Friday, December 30, 2011

Social Tragedy and Cinematic History -- No. 169 East 71st Street

photo by Alice Lum
Much has been made of the exterior of the rowhouse at No. 169 East 71st Street as the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” home of Holly Golightly.  Since the Victorian house came on the market in December 2011 for $5.85 million, it has garnered renewed attention.

New Yorkers have forgotten, however, that the house made famous in the 1961 motion picture played an important role in an unnerving footnote of Manhattan history.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Upper East Side filled with comfortable homes built for upper- and upper-middle class families. Developers built blocks of near carbon-copy homes, many in the extremely popular Anglo-Italianate style.

Joseph Wallace Cremin purchased one such house, at No. 169 East 71st Street. Cremin was a educator who began his career prior to 1844 teaching in the western part of New York State.  In 1858 he came to New York City, teaching in Grammar School No. 1. Afterwards he moved on to Grammar School No. 18 and, when the new Grammar School No. 27 was opened, he was made principal.

Cremim and his wife reared their sizable family in the house. Life in the Cremin home was mostly uneventful, although on August 25, 1883, John E. Moore, along with Mart Allen and Michael Thomas, broke into and burglarized the house. The thieves received a five-year sentence in the State Prison.

In 1895, at the age of 73, Joseph Cremin submitted his request to the Trustees of the Nineteenth Ward asking to be granted retirement.  The school principal cited his “declining years and length of service” as reasons to be allowed to retire. The Trustees honored his request, noting that “There are few younger men than Dr. Cremin for his years, but he has earned his honors and now desires to give way for younger men.”

Seven years later, on August 5, 1902, the 80-year old Joseph Cremin died in the family home at No. 169 East 71st.

Close inspection reveals a rusted hole in the cast-metal pediment over the doorway.  Such metal ornamentation was quickly manufactured and lowered construction costs while closely imitating carved stone.  -- photo by Alice Lum
The year following his father’s death, Stephen E. Cremin’s wife left him and he moved back into the 71st Street house where his brothers and sisters still lived. Stephen was a traveling salesman whose territory was in the South.

Stephen’s 18-year old son, Thomas, lived away at a military boarding school and Adeline, his 14-year old daughter, lived with her mother in Larchmont, New York.   Stephen Cremin had many friends and was a member of the Larchmont Yacht Club, New York Athletic Club, the Lambs and, according to Dr. O. M. Leiser who had known Cremin for years, “of practically all the leading clubs and social organizations in the South.”

Yet the separation deeply affected him. He was subject to periods of deep depression that were noticed by his friends and fellow club members. On February 11, 1915 Cremin walked into the Lambs Club around 5:00, seemly in good spirits, and chatted with several members.

After a while he requested a room, saying he wanted to rest. Hallboys, around 8:00 in the evening, heard groans coming from the room and called for help.

Cremin was found laying across the bed when the door was forced open. He had taken a razor to his throat and to his wrists. Despite a doctor’s attempts to save him, he died at 9:30 from loss of blood.

A letter left on the bureau read in part “I am tired and have decided to go. I prefer to be cremated. After the ashes are swept up it is my desire that they be thrown to the winds from the roof of the Lambs Club.”

Regarding his funeral, he requested that Father Lavelle and Dr. Houghton of the Little Church Around the Corner officiate. With a posthumous sense of humor, he said “I would like my dear friend Wilton Lackaye, if he wishes, to say a few words. He tells the truth, but I hope we won’t tell it about me.”

He asked that his sister, Nell, take care of his daughter and that his friend George Loft see to having his son appointed to West Point. He ended his suicide letter, “Forgive me, fellow Lambs.”

The emotional and moving letter was published in The Sun and New Yorkers remembered the incident for years.

One of Stephen’s brothers, Joseph Daniel Cremin who was Deputy Tax Commissioner under the Tammany administration, died in the house four years later on July 1919.

The block was once lined with almost identical homes.  Next door a near-twin is slightly narrower than No. 169, only two bays wide, and happily its brownstone facade has not been painted. -- photo by Alice Lum
The extensive Cremin family was gone from No. 169 East 71st Street in 1947 when it was converted to a two-family home—one duplex apartment in the basement and parlor floor, another taking up the 2nd and 3rd floors. The handsome building has remained a two-family house since then, not quite the multi-apartment configuration in which Holly Golightly sang “Moon River.”

Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard before No. 169 East 71st Street in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" -- photo from onthesetofny.com
The house was purchased in 2008 for $1.88 million by Peter E. Bacanovic, the then-Merrill Lynch broker who later found himself in hot water over the Martha Stewart insider-trading case. Some interior renovations were executed by architect David Gauld, then in December 2011 Bacanovic put the Victorian townhouse on the market again.

Much of the detailing familiar to the Cremin family is now gone. -- photo corcoran group
While the prim rowhouse will perhaps always be remembered as the home of Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly, Edwardian New Yorkers thought of it for many years as the home of Stephen Cremin; the house which the emotionally devastated salesman left for his last drink at the Lambs Club.

3 comments:

  1. My aunt lived at 25 Central Park W for 50 years and I spent many summers with her. I fell in love with NY and truly enjoy reading the histories you post. They're fascinating.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This was such an interesting post! I loved that movie. And I love old Victorians.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Glad you're both enjoying the posts. Manhattan seems to be a limitless well of amazing stories.

    ReplyDelete