Thursday, July 9, 2020

The 1929 444 East 52nd Street

The 1929 agents' brochure for 444 East 52nd Street explained "the desire of the present day New Yorker for the comfort and convenience of the apartment house, coupled with his desire to avoid the vexatious traffic congestion of the metropolis, has led to the studio apartment house development along the banks of the East River, to afford far-sighted men and women the opportunity to walk to their offices and the shopping district, and thereby enjoy the convenience of going to and fro without delay and discomfort."  Indeed, the Beekman Terrace district just south of Sutton Place was rapidly filling with "splendid buildings of stone and steel," as described by the brochure.

Designed by De Pace & Juster for Babor-Comeau & Co., Inc., 444 East 52nd Street was a Jazz Age blend of Gothic and Tudor inspired styles.  The base of undressed, variegated blocks featured square-headed drip moldings over the doorways.  The stone continued up the ten stories as quoins, embracing a facade clad in rough-faced brick that simulated age.  Large stone pseudo-balconies, brick diapering and intricately-decorated piers added to the romantic charm.

For decades "studio apartment" buildings had been popular.  The term, which had little in common with the use of the term today, referred to artists' spacious apartments that included vast studio windows which provide the best light.  The northern section of No. 444 East 52nd Street held duplex and simplex studio apartments of four and six rooms.  "All studios have log-burning fire-places," noted the brochure.

The large studio windows are conspicuous in this architects' rendering.  444 East Fifty-second Street brochure.
There were also "maisonette apartments" which had private entrances onto 52nd Street.  The southern half of the building, without the northern light so important to artists, had no vast studio windows.  The only duplexes on this side were the two in the 10th floor and penthouse levels.

444 East Fifty-second Street brochure.

Among the initial residents were newlyweds William Gaston and Rosamond Pinchot, who were married in January 1928.  Born into high society Rosamond was the daughter of prominent attorney Amos Pinchot and the former Gertrude Minturn.  In 1923, at the age of 19, she and her mother were on an ocean liner when she was noticed by the producer and film director Max Reinhardt.  Most likely much to her mother's horror, he cast Rosamond in the Broadway production of The Miracle.  She played a nun who escapes from her convent.

By the time the socialite-turned-actress moved into No. 444 she had become a sort of sensation.  The newspapers called her "the loveliest woman in America."  But shortly after taking her apartment here she created an uproar among tight-laced society when it was reported she had said "uncosmeticed women [i.e., those not wearing makeup] were immodest."  Newspapers printed the outraged reactions of both men and women.  Rosamond insisted she never said it, but had merely been repeating something a friend said.

Nevertheless, she did not back down from the fact that decent women might use makeup.  "They must make up in the city.  Everything is so vivid and startling in the city that a pale, tired face is depressing."

Although the couple would have two children, William Alexander and James Pinchot, their domestic life was more than rocky.  In 1933 they separated.  Tragically, on January 24, 1938 the Beaver County Times reported "Clad in an evening gown and an expensive fur coat, Rosamond Pinchot, 32, famous actress...was found dead today in her automobile in the garage of an estate which she rented [in Old Brookville, New York]."  She had connected a garden hose to the exhaust pipe and taken her own life.

On June 12, 1930 the New York Evening Post reported that "Mrs. Boothe Brokaw has leased a large penthouse apartment at 444 East Fifty-second Street."  She had divorced her husband of seven years, millionaire George Tuttle Brokaw, a few months earlier.

Born Ann Clare Boothe, like Rosamond Pinchot she had had a theatrical career.  But now she was more focused on working for Women's Rights and suffrage.  She maintained a staff of four servants and paid $555 per month rent on the penthouse (about $8,500 in today's money).  In 1934 she poetically described the view from her terrace, published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on August 10, saying:

There are many penthouse views: the East River, sombre as a black velvet ribbon at your feet, shot with phosphorescent slivers that flake away in the wake of river craft.  The Queensborough Bridge and Hell Gate, flung like necklaces across the river's dark body...the lance of the Chrysler Building looming near, the flaming tower of the Radio Building, the golden glow of the New York Central building, the red torch of the Empire State Building, hung high above them all.

On November 23, 1935 Ann married the publisher of Time, Fortune and Life magazines, Henry Luce.  She dropped her first name, becoming Clare Boothe Luce, and would become one of the most recognized figures in American politics (she became Ambassador to Brazil in 1959), and literature (she wrote numerous journalistic pieces, war reporting, and fiction and became best known for her his play The Women in 1936).

Clare Boothe Luce and Henry Luce arrive at Idlewild Airport in 1954.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
Equally well-known was Dorothy Parker, who moved into the building in January 1934.  She may have been influenced on the location (which she reportedly said was "far enough east to plant tea") by the fact that her close friend and Algonquin Round Table member, Alexander Woollcott, lived in The Beekman Campanile next door at No. 450 East 52nd Street.  

Later that year Robert Benchley introduced Dorothy to screen writer Alan Campbell.  He was 28-years old and she was 39.  Campbell would become her second husband.

15 years before moving into No. 444 East 52nd Street, Dorothy posed with members of the Algonquin Round Table.  To the right is Alexander Woollcott, who lived next door at No. 450 East 52nd.  Also seen are Art Samuels, Charlie MacArthur and Harpo Marx.  original source unknown

In 1938 resident Lela E. Rogers was mortified when she read in the newspapers that she was engaged to marry FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.  Lela's daughter was motion picture star Ginger Rogers, but suddenly it was she and not the actress who was drawing press attention.  She called reporters to her apartment to try to dispel the rumor.

On June 9 the New York Post reported "With tears of embarrassment, Mrs. Lela E. Rogers...denied a published report today that she may marry J. Edgar Hoover, chief of the G-Men."  Lela wrung her hands and lamented, "Oh, dear, dear, dear, what will Edgar think?  It's just too silly for words...And what will Edgar think of me if he reads in the papers that I was supposed to have said anything of the kind."

Lillian Gish was living here in 1938 while appearing on Broadway in The Store Wagon.

While Lela Rogers was dealing with erroneous reports of her romantic life, another resident, Lillian Gish was appearing on stage in The Star Wagon.  Earlier that year she had appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Education and Labor to lobby for proposed bill to provide a permanent Bureau of Fine Arts.  She pointed out that with the onslaught of the Depression "the theater was very hard hit...Thousands of actors were deprived of a livelihood, with the consequent loss to our country of that many precious skills."  She concluded her testimony by telling the senators, "Let me end by saying that yours is the opportunity to make a great contribution to the welfare of the country."

Before long Elliot and Elizabeth Hall Janeway moved in.  Married in 1938, the couple would have two sons, Michael and William.  Elliot was a noted economist and writer for The Nation.  His articles caught the eye of neighbor Henry R. Luce who hired him to write part-time for Fortune and Time.

In the meantime, Elizabeth was honing her writing skills as well.  She worked on her first novel, The Walsh Girls, while living here.  Her 1945 novel Daisy Kenyon was adapted to film starring Joan Crawford.

444 East 52nd Street continued to be home to well-heeled, notable residents throughout the coming decades.  In the 1960's, for instance, author and journalist for The New York Times Albert Hodges Morehead, Jr., and James A. Henderson, president of Wells Fargo and Company, lived here.

Significant facade repair is taking place in 2020.
De Pace & Juster's handsome design melds into the row of similar apartment buildings along the southern side of the block.  They constitute a time capsule of the upscale Manhattan life in the late 1920's and early '30's.

photographs by the author

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