Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mae West: King of the Bowery

MAE WEST may not have assigned a birthdate to her character Gus Jordan — — but she certainly knew the life story of the cunning ward heeler she based him on: Big Tim Sullivan [1862 — 1913].
• • In "Diamond Lil" the bejeweled chanteuse and brash entertainer Lil (Mae West) works in the 1890s Bowery barroom of her boss and benefactor Gus Jordan who has bestowed many diamonds on her.
• • Unbeknownst to Lil, the slick and sleazy saloon keeper trafficks in white slavery (prostitution) and runs a counterfeiting ring (to help finance Lou's expensive rock collection).
• • Better known for cultivating voters by doling out jobs on the city payroll and dispensing free Christmas suppers than filling his dance-card with mistresses, Timothy D. Sullivan, known as "Big Tim," was one of New York City's better connected political animals from 1886 until 1913.
• • His fast-track life has been explored in a book, “King of the Bowery: Big Tim Sullivan, Tammany Hall, and New York City From the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era,” by Richard F. Welch, a historian and professor from Long Island.
• • “Sullivan was a master of mass politics in an age when personal contact was everything,” writes Welch. “The loyalty he engendered in the multi-ethnic population below 14th Street was based on his bighearted solicitude for his constituents.” Welch also highlights Sullivan’s links to the criminal underworld of prostitution and gambling.
• • To find out how much of Big Tim's shady side made it into "Diamond Lil," breeze through "King of the Bowery" published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

• • Come up and see Mae every day online:
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