Saturday, September 22, 2007

Serendipity as art and science

When he was first married, and lived out in the Sticks, Malcolm's pad backed onto Guildhall Street (left). So his immediate neighbours included the Constitutional Club (who chucked bottles into Malcolm's garden when he stood as a Labour candidate), a newsagent (whose dog piddled over Malcolm's front door each day she delivered the morning Guardian) and a knicknackery called Serendipidy.

It was a "nice" shop, mainly selling the ornate, expensive and barely useful, but he came to like the word.

He was made even happier when he discovered the origin of the word. Horace Walpole wrote a letter to a friend living in Florence:
It was once when I read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand 'serendipity'?
Unkind souls have even suggested that Walpole was guilty thereby of a piece of self-publicising, in that he was the author of The Three Princes of Serendip. That would be remarkably precocious of him, for the book appeared in London in 1722, when Walpole was just five years of age.

By chance, by the laws of serendipity, Malcolm came to scan this week's New York Times property (sorry: 'real estate') supplement. And thereby hangs another tale.

The best thing for any casual passer-by to do at this moment is to by-pass Malcolm's maunderings and go directly to the hyperlinked source. Enjoy.

The Village

You ignored the advice? Or you came back? Oh, well.

Now that his eldest daughter, who has appeared previously in these entries, has married, moved to Joisey, and spawned, Malcolm finds himself in New York occasionally, but regularly. Each visit normally means percolating down to the Village before taking the A Train (or the C or the E or the 1,2 or 3 for that matter) up to Penn. And each percolation usually involves an extended rest in a place of liquid refreshment.

This is, after all, one of the more homely parts of Manhattan, very much human-sized.

It is, as Gerry Shanahan's article makes clear, a veritable mother-lode of serendipitous discoveries. He started at 66 Perry Street, a key marker for Sex and the City fans, as is the Magnolia Bakery at 401 Bleeker Street (where the cupcakes are so popular, customers are rationed to a dozen). He continued:
A friend visiting and walking with me on, say, Bedford Street, will hear, “That’s the oldest house in the Village that’s still standing, from 1799” (No. 77), and “That’s the narrowest house in the city — nine and a half feet wide; Edna St. Vincent Millay lived there (No. 75 ½).” On Grove Street, it’s “They say John Wilkes Booth plotted Lincoln’s assassination here” (No. 45). On Bank Street, it’s “Here’s where Lauren Bacall lived when she was crowned Miss Greenwich Village 1942” (No. 75).
Lauren Bacall as "Miss Greenwich Village"! Ha! A likely story! But, incredibly, true: Betty Joan Perske was new York born. By another of those weird serendipities, she is the better-looking cousin of Shimon Peres.

Her mother (who was separated) moved into 75 Bank Street (on the corner of Bleeker, and just across the road from Abingdon Square) when Betty was 17, and just before her "Miss Greenwich Village" moment.

She went into the theatre and onto Broadway as Betty Bacall (her mother's maiden name was Weinstein-Bacal) , before being spotted, and re-renamed, by Howard Hawks. On the way, she sat on Harry Truman's piano (right). And, sixty-odd years later, and now 83 years young, she is still there, to be snapped shopping locally in SoHo (left). Yikes!

On the same block, at 63 Bank, Sid Vicious succumbed to a heroin overdose. Head the other way, towards the river, and 105 was home to John and Yoko before they moved to the Dakota.

Shanahan (a good County Clare name, that) writes far too well to be mere page-filler between the property ads, but exemplifies what makes the by-ways and back-pages of the New York Times such a preposterously-good read.

Malcolm lingers with Shanahan on Bedford Street. Take 75½, "the narrowest house in the city" (right), because it was built to in-fill a carriage entrance. The connection to Edna St Vincent Millay is barely valid, for it was only a few months in the six decades of her life. She was in her late twenties, in her "open" (but discreetly managed) marriage with Eugen Boissevain, and already anticipating the Sex in the City ethos. Where else could she be but Greenwich Village? Try this for size:
According to [Max] Eastman, while at a cocktail party Millay discussed her recurrent headaches with a psychologist. He asked her, "I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that you might perhaps, although you are hardly conscious of it, have an occasional impulse toward a person of your own sex?" She responded, "Oh, you mean I'm homosexual! Of course I am, and heterosexual, too, but what's that got to do with my headache?"
That, to Malcolm, defines 'feistiness'. Shanahan could have added that the same house has more history: it was also home to John Barrymore and Cary Grant (with his live-in boyfriend). Further down Bedford Street, at number 69, was home to William Burroughs in 1943-44.

Double back, across Commerce Street, and pass 81 Bedford, where, in the early 1950s, the CIA conducted experiments with LSD. Malcolm loves his anecdotage, but this one is a doozy.

Colonel George H. White
, a.k.a. 'Morgan Hall', was managing part of MK-ULTRA, the CIA's programme to manipulate human behaviour. 'Operation Midnight Climax' (better believe it!), was the second phase of LSD testing, and involved using prostitutes picking up men in bars:
Unknowing customers were treated to drinks laced with LSD while White sat on a portable toilet behind two-way mirrors, sipping martinis and watching every stoned and kinky moment.
Enough, already!


Malcolm's reverie takes him further along Bedford, across Barrow, and would like to serendipidously slip through an unmarked door at 86 Bedford into Chumley's. Lee Chumley opened his illegal basement bar here in 1928.

Despite its anonymity, a fair quota of American literary greats apparently found their way here (which is more than Malcolm did at his first attempt) . The worthies are memorialised by a recent plaque above the brown door. This is the only obvious clue to locate the joint: it almost spoils the fun of the neighbourhood, watching the tourists unable to match the picture in their DK Eyewitness guidebook with the reality around them. Inside, photographs, book-jackets and memorabilia line the walls. Passing trade also included Simone de Beauvoir:
In Bedford Street is the only place in New York where you can read and work through the day, and talk through the night, without arousing curiosity or criticism: Chamby's [sic].
A good number of beers should be available, the food more than acceptable, the fire in winter welcoming. Expect it to be tatty and cash only, but enjoy one of the few bars in the tourist guides guaranteed not to disappoint.

At which moment Alcuin's self-composed epitaph (translated by Helen Waddell, who is this entry's Ulster connection) comes to mind:
The world's delight I followed with a heart
Unsatisfied; ashes I am and dust.
Chumley's ashes and dust came last April 5th, a Thursday that will live in infamy. Contractors dislodged a chimney, which collapsed into the bar. Some six square yards of 1830s brickwork came down, causing number 86 and next door to be evacuated. As of now, the bar remains closed; and Malcolm would have appreciated Shanahan going the extra furlong or two to bring confirmation that it will, indeed, reopen next month. Sphere: Related Content


Gabriel said...

I very much like your blog though obviously we have different political views. I wonder would a link to each others blogs still be mutually beneficial.If you agree to link then please contact me at 'An Unrepentant Communist'

on the commments page of the current post,and I will immediately link your blog to mine.Looking forward to hearing from you. Best Wishes
Gabriel in County Kerry Ireland

Malcolm Redfellow said...

Malcolm is, of course, delighted to acknowledge that the Kingdom of Kerry is being subverted by at least one straight-thinker.

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