Skip to main content

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.









Popular posts from this blog

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. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. 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.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Facing the Dark Ages

A close look at The Met Cloisters Update: The Met Cloisters reopened on September 12, 2020. See the museum's website for ticket information. The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 82-year-old home for its medieval collection in Fort Tryon Park (known as The Met Cloisters in recent years, the result of rebranding), dominates Northern Manhattan like a mystical fortress, like some object of a mythical quest. From nearly any direction, it’s easy to see the tower with its sandy-colored walls, double-arched windows, and Mediterranean style tile roof. Walking south on Broadway north of Dyckman Street , the way of everyday serfs and pilgrims going to market, the otherworldly sight of the imposing structure can transform an otherwise pedestrian journey.  View of The Met Cloisters from the northeast Culture and architect critic Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), reviewing the museum’s opening in 1938 for his regular column in The New Yorker, didn’t care much for the tower, but that was his

Walking on Snow

❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ For the better part of this new year, snow has been either on the ground or in the forecast. In the city landscape, the streets look enchanting for a day or so and then devolve into a dirty mess. This sort of snow is unappealing for an invigorating walk. A snowy path in Inwood Hill Park The forest, on the other hand, has managed to stay enchanting throughout each bout of winter weather. The presence of owls and hawks, bright red cardinals and sweet chickadees, and brown squirrels and black squirrels transform the woodlands into a fairy tale. An Eastern Screech-Owl at home in the winter forest I've spent much of the whole pandemic year, going back to March 2020, in the woods of Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. While I have been accustomed to walking through the park in spring, summer, and autumn, I've never managed to engage with the deepest parts of the forest when a lot of snow was on the ground. Last winter there wasn't much snow anyway. Eastern Screech-Owl

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.” Approaching The Mall in Central Park  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. The Mall in Central Park I hadn’t v

A Morning Walk from Penn Station to Times Square

Penn Station to Times Square New York City entered a new phase of the reopening on Monday, but you would never know it from a morning walk in Midtown on the day after.  At 34th Street and 8th Avenue, an outsize reminder of the public health crisis from Montefiore Medical Center After running an errand near Penn Station, I decided to take a walk up to Times Square and Broadway before heading home from 59th Street and Columbus Circle.  34th Street looking east toward the Empire State Building I wasn’t altogether prepared for the sights and sounds of this time and this place. Like many other New Yorkers, I have rarely left my neighborhood for the past four months.  8th Avenue at W. 38th Street After exiting a quiet Penn Station near 8th Avenue and W. 33rd Street at what would normally be the end of rush hour, I found myself suddenly dropped into a city (mostly) bereft of crowds.  A few commuters near Port Authority and The New York Times building, 8th Avenue and W. 40th Street Yet, I had

Purposeful Pastimes in a Pandemic

The disruption of everyday life in this pandemic can lead to confusion, immobility, or a lack of concentration. I know this has been true for me. Certain activities that in normal times would be effortless and fun now seem suddenly too hard or irrelevant. For me, this includes writing anything longer than a paragraph. I also painted a small scene of the streetscape out my window but it took me over a month to finish it. I’ve now identified a handful of activities that are easy for me, and I’ve managed to rationalize them by finding meaning in them as well. The first, of course, is walking. While staying home is the preferred course of action during a pandemic, a solitary walk in a nearby park is acceptable within the current guidelines. I find these walks in nature absolutely necessary for physical and mental wellbeing. Taking pictures of birds can also be fun, educational, and meaningful. While the Great Egret, Red-tailed Hawk, and Northern Cardinal are common in these

Walking It Off: Coping with Holiday Stress During the Pandemic

When I began this series, “Pandemic Posts from the Pause: New York City in the Age of Coronavirus” in March of 2020, I could see the first young greens of spring from my window. New Yorkers were told to stay home then and away from others. As someone who enjoys walking in the city, I knew that I would need to sacrifice many things this year. I was not going to give up walking. I quickly figured out that I could safely go to Inwood Hill Park near my house and wander the trails in the old forest. In March, I could breathe in the spring air away from others. There was little else to do during those early days of the “pause.” New Yorkers suffered greatly at the beginning. In a few months we were able to get the numbers down and to manage some semblance of human interaction, at a distance and masked.  Now, with the beginning of the holidays, the city and nation faces the existential threat of the virus’s return, the political assault on democratic norms, and the ongoing threat of the clima

A New York Spring Calendar: Blooming Times and Seasonal Events

See the UPDATED 2018 CALENDAR HERE . Updated for 2017 . At this time of year, thoughts turn to spring. Let's spring forward to blooming times, the best locations for witnessing spring's beginnings, and springtime events in the big city. While the occasional snow could blow through the city, we're just weeks now from callery pears in bloom and opening day at the ballpark. In The Ramble, Central Park. mid-April Blooming Times •  Central Park Conservancy's website  lists blooming times within the park. During the month of March we begin to see crocus, daffodils, forsythia, snowdrops, witch-hazel, and hellebores. Species tulips will emerge in several places, but the Shakespeare Garden and Conservatory Garden are particularly good places to catch the beginning of Spring blooms. Central Park near E. 72nd St., saucer magnolia, typically end of March. •  Citywide Blooming Calendar from New York City Department of Parks & Recreation April is u

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit