Tag Archives: 1910s

The Hell Hole: Manhattan bar from the 1910’s & 20’s

Dorothy Day, before she was a Catholic worker, hung out in a glorious dive with Eugene O'Neill

Charles-Demuth-The-Golden-Swan-aka-Hell-Hole-

 

This painting is At The Golden Swan (a.k.a. Hell Hole), by Charles Demuth, and I ran across it while researching this bar, a gathering point for artists in Greenwich Village during its heyday from 1913 to the early ’20s (about the time housing prices started driving the poorer bohemians out).  I’d read many memoirs that referenced this joint, which was hardly the kind of place you’d expect a crew of artists to be.  The Hell Hole was not fake tough of the sort that brings in today’s hipster wannabes.  No, it was a true lowdown tavern owned and beloved by Irish gangsters.  Apparently there was a time when Greenwich Village was a diverse mix of old rich, poor artists, hopeful immigrant families, and flat-out thugs.  The bar’s seediness and peculiar mix is exactly what attracted the serious (and curious) artists, writers, journalists, and anarchists who also pursued serious drinking.  The place was situated at 6th Avenue and 4th Street, in the shadow of the El.

Demuth’s painting actually seems to me a brighter and more sedate environment than the one I’ve read about.  Though no doubt accurate, it seems rather bright and optimistic, more like a cool coffeeshop than a seedy bar (except for that shadowy guy in the corner).  In reality, the swan in the background was actually a mouldering, leaning stuffed goose in a dirty case.  The Hell Hole had two rooms — the back room, with a separate glass entrance, allowed women; the front room, where the Irish gang the Hudson Dusters made its home, was more loudly argumentative and more violent.  Prostitutes (or possibly just loose women) were said to make steady appearances, and all women were allowed to smoke publicly, which appealed to some of the more independent ladies of the Village.  The Hell Hole was also interracial — apparently everyone was welcome (except possibly the rich). The incredible hodgepodge of folks and the vague threat of violence and the actuality of various addictions made it especially attractive to artists who enjoyed observing human behavior and were not easily scared off.  Below is artist John Sloan’s version, The Hell Hole, painted in 1913.  Sloan was a more long-time habitué of the bar, having lived in New York longer than Demuth and with a studio right across the street.  This picture reflects in detail the accounts I’ve read.  The two guys in the doorway were apparently tough bouncers, Lefty Louie and John Bull.  The waiter here does not look quite so happy.  The patrons, too, seem more ragged; cheerfully talking, yes, but there’s clearly drinking going on; a woman is losing her hat, possibly because she’s smashed; a woman is getting her leg felt up; there are cigarettes.  The paintings on the wall appear to be accurate, with a racehorse and (I think) a nude and lounging woman. This is the way a bar that’s open after others close ought to look.  (Not saying that I don’t love the Demuth, but historically, I believe Sloan nails it.)

sloan hell hole

Eugene O’Neill, the playwright, (see him in the upper right?) adopted the Hell Hole as a second home on and off for three years, going on all night benders, able to travel the boundary from back room to front, making friends with all kinds.  The Hudson Dusters were his pals, in part because he didn’t condescend to them, and some of them attended his plays when they were performed nearby. From 1917 through 1918, and occasionally beyond, he was joined by his pal, the social activist (and later Catholic near-saint) Dorothy Day.  Another friend and patron was the Village anarchist/gadfly Hippolyte Havel, a wild haired Czech who became the model for Hugo Kalmar in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.  In fact, the Hell Hole is the model for the bar in that play, a place where in the 1910’s people came to celebrate and conspire, and a place where, as time passed, people got drunk and swore over the failed revolution. Another regular in O’Neill’s Hell Hole circle was Terry Carlin, a sixty-something anti-government radical who lived on the streets, obtaining a kind of true bohemianism that the others romanticized.  While he helped O’Neill when he was in the blackest of slides, he began bitter and nihilistic with the failures of his ideas.  (I imagine Carlin as being the like a particular kind of disappointed hippie from our own era.)  Another of O’Neill’s friends there was a dissipated Villager who was a friend of O’Neill’s from college, Louis Holladay.  Louis’ sister ran one of the most popular restaurants for the Village folk, Polly’s; Polly was married to Hippolyte Havel, and, according to one biography, had sexually abused her younger brother.  Louis has the sad legacy of being the one of the few heroin deaths among the intellectual bohemians, literally dying while leaning up against socialist worker Dorothy Day.  The story has it that he got his drug from Terry Carlin at the Hell Hole.  Another patron was Christine Ell; this big red-haired woman becomes the character Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten.  The radical immersion journalist John Reed spent time there, along with his wife Louise Bryant, who had an affair with O’Neill.  O’Neill met one of his wives, Agnes Boulton, there.  It was also frequented by the playwriting and performance group the Provincetown Players, whose Manhattan theater was located nearby; among this group were “Jig” Cook, Susan Glaspell, and Mary Heaton Vorse, all of whom encouraged O’Neill and gave him his theatrical break.

It seems remarkable now that there was a time when such a disparate crew of people actually spent time together, night after night, radicals, artists, thugs, prostitutes, and musicians mingling in the same beer-soaked, sawdust-floored dump.  But it happened.

While the Hell Hole lasted beyond the ’20’s, these were its glory years.

 

Judex – Feuillade’s caped crusader

judex caveI found myself taken in by the 1916 twelve-part French serial, Judex, created by Louis Feuillade (who also directed the serials Les Vampires and Fantomas.)

The whimsical saga of a caped avenger out to punish an evil banker and right assorted wrongs is enjoyable for its story and fascinating in a number of other ways. I have to admit that I got a lot of twisted joy at seeing a scamming capitalist banker locked up in a room, where he is observed squirming via Judex’s secret viewing screen. These claustrophobic scenes are almost paranoia-inducing, and I felt guilty taking so much pleasure in it. But the banker, after all, was so evil that he ripped off an old man and then ran him over with his car. And that’s just the beginning. — Actually, all the bad guys (including one especially bad woman) in the film are scheming, diabolical, mostly without conscience, and persistent.

The banker observed in his bunker via screen.

The banker observed in his bunker via screen.

So it is completely necessary that we have Judex and his brother sidekick to lay down some punishment. Judex – rather like Batman – is a brooding, mysterious sort who hides in a secret underground technologically-equipped den and wears a very dapper cape. Unlike the man of the bat, he doesn’t have a dark side. He is, except when suffering from love, cheerful as he balances wrongs. He is so cheerful, in fact, that I’m always aware that director Feuillade is having fun. Judex is full of jokes. The actors play to the camera, sometimes looking directly at it and practically winking. judex diana with gun Never do I feel any real tension or fear, as you might expect in a long serial that wants to bring the audience back to watch the drama unfold. I’m not terribly worried about whether Jacqueline, the banker’s daughter who gives away her father’s ill-gotten gains, is rescued. I’m more enjoying the antics of her kidnappers, particularly the mastermind played by Musidora (who also played Irma Vep in one of Feuillade’s other serials, Les Vampires). Musidora is clearly having a blast being bad, as her character lights up cigarettes and laughs at Judex’s attempts to stop her. Judex may need to save the banker’s daughter, but Musidora’s kidnapping nanny needs no assistance from anyone. If she needs a little hand on occasion, she can always use one of the male saps at her disposal.
Musidora descends vampishly.

Musidora descends vampishly.

Musidora and Rene Creste, who plays Judex, play perfectly matched enemies as they both win their days with style. Yet even their ultimate fine looks don’t keep them from always falling into the director’s jokes, as when the kidnappers are chased by Judex’s enormous pack of goofy dogs (an assortment of hound dogs, poodles, and terriers).

The film is often beautifully shot, which is something that takes it beyond the standard serial of the day, or even most films of the day. I’ve watched a lot of short films and serials and they usually appear to have been done quickly and cheaply. If this is the case with Judex, it doesn’t look it. (And given the director’s prodigious output of 700 mostly short movies, Judex couldn’t have been dwelt upon too long.) Shot by shot, the scenes are complex, detailed, and often set in unusual locations. judex seine It’s fascinating just to look at the backgrounds — in fact, the settings, the costumes, even the use of animals and birds are at least as interesting, if not more so, than the story and the acting. While the serial seems like a lark, great care was taken in the details and in providing a certain peculiar atmosphere. The banker’s prison room is not the only claustrophobic space in which a character is trapped. Nearly all of the rooms are traps of a sort, and the only freedom seems to come in the out of doors, whether this be two wayward children hitching a ride on the back of a car in Paris, or a pack of dogs racing through a grove of trees.judex dogs

Judex has what we might now consider a Communistic conscience. Made in 1914, films about the need to wrest control from robber barons and bankers were actually pretty common — or at least a good many of them are available now on DVD. D.W. Griffith built his early career around them. Judex hardly apologizes for the way that the rich are punished and those who give their wealth away are absolved. The banker’s daughter does not exactly receive an instant reward for giving her wealth to charity — she gives away her child to be raised by foster parents so she has time to work; she does it because it is the right thing to do. It’s hard to imagine such a notion appearing in any movie today. Then, in the pre-Soviet era, more European and American artists felt free to consider socialism as a reasonable alternative to the incredible abuses of capitalism (remember, this is before government safety nets), and there was a willing audience for movies that advocated sharing the wealth. Feuillade’s serials Les Vampires and Fantomas have similarly subversive elements and the same touches of surreal humor.

Louis Feuillade

Louis Feuillade

Louis Feuillade himself was the son of a wine merchant; after getting his degree, he served four years in the French army, worked as a journalist, and in 1905 began writing scripts, then directing, for Gaumont Films in Paris.
Gaumont Palace, movie studio & theater

Gaumont Palace, movie studio & theater

Gaumont was one of the leading studios in the 1910’s, experimenting with rudimentary sound (recording to disc, then played back in sync with the film) and colorization (hand painting areas of the frame or tinting certain scenes to elicit a mood). By 1909, Feuillade had already developed his mystical, dreamlike style with its fascinations with codes, letters, mysteries, and the occult.

Rene Poyen in an earlier version of the Licorice Kid

Rene Poyen in an earlier version of the Licorice Kid

He often used the same actors in his films, having a stable that included Musidora, Rene Poyen (who plays The Licorice Kid), Marcel Levesque, and many others.
Musidora

Musidora

The most interesting characters in the movie (far eclipsing Judex himself) are The Licorice Kid and Diane Monti, the scheming “adventuress” with a “gang.” The Licorice Kid is a moppet street urchin who smokes cigarettes and works for small change (but does not beg). Chaplain uses a similar (but more innocent) kid in The Kid, five years later. Rene Poyen, who plays the Licorice Kid, is a scene stealing ham, but is fun to watch, and he mostly saves us from sentimentality in his scenes with “Little Jean,” the curly-haired, kissy-face son of the always imperiled Josephine. There are some completely casual takes of the Kid stealing rides, smoking, making wisecracks, and lounging around in general adult manner while often saving the day.judex licorice smoking The other scene stealer is Musidora, who plays Diana Monti, the evil governess. Diana Monti (and Musidora, I think) is such an intelligent, observant, wily, smart ass character. While the banker’s daughter is constantly being kidnapped, Diana Monti has endless schemes for kidnapping. Musidora doesn’t play Diana as an over-the-top witchy evil stepmother type; Diana is actually believable, an attractive-but-not-unusually-so woman who can out-think all of the men around her, those bumbling weak idiots. Diana doesn’t use the men just to use them (like a vamp), but uses them to help her execute her grand schemes, which the men fall into mostly out of greed, not out of infatuation. (This isn’t to say that Diana/Musidora doesn’t “work it” by brushing a man’s chin with her hand or leaning over him as if she is oh-so-interested. In fact, she will often do this and then roll her eyes as soon as the fellow is looking away — she does this so subtly and quickly that it feels completely natural; she always lets us know that Diana Monti is never a fool for love.)judex musidora eyeroll
Diane Monti & Morales, conspirators

Diane Monti & Morales, conspirators

Feuillade doesn’t costume Musidora in outlandish or even sexy garb. There’s no fake glamour here. She looks great in black. But she also looks great in white and in a polka-dot tie. Her beauty comes less in her face and body than in her expressions, which are generally snide, impatient, laughing at the act she’s putting on, thoughtful, and happy when coming up with her next scheme. This is a very advanced female character for the period. Mary Pickford had pluck and smarts, but she also wore little girl braids. Lillian Gish had exquisite beauty, but wasn’t allowed to really show off her mind. Even Louise Brooks often had to go through some kind of degradation. Musidora, daughter of feminists, has and keeps the upper hand. I give Feuillade a great deal of credit for never trying to put her in her place.
The Licorice Kid and Little Jean

The Licorice Kid and Little Jean

I’ve read that Judex was wildly popular in its time, but was dismissed by some of the critics then and later for being a popular serial, a casual entertainment. This seems to me quite unfair. Although it’s a serial in twelve parts, it’s superior to most serials I’ve watched from the period and later. (Hate me movie fans, but it’s much better than nearly all serial Westerns and Sherlock Holmes episodes.) It’s stylish, it’s funny, it’s classy, and for some reason even the story suckered me in. Yes, who is Judex, damn it? Why does he hate bankers? (Resolved on disc 2.) Why does he insist on falling in love with the banker’s daughter? What will Musidora try next to get the fortune and is it at all possible that the banker will never escape? Will Musidora’s boy toys survive? Will Judex unleash his pack of dogs again? — The plot is just fun enough, and silly enough, and everyone is on the joke, for me to want to keep watching on to the next episode, just like that guilty pleasure of watching Shameless on Netflix one episode after another. And so Louis Feuillade solves the mystery of the one hundred year time differential by making it not matter at all.

Judex is available, beautifully restored, on a two CD set from Flicker Alley.

Judex's brother & the Licorice Kid take a conference call.

Judex’s brother & the Licorice Kid take a conference call.

judex musidora in car
The banker's daughter, played by Yvette Andreyor

The banker’s daughter, played by Yvette Andreyor

judex musidora undress
Mother gives her boys a lesson in revenge.

Mother gives her boys a lesson in revenge.

Orrick Johns and his Olives

One of the very sporadic “characters” in my book is the now forgotten poet Orrick Johns. In fact-checking my own work (yeah, jeez), I came across this very strange and, I thought, cool poem that he wrote in 1915. It appeared in a little magazine called Others which was edited by poet Alfred Kreymborg. To the poem momentarily. First this picture of Alfred Kreymborg taken by Edward Weston in 1920, which I only include because I like it:

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Alfred Kreymborg, by the way, wrote an interesting memoir called Troubadour, if you’re at all interested in modernist poets & artists, published in 1925. I like Kreymborg; he’s unpretentious when writing about his artist friends. He refers to himself in third person, by the way. It’s unfortunately hard to find, and doesn’t seem to have a free digitized version floating around yet. I bought mine used.

But I meant to talk about Orrick Johns, since I’m posting his poem. I unfortunately don’t have much to say about him. He was friends with Sara Teasdale and Zoe Akins; they grew up together in St. Louis, and all moved to New York about the same time. He was somewhat scandalous for winning a major poetry prize out from under Edna St. Vincent Millay’s fine poem
Renascence, which everyone believed she should have won, but didn’t because Orrick had the poverty & depression vote & had more friends. Sadly, even Orrick Johns didn’t think he deserved the $500 prize. But according to Sara Teasdale, he was a mopey sort anyway, in part because he lost a leg as a child when he was hit by a streetcar. Max Bodenheim wrote a poem about him, and Kenneth Rexroth mentions him “hopping into the surf on his one leg” in his moving poem Thou Shalt Not Kill. Orrick Johns, like so many from this era, was a suicide.

Here’s what Bodenheim wrote about him in To Orrick Johns:

O tangled and half-strangled child, you shrink
For ever from yourself, and wear a pose
Of nimble and impenetrable pride.
Yet sometimes, wavering on the sudden brink
Of jaded bitterness, you drop your clothes
And weave a prayer into your naked stride.

And here is Orrick Johns’ poem Olives, a cut and paste from the journal Others.

olives 1olives 2olives 3olives 4

a little more about Ethel

ethel-waters-01-smroots-ewIn 1921 Ethel Waters was picked up by Black Swan Records, a publisher of what were then known as “race records.” Initially, race records were for black audiences (right?), but it wasn’t long before white people started looking for them, too. Black Swan was a label out of Harlem, and Ethel was one of their first artists. Her first record sold 500,000 copies in six months. This is phenomenal by the standards of the day, and especially so considering that she was among the earliest black artists to be recorded. Ethel’s account of her first recording goes like this:

…. I found Fletcher Henderson sitting behind a desk and looking very prissy and important. … There was much discussion of whether I should sing popular or ‘cultural’ numbers. They finally decided on popular, and I asked one hundred dollars for making the record. I was still getting only thirty-five dollars a week, so one hundred dollars seemed quite a lump sum to me. Mr. Pace paid me the one hundred dollars, and that first Black Swan record I made had Down Home Blues on one side, Oh Daddy on the other. It proved a great success … got Black Swan out of the red.
.black swan ethelblack swan 2

Here’s an audio clip of Down Home Blues, 1921, on Black Swan.
The biography Heat Wave by Donald Bogan is an interesting account of the personal and professional life of this complex woman. Her rise from poverty to becoming an actual recording smash and occasional film star really is quite amazing. She had a genuine ability to connect with her audience in a way that feels warm and sincere. Her directness, which was sometimes simply mean-spirited and angry in her personal life, comes across in her work as a kind of intimate honesty. We feel connected to a real woman. To me, there’s an element of pathos in some of her work that strikes me as a genuine — not a pose — though it can appear in the silliest of scripted situations. I found myself moved by her sweet singing in this scene from the 1943 film Cabin in the Sky. She’s performing here with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (on guitar) and Bill Bailey (the tap dancer).YouTube Preview Image

I found another film clip, this from 1933 and a film called Rufus Jones for President. Try to look past the racist mugging if you can and just listen to Ethel — except, well, you might take note of a seven-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. serving as the judge. It’s a shame that the films we have of black performers in this era are often full of racist touches — but they’re all we’ve got. The lyrics to Underneath a Harlem Moon are really pretty weird; the song is written by Mack Gordon, a Polish Jew. Sometimes it’s racist, yet in the period it was written was widely performed by black jazz artists. Yuval Taylor on his blog Faking It points out that in the movie, Ethel changes the last half of the song and claims it for her own. (At least we think it’s Ethel who changed it? It’s hard to be sure about that, I think.) These are the lyrics:
Once we wore bandannas, now we wear Parisian hats,
Once we were barefoot now we wear shoes and spats,
Once we were Republican but now we’re Democrats
Underneath our Harlem moon.

We don’t pick no cotton, pickin’ cotton is taboo.
All we pick is numbers, and that includes you white folks too,
’Cause if we hit, we pay our rent on any avenue
Underneath our Harlem moon.

We just thrive on dancin’;
Why be blue and forlorn?
We just laugh, grin, let the landlord in–
That’s why house rent parties were born!

We also drink our gin, puff our reefers, when we’re feelin’ low,
Then we’re ready to step out and take care of any so-and-so.
Don’t stop for law or no traffic when we’re rarin’ to go,
Underneath our Harlem moon.

And here is the performance in question, from Rufus Jones for President:

YouTube Preview Image
My reading about Ethel primarily goes through the 1930’s, so the following comments speak to who she was at that time. (I actually find her later appearances in so many “mammy”-type roles a little depressing.) There’s been a lot of discussion about Ethel being bisexual. It’s true. But as Donald Bogan points out, and as I’ve found in all kinds of reading from the era of the 1900-1930’s, this was not all that uncommon. A lot of women, especially younger ones, had sexual and romantic relationships with other women, and then went on to marry men. They seem to be a bit iffy on whether they considered themselves to be lesbians; generally, they didn’t. There’s considerable denial, professing it all to be a kind of experimental fluke. (Maybe it’s not all that different now.) Others remained in same sex relationships to some degree or another throughout their lives, as Ethel did, even when she had three husbands. These choices by female performers made sense; they were preyed upon by managers, stage door dandies, producers, and on and on, and they hung together out of protection. (You can even see this in a lot of pre-code movies – think Joan Blondell rolling her stockings behind the stage door. The movies don’t show the women sleeping together, but it’s often just a kiss away.) Performers had to sleep and dress in close quarters, and sometimes share beds, and, well, it seemed natural. Ethel as a young woman did have a relationship with a dancer, Ethel Williams, that lasted several years, until Ms. Williams got married. (Ethel Williams’ story is interesting, too — she was a whiz at the dance the turkey trot, and was in one of the most important early black musical plays, Darktown Follies.) Ethel Waters was apparently a bit of dog for a good deal of her life — she got around and didn’t mind who knew it. She was her own woman. waters