Apr/May 2009 Nonfiction

Our Own Mid-Century Mannahatta

by Julia Braun Kessler

There was excitement to be found in New York, but in The Bronx? For anyone growing up in the 30s and 40s (especially for those of us from the boondocks of the City's boroughs) despite searches in every corner for any sign of it, it began to seem like we had exhausted every possibility.

We'd gone to school there, spent our young lives in what was a collection of neighborhoods, with their characteristic main streets. Main streets filled with milling open stalls, of fruit, vegetables, of grocers, butchers and fishmongers. We had stood in Appetizer Stores with their huge displays of pickle barrels and sauerkraut tubs. We'd eyed their luscious dried fruits and the Salamis, bolognas hanging from above. We enjoyed the tang of their strong scents, together with the constant and fierce exchanges of customers, harangues performed daily.

Yet, all that paled, those enterprises that once enticed us. As the growing children in the family we'd been sent "down" from our small, upstairs apartments to shop for our Mammas—for fresh bread, to fill their milk cans, for peaches or apples, as the seasons provided. Yet, entering into adolescence, we scorned these activities; chores provided small diversion. There had to be more and we set out to find that more. Ours was the Metropolis. We were ready to venture into its great world.

Which meant Manhattan. Once a mere primitive Algonquin Indian isle and one so notoriously undersold! Yet a century later it was to be Walt Whitman's own Mannahatta, his pet, a city of "open voices" and "manners free," seen and heard amid "hurried and sparkling waters." Still another hundred years into our own century, and it had become for us the very center of the world! A narrow strip of island where streets were filled with people and purpose. Among them, the pre-occupied mover types, the exotics, travelers, foreigners, above all cosmopolitans. Their very look and dress was distinct from our too familiar Bronxites! And none of that resigned doggedness our own streets showed, that resignation to drudgery we watched in our parents' faces and among the shopkeepers of the boroughs heavily given over to long hours of daily labor. For us, for youth, the time had come to sample the cultural life of New York City and what it could hold for us.

With most of us on our measly school allowances, we had little means. But a nickel could then get us on the subway. And we were free as birds to explore what was then a safe city. We made our way, in bands of girls, eyes open to whichever notions a wider world offered. We knew Manhattan could provide us that edge, a would-be avante-garde consciousness altogether unknown in the Bronx.

Some of us fancied dance, a realm just then beginning to grow "Modern". We sought whatever was emergent amongst the groups performing downtown. And we found inspiration, not among the world-class ballet companies often visiting, but in the new styles, many American and as yet unknown to the Old World.

Innovators like Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon, Katherine Dunham and Lester Horton were among the pioneers who themselves had been inspired by such initiators as Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. We embraced their revolutionary ideas, their definitions of new forms of movement, their novel notions of dance. And instead of Petipas or Fokine, we had Balanchine and Agnes de Mille!

Such artists had no money to further their ideas as yet, and few venues for performance space. Only a small, fanatically devotional audience assembled to attend them. Yet, they offered us moving bodies utterly distinct from the common classical chestnuts. We'd not seen it before. We, the "swing" generation were enchanted by every twist and turn: We'd seen the movies, the tapdancing, the ballroom and the jazz halls. But those dancers brought us a dance language quite amazing and their very own. It defied earlier principles, invented new ones. Soon it was dubbed Modern Dance, or, Contemporary dance, and would be, Jazz Dance.

Mostly performed barefoot, Modern Dance is fluid and sometimes balletic, and yet it was still weighted to the earth, embodying the many tricks and scenarios of the jazz story. While ballet offered romantic, 19th century royalty as themes or exotic fairy tales, including animals or flowers, the new dance was often naturalistic, musical theater. Sometimes, it consisted just of everyday kinds of moves with a rhythmic flux of the torso. Arms and legs emphasized natural, mechanical or animalist motions and the legs exaggerated the weight, grounding them to the earth.

Dancers all lived the impoverished artist's life. They were then in "downtown's" downtown, Greenwich Village. This was a small area whose buildings were mostly left over from the 18th Century, ever lively, and a walkable distance from Washington Square, which had served as the center of "Bohemian New York in the 20's."

On Seventh Avenue and Eighth Street sat an all night cafeteria, where a coffee came to no more than five cents, and with it the chance to sit and talk with friends for leisurely hours and hours, even until dawn. Drunks, bums, office workers, students and teachers arrived and departed. People came and went freely and safely—that is, when the cruel winter nights of winter allowed. Often enough, encountering friends in 10th Street book stores or "store front" galleries took them to a quick retreat into the warmer atmosphere of such affordable diner evenings. How well I remember the exalted philosophical arguments that floated over those tables, the casual posturings of youth slouched around them and feet up on whatever untaken chairs there were, with coats draped and askew on the backs of them. And, of course, the smoke drifting all over the room.

How much "business" went on under such conditions. We girls not only gained a new freedom on our treks, we encountered any number of types inaccessible to us in our uptown world. To be found among these, first of all, were the available young men, the sort who read books. And such were difficult enough to distinguish among our more starched Bronx schoolmates. These we came upon more in such off-beat locales: libraries, museums, lectures, concert halls, at dance performances.

And of course, they came in different modes; tall, short, skinny, plump, but generally of the geeky variety, or as they'd called it then, "gooky." Yes, that was a different sort of opportunity for us Bronx girls, a breakthrough, another kind of encounter. It roused our blooming gushes of hormones, in such adolescent years.

Riding those tedious subway treks, we customarily provided ourselves with reading matter, taking along some book or other we were currently engrossed by. Above ground once more, we walked about taking care to keep the dust jacket visible enough for any curious boy to take note of. This favored any circumstance for picking up on a conversation with potential in it for development.

That ploy, in most cases, provided the "seriousness" that seem so essential to the moment. It made everything seem less frivolous, enhancing the badinage of everyday flirting. Such exchanges were awkward enough, still, once they got going they could end in intense conversation. They might be about philosophy, history, even religion. Atheism loomed large for us young people in those Depression times. In a way, such interchanges legitimatized our posturings. No question that purely accidental acquaintances made at these meetings deviated from the "proper" introductions required by those still rather formal times. Very proper they were too, or so our parents constantly assured us.

Naturally, our parents had informed their adolescents that there were many strangers out there, worrisome sorts, best avoided by girls. A complex ritual, a meeting arranged by them through their friends or relatives was for them the rule to stick by.

Even so, we found our own haphazard adventures exciting, certainly agreeable, if not always, convenient or leisurely. And, after all, there was something of a thrill in all of it. When any of us got lucky and managed to make such an acquisition, the telephone calls that went round made for long talk. Details, details! What's he like? Where's he from, which school? Only later, there came, who were his folks? Eventually, of course, the crucial question popped up, was he Jewish? Yet the enthusiasm was not to be curbed, it was infectious. He called! He asked for a date!, or even a visit to the neighborhood. A boy from a distant borough coming on a Saturday afternoon! Casual exchanges, still vivid, so easy then, simpler than what was to follow in our college years.

There were choices though in our city. During those pre-war days there was some stir in Manhattan about a place called the New School for Social Research. That too was down in the Village. We were awed by the extraordinary names—all those talented foreigners who had been assembled to teach there.

That was when the geniuses of Europe were being threatened by the Nazis and the Fascists, driven into exile or lucky enough to escape, when they were literally chased away by such regimes. We profited from their catastrophe. Rescued by such a remarkable institution, they came as quickly as they might, to be and to influence our generation—especially in the Social Sciences.

The New School for Social Research was founded by pacifists at Columbia University during the First World War. They represented a new sort of intellectual, political, and aesthetic views—they were the Modernists. At the New School early faculty had included eminent figures like Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, Charles and Mary Beard along with Alvin Johnson, who was to become its president and spokesman during the period of chaos that erupted in the Thirties in Europe.

From the start, these scholars maintained close ties with European colleagues and became conscious of the dangers Hitler presented to democracy, even to civilization. Johnson wasted little time in soliciting support from the Rockefeller Foundation and other philanthropists who were ready to help.

Miraculously, they managed to provide the needed documents and the visas for those jobs the New School could offer. Nearly two hundred scholars and artists and their families arrived in the new world through these offices .

Among the scholars were the leading intelligentsia of Europe. Such an economist as Gerhard Colm or, the political scientist Arnold Brecht, the sociologist Hans Speier who subsequently served as advisor for the Roosevelt Administration. They had come to the United States through these auspices. Freudians, Reichians, Horneyites, etc. There was Max Wertheimer, the psychologist who was then challenging the reigning theories of behaviorism and bringing to American attention his own concept of the "Gestalt," or cognitive psychology.

Also philosophers like Hans Jonas and Hannah Arendt, both of whom were soon to attract great attention in their fields and become world famous. There arrived Leo Strauss, whose political theory has kept the loyal attention of scores of students and followers, year after year.

Others arrived, carrying the keys to our ways of conceiving of the Social Sciences—even now one wonders at how (and when) that advanced thinking might have evolved on this continent had these men and women not succeeded in fleeing from their would-be murderers in time! Or, would the world in general have seen their thought ever come to fruition! Yet rescued by these New School intellectuals, not only did they live and benefit, we have been privileged to profit from their accomplishments.

The New School was also dedicated to theater. Their recruiting of innovative stage artists was remarkable. To their credit, they made their contributions early to Modern departures from the 19th century, traditional theater which was still playing everywhere.

Bertold Brecht, whose notions figure prominently even today in that flourishing art, was from the first, back in Germany, a revolutionary in his approach. The Nazi regime affected him from the start. The sooner his sort departed Europe the better for their own safety; and the New School intellectuals early recognized their plight.

What luck for us growing up then to be right there on that stirring scene. We certainly felt its excitement which stimulated our own burgeoning notions of what was new in "culture".

Together with such stirrings of internationalism, we had New York's heady offerings. Best were those delights the City available to us in the arts and sciences. Weekends we went on our aimless excursions "downtown." We explored the museums like the Metropolitan, then free and open to anyone, walking through its vast galleries awed. Titian, Vermeer, El Greco, Cezanne Van Gogh, Manet, Turner, de La Tour montaged inside our heads. Untutored, we scarcely grasped how or where they'd been painted, all exotic cities and countries, changing epochs, and the various epochs they lived in.

It played as a hodgepodge of forms and figures to us in those days, but oh, how glorious and stimulating. Yes, there inside the museum we strolled, even though it was barely heated. At the same time, outside it was often much colder, sleeting or snowing, as we wandered happily in those halls. Saturday and Sunday afternoons were all a walking dream until we had to head home to the Bronx and more mundane chores.

Most of all, I remember the cavernous vaults and corridors of the basement galleries where the Egyptian mummies were stored. Nothing very informative was laid out then, just the glass cases provided for them together with minimum labels telling where and when they had been excavated and whose expedition it was. We moved with some trepidation amongst them, pretending to study them, but actually in some state of terror. Those impressions remain strong — it was a first encounter with death as something real but uncanny! To think that there was a people and a history older than we had ever dreamed.

And, after them to walk up into other halls and find the models of Greek temples and their surrounding townships to explain what glories once existed and remained somehow through famine, disease, wars, and ruinous earthquakes. For us all, new perspective! We were like moths flitting about for an hour while civilizations were born, and then fell into the ground once more.

Still, being young, what we hankered for and sought after was "the new" and "the revolutionary," Most eager were we to look to the future, to become a part of the "future," an agent of "progress." And that goal was held out, even embodied in a new Museum of Modern Art, just then in construction in Manhattan. We watched as the marvelous building came up at 53rd Street just off Fifth Avenue. We imagined radical change in art, in all the rainbow of hopes that had excited our souls.

With access to new work from Europe riding in on dollars laid out by art lovers and philanthropists over the nation—— people like the Rockefellers and others—it was right there before us in New York City. The latest of European creations in this period and they staggered us. We looked upon Kandinsky, Miro, Klee, Giacometti, Egon Schiele, Braque, Picasso, Dali and so many other forms.

From an initial gift of eight prints and one drawing, the Museum of Modern Art's collection grew, until today it holds thousands for paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and even photographs. Later, it took on a Film Division, archiving and presenting early European and American works. No wonder that 53rd Street was to become an "in" place, our hangout and the theater of assignations for us adolescents.

Such fine years they were, offering us fresh prospects, an encounter with mysterious artistic achievement. There we met "abstract art" for a first time. Perplexed, I wondered what such artists had in mind? What were the relevant rules?

How many hazy discussions, theorizing about the "abstractionists" as if they were all alike. Such arguments among us were of the liveliest but they often ended in rancor, sneers and jeers about fakery and fraudulence. Silly it may seem today, but then, a life-death question. We were even at the time, two whole generations younger than Stieglitz and his O'Keefe, but who could really "get" DuChamp's "Nude Descending A Staircase"? Yet, there can be little doubt that the new Museum was already a force downtown in the Village and Lower East Side tenement neighborhoods, wherever artists were struggling to manage in such quarters, the then still barely affordable lofts available to them during the Thirties and Forties. We would seek them out occasionally to have a look at their work, at least when, every so often, a gallery down there showed them.

Or, by the late 40s we'd join them at the meetings of the Artist's Club, their own discussion group that the interested could more or less walk into. There, we could hear first hand their own heated discussions of what was what! They argued ferociously through long, cold evenings in that unheated loft, defending their works, their freedoms on the canvas, whatever their departures from the past.

The New York School was rising! Most had worked and continued to work to pursue their art for years and years in virtual poverty before recognition would come. When it came, what worldwide celebrity it brought with it for the deKoonings and the Pollocks who were in it!

Some came to notice first with their moves into the Solomon Guggenheim collection, which was once to be seen by his immediates in the millionaire's private quarters at the Plaza Hotel on Central Park. But as he began to expand it and to form his own foundation, he went public with his art. At first, quarters were set up on the east side of 54th Street in a brownstone and called The Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Soon after came his niece Peggy's own gallery-museum on Fifty Seventh Street, then known as the Art of This Century.

And she prospered there for some five or more years bringing out and showing her discoveries, among them American painters like Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, formerly unseen outside the confines of the Village and Lower East Side galleries. Their work was to revolutionize post World War II art.

But not until 1943 did Solomon Guggenheim commission Frank Lloyd Wright to design the odd structure which was to become The Guggenheim Museum. The building didn't open though until some six months after the architect's death in 1959. Wright remarked of his controversial creation that it would remain after "the beards" had devastated mid-Manhattan.

What we saw in the interim during the '40s however, was Peggy's enlarging collection of Surrealists and Cubists. Though she chose to house her acquisitions at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on Venice's Grand Canal, her astonishing finds were carried to New York to her storefront gallery. There we had our early look. In any case, so many of her discoveries had originated on this side of the Atlantic, within our own territory and those were proudly displayed by her before they went on their travels.

There were other distractions to occupy us in those years too. Like today's young activists, we too fretted over the corruption we saw in the Big Apple, as it was later termed. In politics first, business, and that which was coming from intimates within our daily milieu—even among some of our own colleagues at school. We would look around at various groups, seeking out one of the organizations then current, which oddly enough, was to be found in posh quarters of the upper Westside and whose arguments about culture and politics were juicy and hot.

The Ethical Culture Society of New York was one venue where the view was taken that eternal dispute about religious and philosophical doctrine could distract people from the "real" goal of living ethically and "doing good." That message struck us and brought us awake. The Society had been founded way back in 1862, by a one Felix Adler who considered himself Transcendentalist.

His was a natively American notion. He followed Emerson and Thoreau. The Society's credo was "deed before creed." Such pragmatism appealed, we were so young, we floundered within the weighty and vacuous theorizing of the politics in our mid-century years.

We began to think of Ethical Culture as broad enough to include all sorts of faiths, not just the traditional religions. There were Buddhists and Taoists, an exotic bunch for those times. Early on, Adler boasted that "Ethical Culture is religious to those who are religiously minded, and merely ethical to those not so minded"; yet he also observed that religion, per se, within whatever dogma, does have the effect of binding individuals and fostering "a sense of humility and gratitude." He argued his mode pointing the way towards action that "transcends" merely our personal interest. That message we welcomed for its inspiration.

So downtown we went expressly to that purpose. We wanted to hear their lecturers, to listen in on such who came from all over the world, who spoke eloquently on such ethical themes. Given our youthful hopes, our post-war dreams of the vast possibility for the future ——a life of utopian peace—that organization painted a glamorous portrait of humanity. They enlivened a sense of respect and dignity and taught it sincerely. "Always act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby yourself," they told us. They gave to us a sense of togetherness, an appreciation of how the individual could have influence upon others and this suited our liberality of spirit. It encouraged an enthusiasm to live in these new times.

There hardly seemed a limit to the wonders we then found in our City, even to discovering within our own borough places new to us. At the Northernmost edge of The Bronx, for instance, rose the Cloisters, a miraculous structure to the eyes of eager minds facing it. Stone by stone had it been brought from decayed old Europe, by the whim of some eccentric millionaire who determined to save its glory, providing a store of works of medieval history! Think of it, he had transported the structure itself to this remote corner of the Bronx.

But a short subway ride away was a little cottage tucked in a pocket-sized park off the Grand Concourse. There, what we had formerly thought of as a short little walkabout amidst greenery in spring and summer, were trees and shrubs and heavily-tread upon lawn, where baby carriages were rocked by gossiping mothers, while others strolled nearby. It had been the very place Edgar Allan Poe had chosen as his remote hideaway a century ago. The Poe Cottage was still there, spare furniture, kitchen and wooden tools left as they had been when he wrote "The Raven."

But always it was back to Manhattan. We sought to keep it around us in our hours of solitary study. We headed downtown doggedly to find the bustle of the great world outside while we did so. At the mansion that is now the Morgan Library at 38th Street and Madison, Pierpont Morgan had collected all kinds of literary and historical manuscripts back in the 1890s and on an immense scale. Documents he had acquired before his death in 1913 became the source of his magnificent collection of drawings, letters and manuscripts such as Isaac Newton, Voltaire or Queen Elizabeth I. His was the original of John Milton's Paradise Lost, and it was the only surviving copy, a centerpiece of his collection, then and now.

New York City in those decades was indeed, a memorable theater of life: we played and grew up in its luxuries. And for eager adolescents of high hopes, modest means with over-worked immigrant parents, it was a paradise found. I look back at it as a doorway to a greater world, through which I was privileged to walk, and one I have never forgotten.


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