Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Actors, Composers, Artists and a Spy - 61 - 65 West 69th Street

Sarah J. Doying and her husband Ira E. Doying had an interesting relationship.  Although they lived in Summit, New Jersey, both were highly involved in Manhattan real estate development.  Each worked independently, purchasing properties, hiring architects and builders, and selling the completed projects totally on their own.

Sarah often turned to the architectural firm of Hubert & Pirsson.  They filed plans in May 1886 for a substantial project--six  five-story tenement buildings on Columbus Avenue, three houses on West 69th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, Nos. 61 through 65, and three more directly behind them at Nos. 60 through 64 West 70th Street.

Perhaps to reduce costs, the Queen Anne style 69th and 70th Street groupings were identical.  Designed in an A-B-A configuration, their basement and parlor levels were faced in undressed brownstone.  The second and third floors were of red brick, and the fourth floors took the form of steep mansards with high dormers.

Faceted bays at the second floor of the end houses were echoed at the third floor in the center homes--providing a balcony at the fourth floor convenient for sleeping on hot summer nights.  The triangular pediments of the dormers included Queen Anne elements like sunbursts and fishscale shingles.  Each of the houses cost $10,000 to build--just over $270,000 today.

Initially each of the 69th Street houses was purchased by financially-comfortable families.  No. 61 was home to Edward M. R. Robinson.  Following his death in 1893 his estate leased it to well-known theater manager James H. Meade.  Born in Boston in 1830, he had built the Chicago Opera House with David Henderson and had managed stars like Lucille Western, James W. Wallack and Alexander Herrman.   Meade suffered a fatal heart attack in the house on May 10, 1898 and his funeral was held here three days later.

Later that year Meade's widow looked for boarders.  Her ad on November 29 read "Private family offered two beautiful rooms, together or separately, to gentlemen and wives of gentlemen, who would appreciate the table and surroundings of a refined home."

Peter Mallett's family lived at No. 65 at the time.  He was a partner with Edward B. Barlett in the warehousing business Peter Mallett & Co. far downtown.  The firm acted as agents for the Empire Warehouse Company, storing cotton for its customers and collecting rents.

But after Bartlett died on May 24, 1894, serious problems were uncovered.  Barlett had collected a total of $41,814 which he never turned over to Empire.  Mallet suddenly found himself owning more than $1.25 million in today's money to his client.  It caused the ruin of Peter Mallett & Co. and four years later, on August 17, 1899, the New York Journal and Advertiser reported that had declared personal bankruptcy.

All three houses were being operated as boarding or rooming houses shortly after the turn of the century.  Playwright and actor Walter Fletcher and his wife, Louise, moved into furnished rooms at No. 61 in 1901.  Although Walter died on July 10, 1908. Louise remained past 1912.

Rudolf Maller and his wife were among the Fletchers' neighbors in the house in 1905.  The 32-year old Romanian immigrant was a civil engineer.  But on March 25, 1905 his focus was on pretty women.

After rehearsing that afternoon, actress Gladys Chapman was walking along 28th Street towards Sixth Avenue when she noticed Maller "eyeing several parties of women and making grimaces at them," according to the New-York Tribune.  As she attempted to pass him he "seized her around the waist, lifted her bodily, and dragged her back down Twenty-eighth Street," reported The New York Times.  Gladys screamed and kicked, drawing the attention of Sixth Avenue pedestrians and Policeman Willemse.   

Had it not been for the policeman, Maller would have suffered street justice.  The New-York Tribune reported "The appearance of Patrolman Willemse saved the Rumanian a beating from a number of indignant men and women."  At the station house Maller explained "he wished merely to be friendly with Miss Chapman."

The tradition of theater figures that began with James Meade and Walter Fletcher continued with Mrs. A. Isner.  For several years beginning around 1917 she advertised "Evening gowns, afternoon and street dresses, slightly worn.  I have a large select stock of latest models suitable for stage or movies."

Elizabeth Scanlon, who rented rooms next door at No. 63 in 1916, listed her occupation as a motion picture extra.  She was described by the New-York Tribune that year as "a brunette of twenty-three, and has features and a figure which any director could use in the ballroom scene.  Her speech and manner denote education and refinement."  Police, however, had other ideas concerning the source of her income.

As she was leaving the 69th Street house on November 25 she was arrested after having "eluded the sparest store and shop detectives in New York for months."  Elizabeth, it turns out, was also known by police as Marion Clark and "Mrs. Arnheim."  In her "finery-stuffed rooms" investigators found $25,000 worth of goods she had shoplifted over the past five months."  That figure would be more in the neighborhood of $590,000 today.  Newspapers tagged her the "Queen of Shoplifters."  Elizabeth pleaded "My mind's a blank and I don't remember taking anything."

Retired banker Nathaniel G. Macrum shared rooms in No. 65 with his grown sons, Edward K., an organist, and artist George Herbert Macrum, by 1910.  George was a successful painter, whose works were shown in local galleries and the Annual Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  He was especially known for his romantic depictions of city scenes.

George Herbert Macrum's "Sunset Over Lower Manhattan"  via WorthPoint 
On March 21, 1912 The Sun reported that the 81-year old Nathaniel G. Macrum had suffered a stroke.  He died the following day.

The Macrums' landlady was Mary McCarrick who rented rooms to Dr. Armgaard Karl Graves in 1915.  Graves had been an elite spy for Imperial Germany until, according to him, he had so much inside information on that government that his own life was endangered.  So he changed allegiances and began independently spying on the German Embassy and its officials and passing the information to Americans.

The Sun, November 13, 1916 (copyright expired)

His presence in the 69th Street house prompted intrigue and danger.  After midnight on November 12, 1916 two "mysterious men posing as detectives" tried to get admittance into his rooms, but Mary McCarrick slammed the door in their faces, according to The Sun.  Nevertheless, they somehow got in and when Graves returned he found they had "tossed his things topsy turvy, but had stolen only translations of German letters he had decoded and similar papers."

Broadway composer and arranger Robert Russell Bennett shared ground floor rooms with cartoonist Harold Probasco and poet John Marony in 1917.  Just 23-years-old, Bennett had just had his first success after having arranged the music for Peter Ibbetson (and played in the orchestra, as well).  The cast included Lionel and John Barrymore, and Constance Collier.  His illustrious career would include two Tony Awards and he would work with composers like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin.

A tax photograph around 1940 shows the original doors and stoops intact.  via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services
No. 63 was not without its own theatrical tenants.  In the early 1940's actors John Ladd Connor and his wife Marcella Frances Vaughn moved in with Marcella's son from a previous marriage, Robert.  Robert Vaughn would go on to a stellar career in the theater, as well, perhaps best remembered for his starring role in the 1960's television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

In 1970 the three houses were officially converted to apartments.  A bit battered today (including air conditioning units carved into the brick facades of No. 61 and 63 and needless paint even on the mansard shingles), they have nevertheless lost little of their charm.

photographs by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment