Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Jerry Tallmer talks about Mae West

Vol 73, No. 39 | January 28 - February 03, 2004

9th St. drama: Mae West’s night in Jefferson Court


Mae West, left, and Barry O’Neill, her co-star in the Broadway burlesque show “Sex,” on trial for obscenity at Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1927.

West Ninth Street, Manhattan, is only one block long, from Fifth Avenue at one end to Sixth Avenue at the other, east to west. It was at the west end, between Ninth and 10th Streets, where another West, a lady named Mae, spent one night in jail in 1927 in what is now the historic old Jefferson Market Library but was then the Jefferson Market Courthouse.

Yuxtry! Yuxtry! Read all about it!

Better yet, you can go see the play “Courting Mae West,” by LindaAnn Loschiavo — well, sit in on a reading of that play — at 2 p.m. on Saturday, February 7, in the Jefferson Library’s Willa Cather Auditorium, once the very courtroom where at a late hour on February 7, 1927, Mae West, author and star of “Sex,” a big hit up on Broadway, was booked for obscenity and hustled away into an interim cell before being packed off in the morning to 10 days at the Women’s Workhouse on Welfare Island.

“Miss West,” a recent piece in the New York Law Journal reminds us, the presiding judge had inquired, “are you trying to show contempt for this court?”

“On the contrary, your Honor,” Mae sweetly responded. “I was doin’ my best to conceal it.”

The Jefferson Market Courthouse, circa early 1900s, today known as Jefferson Market Library.

West Ninth Street, in the opinion of LindaAnn Loschiavo, whose apartment building debouches onto it, is in every respect “one of the most fascinating blocks in New York City, even though nobody knows anything about it except that Marianne Moore [the poet] lived on it. So did Henry J. Raymond, founder of the New York Times, and Justice Augustus Hand, brother of the famous Learned Hand.

“In fact,” says Ms. Loschiavo, who is also at work on a history of the block, “when the society people all moved away from Ninth Street in the mid-1800s, the jurists and prominent lawyers stayed right here.

“Many things,” she says, “happened on West Ninth Street that affected people’s existence not only in New York but all over the country. For instance the terrible fire at 52 West Ninth Street that killed a woman who was married to a nephew of J.P. Morgan, along with her three daughters. One of the daughters tried to save her mother, tripped, fell into the bathtub, broke her neck and died.

“I get the chills just thinking about it,” says Ms. Loschiavo, running her hands up her sleeves and shivering. “This was in the days, you see, when there were no alarm boxes and no 911. You had to call Central to get an operator to call the Fire Department, and that took forever.

“Augustus Hand, who with his wife lived at 48 West Ninth Street, later led a suit against the phone company, which was a monopoly, and this in turn led to emergency telephone systems and alarm boxes all around that city. That’s just one example of how this street led the nation.”

The full title of Ms. Loschiavo’s drama is “Courting Mae West: A Comedy About Sex, Censorship, and Secrets in Three Acts,” and the three based-on-real-life characters in it are the pre-Hollywood Mae West; gorgeous, doomed Starr Faithfull, a Greenwich Village good-time girl — the Gloria Wandrous of John O’Hara’s blazing “Butterfield 8” — whose corpse rattled many of the rich and powerful when it washed up on a Long Island beach; and a news dealer named Mr. Isidore who was the last person in Manhattan, from his stand under the El at Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street, to see Starr Faithfull alive as she disappeared into the PATH station on her way to the L.I.R.R.

There are also a number of fictional characters, notably Eliza Rourke, a repressed, glamour-worshipping, working-class Irish-American girl who slaves without pay in her parents’ boarding house, and Mario “Shortie” DeAngelis, a young, overeager New York newspaper reporter who dashes frantically between such headline events as the jailing of Mae West and the discovery of Starr Faithfull’s body on Long Island (which actually happened in 1931). Eliza is sweet on him; her mother is not. In a sense, Shortie DeAngelis speaks for LindaAnn Loschiavo herself.

Says the playwright: “I’ve tried to reflect the Greenwich Village of the time by having Irish, Italian and Jewish people in this piece. I write plays like a journalist” — and does a ton of preparatory research, unearthing, for instance, such details as the mob funneling beer into the Jefferson Market Jail Courthouse through a manhole leading to a pipeline.

Indeed, Ms. Loschiavo gets more than a little animated as she makes it known that “I resent the way movies and plays have bleached texts of all historical reference. You go to ‘Master and Commander’ and you learn nothing, nothing! Nothing of Napoleon, or why that ship is out there!”

Her “Courting Mae West” is full of historical reference, including the fact that the beautiful old Jefferson Market structure started life (circa 1873-’75) as a fire tower; that it subsequently became the 3rd Judicial Court (or, to the press, the West Side Court); that its official address was 10 Greenwich Lane (now 10th Street), where the paddy wagons delivered their cargo; and that in Mae West’s time it was actually a night court.

“Other courts in the city kept bankers’ hours,” she explains. “If you got booked after 6 p.m., tough on you. But at Jefferson Market, if you could post bail before 1 a.m., you didn’t have to spend the night in jail, so most of the arrests at theaters, where the shows let out at 10 p.m. or so, ended up at Jefferson Market.

“But when they brought Mae in, it was with a cast of 54 — actors, musicians, everybody. Bail came to $20,000 [which couldn’t be raised in the middle of the night], so she had to spend that one night there in jail.

“They made her change her underwear!” says researcher Loschiano. “From her elegant silk lingerie into horrible itchy blue coarse stuff called linsey-woolsey.”

LindaAnn Loschiano never saw Claudia Shear’s “Dirty Blonde,” also about Mae West, but she knows about it. A onetime Brooklyn girl herself, she feels a kind of kinship with Mae West, born Mary Jane West in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn — whose mother, our researcher (and her play) tells us, was a Jewish woman named Matilda Decker Doelger, an immigrant from Munich, Germany. The sex queen’s father, Jack West, was Anglo-Irish, a featherweight prizefighter called “Battling Jack” West and later a stable master. Mae always considered herself half Jewish.

Among Ms. Loschiano’s many other writings is a prizewinning and quite moving poem, “Agnus Dei,” about a child being run over and killed by an oil truck in Brooklyn. LindaAnn was a child of 8 or 9 herself when she saw it happen. “I never told my mother because I thought I’d get blamed for it. Instead I wrote the poem” — many years later. “All my work deals in time and place.”

Mae West’s years were 1893 (or thereabouts) to 1980. When she died the present writer spent all day putting together an obit for the newspaper he then worked for. It ended with a sentence that a young Chinese paste-up guy lopped off for want of space. Here it is: “God said: ‘Come up and see me sometime,’ so she went.”

Hi, Mae. LindaAnn Loschiavo and Greenwich Village are holding down the fort for you.


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1 comment:

  1. Christopher7:16 PM

    Good stuff! I love it when writers research the history when a piece requires and demands it. There is always the opportunity to learn and Mae was a good teacher for us all...!