Friday, November 8, 2013

The Humphrey Bogart House -- No. 245 West 103rd Street


photo by Alice Lum
Adam Bogart had greater ambitions than continuing his family’s tradition.  The Bogarts were among the earliest of the Dutch settlers; one of Adam's ancestor being the first European infant born in New York State.  While Bogart’s family had been burghers, they more recently made their living as truck farmers.  Adam instead became an innkeeper and fiddled with printing on the side.    When he invented a process for transferring lithographs to easily-manipulated tin sheets--an innovation that transformed the printing industry--his fortunes soared nearly overnight.

With his new found wealth, Adam transplanted his wife and son, Belmont, to Manhattan.   Here the Bogarts would rub shoulders with other families with old names and relatively new money like the Astors and Rhinelanders.  Adam Bogart’s primary drive was the elevation of his son within society.

Belmont DeForest Bogart was outfitted in gentlemanly clothes, polished in his social demeanor, and sent to private schools.   He graduated from Columbia College medical school and, at the age of 30, met the striking and successful Maud Humphrey who was one year younger than he.

Unusual for a woman in the 1890s, Maud had already made a professional name for herself.  At the age of 16 the talented artist had already sold her drawings to publications.  Like most artists at the time, she studied in Paris.  Among her compatriots there was James McNeill Whistler.  She then returned home to ply her trade.  Maud Humphrey focused on commercial art rather than pretty landscapes and portraits.  She illustrated calendars, books and advertisements for highly-visible products like Ivory Soap.

Belmont and Maud’s courtship was strained from the beginning.  She was an early feminist with strong ideals.   His beliefs were rooted deeply in masculine Victorian values that clearly rejected women’s equal rights.  Belmont would go on to earn the handsome salary of $20,000 a year as a surgeon and heart and lung specialist—about $500,000.   But Maud was the highest-paid female illustrator in the nation, earning more than double his salary.  Her $50,000 income was well over a million dollars in today’s money.

The differences were too strong and amicable good-byes were said.   It would have been the end of the road for the couple had not a horrific accident occurred.    As Belmont was riding in an ambulance one of the horses pulling the vehicle became spooked.  It reared, causing the ambulance to topple, seriously fracturing the physician’s leg.  The leg was poorly set, then rebroken and set again to correct the botched procedure.  For the rest of his life Dr. Belmont Bogart would suffer pain and rely on medications like morphine.

Hearing of the accident, Maud Humphrey paid a visit to offer consolation.  One visit turned into another, then another, and before too long the unlikely couple was married.

While all this was happening the Upper West Side was developing at an astonishing rate.  Clusters of modern speculative rowhouses had cropped along the side streets and the avenues were lined with grand mansions.  On West 103rd Street, between West End Avenue and Broadway, a row of brownstone houses had appeared.  Intended for well-to-do families, they sported up-to-date features to lure new homeowners—angular bays, decorative carved panels and handsome interiors.


Carved panels of faces among vines and fruity garlands decorate the facade -- photo by Alice Lum
The newlyweds purchased No. 245 and on Christmas Day 1899 their first child was born.  The boy took his mother’s name—Humphrey.  Along with the family in the house were four servants: a laundress, two maids and a cook.  Later two little girls would arrive—Frances (known at Pat) in 1901, and Katherine (known as Kay) two years later.

Marriage did not necessarily bring the end to the stark disparities between Belmont and Maud.  She headed the household and continued her career; a somewhat shocking choice for a turn-of-the-century woman.  The children were raised, for the most part, by nursemaids.  Nevertheless, Maud grasped the opportunity of readily-available models in the household.

The bowed, upper bays created a eye-pleasing undulation.  Originally tall brownstone stoops accessed the parlor levels -- photo by Alice Lum
Little Humphrey’s chubby angelic face began appearing on advertisements and jar labels of Mellin’s Baby Foods.  His early and unwilling celebrity would irk him throughout his life.  According to author George Perry in his “Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart,” the actor later said “There was a period in American history when you couldn’t pick up a goddamed magazine without seeing my kisser in it.”

Belmont was addressed by the children as “father,” and the feminist Maud instructed the children to call her by her first name.    Neither parent was emotionally demonstrative.  Reportedly the children were never hugged; instead they received the more properly-Victorian pat on the head or back.

Belmont was not totally without some input into the children’s lives.  While Humphrey was still a toddler his father made preparations for the boy’s entrance into Philips Academy Andover; a prestigious boarding school.  The school would be an effective stepping-stone for the boy to enter the medical profession his father envisioned for him.

The 103rd Street house was modified to accommodate the Bogarts’ professions.  The English basement was modified into an office for Belmont’s medical practice; and an upper floor was converted to a studio for Maud.  On the roof Belmont kept coops of pigeons which he raised as a hobby.

The children enjoyed the fruits of privilege that came from two highly successful parents.  The family owned a sprawling 55-acre estate, Willow Brook, on the shore of Canandaigua Lake in Seneca Point in upstate New York.   Here Belmont taught his son to sail.

Life in the Bogart household was troubled, however.  Maud suffered migraines and bouts of mental instability.  Belmont more and more showed signs of morphine addiction.  The significant differences that had led them to part company years earlier were now magnified.  The children would later relate of frightening nights spent lying in the dark listening to their parents verbal fighting.

Young Humphrey was sent to the exclusive Trinity School where he spent eight years being prepared for the Ivy League.  He was, at best, a mediocre student; excelling in nothing.  Neither academics nor sports interested him; yet Maud held out hope that he would go on to Yale and Belmont held fast to the idea that he would go to Phillips.

The United States’ entry into World War I offered Humphrey Bogart an escape from the house on 103rd Street.  In the spring of 1918 he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, officially reporting for duty on July 2 in the Bronx.  After weeks of instruction he boarded the U.S.S. Leviathan as a seaman.  Two days later the Armistice was signed, ending the conflict.   Rather than seeing fighting, the teenager became part of a crew transporting the war-weary soldiers back home from Europe.  He later remembered “At eighteen war was great stuff.  Paris! French girls! Hot damn!” 

When he returned to New York he got an office job at World Films.  He first appeared on stage in 1921 and within the next 16 years he would appear in 17 Broadway shows.
The Bogart family moved out of the 103rd Street house in 1925, relocating to No. 79 East 56th Street.  It would not be long before the homes of the once-fashionable block became boarding houses and apartments.  In the spring of 1938 the former Bogart house was listed as having 13 furnished rooms.   It would remain that way until 1962 when it was converted to apartments—one per floor.  It was most likely at this time that the brownstone stoop was removed that the entrance moved to the former English basement, a few steps below sidewalk level.

The stoop was removed to be replaced by a featureless doorway into the basement. -- photo by Alice Lum
Today the house is owned by the city as low-income housing.   The attractive but typical row house would draw no attention at all were it not for the baby born here in 1899—the boy whose face on a baby food jar would later become a silver screen icon.

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