One Hundred Years Ago in Bohemia: Greenwich Village 1912

When the ocean liner Carpathia sailed into New York Harbor bearing survivors of the Titanic, the residents of the lower west side neighborhood of Greenwich Village, close to the piers, would have been stirred, like everyone else, by the news of the disaster. While a diverse neighborhood, the Village in 1912 was socially stratified in ways similar to the first class and steerage compartments of the fated ship - upper class socialites on the north side of Washington Square Park and on lower Fifth Avenue, a large Irish contingent in the West Village, and in the South Village, many Italian immigrants. Scattered throughout the neighborhood below 14th Street were new pioneers from elsewhere, some from big cities and others from Smalltown USA. Some escaped wealthy families, while others ran away from the middle class.

John Sloan. Carmine Theater. 1912.
From the author's diaries, January 25, 1912:
"Out for a walk, down to Bleecker and Carmine Sts. where I think I have soaked in
something to paint."
Collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Washington, DC.

Many scholars of Greenwich Village have marked the beginning of the neighborhood's early bohemia, one that long preceded the folk revolution of the 1950s and early 1960s, in the years around 1912. The rebellious and unorthodox contingent of artists, poets, and theater people included John Reed, Mabel Dodge, Djuna Barnes, Walt Kuhn, Max Eastman, Lincoln Steffens, Eugene O'Neill, Susan Glaspell, Theodore Dreiser, Stuart Davis, Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and William Glackens. They mingled and talked in places like Polly's restaurant, Mouquin's, the Old Lafayette, or the Brevoort.

On April 15, 1912, the artist John Sloan and his wife Dolly were away from their home in Greenwich Village and in Philadelphia. While his diary entries usually provided colorful descriptions of his day as a socially engaged artist, the entry for that day was short: "The steamship Titanic, largest vessel afloat, is wrecked on her maiden voyage. Hundreds of lives are probably lost."

The dramatic news probably quickly moved through the Village. Many writers and journalists had moved there. In 1912, journalist and Greenwich Village resident Max Eastman became editor of the newly formed illustrated leftist magazine, The Masses. Eastman cultivated a talented group of contributors including Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Louise Bryant, John Sloan, George Bellows, Amy Lowell, and Upton Sinclair. Some of these names may be familiar to readers from the movie, Reds (1981), directed by and starring Warren Beauty (John Reed). Edward Herrmann played Eastman. In his informative history of the neighborhood, Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960, Ross Wetsteon cites 1912 as "the year the Village became 'the Village.'"(Simon & Schuster, 202. p. 171).

Macdougal Street
Eugene O'Neill wrote his play Thirst (1913) in New London, Connecticut after he had been released from a sanatorium for treatment of tuberculosis. Inspired in part by the Titanic disaster, the play centers of three men who are adrift at sea in a life raft after their ship had gone down. The Provincetown Players staged the play in 1916 in a makeshift theater at 139 Macdougal Street. The space was next to the Liberal Club and Polly Holladay's restaurant. In 1918 the players opened a new theater a few doors down on the same street.

At the time of the Titanic disaster, 117 of 174 injured survivors were taken to St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village. (source: John J. Fialka, Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, St. Martin's Press, p. 18) Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) was 14 years old when her father, Benjamin, died in the sinking of the ship. When she was older, Peggy worked at a radical Greenwich Village bookstore, the Sunwise Turn, operated by her cousin Harold Loeb. Enamored of the bohemian Village life, she moved to Paris in 1920. She later returned to New York to open her Art of This Century gallery on 57th Street in 1942.

From Sloan's diary, April 16, 1912:
"The Titanic disaster is the only thing in the news today. Nearly thirteen hundred lives are probably lost. The Carpathia has some eight hundred survivors on board. Everyone is horrified. There have been more killed in mine disasters in the last three months, but the news has not been so dramatic..."
In 1912, the boys of the Village were reading the works of a notable writer who had lived in the neighborhood.
"The Greenwich Village Literary Club is the name proudly bestowed upon their club by a group of boys of the Hudson Park branch. This is a self governing club. The boys arrange their own programmes and usually invite the club adviser to contribute a story. The programme arranged for Edgar Allan Poe was worked up with great enthusiasm and reflected genuine interest and some literary appreciation on the part of the boys who are chiefly Italians from thirteen to fifteen years old. One boy gave an account of the author's life, another read the "Raven," a third told in outline the story of "The Tell Tale Heart," and the story teller told "The Pit and the Pendulum." (Bulletin of the New York Library, Vol. 18, Part 1)

Carmine Street
According to an article in the June 15, 1912 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, the Village bohemians liked certain types of Left Bank eating establishments:
"The Bohemians of New York patronize pretty consistently the French and Italian restaurants. At Mouquin's, the Brevoort, the Old Lafayette and the Café Boulevard, especially downstairs or in the smaller room, one may see any evening groups of writers, newspaper men, sculptors gesturing with their thumbs, dreamers and revoltés generally, engaged over red wine, a fowl and salad in that eternal "talk to the idea" which is the bread of Bohemia. The faces are rather worn and there is a general softness as to shirtcuffs; and all about are the phrases which haunt Washington and Gramercy Squares and Greenwich village - "The whole system" -  with intense emphasis; "Drawing's getting fearfully tight"; "It doesn't stay within the frame"; and "Still there's always__air back of his people."

In May 1912, John Sloan moved into a new studio in the Varitype Building at 35 Sixth Avenue, near where the avenue then ended. (Sixth Avenue was extended to the south beginning in 1925 in order the construct the A/C/E subway lines. Before this, Sixth Avenue had terminated in the Village at Carmine Street. During the construction of the extension, thousands of Italian immigrants were displaced when their homes were destroyed, and the original Our Lady of Pompeii church at 210 Bleecker Street, where many of them worshipped, was demolished. Father Demo led the campaign to build the new church at its current location on Bleecker and Carmine.)

Varitype Building
From Sloan's diary on June 4, 1912:
"I went up to the roof of the building and watched the Carpathia sail down the Hudson. Waved a big sheet hoping H. might look my way. I enjoy the great expanse of sky from my windows (on the eleventh floor.) Very few buildings between me and the river."

One hundred years ago, the Village became the destination of dreamers. It's time to acknowledge this centennial, too. Like the fictional land of Brigadoon in the Scottish Highlands, the Village may appear only one day every one hundred years. As the lovesick leading man laments in the 1947 Lerner & Lowe musical, "Why do people have to lose things to find out what they really mean?"

Images: Painting, John Sloan, Carmine Theater, 1912. Photographs by Walking Off the Big Apple from April 10, 2012.

Sloan diary entries are from John Sloan's New York Scene (Harper & Row, 1965). A website maintained by the Delaware Art Museum, Seeing the City: Sloan's New York, is an excellent resource and includes an interactive map and walking tour.

Listen to the WNYC story on the role the Jane Hotel played in the Titanic.

Related posts on this website:
Waiting for the Carpathia at Pier 54
25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village
Exploring the South Village
Free Verse, Love and Greenwich Village - Where Poetry Burns at Both Ends

Also see the stand-alone page on Greenwich Village for more posts.


Penny said...

What a wonderfully rich resource for exploring the village...many thanks for pulling them together

Tinky said...

I LOVE your historical posts. Now I want to live in New York City more than ever ... only I want to live there a century ago. I might even have been able to afford the rent then!