Jun 15, 2009

A Walk in the East 90s: At Home with the Marx Brothers and "The Brownstone People"

This is the first of a series of posts about the Marx Brothers in New York.

At the turn of the twentieth century, after moving several times, the Marx family finally settled into the fourth floor of a tenement at 179 E. 93rd St. One of the brothers, Adolph, later described the area as "a small Jewish neighborhood squeezed in between the Irish to the north and Germans to the south in Yorkville." Ten family members lived in a handful of rooms, dependent on the meager earnings and cooking of their father, Frenchie, a native of Alsace-Lorraine and an incompetent tailor. The family spoke a dialect of low-country German, and Frenchie often found new customers based on his understanding of "Plattdeutsch." Minnie, the mother, believed that the best way to climb out of poverty was to put her younger brother and her five sons on a theatrical stage. In a role reversal, the father stayed home to do the domestic chores.

While his brothers Leonard (Chico), Julius (Groucho), Milton (Gummo), and Herbert (Zeppo) played or went to school, Adolph (Harpo) learned to read by studying street signs and to tell the time by looking at the clock on the tower of a brewery at 93rd St. and Second Ave. His grandfather, Minnie's father, told him about the Torah, taught him to speak German, and passed on stories of his own early days as a ventriloquist and magician. His wife played the harp, and after she died, the instrument sat in the corner of the grandfather's room.

Groucho recalled that the grandparents couldn't find work: "For some curious reason there seemed to be practically no demand for a German ventriloquist and a woman harpist who yodeled in a foreign language." In his memoir, Adolph (Harpo) talked about getting the harp repaired and learning to play it, but he ended up spending more time with his delinquent brother Chico. Groucho tells the story in the memoir, Groucho and Me, that the harp disappeared one day, and everyone knew to search the pawn shop on Third Avenue. That's where Chico traded to pay his gambling debts.


View Carnegie Hill & Yorkville: A Walk in the East 90s in a larger map

In Memoirs of a Mangy Lover, Groucho tells a funny story about Chico's stay in a city in the South. His brother had gone on the road to play night clubs in order to pay off some gambling debts. Chico befriended the mayor of one city, an Italian-American, who loved Chico's big personality, mistaking Chico's famous Italian shtick for the real thing. The mayor implored Chico to stay, promising he would set him up as an overseer of the city's brothels. Groucho writes, "But Chico never told the mayor that he born in Yorkville in New York City, a neighborhood that was not only Italian but almost a hundred per cent German." It was time for Chico to press on to Birmingham, but he told Groucho later that he often reflected on this other life.

While visiting 179 E. 93rd St., on a quiet and pretty block between Lexington and Third Avenue, it's hard to get a sense of the bustling tenement neighborhood in which the Marx Brothers lived. Today, it's possible to walk down the street and see some of the houses still standing. Though gentrified long ago and missing some of the anchors of the old German Yorkville, the block is nevertheless vulnerable. A quick look east shows the encroachment of imposing condominium construction that threatens to take over the block. For these reasons, the neighborhood association has been rallying support to save the Marx Brothers' house. The members are asking the city's Landmark Commission to extend the Carnegie Hill historic neighborhood designation to the east, encompassing the block and therefore affording them the same protections. On the south side of the block one sees some pretty houses, but a few on the east side have already fallen to new development. (see note at end for more info about the preservation efforts) In his autobiography, Harpo commented on the difference between their house and the nicer ones across the street. They would call these neighbors "the Brownstone people."

During the youth of the Marx Brothers, the west-east numbered streets of the neighborhoods and even the blocks within the streets were ethnic-specific. In Harpo Speaks, Harpo noted the dangers of running into "Other Streeters," as he called them, without bringing something "to fork over for ransom" when caught by Irish or German kids. When quizzed about his block, he would confess, "Ninety-third between Third and Lex." "That pinned me down," he said. "I was a Jew." Harpo took the rough treatment in stride, however, reflecting later, "It was all part of an endless fight for recognition of foreigners in the process of becoming Americans."

To escape the poverty of his block, Harpo walked four blocks west to Central Park, "safe territory for lone wolves, no matter what Streeters we were." Along the way, he encountered the homes of the wealthy. Like in the Marx Brothers' youth of the early twentieth century, walking west toward the park today from 1st or 2nd Avenue often signifies greater affluence with each block. The Yorkville neighborhood is just several blocks from the mansions that constitute Museum Mile, the great palaces that now house the Jewish Museum and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum and so forth. Though the residents of the mansions along Fifth Avenue (see the Loew House at right) yielded power in their day, it can be easily argued that the poor boys on a certain block on E. 93rd made the longest lasting, and certainly the funniest, contribution to cultural history.

Wandering west and east through the East 90s allows a sampling of several different genres of architecture, some delightfully surprising, others mindnumbingly oppressive. Be sure to check out the three wooden frame houses as noted on the map, especially the Richard Hibberd House (right) at 160 E. 92nd St., built 1852-53 and once home to Eartha Kitt. The well-known 92nd Street Y is in the neighborhood. President Obama lived at 339 E. 94th St. in the 1980s. Two restaurants - Fetch and the Barking Dog, attract those who like to dine outdoors with their furry friends. The subway at 96th St. (6) on the Lexington line affords easy access.



"I still talk with an East-93rd-Street-New York accent. - from Harpo Speaks, by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber (Limelight Editions, 1961), explaining what his voice sounds like.

Images: 179 E. 93rd St., picture of Marx Brothers, c. 1917, towers east of 3rd Ave. & E. 93rd St., houses facing 179 E. 93rd St., Loew House, Richard Hibberd House. "Where's the Seal?" is a scene from Horse Feathers (1932).

Note: For more information about this valued landmark, see the website Save Marx Brothers Place.

To see other posts in this special Marx Brothers in New York series, follow this link.

1 comment:

sonia a. mascaro said...

I LOVE so much your blog, principally because I have never been in NY. It's my dream...
I like to enlarge your photos to see details, so may I tell you that would be great if you post photos more bigger?
Regards from Sonia, Brazil.