Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Socialites, Terrorism and Movie Stars -- the 1906 43 Fifth Avenue


photo by Beyond My Ken

General Lloyd S. Bryce was a former U.S. Representative and the owner of The North American Review.  His mansion on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 11th Street sat within one of Manhattan's most exclusive residential neighborhoods in 1894.  On April 13 that year, The New York Times published his letter to the editor, in which he railed against a proposal of a street car on Fifth Avenue.

Like many of his affluent neighbors, however, he soon abandoned the neighborhood, moving far north into a lavish mansion at 1025 Fifth Avenue near 83rd Street.  Developer W. E. Finn demolished the Bryce residence in 1903 and hired architect Henry Andersen to design a high-end, 11-story apartment building on the site.  His plans, filed in April that year, projected the construction cost at $375,000--almost $13 million in 2023 terms.

No. 43 Fifth Avenue was completed two years later.  Andersen's ebullient Beaux Arts design reflected the Parisian architecture that would have been so familiar to the building's well-to-do residents.  Two double-height Scamozzi columns with carved swags gave drama to the rusticated base and entrance.  The six-story mid-section was clad in red brick and trimmed in limestone.  Frothy carvings and bowed metal bays with swirling iron railings added to the French motif.  The top level took the form of a steep, three-story mansard, its roofline serrated by chimney tops and dormers.  

photo by Beyond My Ken

Each of the sprawling ten-room apartments included maids rooms, a parlor, library, drawing room, and three baths.  An advertisement said they were "of the highest order" and that the "location is one of the most desirable in town."  In 1909 annual rents ranged from $3,000 to $4,500, or about $12,000 per month for the more expensive in today's money.  

Most residents appeared in Dau's New York Blue Book of society, like Mrs. Ottavian Fabbricotti, her daughter the widowed Annina Kingsley, and the Bernard M. Ewing family, all here in 1907.  The New York Times said of Annina Kingsley, "She has a home in Italy, where she spends much of her time."  Her husband, H. S. Kingsley, had died in 1907 "leaving her wealthy."  The Ewing's country home Maple Tree Farm was in Wyckoff, New Jersey.

Gustavus Town Kirby and his wife, the former Wilhelmine Stewart Claflin were among the original residents.  The couple were married in the Church of the Ascension, almost directly across Fifth Avenue, on June 21, 1906.  The mansion of Wilhelmine's parents was nearby at 15 Washington Square North. 

Gustavus Town Kirby, Report of the American Olympic Committee, 1920 (copyright expired) 

Born in Philadelphia in 1874, Kirby held a law degree from Columbus University.  While a student there, he had organized a committee to send athletes to the 1896 Summer Olympics.  That passion never left dimmed.  He would be a member of every United States Olympic Committee from 1896 to 1956, chairman of the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletics of America from 1896 to 1928, and in 1911 he was appointed president of the Amateur Athletic Union.

Wilhelmine, in the meantime, was more socially inclined.  On September 9, 1911, for instance, The New York Times reported she "gave a theatre party last night for her debutante sister, Miss Agnes Claflin, followed by a supper at her home, 43 Fifth Avenue."

photograph by Beyond My Ken

Socialite sisters Irene and Alice Lewisohn were residents by 1912.  They women involved themselves in worthy causes, and that year were members of the Japan Society, organized to "promote friendly relations between the United States and Japan."  Since 1905 they had been highly involved with the Henry Street Settlement.  In 1912 they organized the Dramatic Club, which presented cutting edge plays, and the following year funded the $60,000 construction costs of the Neighborhood Playhouse at 466 Grand Street.

The wealth of the building's residents was evidenced on March  7, 1912 when Annina Kingsley reported the theft of jewelry from a bureau drawer.  The New York Times reported, "She was sure that some one had gone to the jewel bag and taken a number of pieces of great value."  And, indeed, they were valuable.  She listed a pin "set with fifty-eight diamonds, one of them a very large stone which she valued at $5,000," two large "diamond drops" valued at $10,000, a gold and diamond necklace worth $6,000, and several other pieces.  The total amount stolen would translate to more than $1.25 million today.

The head of detectives of the Mercer Street Station, Lieutenant Farley, questioned the servants and a search was made of the apartment.  

"Are you sure they are not in the safe?" he asked Mrs. Kingsley.

The socialite was offended at the question.  "She said she was sure the missing gems were not in the safe, and asked whether her word was doubted," reported The New York Times.  

Two days later, with no leads, Farley headed back to the Kingsley apartment, feeling there was still the outside chance that the jewelry was in the safe.  In the meantime, Annina Kingsley had the same idea.  She most likely felt a bit sheepish when she opened the safe.  The New York Times reported on March 10, "She had just found [the jewels] when the detective arrived."

Among the notable residents in 1914 was Chevalier Giacomo Fari Forni, the Italian Consul General to New York.  Forni was especially unpopular with The Black Hand, the terrorist organization that had assassinated Franz Ferdinand of Austria earlier that year.  In 1913, a bomb had exploded in Forni's office and on September 18, 1914 he was clubbed over the head while leaving the subway at Spring Street.

On October 18 Forni was out of town, a detail apparently unknown to the Black Hand.  At 6:00 that morning a bomb exploded in the boiler of 43 Fifth Avenue.  Evidently intended to intimidate Forni, the explosion crushed the skull of a building employee and seriously damaged the apartments of the first floor.  Police Inspector Eagan reported that "A bomb made of dynamite or some other powerful explosive was set off inside of the boiler."  The New York Times reported that 
Mrs. Berkley Mostyn "had been thrown from her bed to the floor, and other tenants told of similar experiences."  

By 1926 the family of Grover Aloysius Whalen lived at 43 Fifth Avenue.  He and his wife, the former Anna Delores Kelly, had three children, Mary, Esther and Grover, Jr.  Whalen was the Commissioner of Plans and Structures, but was more familiarly known as Mr. New York, because Mayor John F. Hyland put him in charge with welcoming visiting dignitaries.

On May 17, 1926, the Times-Union of Albany, New York reported that the Whalens had celebrated the engagement of Emily Smith, daughter of Governor and Mrs. Alfred E. Smith with "a large tea and reception" in their apartment.  The article said the Governor and his wife assisted the Whalens in receiving "in the drawing room, which was decorated with dogwood, apple blossoms, spring flowers and palms."

Anna Delores Whalen and her children, Mary, Esther and Grover in their apartment.  Times-Union, December 20, 1928.

New Yorkers got another glimpse into the Whalen apartment two years later, when Grover Whalen was appointed Police Commissioner.  A reporter from the Albany Times-Union interviewed Anna "in her charming apartment at 43 Fifth avenue."  The article, which was published on December 20, mentioned:
On the walls of the home and on the tables were autographed pictures of Queen Marie of Rumania, the King and Queen of Belgium, John J. Pershing, and many other notable people reminders of Mr. Whalen's popularity as New York City's official host.

In 1935 Whalen was appointed president of the World's Fair Corporation, responsible for the smooth organization of the 1939 World's Fair. 

Grover A. Whalen's caricature graced the cover of Time magazine's May 1, 1939 cover. 

A much different type of tenant came by 1946 when actor Marlon Brando was living here with a roommate named Igor.  According to Charles Higham, in his 1987 Brando: The Unauthorized Biography, Igor was a Russian violinist.  Higham relates that when Brando decided he wanted the apartment to himself, he convinced his roommate to leave by filling his violin with horse manure.  The ploy worked.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

In 1978 the building was converted to coops.  Other celebrities who have called 43 Fifth Avenue home include Julia Roberts, Holly Hunter, and Jennifer Jason Leigh and her husband writer/director Noah Baumbach, and fashion designer Roland Leal.  Novelist and satirist Dawn Powell lived here from 1963 through 1966.  

No. 43 Fifth Avenue gained motion picture celebrity itself when Hugh Grant's character lived here in Woody Allen's 2000 film Small Time Crooks.  It also appeared in the 1996 film Everyone Say I Love You and the 1997 film Deconstructing Henry.

photograph by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. Surely, "In 1909 rents ranged from $3,000 to $4,500, or about $1,250 per month for the more expensive in today's money" is incorrect!

    1. only a little. ha. corrected. thanks for catching.