“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.” These words have been etched in my memory since I was a teenager, reading this book to my younger brother, then just a toddler. He was too young to read, but smart enough to have the book memorized. All I had to do was turn the pages, and he could recite every word.
As an adult, the more I read about the Austrian-born author, Ludwig Bemelmans, the more convinced I am that his more grown-up writings are one of the best kept secrets of 20th Century American literature. His Madeline books are well known to a few generations of Americans. New Yorkers may also know him for Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle on the Upper East Side. Some of us may also remember the New York Historical Society’s 2014 exhibit, Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans. But his writings about food, travel, restaurants and the hospitality business in 1930s New York City seem to be widely unknown.
I recently finished reading Hotel Bemelmans, a series of autobiographical stories chronicling Bemelmans’ time working at New York City’s Ritz Carlton Hotel or, as he calls it in the book, the Hotel Splendide. From Anthony Bourdain’s introduction to a 2002 reprint of Hotel Bemelmans: Continue reading →
If you haven’t yet seen Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby—go see it now. Besides being based on one of my favorite novels, the film also shows some great images of old New York, from the Queensboro Bridge to the Plaza Hotel.
Not everything, however, is glitz and glamour in this Jazz Age film. Halfway between the grand estates of Long Island and the vibrant energy of Manhattan lies the Valley of Ashes. I had read The Great Gatsby six times while attending high school and college in San Diego (and I re-read last weekend the same paperback version that I bought as a freshman in high school). To me, a non-New Yorker at the time, the Valley of Ashes was powerfully symbolic, a setting F. Scott Fitzgerald created to characterize George Wilson—and many of the novel’s other characters. This bleak, gray place symbolized death and unchanging fate. From dust we were made, and to dust we shall return.
Little did I know then that the Valley of Ashes was a real place, the dumping ground of the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company from 1909 through the 1930s. As City Journal explains in a 21-year-old article,
Since oil as a domestic heating fuel was virtually unknown in the 1920s, ashes were produced in vast quantities by the coal-fired burners in practically all the buildings of the city. At that time, the city’s own dumping grounds were insufficient, so it paid private operators, including the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company, for the privilege of dumping on their property.
In an ironic twist, the Valley of Ashes, the symbol of death and unchanging fate, was in fact transformed. With the help of Robert Moses, the dumping grounds were cleared, and Flushing Meadows Corona Park was created, home to the 1939-40 and 1964-65 Worlds Fairs.
As City Journal concluded,
The valley of ashes lives on only in literature. Few who spread their blankets under the trees of Flushing Meadows or play soccer on its fields are aware that they are enjoying themselves on the grounds of Fitzgerald’s wasteland. Instead of a barren wilderness, parkgoers find something closer to the haunting image at the book’s close, “a fresh green breast of the New World” that flowers for generations of New Yorkers to come.
Just as he transformed almost every corner of this city, for better or worse, Robert Moses helped change the Valley of Ashes into the home of Citi Field, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the Queens Museum of Art.
For images of the Valley of Ashes as it once was, check out this CUNY site.
Though I had seen Goodfellas as a teenager, it was only this month that I watched the movie as a New Yorker. And as a student of New York City history, I immediately downloaded Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, the Nicholas Pileggi book on which Martin Scorsese based his 1990 film.
A former crime reporter with the Associated Press and New York magazine (and husband of the late Nora Ephron), Pileggi made it easy for me to pinpoint many of the book’s locations, from the taxi stand in East New York, Brooklyn, where, at the age of 12, Henry Hill began his work with Paul Vario, to Hill’s home in Rockville Centre, where he was arrested in 1980. Though much of the action takes place in Brooklyn and Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island make some appearances as well (for example, Jimmy Burke did time as a teenager at Mount Loretto Reformatory on the South Shore of Staten Island—the same Mount Loretto that Francis Ford Coppola used for exterior shots from the baptism scene at the end of The Godfather).
I made a Google map of locations mentioned in Wiseguy. You can access it here or see it below. Fans of the film might also be interested in this map assembled by Eater that shows many of the restaurants used in the filming of Goodfellas.