Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Lenore Ulric House -- No. 254 W. 75th Street

By the 1880s the Upper West Side was feverishly developing.      Mass transit, sewers and paved streets made the area ripe for new home construction and builders like William J. Merritt & Co. scrambled to take full advantage.  In 1888 alone Merritt & Co. advertised 38 new houses designed by Charles T. Mott:  four on West End Avenue between 73rd and 74th Streets, seven harmonious dwellings on the corner of 75th Street and West End Avenue, and the entire block—27 houses in all—on both sides of 73rd Street between West End Avenue and Broadway (then called the Boulevard).

These were far from Merritt’s first projects on the Upper West Side.  Four years earlier he filed plans for another block of homes on both sides of West 75th Street between West End Avenue and Broadway.  The bullish Merritt offered the houses to buyers with a money-back guarantee.

The residences that Merritt and his contemporaries designed and built gave the Upper West Side a personality unlike any other part of the city.    Houses downtown were mainly older brick or brownstone clad rowhouses that followed a cookie-cutter regime.   Across Central Park Manhattan’s wealthy were building mansions imitating the French Renaissance chateaux or Italian palazzi of Europe.    As the streets and avenues of the Upper West Side filled with houses, a delightful eccentricity emerged.   Here the architectural hand-basket was spilled out and architects gleefully mixed and matched styles and materials.

The West End Avenue Association, in its unabashedly promotional “West End Avenue,” described the differences in 1888.  Saying that the downtown houses were “but three or four types…in height they were three or four stories; the roofs were flat; the stoops were straight to the street, and either high or low; there were rows of uniform windows; the fronts were of brick or stone of unvaried plan, and the attempt at a change expired in carrying the details of door-post, lintel and cornice to grotesque extravagance of startling and unmeaning designs.  This was so tiresome.  The interiors were like a tune with two variations, and two only, which on a piano makes life a torment.”

In contrast, the booklet said, “The men who built the new houses on the West Side changed all this; they were inspired by light and sunshine…They made homes comfortable and attractive; the interiors were on patterns novel and unique.  The endless variety challenged every one’s preferences.  Each house that a purchaser examined was a surprise—so cosy, so much room, so home-like, so sunshiny; such contrivances, such elegance, such views.”

The West End Avenue Association described the Merritt rows perfectly.  “Unity was given to a row of buildings by their general grouping and effect from base course to the turrets and pinnacles of the sky-line.  Variety was given in each detail.”  The 75th Street block was a stream of individually-designed homes that stood on their own merit, but worked happily together.  Among them was the eye-catcher at No. 254.

If the architects of the Upper West Side were, indeed, “inspired by sunshine and light,” it was nowhere more apparent than here.   Two vast, arched openings on the parlor level were framed in rough-cut stone that fanned dramatically open.  A three-part oriel window with tiny square panes sat snugly atop the two arches, providing a charming recessed balcony at the third floor.  The stone contrasted with the red brick face, subtly rising as quoins along the oriel to explode in another fanning arch around the balcony.

The entrance was accessed by what would become a near trademark of the Upper West Side, the crooked, dogleg stoop—an in-your-face reversal from the traditional straight stoops.

As the houses were completed a year later, in 1885, they filled with a variety of respectable upper-middle class families.   No. 254 was no different and drew little attention to itself for several decades.  But the unconventional flavor of the Upper West Side did not end with architecture.  It lured moneyed residents who were less welcomed on the opposite side of the park:  athletes, artists and actors among them.

In 1892, far away from 75th Street, a daughter was born to Army hospital steward Franz Xavier Ulrich.   Ulrich was fond of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “The Raven,” and named the little girl Lenore.     While still in school she got a minor part as a cigarette girl in “Carmen” with a Milwaukee stock company.   The acting bug had bitten and Lenore Ulric (she dropped the “h” for marquee purposes) played with stock companies in Grand Rapids and Chicago.  But she had bigger plans—Broadway.

In 1914 the brash young actress wrote a letter to David Belasco, one of Broadway’s preeminent producers, asking for a job.  The following fall she played in “The Mark of the Beast” at the Princess Theater, and immediately after its closing she was given a role in “The Heart of Wetona.”   Lenore Ulric was on her way to stardom.

As her fame and popularity grew, so did her fortune.  She purchased the house at No. 254 West 75th Street.  It was the beginning of the end of the quiet times for the brick and stone residence.

Just as her fame and popularity increased her fortune, so too it increased her ego, temper and disposition.    By the 1920s she was a top draw for Belasco.  The New York Times would call her “an actress whose name in white lights blazing on a playhouse marquee was always more compelling of attention than the attraction in which she was appearing.”

Lenore could play a wide range of roles—in “The Heart of Wetona” she played an Indian maiden; in “Tiger Rose” a French Canadian heroine; she played a Chinese girl in “The Son-Daughter;” in “Kiki,” one of her trademark roles, she played a street urchin in Paris; and in “Lulu Belle,” she was a mixed-race adventuress.    But particularly she was known for her roles as hot-blooded, fierce tempered women.  The Times would later say “In the years of her greatest success, an ‘Ulric role’ was an understood phrase.”

“Kiki” opened at the Belasco Theatre in July 1921 and ran for over 600 performances.  It was just one of her successful runs that would result in her becoming the caricature of the difficult leading lady.   When “Kiki” had thrived for three seasons Lenore grew bored of the role.  David Belasco, whom the actress may have forgotten was responsible for her stardom, wanted to continue the play with his star.   She stood firm and the play closed.

Belasco then handed Lenore the leading role in a new drama; but Lenore refused it, insisting instead on another play, “The Dove.”   She then got into a dispute with the producer over the sale of the motion picture rights to “Kiki.”  Before long The New York Times reported that “The general understanding along Broadway has been that Mr. Belasco and Miss Ulric have been at odds all season and not on speaking terms most of the time.”

By April 1925, while appearing in “The Harem,” Lenore had had enough.  Speaking to reporters from her 75th Street house, she announced that she was leaving the play “and the employ of David Belasco.”   On April 28 she gave Belasco her two week’s notice and terminated their contract.  She informed reporters gathered in her parlor that she was “summarily interrupting her run in the Belasco play because of the general condition of her health, which necessitated a vacation of considerable duration.”

Lenore Ulric in "The Harem."  She was playing this role in 1925 when she walked out on David Belasco -- photo NYPL Collection
A year later H. H. Van Loan, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote a column in which various stage actors and actresses told how they spent their day preceding a theatrical opening.   Perhaps because Lenore Ulric had not worked for a year, she was not included.  It was an omission that would be, as The Times reported three weeks later, “a source of considerable regret to H. H. Van Loan.”    It was also an omission that was quickly corrected.

On May 9, 1926 Lenore Ulric’s self-written article explained her opening day activities in mirthful self-mocking hyperbole.  “My Big Ben is usually set for 5 o’clock, and when it goes off I rise very promptly and, throwing my $50,000 white ermine cloak carelessly around me, I hasten to the window and peer out upon the wicked city.  If I discover that it is going to be a nice day I quickly slip into my hiking suit and, snatching my alpine hat, I leave my West Seventy-fifth Street shack and stroll to the Battery, where I spend a few minutes watching the ferry boats and then walk briskly back.  By this time my breakfast has been prepared and is waiting for me.  As a rule I have a pretty good appetite, but on these occasions, being quite nervous I partake of a light breakfast, which consists of an orange, two sliced pineapples, four hard-boiled eggs, one and one-half portions of whole wheat, buttered toast, French fried potatoes and two cups of coffee….Then, for two or three hours I peruse the thousands of letters which a motor truck has delivered at my door.  These are mostly from my hosts of admirers, and have come from such distant places as Flatbush and Stamford.”

Lenore returned to Broadway, playing opposite Sidney Blackmer in “Mima” in 1928 and then playing with him in “a vaudeville act in Chicago” the following spring, as reported in The Times.  Rumors circulated that the pair had been secretly married at Lenore’s country estate in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

In 1929 Lenore closed the 75th Street house and traveled to Hollywood where she was signed by Fox Film Corporation at around $650,000.  She played roles in Frozen Justice and South Sea Rose.    The actress was obviously peeved when, on August 10 of that year Sidney Blackmer told reporters that, indeed, he had married her on May 23.  “He said that Gilda Gray, vaudeville dancer, witnessed the ceremony,” reported The Times. 

Lenore, however, was less forthcoming.  “When questioned regarding the marriage tonight,” said the newspaper, “Miss Ulric emphatically refused to confirm or comment upon it.”  Eventually the actress would have to admit the marriage; but it would not be a long-surviving one.

Lenore traveled back and forth from Hollywood to New York, appearing in Broadway productions, not all of which were her accustomed successes.   On October 4, 1932 she opened in “Nona,” a short-lived production panned by The Times.

“If the entertainment is pretty shoddy, after all it is through no lack of vehemence on Miss Ulric’s part.  Early in the first act she enters like a vexed tigress.  From that heated moment onward she storms up and down the stage, shaking that bushy mop of hair, tearing the air with passionate gestures, arranging the Ulrician torso in sinuous curves, smoldering with evil intentions and kissing like an acetylene torch.

“She slinks and rage; she claws and screams—meanwhile, distributing love taps rather freely on the person of her admirers…With a long, exhausting career ahead of her, Miss Ulric should attempt to take things more easily.”

The critic continued on, showing no mercy to the production nor to Lenore.  He ended saying “In fact, Miss Ulric has exhausted the script.  Possibly she gives herself more generously than the part warrants.  After all, it is only a play, and a bad one.”

In February 1933 Lenore was humiliated when Los Angeles police arrested her 35-year old husband for attacking a 17-year old girl.  Blackmer denied all charges, saying he knew the girl “only casually.”   Nevertheless it was no doubt the last straw leading to Lenore’s filing for divorce in May.  She told reporters she was through with marriage “forever and ever.”

Lenore sidestepped the ugly child molestation charges, saying “Our marriage is tragic.  It’s nothing but a long distance, telegraph love.  We are constantly separated, and marriage, I have found, does not mix with our professions.”

Later, she would reflect on her four-year marriage with rather unexpectedly honest self assessment.  “I don’t think I’m comfortable to live with.  I have a temper.  I’m difficult.  I’m too quick and too impulsive.  And men have a right to be comfortable.”

The actress continued her transcontinental travels between Hollywood and 75th Street.  In January 1934 fans might have thought she was home for good when the Los Angeles Times reported “Lenore Ulrich left for New York tonight after failure to come to agreement with RKO on making a picture.”  But the back-and-forth would continue as she appeared with Greta Garbo in the film Camille in 1936; the 1940 Broadway production of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Fifth Column,” and other motions pictures and plays.

In the meantime, she was experiencing a problem on 75th Street.   It would seem that Lenore’s household staff felt that living in the star’s home and catering to her needs was not ample reward in itself.  Lenore apparently did not see things that way.

On April 23, 1938 her housekeeper and secretary, Rose Braden, won a $2,160 judgment against her employer for back pay—“the balance of wages and money due between June 27, 1933 and August 3, 1936.”  A year later, almost to the day, her houseman, Louis Martin, sued her for $6,520 in back wages as well.  The Times said that he charged “he was in Miss Ulric’s employ from February 2, 1932, to May 19, 1937, and that she paid him only $4,790, owing him the balance which he seeks.”

The article added “Miss Ulric denied she owned Martin any money.”

Lenore would eventually retire to her Croton-on-Hudson estate near her sister, Florence Ulrich Smith.   In the 1960s she became a patient of the Rockland State Hospital where she died several years later on New Year’s Eve, 1970 at the age of 78.   Her obituary called her “one of the great stars of the American theater.”

The parlor floor today --
Lenore Ulric’s house on West 75th Street—which the AIA Guide to New York City calls “remarkable”—is now a multi-family residence.   No trace of the interiors of what Lenore glibly termed “my Seventy-fifth Street shack” remains.   The apartments are stunning and dramatic; but the original appointments, which “West End Avenue” in 1888 hinted were “novel and unique” must have been wonderful, indeed. 

uncredited photograph taken by the author

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