Friday, May 16, 2014

Edna Millay John Barrymore Margaret Mead Shrek Greenwich Village Narrow House

The Narrowest house in New York City

Edna St. Vincent Millay home
 75½ Bedford St
Greenwich Village
New York City, New York
75 1/2 Bedford Street, the
narrowest house in New York City. Three stories and only 9 1/2 feet wide, sometimes called the Millay House after the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay who lived there in the 1920s. They say it's like living in a double decker bus.

Located in Greenwich Village, the Cherry Lane Theatre district, an area where artists, writers, musicians and actors were very creative back in the '20s. New York in the 1920s video info at end.

Millay was one of my mother's favorite poets, she collected her books. Reading about this house has always been of extra interest. Not long ago the house was on the market and the list of other former occupants I saw made it particularly fascinating. What luminaries lived there?

It's a skinny house. Former tenants or owners we now hear listed often include actors John Barrymore and Cary Grant, anthropologist Margaret Mead and cartoonist/author William Steig. 

There are many travel books, sometimes older can be better for getting fact vs legend. People have been able to take Sidewalk Tours of the area since at least the 1930s. Live in a small space? The house is a lesson in space saving ideas, storage solutions such as placing a small refrigerator under the stairs. 

Can you have pieces of furniture that perform more than one function? The stove consists of burners in a row, placed in a former fireplace. There are no closets. The house has no side walls of its own and is 33 feet long.

Regina Kellerman, an architectural historian and preservationist wrote The Architecture of the Greenwich Village Waterfront. Her research related to the streets and buildings of Greenwich Village. Kellerman was executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP). The New York Public Library has her papers and manuscripts in their archive.

The house apparently first appeared on tax records in 1873. In 1880, 75 1/2 was occupied by Martha Banta, a confectioner. In the Very late 1800s and early 1900s it was a family home and/or business for various people and families. It was a cobbler shop, a candle shop.

Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eugen Boissevain
in front of house
75-1/2 Bedford Street, New York
US Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs division

In 1923 Eugen Boissevain, the husband of Edna St. Vincent Millay, "rented the Bedford Street house for a year and ten months $200, a month a princely sum to a young woman who earlier in the year was deeply in debt and staying with friends to economize."
-- Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford  

Millay and her husband remodeled the home, adding a skylight and the Dutch gabling on the front and back. 

According to the plaque on the front of the building, Edna St. Vincent Millay lived there from 1923-1924 and wrote The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. 

This along with just about everything else pertaining to the house, is disputed
Mr. Skinner's Skinny House

Children's book
inspired by the house.
Ann McGovern, Mort Gerberg

both by scholars, those who study the history of the area and the house itself. We know that Ms. Millay worked on the book elsewhere. Did she also work on it here? Depends on who you ask. We also see that she lived there through the middle of 1925. 

The book, Savage Beauty talks more about Millay and Boissevain in the house. An earlier book of Milford's on Zelda Fitzgerald was also very popular.

Later Millay and Boissevain moved to a 700-acre farm in Austerlitz, New York, Steepletop. The Poet and Her Book, Jean Gould's 1969 biography, quotes Edna St. Vincent Millay as saying that she wanted more nature than she heard from the ''noisy chirping of urchin sparrows'' in the Village. 

Much of the history of this house, small as it is, shows families and roommates staying there to economize just as people do today.

From a short article from The New York Herald-Journal July 17, 1935: The real entrance is the rear door by the way of Cherry Lane Garden. Most of the interior is light green the bedrooms buff and the beds are regular size.

The Villager online quotes Ms. Kellerman's research as showing that the house was occupied in the 1930's by the cartoonist William Steig, his wife and sister-in-law, the anthropologist Margaret Mead. Steig created the character of the big green ogre, Shrek. You can find his books on Kindle and in paper form. A fun gift idea for yourself or someone else would be to compare the books to the movie versions of Shrek.

Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization (1928) is said to have launched Margaret Mead's career as an anthropologist.

In the summer of 1939, the St. Petersburg Times had an article about some young ladies, recently graduated from college, living in the house. They were giving sidewalk tours of the area."Sidewalk tours service" says their sign. The article says they're living in "Miss Millay's former home."

For John Barrymore, I found a couple of former residences. He lived on the top floor at 132 West 4th St. He made a garden that was so heavy with topsoil in his rooftop apartment that it made the building structurally unsound and he was asked to leave. But he supposedly left the garden behind.

Barrymore's films include the title role in the silent Don Juan in 1926. He played Captain Ahab in the early talkie, Moby Dick in 1930.

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An article about some of the authors who lived in Greenwich Village discussed Herman Melville, for 20 years a customs inspector on the village water front. "He shamed his wife to tears by continuing to write even after critics and writers had disdained his novels Moby Dick (1851) and Mardi (1849). 'Herman has taken to writing poetry,' Mrs. Melville wrote to her mother. 'You need not tell anyone, for you know how such things get around.'"

In the fall of 1947, New York University threatened to take over many of the buildings in the Washington Park area, "to build the largest law center in the world -- occupying two sides of the square and knocking out a whole row of the red brick Victorian treasures." John Barrymore is quoted as saying about living in the area, "When the locust blossoms come to the courtyard it's like living in Paris in the twelfth century."

The book, Haunted Greenwich Village: Bohemian Banshees, Spooky Sites and Gonzo Ghosts by Tom Ogden suggests that Barrymore lived at 132 Waverly place and that the residence has been haunted by Mr. Barrymore's ghost.

Somewhere along the line the story that Cary Grant had visited the house morphed to his having slept there to his having lived there. Just like with Mr. Barrymore, it all went from a legend/rumor to being reported and written as e-fact

In the early 1920s, Cary Grant (rather a young performer named Archie Leach from Bristol, England) was in New York City working as an acrobat and stilt walker on Coney Island.  He sold hand-painted neckties in NYC, including in Greenwich Village. He was trying to earn a living and trying to lose some of his accent since apparently some Americans couldn't understand what he was saying.

Short filler pieces about the house in the late 1950s and early 1960s were listing both Millay and John Barrymore as having been a resident of the house but I didn't see anything suggesting Cary Grant's having lived in or even having visited the house until much more recently. 

In 1964 a New York Times article noted that the interior had 3 bedrooms and five gas-burning fireplaces.

William Steig illustrated a version of the story, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. The 1948 film version of this story starred Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. 

Writer and poet Ann McGovern lived in the house in the 1980s. In honor of the house, she wrote Mr. Skinner's Skinny House. Among her many awards and honors for children's literature, McGovern won the 2010 Herman Melville Literary Award, given for major contributions to the world of maritime literature.

Looking to get your kids to read more, enjoy learning? She's also famous for writing children's books such as Stone Soup and an array or biographical, historical and animal books. These include If You Lived In Colonial Times, Runaway Slave: The Story of Harriet Tubman and Shark Lady: True Adventures of Eugenie Clark.

In the 2000s the house was cleaned up and sold again. Approximately 900 square feet total, to get from room to room you climb stairs. Contemporary news videos give added information. 

The Walter Cronkite New York in the 1920s documentary from 1961 identifies many of the people you'll see in the following video.

New York in the 1920s.

What we see in the video:
Toward the end we see Charlie Chaplin, as himself, doing his "dance of the rolls on forks"  that he did in The Gold Rush. Earlier in the video we see Eugene O'Neill his wife Agnes Boulton and their infant daughter, Oona O'Neill. Oona grows up to marry Charlie Chaplin in 1943 when she is 18. Granddaughter, Oona Chaplin was on the HBO series, Game of Thrones.

Hear Ziegfeld stars Fannie Brice sing, I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling and Helen Morgan sing My Bill.

Gertrude Lawrence, HG Wells, Rebecca West.
Tenors John McCormack and Enrico Caruso who mugs for the camera; Ignacy Paderewski, Russian actor Constantin Stanislavski, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, H.L. Mencken, Heywood Hale Broun, George Jean Nathan, club owner Texas Guinan.
Noel Coward with actress Hope Williams (an early mentor of Katharine Hepburn), the play is The Vortex. The literary and dramatic/theatre situation in the city at the time is covered. Prohibition is discussed briefly.

Stanley Walker, longtime editor of The Herald Tribune

Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher is interviewed as is playwright and actor Marc Connelly.

Marc Connelly, actor and playwright who collaborated with George S. Kaufman and then received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for The Green Pastures in 1930.
Talks about the Algonquin Round Table including Alexander Woollcott, Edna Ferber, George Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker), Robert Benchley and more. He tells us that there's some speculation about Harold Ross' head of hair. Maybe that jungle picture Chang was filmed in it.

At the first Academy Awards Chang was nominated for the Unique and Artistic Production award. The winner was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans with Janet Gaynor, George O'Brien Margaret Livingston. It was presented to William Fox for Fox Film Corporation. They also gave the award for Outstanding Picture to Wings with Clara Bow, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen and Gary Cooper. 

Per the Academy, the next year, they dropped the Unique and Artistic Production award, and decided retroactively that the award won by Wings was the highest honor that could be awarded.

George Gershwin is seen and heard rehearsing a musical number, Strike Up the Band, with comic team Clark and McCullough.

From the section on Greenwich Village:
Poet and novelist Elinor Morton Wylie
Theodore Dreiser Dreiser's best known novels include Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925).
Writers Sherwood Anderson and Willa Cather

The Village Belle, Edna St. Vincent Millay. "The wit of her conversation was as sharp as the pathos of her poetry," says literary critic Edmund Wilson


The Architecture of the Greenwich Village Waterfront, Regina M. Kellerman

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford 

The Poet and Her Book, Jean Gould, Various real estate web sites and archives

Related Information:

Visit 84 Charing Cross Road the New York locations connected with the book and 1987 film of the same name. You can visit these locations, much like you can visit other city spots made memorable in films. 

How many movies featured the Empire State Building? Some of the most famous include Love Affair with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer 1939, An Affair to Remember Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr 1957. Sleepless in Seattle with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan 1993, Love Affair with Warren Beatty, Annette Bening and Katharine Hepburn in her last feature film 1994.
Evenings With Cary Grant: Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best by Nancy Nelson

Damned in Paradise: The life of John Barrymore

Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore  

Do I Look Skinny In This House?: How to Feel Great In Your Home Using Design Psychology by Kelli Ellis 

Animated and Cartoon Characters on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Shrek has a star

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties

Margaret Mead: Her Life, Her Letters

Chaplin's Girl: The Life and Loves of Virginia Cherrill  by Miranda Seymour  

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