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Fiction

( Originally Published 1918 )



Fifth Avenue in Fiction—Pages of Romance—The Henry James Heroes and Heroines—George William Curtiss's "Prue and I "—Edgar Fawcett and Edgar Saltus—The "Big Four" of Archibald Clavering Gunter—The Home of Dr. Sloper—O. Henry and Arthur Train—Bunner and Washington Square—" Predestined "—The De Rham House and Van Bibber's Burglar—Delmonico's—The "Amen Corner "—Union and Madison Squares—The Coming of Potash and Perlmutter—Up the Avenue.

To Macaulay's New Zealander, contemplating from London Bridge the ruins of St. Paul's, and the miles upon miles of silent stones stretching to north and west and east, there would undoubtedly have come the desire to reconstruct a mental picture of the vast, dead city in certain of the various periods in which it had been teeming and throbbing with human life. Had the wish become the task, formal history would have played its part. Informal history would have proved more fruitful, and bygone days would have taken shape in the study of old prints, letters, and diaries. But for the full flavour of the town that once was and now had become crumbling dust he would have turned to pages that had been professedly pages of romance.

Suppose Elizabethan London had been his especial interest. That he would have seen through the eyes of Sir John Falstaff and his riotous, dissolute cronies of the Boar's Head Tavern. Georgian London? What better companion could he have had in his scheme of investigation than Mr. Thomas Jones, recently come up from the West Country? For a vision of Corinthian London could he have done better than take up Conan Doyle's " Rodney Stone," with its vivid pictures of the stilted eccentrics who hovered about the Prince-Regent, the coffee-houses thronged with England's warriors of the land and sea, and the haunts of the hard-faced men of the Prize Ring?

The Artful Dodger, guiding the innocent Oliver to the den of Fagin the Jew, would have introduced that last New Zealander to the sordid section of London about Great Saffron Hill and Little Saffron Hill that existed before the construction of the Holborn Viaduct. In the pages of Thackeray and George Meredith he would have studied the West-End of Victorian days. Certain seamy aspects of London life of the last years of the nineteenth century would have been revealed in the novels of George Gissing; and the books of a score of scribes, whose permanent place in letters is still a matter of conjecture, would have flashed glimpses of the city's streets, foibles, manners, and emotions in the early years of the twentieth century.

Our literature has, as yet, given us no figure analogous to that Last New Zealander of Macaulay. But in the bustling New York of fifty or one hundred years hence the dreamer or the student wishing to feel how the inhabitants of Manhattan lived three or four score years ago, or how we are living today, will not disdain to turn over pages originally designed to lighten the tedium of idle hours.

Now and again, in the novels of the fifties and sixties, there are glimpses of the stretch from Washington Square to Fourteenth Street, but the greater Fifth Avenue, as a factor in fiction, dates from about the time when Daisy Miller became a type. To those who really understand them, every one of the great, vital streets of the world has a soul as well as a body. The social invader from the West, the merchant whose establishment still found profit in Grand Street, the banker from Broad Street, or the ship's chandler from South, the club awakening to the fact that its quarters on Broadway or in one of the side streets near Irving Place was too far down-town, or in size inadequate to its growing membership—those were the agencies that wrought the Avenue's material development. But it was the American travelling in Europe in the days when we first found Henry James's heroine on the shores of Lake Geneva and later in Rome, when transatlantic voyagers were not so commonplace as they became later, whose pangs of home-sickness in his pension in the Rue de Clichy in Paris, or his hotel in Sorrento, first invested Fifth Avenue with a spirit. It was different perhaps when he returned home with a slight pose of foreign manners, to bask for a brief moment in the sunny flood of distinction that was due him as a kind of later Sir John Franklin. But over there what were cathedral naves and spires, or art galleries, or purple Mediterranean waves, or laboriously acquired French verbs, to the jutting brown-stone stoops and the maples breaking into blossom?

There was a kind of writing, not fish or flesh or good red herring, but just the same altogether charming in its day, inspiring of dreams, and a vehicle for pleasant fancy. It belonged to what, from our grave old point of view, was the youth of the world, and the spirit of youth, its ingenuousness, and its ardour, were needed to appreciate it. Ik Marvel's " Reveries of a Bachelor " was of that genre—and how the hearth logs blazed and the fair faces flickered in the flames in those pages of Mr. Donald G. Mitchell!—and George William Curtiss's Prue and I "; and the latter book was one of the first in which was to befound the flavour of the old Fifth Avenue. Then there were the forgotten novelists of the seventies and early eighties, and some who are not quite forgotten, such as the two Edgars, Fawcett and Saltus, and the days when every visiting English-man, no matter what he might have done in real life, in fiction had to stay, while in New York, at the Brevoort House. All sorts of inconsequential novels flit through the mind in recalling that bygone period. There was a gentleman whose atrociously written, but marvellously constructed " thrillers " were to be found in every deck chair at the noon hour on transatlantic steamers of thirty years ago. That was the late Archibald Clavering Gunter. The present generation knows him and his works not at all; but how a past generation used to read and reread " Mr. Barnes of New York," and " Mr. Potter of Texas," and " Miss Nobody of Nowhere," and That Frenchman," which should have been called " M. De Vernay of Paris." Those were the earliest and the " big four." The list of successors is a long one, but that certain something, that indefinable quality, which had made the first books great trash was irrevocably gone. Of all the flamboyant characters of the tales Mr. Barnes was deservedly the most popular, and at such times as he was not winning international rifle matches at Monte Carlo, or racing about Europe in respectable pursuit of desirable young ladies, he inhabited a dwelling on lower Fifth Avenue. Practically all Fifth Avenue were the scenes of " Miss Nobody of Nowhere," with its charming heroine and her adopted parents, its wicked English nobleman, and its comical little Anglo-maniac dude. Under some name or other a " Gussie Van Beekman " was a necessary ingredient of every Gunter novel.

It is a far cry from Gunter to Henry James, though each wrought according to his lights, and served his purpose in his time. It was when the Avenue was in its infancy that Dr. Sloper, of James's " Washington Square," went to live in the brick house with white stone trimmings, that, practically unchanged, may be seen today, diagonally across the street from the Arch. The novelist wrote of the locality as having " a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city "; and ascribed to it, " a richer, riper look than any of the upper ramifications of the great longitudinal thoroughfare—the look of having had something of a social history." That " richer, riper look," that suggestion of a past, is there to-day, and is likely to be there tomorrow. The particular Sloper house is quite easy of identification. It is the third from the corner as one goes westward from the Avenue. In 1835, when Dr. Sloper first took possession, moving uptown from the neighbourhood of the City Hall, which had seen its best days socially, the Square, then the ideal of quiet and genteel retirement, was enclosed by a wooden paling. The edifice in which the Slopers lived and its neighbours were then thought to embody the last results of architectural science. It actually dates to 1831. Among the merchants who built in that year were Thomas Suffern, Saul Allen, John Johnston, George Griswold, James Boorman, and William C. Rhinelander. It was their type of house that was accepted for the neighbourhood as the first streets began to open to the right and left of Fifth Avenue.

That northern stretch of the Square, first invaded in fiction by Henry James, has ever been a favourite background of the story-spinners, who never tire of contrasting its tone of well-bred aristocracy with the squalor, half-Bohemian and half-proletarian, that faces it from across the Park. In fiction one does not necessarily have to be of an old New York family in order to inhabit one of those north-side dwellings. Robert Walmsley, of O. Henry's " The Defeat of the City," lived there, and the boyhood to which he looked back was one spent on an up-state farm; while another erstwhile tenant in the exclusive row was the devious Artemas Quibble, of Mr. Arthur Train's narrative, who began life humbly somewhere in grey New England, and ended it, so far as the reader was informed, in Sing Sing Prison. Then there was the home of Mrs. Martin, the " Duchess of Washington Square " of Brander Matthews's " The Last Meeting," and that of Miss Grandish, of Julian Ralph's " People We Pass," and the house of Mrs. Delaney, of Edgar Fawcett's " Rutherford," and the structure which inspired one-half of Edward W. Townsend's " Just Across the Square," and the five-room apartment " at the top of a house with dormer windows on the north side " where Sanford lived according to F. Hopkinson Smith's " Caleb West," and where his guests, looking out, could see the " night life of the Park, miniature figures strolling about under the trees, flashing in brilliant light or swallowed up in dense shadow as they passed in the glare of many lamps scattered among the budding foliage." Also over the Square, regarded in the light of fiction, is the friendly shadow of Bunner, who liked it at any time, but liked it best of all at night, with the great dim branches swaying and breaking in the breeze, the gas lamps flickering and blinking, when the tumults and the shoutings of the day were gone and " only a tramp or something worse in woman's shape was hurrying across the bleak space, along the winding asphalt, walking over the Potter's Field of the past on the way to the Potter's Field to be."

But to turn into the Avenue proper, and to follow the trail of the novelists northward. At the very point of departure we are on the site of the imaginary structure that gave the title to Leroy Scott's " No. 13 Washington Square," for the reason that there is no such number at all, and that the house in question must have accupied the space between Nos. 12 and 14, respectively, on the east and west corners facing Waverly Place. Before the next street is reached we have passed the home of the Huntingdons of Edgar Fawcett's " A Hopeless Case," and at the southwest corner of the Avenue and Eighth Street, facing the Brevoort, is No. 68 Clinton Place, which was not only the setting, but also the raison d'etre of Thomas A. Janvier's " A Temporary Deadlock." Almost diagonally across the street is an old brick house, with Ionic pillars of marble and a fanlight at the arched entrance—one of those houses that, to use the novelist's words, " preserve unobtrusively, in the midst of a city that is being constantly rebuilt, the pure beauty of Colonial dwellings." It was the home of the Ferrols of Stephen French Whitman's " Predestined," one of the books of real power that appear from time to time, to be strangely neglected, and through that neglect to tempt the discriminating reader to contempt for the literary judgment of his age.

At the northwest corner of Ninth Street there is a brownish-green building erected in the long, long ago to serve as a domicile of the Brevoort family, which had once exercised pastoral sway over so many acres of this region. Later it be-came the home of the De Rhams. But to Richard Harding Davis, then a reporter on the " Evening Sun," it had nothing of the flavour of the Patroons. It was simply the house where young Cortlandt Van Bibber, returning from Jersey City where he had witnessed the " go " between " Dutchy " Mack and a coloured person professionally known as the Black Diamond, found his burglar. There is no mistaking the house, which " faced the avenue," nor the stone wall that ran back to the brown stable which opened on the side street, nor the door in the wall, that, opening cautiously, showed Van Bibber the head of his quarry. " The house was tightly closed, as if some one was lying inside dead," was a line of Mr. Davis's description. Many years after the writing of " Van Bibber's Burglar," another maker of fiction associated with New York was standing before the Ninth Street house, of the history of which he knew nothing. " Grim tragedy lives there, or should live there," said Owen Johnson, " I never pass here without the feeling that there is some one lying dead inside."

Van Bibber's presence in the neighbourhood was in no wise surprising, for it was one of his favourite haunts when he was not engaged farther up the Avenue, in his daily labour, which was, as he explained to the chance acquaintance met at the ball in Lyric Hall described in " Cinderella," " mixing cocktails at the Knickerbocker Club." Only a few doors distant from the Ninth Street house there is an apartment hotel known as the Berkeley, and it was to a Berkeley apartment that Van Bibber, as related in " Her First Appearance," took the child that he had practically kidnapped to restore her to her father and to be rewarded for his intrusion by being sensibly called a well-meaning fool. But there is another apartment house at the south-west corner of the Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street which better fits the description, which tells how Van Bibber, from the windows, could see the many gas lamps of Broadway where it crossed the Avenue a few blocks away, and the bunches of light on Madison Square Garden.

Edgar Fawcett was hardly of the generation of the Flora McFlimseys. As a matter of fact he was a small boy in knickerbockers when the famous William Allen Butler poem, " Nothing to Wear," first appeared in the pages of " Harper's Weekly." But Miss McFlimsey was an enduring young lady, who, for many years was accepted as symbolizing the foibles of Madison Square, and she was in a measure in Fawcett's mind when he wrote, in " A Gentleman of Leisure," that vigorous description contrasting socially the stretch of the Avenue below Fourteenth Street with the later development a dozen blocks to the north. In another Fawcett novel, " Olivia Delaplaine," we find the home of the heroine's husband in Tenth Street, just off the Avenue; and, reverting to " A Gentleman of Leisure," Clinton Wainwright, the gentleman in question, lived, like a " visiting Englishman," at the Brevoort.

There have been many Delmonicos. But for the purposes of fiction there has never been one just like the establishment that occupied a corner at the junction of the Avenue and Fourteenth Street. It was a more limited town in those days. The novelist wishing to depict his hero doing the right thing in the right way by his heroine did not have the variety of choice he has now. Two squares away, the Academy of Music was, theatrically and operatically, the social centre, so to carry on the narrative with a proper regard for the conventions, the preceding dinner or the following supper was necessarily at the old Delmonico's. They were good trenchermen and trencherwomen, those heroes and heroines of yesterday! Many oyster-beds were depleted, and bins of rare vintage; emptied to satisfy the healthy appetites of the inked pages. Somehow the mouth waters with the memory. When Delmonico's moved on to Twenty-sixth Street, and from its terraced tables its patrons could look up at graceful Diana, there were many famous dinners of fiction, such as the one, for example, consumed by the otherwise faultless Walters, for a brief period in the service of Mr. Van Bibber—the menu selected : Little Neck clams first, with chablis, and pea-soup, and caviare on toast, before the oyster crabs, with Johannisberger Cabinet; then an entree of calves' brains and rice ; then no roast, but a bird, cold asparagus with French dressing, Camembert cheese, and Turkish coffee," may be accepted as indicating the gastronomical taste of the author in the days when youth meant good digestion—but with the departure from the old Fourteenth Street corner something of the flavour of the name passed forever.

If New York has never had another restaurant that meant to the novelist just what the traditional Delmonico's meant, there has also never been an-other hotel like the old Fifth Avenue. In actual life the so-called " Ladies' Parlour " on the second floor, reached, if I remember rightly, by means of an entrance on the Twenty-third Street side, was dreary enough; but turn to the pages of the romance of the sixties and seventies and eighties, and on the heavily upholstered sofas enamoured couples sat in furtive meeting, and words of endearment were whispered, and all the stock intrigue of fiction was set in motion. Then, on the ground floor, was the Amen Corner, without which no tale of political life was complete, and the various rooms for more formal gatherings, such as the one in which took place " The Great Secretary of State Interview," as narrated by Jesse Lynch Williams many years ago.

But for the full flavour of the romance of this section of Fifth Avenue it is not necessary to go back to the leisurely novelists of the eighties and before. Recall the work of a man who, a short ten years ago, was turning out from week to week the mirth-provoking, amazement-provoking tales dealing with the life of what he termed his " Little Old Bagdad on-the-Subway," his " Noisyville on-the-Hudson," his " City of Chameleon Changes." For the Avenue as the expression of the city's wealth and magnificence and aristocracy the late O. Henry had little love. The glitter and pomp and pageantry were not for " the likes of him." He preferred the more plebeian trails, the department-store infested thoroughfare to the west, with the clattering " El " road overhead ; or Fourth Avenue to the east, beginning at the statue of " George the Veracious," running between the silent and terrible mountains, finally, with a shriek and a crash, to dive headlong into the tunnel at Thirty-fourth Street, and never to be seen again; or even some purlieu of the great East Side, where he could sit listening at ease in the humble shop of Fitbad the Tailor.

There was, however, one portion of land belonging to the Avenue where he felt himself thoroughly at home. When, of a summer's evening, darkness had fallen, and the leaves were fluttering in the warm breeze, and high overhead Diana's light was twinkling, and the derelicts were gathered on the Park benches, the world was full of delightful mystery and magic. Close to the curb, at one corner of the Square, a low grey motor-car with engine silent. Then whimsical fancy and a haunting memory of Robert Louis Stevenson's " New Arabian Nights " builded up the story " While the Auto Waits." Or perhaps the sight of a car swiftly moving with its emergency tire dangerously loose, and to that fertile brain were flashed the ingredients of " The Fifth 'Wheel." " There is an aristocracy of the public parks and even of the vagabonds who use them for their private apartments," wrote Sidney Porter in " The Shocks of Doom." Valiance of the story felt rather than knew this, but when he stepped down out of his world into chaos his feet brought him directly to Madison Square. Probably Sherard Plumer, the down-and-out artist, was another to recognize its quality even before he fell in with Carson Chalmers, as out lined in "A Madison Square Arabian Night"; and also Marcus Clayton of Roanoke County, Virginia, and Eva Bedford, of Bedford County of the same State; and the disreputable Soapy, of " The Cop and the Anthem," when he sought a park bench on which to ponder over just what violation of the law would insure his deportation to Black-well's Island, which was his Palm Beach and Riviera for the winter months. Here, to O. Henry, was the commonn ground of all, the happy and the unfortunate, the just and the unjust, the Caliph and the cad; and far above, against the sky, was the dainty goddess who presided over the destinies of all, Miss Diana, who, according to the opinion expressed by Mrs. Liberty in " The Lady Higher Up," has the best job for a statue in the whole town, with the Cat-Show, and the Horse-Show, and the military tournaments where the privates " look grand as generals, and the generals try to look grand as floorwalkers," and the Sportsman's Show, and above all, the French Ball, " where the original Cohens and the Robert Emmet-Sangerbund Society dance the Highland fling with one another."

Other figures of fiction, in fancy, flit across the Square, or throng the near-by streets. In that dense, pushing, alien-tongued multitude that at the noon hour congests the sidewalks of the Avenue to the south of Twenty-third Street, one may catch a glimpse of Mr. Montague Glass's Abe Potash and Morris Perlmutter, long since moved uptown from their original loft in Division Street in the stories, and in Leonard Street in fact. The crowd is thickest at the Twenty-first Street corner, where, in the novels of other days, the mature burghers used to watch the passing ladies from the windows of the Union Club. But there is little inclination to tarry long there. The environment of the Square is a pleasanter environment. When Delmonico's was at the Twenty-sixth Street corner, the hero of one of Brander Matthews's " Vignettes of Manhattan" pointed out of one of its windows and confessed that, failure in life as he was, he would die out of sight of the tower of the Madison Square Garden. A reminiscent sign or two is all that is left of the old Hotel Brunswick, which, among the hostelries of other days, yielded precedence only to the Fifth Avenue and the Brevoort as a factor in fiction.

Reverting to Mr. Davis, the Tower was one of the staple subjects of conversation of his heroes and heroines when they happened to be in the Congo, or Morocco, or looking longingly from the decks of steamers in South American waters; and the shadowy personage—very probably Van Bibber—who took " A Walk up the Avenue" started on his journey from the Square. Van Bibber! Of course it was Van Bibber. It must have been Van Bibber. For when he reached Thirty-second Street a half-dozen men nodded to him in that casual manner in which men nod to a passing club-mate. The particular club has since moved some thirty blocks uptown, but to the old building you will find frequent references not only in the Davis stories, but also in the novels of Robert W. Chambers, who was in the habit of indicating it as the Patroon.

Beyond Madison Square the novelists of earlier generations seldom went. It is to the men of to-day, above all to those who have been specializing in what may be called the New York "novel a la mode" that we must turn in order to follow farther the trail. Here is the stately street as portrayed in Mr. Chambers's " The Danger Mark," or " The Firing Line," or " The Younger Set," or in any one of a dozen swiftly moving serials of the hour, whether the author be Mr. Rupert Hughes, or Mr. Owen Johnson, or Mr. Gouverneur Morris, or Mr. Rex Beach. The novel may serve its light purpose today and to-morrow be forgotten. But the current of human life up and down the Avenue is ever running more swiftly.



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