Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Chelsea Hotel

From time to time I have posted about New York as a mecca for writers.  Today let’s visit a star-studded spot where human creativity and a lot of other little understood and sometimes dangerous forces have resided.  Spacey people have frequented it for decades.  Just for starters, Arthur C. Clark wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there.  And from a different point on the spaced-out spectrum, William Burroughs lived in this place while he was writing The Naked Lunch.

The Chelsea Hotel at 222 West 23rd Street is a New York City Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.  Even without all the glitterati associated with it, it would be famous just for its architecture, an amalgam of Queen Ann Revival and Victorian Gothic.  It was built in 1883 as New York’s first coop apartment building, and in its life so far has demonstrated a definite preference for Gothic with a capital G.  When built, standing at twelve stories, it was the tallest building in New York.  It contained 250 units and a grand staircase that went up all twelve flights.  At that point, it was in the middle of New York’s theater district.  It provided servants to its occupants!

But then the vagaries of Manhattan real estate spoiled everything.  By 1905, developers were offering much more spacious accommodations on the Upper West Side and boom, crash, the Chelsea went bankrupt.  That’s when they turned it into a hotel.

In 1912, some of the survivors of the Titanic stayed there after they arrived at Pier 54, nearby on 14th Street.

It would take well into next week to type out the names of the famous and infamous who have lived at the Chelsea.  Here is a small sampling: Mark Twain, O. Henry, Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Janis Joplin, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Iggy Popp, Virgil Thomson, Thomas Wolf, Madonna, Sid Vicious, Arthur Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Brendan Behan, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Stanley Kubrick, Milos Forman, Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper, Uma Thurman, Elliott Gould, Elaine Stritch, Michael Imperioli, Jane Fonda, The Grateful Dead, Chick Corea, Edith Piaf, Joni Mitchell, Alice Cooper, Alejandro Escovedo, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendricks, Canned Heat, Abdullah Ibrahim, Christo, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Willem de Kooning, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.  I could go on, but my fingers are starting to bleed and my imagination is reeling.

Some of the above died there, and famously Sid Vicious’s girlfriend did so violently.  There are those who say the place is haunted.  I would not be surprised.  If any building in the USA is haunted, it should be this one.

The Chelsea had its financial ups and downs over the decades.  Then, in 2011, a real estate developer bought it for $80 Million.  There have been some troubles over the subsequent treatment of the rent-controlled tenants during renovation.  Difficulties continue, but as of now, the Hotel Chelsea is set to reopen next year.   I imagine they will be charging more for a one-night stay than Dylan Thomas paid for a whole year’s rent.

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Happily Every After, or What Happens Once a Book Comes Out

Welcome once more to Jenny Milchman!

Since I put bread on the table much of my adult life teaching and counseling gifted college-bound students, I take more than usual interest in the career of a younger gifted American author like Jenny Milchman.

In her post today Jenny shows a strong sense of direction for her life as a fiction writer, combined with humility, grit and undiluted courage!

It is my hope that her personal revelations will give strength and courage to other writers -of whatever age - pushing steadfastly through the intricate mazes on the arduous path to acceptance, publication and the rewards of being recognized as a real pro!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Thelma asked me to write a blog post about “how all this success and fame is affecting me” and I read her instructions and thought, Who is she talking about?

I should back up and tell you a little bit about myself (although really, I’m so famous that surely seeing my name should be enough). Ha. Not.

It took me thirteen years to get my debut novel published. Thirteen years of shuns, as in rejection, humiliation, and degradation. Of pulling myself up afterwards, slapping myself around a little, and saying, “Get out there and do it again.”

Unfortunately the ‘again’ part kept happening. Over a period of eleven years, I wrote eight novels, worked with three agents who submitted five of them, and together we amassed fifteen almost-offers from editors who were interested, but couldn’t get a deal okayed. I lived on the cusp of almost for more than a decade.

Finally the literary sea parted, and I was offered a contract for novel #8. Exactly how is a story that’s been told in other posts and articles. What I’d like to talk about now—the part Thelma was asking about—is what happened next.

What happened first-next is that I learned that rejection doesn’t stop just because you land a publishing deal. My debut hadn’t even come out when my agent told me that novels #7 and #9, both of which we’d submitted to my publisher as a follow-up, weren’t quite right. The novel that would come out after my debut turned out to be my tenth.

But Thelma is right that some magical things did begin, and in many ways, landing that publishing deal changed my life and allowed me to do things I’d dreamed of for decades.

Find readers. See someone, then many someones pick my book up off a bookstore shelf. Walk into the crowded event space of a bookstore or a library and get to speak.

Hmmm, funny what a writer’s dreams consist of, isn’t it? It isn’t buying the yacht—or even being met by a handler at the airport on book tour (neither of which has happened to me yet). But getting to share your story, closing the circle Stephen King describes between author and reader? I’ll take that over ten private jets.

But I keep circling back to Thelma’s initial prompt, and I don’t want to be disingenuous about it. It’s true that my debut novel met with some success. It won an award I will always keep in the annals of memory as my “Oscar moment” and has been nominated for two others. When I was given the Mary Higgins Clark award—by Mary Higgins Clark herself—my editor and my husband had to push me up to the stage. My name had been read, but I hadn’t quite registered it.

And thanks to rigorous research by my publisher as to how best to put digital pricing to use, the same book landed, briefly and low down, on the USA Today bestseller list. I got to see my name praised by the New York Times, and better than that—my story. People and places that wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t made them up.

Remember, this was a novel that had been rejected by everyone. By 2010, when my agent and I were out of options, we had received two final rejections. The first said—

• “Love the array of characters, but the plot moves too slowly.”

While the other went—

• “The plot goes like quicksilver, but we’d have to cut some of these characters.”

What’s a writer to do, with no plot and no characters? We decided to do neither, and then came our eleventh hour reprieve, leading me to believe that if a writer wants to succeed, knock on every door, and then start knocking on things that aren’t doors.

And afterwards, along with the success? A lot of ongoing doubt. Some people liked my first book, but trust me, plenty of people didn’t (just read my reader reviews). I would be lucky enough to see a second novel come out a year later, but that brought with it a whole other set of fears. What if those who liked my first book hated this new one, and those who hated the first hated this one even worse?

Does it ever stop, this writer’s quandary, a primordial soup of second-guessing and undermining yourself? I’d like to ask Stephen King that. Or Kathryn Stockett. You know…the truly famous and successful ones.

I wonder how they see themselves?

There are other doubts besides writerly ones. Every night I wrestle with what kind of lesson my career is offering my kids. Part of the reason I stuck it out as long as I did was because I didn’t want this story to end for my kids on a note of rejection. What kind of Cinderella tale is that? But now the kids are a part of my journey in ways most children aren’t privy to a parent’s career. Is this a good thing—a study in hard work and how there’s always something to reach for? Or should I be leaving my children to school and Scouts and soccer, and shielding them from the realities of a career in media and the arts?

Here’s the thing. As any real writer knows—from Stephen King to the newest newbie on the block—it’s the next book that counts. The one we’re dreaming up in our heads. The one we’ll turn our attention to the moment it’s ready. And nobody, not Stephen or Gillian or JK, knows what their readers will think of that one.

The doubts don’t end, but luckily something else stays constant, too. The readers. The ones whose distant promise kept me in the game for thirteen years. If we keep writing for them, then any success and fame may seem ephemeral and fleeting, but that’s okay.

Coming back to a new story will keep our doubts at bay, too.

© 2014 Jenny Milchman

Jenny Milchman’s debut novel, Cover of Snow, was chosen as an Indie Next and Target Pick, won the Mary Higgins Clark award for best suspense novel of 2013, and has been nominated for a Barry and Macavity. Jenny’s second novel, Ruin Falls, also an Indie Next Pick, has just come out to starred reviews, and her third, As Night Falls, will be released in 2015. Jenny is now dreaming up the next one.

Find Jenny online at http://jennymilchman.com/jenny/

Friday, July 25, 2014

Racism and the War of 1812

Those of you who have been following my career (What! You haven't been following my career? What's wrong with you?) are aware that I have become strangely obsessed over the past few years with the Anglo-American War of 1812.

I have a hard time explaining to people why this is so. It has something to do with being an American with Canadian forbears, most of whom refused to fight in that conflict, but instead went on happily and profitably trading with the Enemy. Why were we fighting? In the modern day it's hard to find an American who thinks there was a good reason for us to attack and murder the Canadians, even the native First Nations Canadians, who could be very ornery and cruel when annoyed. "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights" is a nice slogan, but going to war is beyond ugly.

I like that war, first of all because it's long over, and the passions that ignited it long dead, and secondly because it was a cesspit of irony. I like irony. Wherever you look in the historical records of that conflict you see surprising events that subtly undermine the patriotic narrative that both sides teach in school.

The latest book about the war that I've been able to get my hands on is The Documentary History of the Campaign Upon the Niagara Frontier In the Year 1813, Part IV, Collected and Edited for the Lundy's Lane Historical Society by Lieut.-Col. E. Cruickshank, F. R. S. C., 1907. Yes! Virtually a primary source! Mostly it's made up of letters back and forth between military officers about strategy, tactics, and their immediate concerns. And the first thing I learned from it was that Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, great war hero, a distant cousin of mine, tried to quit his station on Lake Erie before the famous battle where he whipped the British fleet ("We have met the enemy, and he is ours").

Why did he want to quit? Because he felt he had been insulted by Commodore Isaac Chauncey, his superior officer. When Perry asked for reinforcements for his lake fleet, Chauncey sent him a number of Black seamen and men who were officially in the army rather than the navy. Perry complained, and Chauncey wrote him the following: "…I have yet to learn that the colour of the skin, or cut and trimming of the coat can affect a man's qualifications or usefulness and I have nearly 50 blacks on board of this ship and many of them are among my best men, and those people you call soldiers have been to sea from 2 to 10 years, and I presume you will find them as good and useful as any men on board your vessel, at least if I can judge by comparison, for those that we have on board of this ship are attentive and obedient, and, as far as I can judge, many of them excellent seamen." Perry found his remarks personally insulting for some reason.

Fortunately for Perry and his country, the Secretary of the Navy talked him out of such a career-killing move. He went on to clear out the entire British Lake Erie fleet, after which he went home to New England, covered with glory. Next week I will attempt to sort out for you the rights of the feud between Lt. Col. Cyrenius Chapin and Brigadier Gen. George McClure, and the story of the burning of Buffalo. Hang by your thumbs.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Sicilian Vespers

In 1266, the French King Charles I took hegemony over Sicily.  By then, the island of my ancestors had been overrun by just about any band of marauders with steel blades and sharpening stones: The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, you name it.

How Charlie came to subjugate the Sicilians is a tale in itself.  It all began when the Hohenstaufens, who ruled Germany, started stomping around in the north of the Italian boot.   Between the Germans up north and southern Italy (all of which was called Sicily at the time) lay the Papal States.  Pope Innocent (sic) IV was seriously displeased with the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II, and Il Papa said so in 1245 by declaring Freddy deposed.   Frederick failed to step aside on the Pope’s say so, but a higher authority intervened in 1250, and Frederick died.  The Pope might have rejoiced at that, but as it happened he was nearly as ticked off with Conrad, who succeeded when his daddy Big Freddy died.  You might think the Almighty was taking sides, because Conrad only lived another four years.  When Conrad kicked the bucket, turmoil ensued.

Lurking in the background the whole while was Manfred, a son old Frederick fathered without benefit of marriage.  While the political scene was boiling in Germany, Manfred saw his main chance and seized control of the Kingdom of Sicily.

By then, new Popes had taken over, first Urban IV and then Clement IV, neither of whom liked Manfred.  They cast around for help getting rid of the bastard.  The papacy eventually installed Charles of Anjou.

Charlie was a happy guy.  He had his sights set on becoming the Emperor of Byzantium, and what better geography could he have as a jumping off point than Sicily.

 But the Sicilian noblemen were peeved when Charles left them out of the goodies he had to distribute.  They got no lucrative foreign posts.  Instead he taxed them and all the Sicilian people to the hilt to bankroll his adventures in Byzantium and elsewhere.  The local population tagged him for what he was, a foreign tyrant who was bleeding them dry.  Charles should have known better than to piss off an island full of people who had already endured centuries of ever escalating oppression.

Charles’s rival, Michael VIII Palaeologus—the current Byzantine Emperor—spotted unrest among the Sicilians and found an opening.  He sent his agents provocateurs into the mix.  Insurrection was their aim.

The Sicilians got out their own whetstones.  The Sicilian Vespers ensued.

 At sunset on the eve of Easter Monday 1282, at the Church of the Holy Spirit, just outside Palermo, they began to slit throats and otherwise do away with the French interlopers and their supporters.  Over the next six weeks, they massacred thousands of French inhabitants.

Eventually, the Pope tried to lend the French a hand, but all attempts to retake the island were repulsed.

Michael VII in his autobiography tried to claim he was God’s instrument in releasing the Sicilian people from tyranny.  But most historians conclude that the Sicilian people freed themselves.

The very best thing to come out of all this, to my way of thinking, is Giuseppe Verdi’s opera I Vespri Siciliani, of which I leave you a taste here:

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, July 21, 2014

Me and TR: Time Travelers

Last time, I reviewed Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks: a wonderful portrait of the NYPD and my City, 1895 to 1897, during TR’s two-year stint as president of the four-man Police Commission. I was less interested in Roosevelt than in the times, at first. All I knew of TR as the PC is that he left behind his desk at Police Headquarters, behind which all his successors have sat since.

I was astonished to find that the NYPD I joined on May 15, 1967 was one and the same that Roosevelt presided over in 1895: graft-loving, enthralled with the “victimless crimes“ of gambling, prostitution and after-hours saloons while motivated by a benevolent laissez-faire. TR’s crusade against vice that bred graft among his police force had a visible impact on Sin-City during the two years he held the police reins. In fact, his Sunday Closing Crusade, launched on June 23, 1895, had three Sundays later succeeded in shuttering 95% of the City’s roughly 8,000 saloons. (Then, the City was essentially just the Island of Manhattan.) No wonder TR was wildly unpopular with the working classes, especially the Germans, whose only day-off was Sunday. TR hoped to root out the police-run protection racket, starting with the saloons, then moving on to the gambling dens and brothels. But by 1898, with the return to power of Tammany Hall, the City was back on its natural course, TR just an anomalous historical blip on the collective memory. City residents and many in the State Legislature applauded his going. (He fled to Washington D.C., gratefully, to be the newly-elected President William McKinley’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy.)

As a rookie NYC Patrolman, I patrolled the streets in two Precincts from mid-1967 to mid-1969. After just three weeks in the Police Academy, we all were hastily “qualified” with the revolver and sent to patrol precincts in anticipation of a “hot summer” (spelled, riots). I landed in the 90th Precinct on Clymer Street and Division Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The old Nine-O was in the heart of the Satmar sect of Hasidism, a throwback to the Eastern European shtetls of the 18th Century. We walked four-block-long, one-block-wide foot posts along Bedford and Lee Avenues, the main commercial and residential corridors in that Jewish neighborhood. We walked solo five nights a week from 6 p.m. till 2 a.m. for the next six months. Our primary mission was to protect the Hasidim from marauders on bicycles from the Marcy Avenue Projects in the south; on Shabbos, the men in their Saturday best would wend their way after sundown to the synagogues for prayer and the bicycle thieves would swoop down to snatch the spodeks (mink fur hats) from their heads and pedal away. When we were not engaged in foiling that particular crime, we were sternly advised by the Nine-O Sergeants: Stay out of sight, stand in a doorway; don’t dare take any police action! (Not unreasonable, considering we’d received but a smidgen of the six-months intensive training normal for recruits at the Police Academy.)

Once, I was assigned to an RMP, when a veteran in his regular patrol sector was out and I became the recorder (passenger) as his partner drove. It was Sunday, we made several stops at bodegas; I waited in the car as directed while he went in. I didn’t see the two or three dollars known as Sabbaths paid by the store owners for being in violation of the Sunday Closing Law and selling beer, nor did my partner offer to share the tribute with me. Not so, next time, one year later, in my new Precinct, the 9th, on East 5th Street, in Manhattan’s East Village. A repeat performance: me the rookie assigned as Recorder with the veteran Sector Car man on a weekday day-tour, patrolling busy East 14th Street. As I monitored the radio, my partner entered a drug store on Broadway just off 14th Street. When he got back in the car, he handed me seven one-dollar bills. I knew what it was but didn’t hold out my hand, until he said, matter-of-factly: “Take it.” No overt threats, no steely gaze, just like that. To refuse would have labelled me suspect, untrustworthy, a loner without allies in a violent place. Later, I learned the singles were the police tax on the hotdog vendors (mostly Russian middle-aged women) working 14th Street, in violation of the City’s Anti-Peddling Law.

Was it wrong? Sure, but there’s ‘wrong’ and then there’s worse. Many cops made extra money where they could; giving the manager of the Fillmore East Rock Hall a ride to the Bank Night Deposit with the receipts, for example. Of course, it got out of hand when a stopped motorist would be offered the option of paying the officer a reduced fine on the spot rather than receive a traffic summons; and when the Police Radio Dispatcher asked for a car to respond to investigate a possible DOA at a residence. Volunteers were prompt and many, sirens screaming; some of my fellow cops would roll the body for cash and valuables, then ransack the apartment.

After two-and-one-half years as a policeman, I wouldn’t have considered myself na├»ve. Yet, when the New York Times published the revelations of whistle-blowing plainclothesman Frank Serpico in 1970, I reconsidered. A map of the five boroughs of the City was overlaid with a dollar-figure representing the monthly pad paid to each plainclothesman working in each Division to not enforce the laws against gambling, prostitution and after-hours Clubs. In Brooklyn’s 13th and 14th Divisions, the pad averaged from $300 to $500; similarly in Queens’s 15th and 16th, but Manhattan’s 3rd and 5th Divisions were the Gold Coast, with Harlem at the apex: $1,500 each month to those plainclothesmen lucky enough to be assigned to Harlem. Of course, luck had little to do with it; what counted was who your rabbi was within the Department, and your reputation for ‘trustworthiness’.

The Knapp Commission began televised hearings of its Investigation Into Corruption in the New York Police Department on October 18, 1971. That day, I saw a rookie I knew from my Police Academy class, Edward F. Droge, Jr., admit on the witness stand to shaking down gamblers in the 80th Precinct in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where he was assigned. It was implied that the practice was common among the cops of the Eight-O (since defunct). Droge was testifying under a grant of immunity to avoid jail. He had been caught earlier in the year taking a $300 bribe from a drug dealer in the men’s room of the Brooklyn Criminal Courts Building on Schermerhorn Street, downtown. He’d agreed in return for the bribe to testify in Court in such a way that the man would walk; unbeknownst to Droge, it was a Knapp Commission sting, the dealer having been wired by Knapp investigators to record their conversation. On a less personal note, I listened as infamous Plainclothes Officer William Phillips detailed his shakedowns of madams of upscale brothels in Manhattan’s Silk Stocking District. Phillips failed to mention, however, the pimp and the prostitute he was later convicted of murdering over a disputed payoff.

At the same time but off-the-radar, the U.S. Attorney was debriefing NYPD Narcotics Detective Robert Leuci, a member of the Department’s elite Special Investigations Unit, who—his Federal handlers claimed—was acting out of conscience in implicating his police partners and Mafia types in thefts of heroin and money from black and Hispanic drug dealers, whose stash houses were located through the planting of illegal wiretaps. Skeptics, however, believed that Det. Leuci had been caught red-handed by Knapp investigators and had made his deal. Det. Leuci was never charged and spent his remaining years till retirement in the Internal Affairs Bureau since no other NYPD detective would work with him.

In 1970, as well as creating the Knapp Commission, New York Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed a new Police Commissioner, Patrick V. Murphy. Murphy began cleaning house immediately and by 1973, when he left for greener pastures in Washington, D.C. (like Roosevelt), he’d revolutionized the NYPD. The Department was cleaner than the last housecleaning in the aftermath of the Brooklyn gambler Harry Gross scandal of the early 1950s—the big-time plainclothes grafters (called meat-eaters) either in jail or fired, and the signal Murphy response to the so-called Blue Wall of Silence, christened the Field Associates Program. Young cops recruited while in the Police Academy, brainwashed to view old Precinct cops as corrupt and report their suspicions to Internal Affairs. A cautious reticence settled in among the rank-and-file in the founded belief that you couldn’t be sure of whom you were talking to or who was watching. This clean slate of affairs lasted 20 years, more or less—till the advent of the Mollen Commission Hearings in 1993.

Robert Knightly

(Sources: Island of Vice, by Richard Zacks, Random House, 2012; NYPD: A City and Its Police, by James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto, Henry Holt, 2000; The Knapp Commission Report on Police Corruption, George Braziller, 1973; The Patrolman: A Cop’s Story, by Edward F. Droge, Jr., New American Library, 1973.)