Skip to main content

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.

(Note 2/3/2017 - See update on the Second Avenue Subway.)

"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.

Comments

  1. 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.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment









Popular posts from this blog

MoMA in Masks

Update. Beginning September 28, MoMA will require all members to reserve tickets in advance.*Walking into the gallery devoted to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (c 1920) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Saturday afternoon, I saw a woman seated on a bench. She was looking at the artist’s dreamy depiction of his garden at Giverny, and I thought for a moment she might be dreaming as well. As she was the only person occupying what is usually a packed room for fans of Impressionism, I was hesitant to invade her private garden reveries.I would enjoy my own such private moments with my favorite MoMA works that afternoon, including Marc Chagall’s I and the Village (1911). The painting depicts a colorful and geometric fairy tale of peasants and animals, memories of the artist’s childhood home outside Vitebsk. And I had a long time to feel the scorching sun of photographer Dorothea Lange’s Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle (1938), a setting closer to my hometown. Later I would sit in t…

In Washington Irving Country: A Walk Between Irvington and Tarrytown on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

A stroll in the countryside may be slow and rhythmic, accompanied by a soft breeze among the trees, but walking in this sleepy fashion doesn’t mean the brain is not alert. This pace is especially true for a walk in Washington Irving country about thirty miles north of New York City along the Hudson River. Up near Irvington and Tarrytown, just south of Sleepy Hollow, a steady yet alert pace is recommended, taking in whatever happens as the walk progresses. Walking along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail and going off the trail in whims and reveries can awaken the imagination, especially for overactive imaginations primed for the pump. You don’t want to get too sleepy near Sleepy Hollow.When I mentioned to an acquaintance not long ago that I had been exploring the woods south of Sleepy Hollow, this person affirmed with great conviction that this land was truly haunted. She said, “It suddenly gets cold and dark in the hollow.” As a child raised on the tales of the Headless Horseman and Sleep…

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers.

Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.  

Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been frequently occupied, as in Occupied, with crowds protesting police violence. This week, NYPD officers in riot gear remove…

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements.
UPDATED September 25, 2020. Many favorite local destinations have now reopened. 

Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations   
• Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC will allow indoor dining at 25% capacity.
• As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER.
• The 9/11 Memorial reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices.
• Libraries: NYPL. Starting on Monday, July 13, the library will allow a grab-and-go service.
Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets. 
• The High Line reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entrance only at Gansevoort Street. See High Line website for details. 
The Bronx Zoo reopened J…

The City Turned Inside Out: A Walk from Battery Park to Fulton Street

While the cast of HAMILTON sings “The World Turned Upside Down,” New Yorkers could easily hum along to “The City Turned Inside Out” this summer. (not a real song) Where once a city’s important work took place indoors - within the soaring office buildings, famous restaurants, legendary museums, and storied performance halls, the COVID-19 epidemic has literally turned the residents outdoors. 

At least it’s summer in the city, when spending time outdoors is common and pleasant enough. Still, the city remains strange this summer of 2020. 

With the absence of tourists, and with office workers connecting virtually from home, many of the city’s main attractions aren’t attracting many visitors. A walk from the Battery to Fulton Street on a pleasant Thursday afternoon bore this out. 

It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and happy. Thanks to the city’s gardeners and landscapers, the city parks are looking particularly lush and splendid this summer. The grounds of Battery Park feel…

The Company of Nature: Walking With Butterflies in Fort Tryon Park

If wandering the empty urban canyons feels a little lonely and depressing, a better idea would be to head to the nearest park. This past Saturday, a day that was sunny but not too hot, Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan turned out to be the perfect place to not only satisfy wanderlust but to rediscover the company of nature. Butterflies were there. Hundreds of butterflies - Tiger Swallowtails, Monarch Butterflies, Black Swallowtails, Cabbage White Butterflies, and Silver Spotted Skippers, among them. Moths, too, although I have not yet learned their names.  The Heather Garden is situated just beyond the entrance to Fort Tryon Park. With seasonal plantings, the garden is always a serene spot.  Observing butterflies involves watching their interaction with blooming flowers and shrubs. The Tiger Swallowtails are easy to find and found here in significant numbers. Just look for the Butterfly Bushes. The Cabbage White Butterflies are here in abundance, too, though not as showy as the swallow…

An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition

This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video, filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.”

When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months.

I hadn’t ventured into Central Park since before the pandemic. While I’ve b…

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City.


The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington.


First, catch a Metro-North Hudson line train to Dobbs Ferry, a village in southern Westchester C…

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge: 
"The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apro…

Connect the Dots: A Self-Guided Walk to Public Art in Lower Manhattan

Please see the revised and updated post, New York as Outdoor Museum: A Self-Guided Walk to Public Art in Lower Manhattan, June 2012.)

Lower Manhattan, with its tapered narrow geography between the two rivers spilling into New York Harbor, is not only a convenient area to walk but it's rich in public art.

Be sure to include Jean Dubuffet's Group of Four Trees, 1969-72 (left), in front of the Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza off of Pine Street, the Louise Nevelson Plaza on Maiden Lane (below), and many of the works in Battery Park City.

The latter area, under the guidance of the Battery Park City Authority, raised a new high standard in the 1980s with its commitment to incorporating public art into the new community. There, be sure to see Jim Dine's Ape and Cat (at the Dance) in Robert F. Wagner. Jr. Park, a blend of charm and danger, and South Cove, a great collaborative work of environmental design.



Also welcome is the Downtown Alliance's public art program, Re:Construction,…