Tag Archives: Portraits

Power, corruption, and Tammany Hall: sketches of lesser known New York City mayors, 1869-1913

Today the 109th mayor of New York City will be elected. In honor of this occasion, we delved into our portrait archive to find some of the most fascinating mayors whom you may not know.  So take a trip down memory lane to a time when New York City politics were run by Tammany Hall, where corruption, greed, and good old-fashioned dirty politics were the norm and most mayors were mere figureheads of a vast political machine. Precious few political figures actually sought to fix the system.

J. Gurney & Son. A. Oakey Hall. ca. 1872. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.813

J. Gurney & Son. A. Oakey Hall. ca. 1872. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.813

A. Oakey Hall -  in office 1869 -1872. A. Oakey Hall, by all accounts, should have been a fabulous mayor, and if it weren’t for Boss William M. Tweed, he might have been. He was dapper, debonair, and always so fabulously clothed that his moniker was “Elegant Oakley”. He was basically the 19th century version of Mayor Jimmy Walker. But he was more than a pretty face: he was a brilliant lawyer (he tried his first case in front of the Supreme Court at the age of 24), a prolific journalist, and even wrote and starred in a play. Hall’s political career was just as varied as his pursuits. He was a member of every political party finally settling on being a Tammany democrat when he saw Boss Tweed’s rise to power. Tweed, and thus Tammany, took notice of Hall because they could control him and indeed, control him they did. There are sources that say his cabinet was the most corrupt in all of New York City history, and that’s saying quite a bit.  Yet, there were still persistent rumors that Hall could become President of the United States one day. Sadly for Hall, that came crashing down, however, when he was indicted during the investigation of the Tweed Ring in 1871. After conducting his own legal counsel he was acquitted, but never sought political office again. He later moved to London where his mental health was the subject of many rumors.

Wilhelm. Hugh J. Grant. ca. 1889-1905. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.810

Wilhelm. Hugh J. Grant. ca. 1889-1905. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.810

Hugh Grant- in office 1889-1892. While it’s disappointing that this mayor wasn’t a mild-mannered, bumbling, English romantic hero, like our 20th century movie star with the same name, this Hugh J. Grant, at 31 years old, was the youngest mayor of New York City. (There is continuing controversy over who actually was the youngest mayor; read more here.) Grant had a meteoric rise through the ranks of Tammany in part due to his wealthy background and affable attitude. He is most known for enacting the law that required electrical lines to be buried underground after a terrible blizzard in 1888 knocked out power and communication for days which obviously benefited the City, while conversely turning a blind eye to (and participating in) the ever-present Tammany corruption.

Not everyone liked Grant and his Tammany cronies. On February 14, 1892, crusading reformist and general gadfly of turn-of-the-century New York, Reverend Charles Parkhurst of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, denounced his administration saying, “every effort that is made to improve character in this city, every effort to make men respectable, honest, temperate, and sexually clean is a direct blow between the eyes of the Mayor and his whole gang of drunken and lecherous subordinates.” He went on to call Grant and his political colleagues, “a lying, perjured, rum-soaked, and libidinous lot” of “polluted harpies.” (Taken from Parkhurst’s book Our Fight with Tammany.)

W. J. Gaynor. ca, 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 96.184.20

W. J. Gaynor. ca, 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 96.184.20.

William Jay Gaynor -in office 1910 to 1913. Champion of the underdog, weary of both politicians and reformers, Gaynor was a Brooklyn judge who was known for his creative, colorful, and frequent profanity and his tendency to quote ancient Greek writers in his courtroom. How could you not be fascinated by him? Due to his reforming ways Gaynor was an odd choice for Tammany, but in the 1910 mayoral election he defeated newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. A political outsider, the first time Gaynor went to City Hall was for his inauguration (which he walked to from his Park Slope home – to read about Gaynor’s love of walking, click here). He also turned out to be incorruptible. There were rumors of him literally throwing people out of his office who wanted to buy his support. Tammany was not amused. Gaynor tried to limit police brutality and corruption, abolished tolls on the East River bridges, and supported mass transit. He was also known as a constant letter writer. He would answer letters from correspondents ranging from a rat catcher trying to get out of jury duty to women seeking help finding a husband. (If you really want to get to know Mayor Gaynor’s voice and amazing use of sarcasm, his collection of letters is beyond entertaining. )

Gaynor is the only New York mayor to have an attempt made on his life. On August 9, 1910, Gaynor was setting off on a much needed vacation on the Europe-bound ocean liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. He had been posing for photographers and talking to reporters and was still chatting with fellow passengers when a disgruntled, unemployed dock worker, John J. Gallagher, fired three shots at him.  What made this even more dramatic is that the immediate aftermath was caught on film. The story goes that William H. Warnecke, photographer for New York World, was running late and setting up just as the other photographers were leaving, allowing him to document the chaos immediately following the assassination attempt.

Gaynor survived the shooting but died three years later,  the only modern mayor to die in office.

William H. Warnecke. Reprinted by the Bown Brothers. Attempted assassination of Mayor William J. Gaynor. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 43.119.

William H. Warnecke. Reprinted by the Brown Brothers. Attempted assassination of Mayor William J. Gaynor. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 43.119.

Unknown. John Purroy Mitchel. ca. 1914. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.844

Unknown. John Purroy Mitchel. ca. 1914. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.844

John Purroy Mitchel – in office 1913-1917. Elected at 35, Mitchel was the second youngest person to serve as mayor of New York and is often called “The Boy Mayor”.  He rose to prominence after helping indict two corrupt borough presidents, and that was just the beginning of his quest to free the city from the holds of Tammany Hall. The public was apparently supportive of this, since Mitchel won the election by the greatest margin of victory in the city’s history. Mitchel immediately went to work fighting police corruption, enacting the first comprehensive zoning laws in the country, and balancing the city’s budget.

Unsurprisingly, Tammany didn’t like the direction Mitchel was taking their city, so they made sure he wouldn’t be a two-term mayor. After a brutally contentious war-time election, Mitchel lost by one of the biggest margins ever recorded. Tammany was back in power.

We Mourn our Loss, John Purroy Mitchel. 1917. 34.100.270U

We Mourn our Loss, John Purroy Mitchel. 1917. 34.100.270U

In keeping with Mitchel’s usual optimism and patriotism, he volunteered for the Air Service to fight in World War I.  Eight months after he lost the election, Mitchel was in Lake Charles, Louisiana doing routine flight training when, during a maneuver, he fell out of his single seat airplane and crashed to the ground, dying immediately. He had forgotten to fasten his seat belt.

Click here to see more images of mayors, both well-known and obscure.

Mora – Photographer of the Rich and Famous

What do rich Gilded Age socialites, stuffed bears, and elaborate costumes have in common? They’re all features in these very atypical Gilded Age portraits. As I was cataloging the Museum’s immense portrait archive, I spent several months working with thousands of portraits of people who made New York what it is today. I would always linger, however, over one particular photographer’s cabinet cards (thin photographs mounted on cards usually measuring 4 1/4 by 6 1/2 inches).  His images have a sense of playfulness, fantasy,  and a vibrancy that I had never associated with Gilded Age portraits before.  Even more intriguing was that the sitters always had instantly recognizable last names like Vanderbilt, Belmont, and Rhinelander. I knew I had to discover more about this photographer,  one of the pioneers of photographic portraits in New York, and his unusual images.

Mrs. Frederic Rhinelander Jones (Mary Cadwalader Rawle), Mrs. Francis C. Barlow, Miss Strong and Miss Sandy[?]. ca, 1875. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1458.

Mrs. Frederic Rhinelander Jones (Mary Cadwalader Rawle), Mrs. Francis C. Barlow, Miss Strong and Miss Sandy[?]. ca, 1875. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1458.

He was Jose Maria Mora, a young dashing Cuban refugee. Born in Cuba around 1849 to a wealthy family, he was sent to England to study painting and when the Cuban Revolution forced the rest of his family to emigrate to the States,  he joined them in New York. He quickly found employment at Napoleon Sarony’s photography studio, which at the time was the most artistic and well-regarded studio in the city.

Mora (b. 1849). Jose Maria Mora. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.43

Mora (b. 1849). Jose Maria Mora. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.43

In 1870 Mora opened his own studio and immediately became one of the biggest rivals to his old boss, Sarony. It didn’t hurt that he hired Sarony’s background painter, Lafayette Seavey, and soon had the largest collection of hand-painted backgrounds in the world at that time–over 150 different ones ranging from snowy city streets to Moorish ruins to forests, not to mention an arsenal of papier mache columns, balustrades, and rocks. Sitters would drape themselves over these objects in poses startlingly natural compared to the stiff positions into which other photographers literally clamped their subjects. These innovations paid off, and by 1878 Mora was making $100,000 a year shooting the stars of opera and stage in this new fashion of portraiture. (A more in depth discussion of Mora’s studio can be found here.)

An advantage of his well-born life was that he was able to mingle easily with the upper classes of New York.  Mora became the photographer of choice for the constant fancy-dress balls, tableaux, and other events of this era that required the upper class to get dressed up…which they did amazingly often.  His epic array of props added drama and intrigue to every image. These pictures also fed into the post-Civil War rise of the public’s fascination with the “lifestyles of the rich and famous,” and helped to create a visual definition of what that lifestyle entailed.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. August Belmont. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.68.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. August Belmont. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.68.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. William Garner. ca. 1873. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1292.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. William Garner. ca. 1873. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1292.

The bulk of the Museum’s digitized Mora images, however, come from one event: the Vanderbilt Ball. On March 26, 1883, a Who’s Who of Gilded Age New York society streamed into Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt’s new home at 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue. The invitation stipulated that everyone wear a costume and New York did not disappoint. People were dressed in costumes based on characters from opera, history, and folk tales, each more resplendent than the next. (Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about the ball itself.) The variety of backgrounds, poses, and props that made Mora the definitive popular portrait photographer are all on display and it’s clear why Mrs. Vanderbilt chose him to document one of the most memorable social event of New York City’s history.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt (neé Alva Erskine Smith). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.96.2.2.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt (neé Alva Erskine Smith). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.96.2.2.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. August Belmont (neé Caroline Slidell Perry). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1276.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. August Belmont (neé Caroline Slidell Perry). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1276.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. Henry T. Sloane (neé Jessie Robbins and later Mrs. Perry Belmont). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.2

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. Henry T. Sloane (neé Jessie Robbins and later Mrs. Perry Belmont). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.2.

Mora (b. 1849). Mr. May. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1311

Mora (b. 1849). Mr. May. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1311.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. James P. Kernochan (neé Katherine Lorillard. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1300.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. James P. Kernochan (neé Katherine Lorillard). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1300.

Mora (b. 1849). Mr. Halsey Haight. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.20.

Mora (b. 1849). Mr. Halsey Haight. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.20.

Mora (b. 1849). Mr. Isaac Ball. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1275.

Mora (b. 1849). Mr. Isaac Bell. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1275.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. Harry Hoffman (neé Bertha Whelan). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.23

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. Harry Hoffman (neé Bertha Whelan). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.23

Mora (b. 1849). Mr. Horatio Whitwell. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1346.

Mora (b. 1849). Mr. Horatio Whitwell. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1346.

In 1893, abruptly and without explanation, Mora closed his studio at 707 Broadway. Some said that he went mad trying to restore the family fortune that had been lost in the aftermath of the revolution, but even now nobody knows for certain. For about 30 years, nothing was heard from or about Mora and his name gradually began to fade into obscurity. This remained the case until a 1926 New York Times article painted a bleak picture of his life as a recluse in the Hotel Breslin (now the decidedly more posh Ace Hotel). Mora had lived there since 1911, surviving on a diet of 15 cent pies and whatever else fellow residents were generous enough to give. His padlocked room contained his only company – starving, half-dead pigeons. He surrounded himself with memories of a better time – yellowed newspapers and theater programs filled with the names of stars he had photographed decades before. Sadly, he was declared incompetent and died a few months later at St. Vincent’s Hospital, leaving nearly $200,000 untouched in his accounts. (New York Times)

Many thanks to Collections intern, Erin Pauwels, for her insight into Mora and costume balls.

Photographing Our Painting Collection

Here in the Museum of the City of New York’s Collections Department we have embarked on an exciting new project to digitize selected objects from our paintings holdings. This is the first time we have shot paintings and, while every object in our collection requires special attention while being photographed, when we start a new medium there are always new things to consider. In this case we had to think about how to deal with shiny surfaces that reflect light and create highlights that are hard to remove by merely adjusting the angle of our lights. We purchased custom filters for our Broncolor Lightbars fit with a polarized film and then attached a polarizing filter to the lens of our Hasselblad H4D. If you have ever worn polarized sunglasses then you know that looking through a polarizing filter greatly reduces glare and reflections from shiny surfaces. With the added polarizing film on our lights and the polarizing filter on our camera lens we are able to completely zero out all reflections coming off the painting and spilling into our camera. If you would like a complete breakdown of how polarization works read this.

Here is an example of New York politician and judge Gabriel George Ludlow, shot with and without the polarizing filter so you can see how really effective this method is. The artist of this beautiful portrait, John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), was an influential painter in colonial America and is well-known for his portraits of prominent figures.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Gabriel George Ludlow. ca. 1770. Museum of the City of New York. 72.31.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Gabriel George Ludlow. ca. 1770. Museum of the City of New York. 72.31.

We are very excited to make these paintings accessible to researchers and curators to view and study without having to make a trip to our storage facility. The portrait collection consists of prominent New Yorkers by many well-known artists from the early 1700′s through the 1980′s. Some of the real gems of our collection include portraits of DeLancey Iselin Kane and Eleanora Iselin Kane by the artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938). The portrait of DeLancey Iselin Kane is considered his most famous portrait and has been published extensively. The painting is in its original frame, designed specifically for the portrait by Stanford White.

Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938). DeLancey Iselin Kane. 1887. Museum of the City of New York. 40.417

Other paintings of note are the James Abercrombie Burden Family by Eastman Johnson; Cornelius and Sarah Bogart Ray by John Wollaston; and A Spanish Boy by Alice Neel.  Many of these paintings underwent restoration and cleaning prior to their digitization. Our painting collection ranges from the typical turn-of-the-century portraits as seen above to this dark and moody portrait of John Barrymore in the character of Hamlet painted by James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) ca. 1923.

James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960). John Barrymore as Hamlet. ca. 1923. Museum of the City of New York. 46.414.1.

We set up a temporary studio for three days in a temporarily empty gallery on our newly renovated third floor.  Here is a shot of our setup in action. Please check in with our collections portal in the near future to view this amazing collection in your own home.

Treasures and “Shandas” from the Collection on Yiddish theater

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the streets of the Lower East Side were plastered with theatrical advertisements for Der yidisher kenig lir and Mentsh un Tayvl.  Second Avenue was the Broadway of the Yiddish stage and two of its brightest dramatic lights were Jacob P. Adler and David Kessler.

White Studios. David Kessler, ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.7.2.

A prominent actor and manager, Kessler operated several theatres.  His Second Avenue Theatre is often credited with the establishment of the Yiddish theater district on Second Avenue.

Morris Bellin Studio. Jacob P. Adler. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.7.1.

Adler, known as “The Great Eagle” for his commanding gaze and presence, was not only a major star but also fathered an acting dynasty consisting of his children Celia, Luther, and Stella Adler.  Though Adler and Kessler worked together in their early careers, these two titans competed for audiences, doubtless putting a strain on their friendship.

Thanks to generous funding from the David Berg Foundation and the Lemberg Foundation, the Museum has begun processing its Collection on Yiddish theater. While there is still a lot to discover, this letter from Jacob P. Adler to David Kessler provides a peek into their friendship and their rivalry.

Jacob P. Adler letter to David Kessler, undated. Museum of the City of New York, Collection on Yiddish theater.

The translated letter reads as follows:

Friend Kessler!
I wonder very much that with my good performance and friendly relationship with you that you should believe  I badmouthed you or spread slander, and that I spoke badly when I was not spellbound by the masterpiece.   Of course, I understand that you, with your own opinion that differs from mine entirely, would also stage it in order to bring in cash.  But who knows?  [Upon reflection, I] may turn out to be satisfied and not protest that my daughter is acting in it.
I know that you probably half believed.  Now you know positively that the gossip monger is a dirty, contemptible creature.  I beseech you to spit in his face, and tell him he should write in his own name.
With caution and friendship,
Yours truly, Jacob P. Adler.

The daughter Adler refers to is likely the talented Celia, the eldest in his acting brood. Though she spent time performing in Philadelphia, Ms. Adler came to New York at David Kessler’s invitation, and performed in several productions with him. I looked into several different sources, but was unable to determine which production caused the “shanda” (Yiddish for  scandal) mentioned in the letter.  What was said, who said it, and about which production is unknown.  What is clear is the intensity of feeling from Adler, that same intensity he devoted to moving audiences.  It gives us a the tiniest glimpse of what it must have been like to see the passion of “The Great Eagle” on stage.

Check back for more peeks into the troves of the Museum’s Theater Collection.

Many thanks to Alyssa Masor for her guidance in Yiddishisms.

Gender Bending in 19th Century New York

In the summer of 1836 in New York City, a white man named Robert Haslem met a black woman named Mary Jones on Bleecker Street. The two proceeded down Greene Street (now approximately Minetta Street), where they became intimate. On his way home, Haslem noticed that his wallet was missing; in its place was another man’s wallet. Haslem tracked down the man, who admitted to also having relations with Mary Jones, but was unwilling to report the theft of his wallet to the police. Haslem disclosed his story to the police and an officer went in search of Mary Jones. The officer found her and feigned interest. When she led him down Greene Street and initiated contact, he arrested her. He continued his investigation by searching her and discovered, to his shock, that Mary Jones was actually a man.

Lithograph issued by Henry R. Robinson. The Man - Monster. Artist unknown. Museum of the City of New York. 95.54.11.

Peter Sewally, alias Mary Jones, lived and worked at a Greene Street brothel as a domestic worker. He donned female attire while at the brothel, claiming that the customers enjoyed his feminine appearance. The police officer searched Jones’s room and found more men’s wallets. Sewally had been supplementing his income by dressing as Mary Jones and pickpocketing the men with whom he had encounters.

Sewally was charged with grand larceny and forced to appear in court as Mary Jones. This caused quite a stir among the media and the general public. Indeed, media accounts of Sewally’s trial focused more on his manner of dress than the crime he was charged with. The jury convicted Sewally and sentenced him to five years imprisonment at Sing Sing. Soon afterward, the lithograph above was published in New York City. Its sensational title, “The Man-Monster,” clashes with the graceful portrayal of Sewally clothed in a pretty dress.

For more information about Peter Sewally, please visit these websites:

Peter Sewally – Mary Jones, June 11, 1836

City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920