Saturday, August 29, 2009

23rd Street Celebrities

One sunny summer day, as I descended to the 23rd street stop on the N-R-W Subway line, I heard the rumbling of an arriving train which induced me to dash down the rest of the stairs in hopes of catching it. I fumbled for my metro card, burst through the turnstile, and raced toward the beckoning open doors of the train, only to miss my ride by the length of an arm. Disappointed that I wasn't likely to catch another train for at least 5 minutes, I glumly wandered down the long waiting platform. As I strolled, my attention was drawn to the white ceramic tiles that lined the subway walls and were intermittently stenciled with the names of people and their professions. As I looked more closely, I realized these were the names of New York celebrities, some very well known and others quite obscure (at least to me), all of whom, as it turned out, had lived or worked in this part of Manhattan that stands in the shadow of the Flatiron Building.

Built in 1902, the Flatiron was not the tallest but probably the most distinctive of the first wave of steel-based skyscrapers. Its triangular shape was ingeniously fitted to the intersection at Broadway, 5th Avenue and 23rd Street, and its limestone facade with appealing embellishments were so attractive that it helped to make the area that surrounded it one of Manhattan's most fashionable and elegant turn of the century neighborhoods. Even today the Flatiron is one of the city's most recognized and iconic structures. As the wall of the 23rd street subway station suggests, the variety of people who were drawn there included: Florenz Ziegfeld, the enterprising founder of the dazzling Ziegfeld Follies; Stanford White, the influential architect who was killed in 1905 on the roof garden of Madison Square Garden, a building he designed, for allegedly having an affair with the great beauty Evelyn Nesbit (also noted on the wall); and Nellie Bly, one of America's first celebrity journalists, who gained fame for pretending to be insane to expose the horrors of mental institutions and for reporting on an around the world trip that took an astoundingly brief 72 days in 1890.

But these were just three of dozens of names on that wall from a panoply of professions. I became so enthralled that I missed the next train, too. By the way, there were also these three names: Erich Weiss, William Sidney Porter, and Charles Sherwood Stratton - the real names of three New Yorkers from roughly this turn of the century period (one actually died in 1883) who were much better known for their pseudonyms. Can you name them? The answers will be in tomorrow's post.


  1. Like the tiles themselves, your column today is a small, magical gift.
    I've always been partial to Madison Square. In addition to the Flatiron there is also the Appellate Court building with its imposing statuary and, kitty corner to the northeast, the New York Life building with its golden pyramid. Within the park are statues galore including Admiral Farragut, President Arthur and Secretary Seward of Folly fame among others. A good place to sit and contemplate.

  2. Thank you, John. Of course, you're right on all three. Congratulations. You win a year's subscription to this blog!

    But, db, your appreciative and poetic words are also very winning. As a result, you, too, get the free subscription to this blog.

    Way to go, guys!

  3. I am blown away by the beauty and depth of this blog and its comments. I could safely let my New Yorker subscription lapse. This is all I need.

  4. I could not be more delighted, Rawmination. Thank you.