Dec 1, 2009

The Thin Man Walk: A New York Holiday Adventure with Nick and Nora Charles

(Revised 2012)

Line up the cocktails. As Nick says, "You see the important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. A Manhattan you shake to foxtrot, a Bronx to two-step time. A dry martini you always shake to waltz time."

If ever a couple possessed complementary drinking rhythms, it would have to be Nick and Nora Charles, the much-envied glamorous cocktail-swilling quick-thinking duo of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man. Inspired by the writer's blossoming affair with playwright Lillian Hellman, the novel, published in January of 1934, motivated MGM to rush a cinematic adaptation into production.

The movie, released in late May of 1934, proved popular enough to spawn sequels, foremost because of the stellar chemistry and witty performances of William Powell as Nick and Myrna Loy as Nora. Decades later, many people still search for their own Nick or Nora. Beyond the playful banter, the partying Charleses exude a confident security and ease in their relationship, a high comfort level that even excessive alcohol consumption can not fully explain. As a married couple, they know the secret to keeping the flame alive.

Nora: Nick, Nicky. Are you asleep?
Nick: Yes.
Nora: Good. I want to talk to you.

In addition to the sparkling dialogue of the lead characters, one a wealthy heiress and the other an ex-detective, shake into this bubbly mix a convoluted murder mystery plot, a dysfunctional family, and above all, the tinsel of New York during the holidays. Set during late December 1932 before the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, The Thin Man is filled with allusions to New York department stores, speakeasies, and supper clubs popular during the city's formative Depression years. Many of the references in the book match real locations such as The Plaza Hotel, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the now-defunct Reuben's, a much-loved deli and bar that sported dark wood paneling and red-leather seats.

The actual murder mystery occurs in the E. 50s near the location of the Sutton Club Hotel, the place where Dashiell Hammett wrote the book. During the 1930s this area around the East River was a striking mix of luxury apartments popular with celebrities and shabby tenement buildings, the kind that would house Sidney Kingsley's The Dead End Kids. Hammett's novel also refers to Nick and Nora attending a play in the Theater District at the Little Theatre (now the Helen Hayes) and to the opening night of Radio City Music Hall, two references from December 1932 that ground the fictional story within real events in the city. While the movie omits many of these specific New York quotations (after all, it was filmed on a back lot in Hollywood), it elaborates on the visuals of the Yuletide season and plays up the flirtatious banter.

Nick: I'm a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.
Nick: It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.

For the following walk, see if you can borrow an Asta for the day, either a schnauzer (novel) or a wire-haired fox terrier (movie, played by veteran movie dog Skippy in his debut performance). Good luck sneaking him into Lord & Taylor and "21." Later, you can say, along with Nora, that the dog "dragged me into every gin mill on the block."

The Thin Man Self-Guided Walk: Annotated Guide and Map

Note: Most placemarks indicate locations from the book, except where noted.


View The Thin Man Walk: Places in New York from Dashiell Hammett's Novel in a larger map

• Formerly the Sutton Club Hotel, 330 E 56th St. Hotel where Dashiell Hammett wrote The Thin Man. The hotel was managed by his friend Nathanael West: "When we were very broke, those first years in New York, Hammett got a modest advance from Knopf and began to write The Thin Man. He moved to what was jokingly called the Diplomat's Suite in a hotel run by our friend Nathanael West."- Lillian Hellman, from "Dashiell Hammett: A Memoir," (The New York Review of Books, November 25, 1965). Also in residence were writers James T. Farrell (Studs Lonigan) and Erskine Caldwell (Tobacco Road).

• '21' Club, 21 West 52nd Street. The opening sentence of The Thin Man: "I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me." Though Hammett doesn't specify a New York address, the '21' Club, as a former speakeasy, would be an appropriate choice. It would also have been a good place to wait for Nora to finish her holiday shopping.

• Lord & Taylor, 424 5th Ave. One of the stores where Nora Charles shops for Christmas presents, accompanied by Asta.

• Saks & Company, 611 5th Avenue (above). Another store where Nora Charles shops for Christmas presents, accompanied by Asta.

Little Theater (now Helen Hayes Theatre, right), 240 W 44th St. In the novel Nick and Nora attend the opening of the play Honeymoon, a comedy by George Backer and Samuel Chotzinoff. The play premiered at the Little Theater on December 23, 1932.

• Julia Wolf's apartment (book), 411 E. 54th St., between 1st Ave. and Sutton Place; in the movie version, 145 W 55th St, between 6th Ave. and 7th Ave. Wolf is the murdered secretary and rumored girlfriend of the missing factory owner Clyde Wynant.

• The Plaza, Central Park South and Fifth Avenue. Famous hotel where lawyer Herbert Macauley claims he met with Clyde Wynant.

• Clyde Wynant's Shop on 1st Avenue. In the novel the location of Clyde Wynant's shop is somewhere on 1st Avenue near Julia Wolf's apartment.

• Reuben's, a classic New York restaurant, now closed, 6 E 54th St. In the book Nick and Nora stop here on two separate occasions to drink coffee, presumably to sober up.

• In the 1930s, Miyako, a Japanese restaurant, 340 W 58th St., was located at this address. In the book, Nick Charles refers to a Japanese restaurant at this address. Though he doesn't give a name, The WPA Guide to New York lists a Miyako restaurant at this location.

• Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave) and 50th street (below). In the novel, Nick and Nora attend the opening performance of the Music Hall. True enough. Radio City's opening gala was December 27, 1932. They leave after an hour.

Bergdorf Goodman, 754 5th Ave. Shopping at the Fifth Avenue department store is the alibi of daughter Dorothy Wynant (played by Maureen O'Sullivan in the movie) at the time of Julia Wolf's murder.

New York Public Library, Fifth Ave., between 40th and 42nd St. Gilbert Wynant's alibi at the time of the murder. The bookish son of Clyde Wynant was in the library reading.

• Pawnshop near corner of 6th Ave. and 46th St.. Chris Jorgensen, Mimi Wynant's new gigolo husband (in the movie played by Cesar Romero), is seen going into a pawnshop near this corner.

Greenwich Village, bohemian neighborhood below 14th Street. In the novel, after dining at a Japanese restaurant, Nick and Nora go to a party at the home of Halsey and Leda Edge. "They lived in a pleasant old three-story house on the edge of Greenwich Village." (The placemarker stands for the neighborhood as a whole.) At the party someone named "Levi Oscant" begins to plays the piano, an obvious play on the real-life pianist and celebrity Oscar Levant.

Grant's Tomb, 122 Riverside Drive. A joke line in the movie version. Trying to get Nora out of his hair, Nick instructs a taxi driver to take Nora to Grant's Tomb, a site far away from the action.

Walking The Thin Man Walk: A 3-mile long walk up Fifth Avenue and over to Sutton Place in the East 50s may prove too long for some. At the very least walk up Fifth Avenue from Lord & Taylor to 59th St. In the spirit of Nick and Nora, find your way to a nearby bar for a swell cocktail, a festive ending for New York holiday shopping.

Nick: How'd you like Grant's Tomb?
Nora: It's lovely. I'm making a copy just for you.

Cheers!

Images of Saks, Radio City Music Hall, and the Helen Hayes Theatre (formerly the Little Theatre) by Walking Off the Big Apple. Screen captures from MGM's The Thin Man (1934). Dialogue between Nick and Nora is from the movie. 
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