarming with people. Marlon even brought some of his girlfriends here to spend the night. In October 1944, he appeared in his first major Broadway play, taking a small part in I Remember Mama. He quit that production in 1946 to appear in Maxwell Anderson’s Truckline Café—his performance electrified the critics and set him on the road to stardom.
Actress Mae West lived for a number of years in this same block at 266 West End Avenue.
214 West 72nd Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.
This building, containing apartments on the upper floors and retail space at street level, was Dorothy Parker’s first home. She was the youngest of four children born to Henry and Eliza Rothschild—her father was well-to-do clothier. Dorothy was only four-years-old in the summer of 1898 when her mother died. To escape the memories associated with this house, Dorothy’s father quickly sold the place and moved to different quarters, ending up at 57 West 68th Street in 1899 (see this section, Tour 2, Number 8).
246 West 73rd Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.
French artist Marcel Duchamp came to New York from France in early January of 1920. It would be his second extended visit to America and he moved into an apartment on the ground floor of this twin-turreted brownstone building. Prohibition had recently gone into effect and Duchamp wrote: “One doesn’t drink here any more and it’s quiet, too quiet.” Duchamp supported himself by giving private lessons in French, while also working on his own art projects. He also collaborated with a friend, Katherine Dreier, who organized a new private museum called the Societe Anonyme which became the first museum anywhere in the world exclusively devoted to modern art. Duchamp lived here on 73rd Street until July 1920 when he moved to cheaper quarters in the Lincoln Arcade at Broadway and 66th Street—a building long since demolished.