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Feline Characters in New York City

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( Originally Published 1936 )



Minnie, the cat who knew Caruso, owed her rise in life partly to luck and partly to character. Luck led her, a forlorn kitten, to the door of the Artists' and Writers' Club in West Fortieth Street on a cold November night in 192o just when John Bleeck, the manager, was taking a look at the weather, but her own qualities did the rest.

Minnie was no beauty, just a black morsel with a wistful little white face, but she had sense. She slept that night, full of good food, in a warm corner of the basement, and in the morning she caught a mouse and laid it at Mr. Bleeck's feet. Now mice and rats had been the bane of Mr. Bleeck's life. They had made a game of the traps he set for them and had, so he told the newspapermen when he gave them Minnie's obituary fourteen years later, grown so audacious that they mingled with the members and nibbled at their shoes. So Minnie seemed the answer to prayer. She had to grow bigger and stronger before she could tackle the rats, but in six months she had caught most of them and the rest had moved away.

The first female ever admitted to this strictly stag club, Minnie enjoyed her advantages but did not abuse them. She never neglected the mouse holes or her kittens, but she dearly loved to spend an hour in the evening with the newspapermen and artists who frequent the club. Many were the card games at which she was a kibitzer-an ideal one, for she never miewed a suggestion. And more than once she arched her back under Caruso's hand when he came to the club with Antonio Scotti for a dry Martini, in the golden days before a lesion in his magic throat left the Metropolitan Opera House bereft of his voice.

It was a tumor in the stomach that killed Minnie, that and old age. When Mr. Bleeck found that she was ailing he carried her to the Ellin Prince Speyer Hospital, but she could not be saved. She was buried in the cemetery for dogs and cats at Hartsdale, New York, and her newspaper friends saw to it that she had good obituaries. I do not suppose that an unassuming little cat ever had so much public notice. The Herald Tribune, next door to the club, printed a column three days running on her sickness, death, and burial.

Minnie had one hundred and ten kittens in the course of her life and made good mousers of them all, but she never imparted to any of them her peculiar social qualities.

Cats like clubs, I think, but whether it is the company or the food I do not know. Years ago I knew a stately Maltese who lived in a watchmaker's shop on Sixth Avenue. One day I found the watchmaker's wife in tears; William Tell had disappeared. Two months later they learned that the Lambs' Club, around the corner, had a Maltese cat. They investigated. It was William Tell. They took him back, but he persistently returned to the club. Why, he seemed to say, should he live in a dim shop among clocks and watches when he could associate with Broadway stars and be fed sumptuously by their chef?

The Stock Exchange Luncheon Club had a cat named Minnie, as modest and efficient as her namesake of Fortieth Street. The steward often said that Minnie saved the club thousands of dollars by catching the rats that otherwise would have devoured the supplies. But Wall Street rats must be more aggressive than literary and artistic rats, for while Minnie of the Artists' and Writers' Club never got a wound in her encounters with rodents, Minnie of the financial district bore some bad scars. It was in defending one of her kittens from a rat that she received the hurt that caused her death. While she was in the hospital more than one Stock Exchange member called to inquire how Minnie fared.

Of quite another sort from the two Minnies was another famous ratter, Waterside Bill. Bill would have scorned to be anybody's protege, and he did not die in a hospital cage, he died in his boots. He appointed himself Exterminator Extraordinary to a row of small shops near the North River. He would saunter into a shop shortly before closing time, and the proprietor, rejoicing, would leave him in possession, knowing that there would be none but dead rodents there in the morning. He visited all the shops in that row, but no others. Though he never tolerated caresses, the whole neighborhood liked him and mourned when he was killed by a vicious dog. Waterside Bill was too arrogant to retreat before any dog, and that was his undoing.

There have been a number of political cats in New York, especially during the Tammany regime. Perhaps they considered themselves the Tiger's poor relations, and knowing that Tarnmany was good to its own thought it would be a good idea to rally round. Dean of them all was Tammany Tom, striped like a tiger himself, who for many years was an esteemed resident of the Criminal Courts Building.

Tom lived with the custodian of the building and was the pet of the custodian's daughter, but he spent his days visiting the judges in their courtrooms. He always used the judges' elevator. He would wait at the door for it, miew for it to stop, and enter it sedately; when his floor was reached he would ask to be let off. Never did he deign to use the public elevator. He liked to sleep on the clerk's desk in the Court of General Sessions, and on hot days he would stroll across the Bridge of Sighs to the Tombs to cool himself in the corridors of the grim prison.

Then there was Nigger, a great friend of former Mayor James J. Walker. Nigger lived in the City Courts Building, but he liked to go over to City Hall and sit in on conferences in the Mayor's office. Mr. Walker always gave him a warm welcome. "Black cats bring me luck," he would say. And indeed it is true that at that time the Mayor's star rode high, and that it was after Nigger's death (of a fall from a six-story window) that his luck began to desert him.

There are many police cats, one of whose duties apparently is to furnish copy on dull days to the reporters who cover the stations. Fire companies mostly have dogs, but their rescue squads are always ready to go forth with ladders and fire axes to release some wandering cat imprisoned in a tenement wall. One squad worked two days to locate the Harlem Ghost, a black cat whose mysterious wails nearly emptied an entire tenement of its Negro population. The poor starved cat was indeed nearly a ghost when the firemen finally chopped it out.

Volumes could be written about the store cats of New York. Most of them are expected to be useful, and are, but I used to know one, a black cat in an uptown florist's shop, who was so ornamental that his owner asked nothing else of him. Any cat could catch mice, but Ebony's gift for posing against the blossoms in the window and catching the eye of the sidewalk stroller was much more subtle. . . . Sundays are the problem for store cats. Weekdays are very well-plenty of company and regular meals; but Sundays are lonely. There was an Eighth Avenue grocery cat who solved the problem nicely. He made himself so popular with customers that one or another of them was always glad to borrow him for the week-end. There was usually a waiting list for Rupert.

Recently I saw a store cat, with no effort of his own, collect a crowd. Someone saw him sitting alone in the window of a closed store and decided that he must be locked in and starving. In no time the pavement was blocked; the A. S. P. C. A. was summoned, and the crowd dispersed only after the agent promised to find the storekeeper and release the cat. Next day the cat still sat in the window, but above him was a placard:

THIS CAT IS FED AND CARED FOR

It seemed that the owner, finding it necessary to close the place temporarily, had left Pal in charge of the mousing department, but visited him twice a day.

A New York cat who gained nation-wide fame last year was a female impersonater, a black-andwhite tomcat who toured the country with Eva Le Gallienne's company in Alice in Wonderland, and made a hit as Dinah in the fireside scene with Alice. But when the season ended and the company returned to New York what could Dinah do?

Booking agencies were of no avail, for there are few parts for cat actors. A well-meaning person gave him to a butcher, but Dinah was used to different society and languished in the butcher shop. Then the young actor who took the part of Tweedledee in the play, and who understands cats, appealed to the New York Women's League for Animals, and the League told the newspapers. After that the only trouble was to decide which one of the many congenial families that wanted Dinah should have him.