Happy Birthday, Django Reinhardt!

Today marks the 104th anniversary of the birth of the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. He was born in Belgium and lived in Romani (gypsy) encampments near Paris after the age of eight. As a child, he played violin, banjo and guitar, but it was as a guitarist that he made an indelible mark.

His accomplishments may be viewed as all the remarkable given he was burned in a fire at the age of 18, causing the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand to be paralyzed. Thereafter he had to concoct his own unique fingerings for creating chords on the guitar.

As a young musician, Django came under the influence of Louis Armstrong and other jazz musicians, and his musical path was set. Around this time he met violinist Stephane Grappelli, with whom he would soon form the influential combo, the Quintette du Hot Club de France.

Django toured the US in the autumn of 1946 as a guest soloist with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, but he soon returned to France as some promised solo gigs on the West Coast failed to pan out.

In 1951, he retired to Samois-sur-Seine, near Fontainebleau, though he continued to play gigs in Paris. He was intrigued by bebop and began to incorporate its vocabulary into his playing.

He died of a brain hemorrhage walking home from the Avon train station following a Saturday night gig. He was just 43.

Here’s an all-too-brief clip of Django performing his two-fingered, five-stringed magic:

Formerly Famous: Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs

Many a 1930s screwball comedy mined the eccentricities of the well-to-do, but it’s hard to imagine even the most imaginative screenwriter coming up with a character as eccentric as Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs.

Carstairs, a ballyhooed champion speedboat racer in the speed-crazed 1920’s, wasn’t memorable merely for being the fastest woman on water. Her visible tattoos, penchant for cigars, and preference for men’s clothing ensured she stood out in a crowd.

Born in London in 1900, Carstairs inherited her wealth from her maternal grandfather, Jabez Abel Bostwick, a founder of the Standard Oil Company. Given her family’s financial standing—not to mention the influence and power that accompanied it—it’s perhaps not surprising that Carstairs’ approach to life was adventurous, her personality brash and self-assured.

Living in Paris in her teens, Carstairs had her first lesbian experience, about which she later remarked, “My God, what a marvelous thing. I found it a great pity I’d waited so long.” Soon thereafter, she took part in an affair with Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s niece.

Carstairs served as an ambulance driver in France during World War I before traveling to Dublin to join the Women’s Legion Mechanical Transport Section. She returned to France following the signing of the Armistice to help to rebury the war dead as a member of the Royal Army Service Corps.

Carstairs returned to London to launch an all-female chauffeur service called the X-Garage in 1920 before selling that concern and turning her focus to speedboat racing.

Carstairs won a handful of championships in the 1920s, including the prestigious Duke of York’s Trophy, the Royal Motor Yacht Club international race, and the Lucina Cup. “I liked the boats,” Carstairs said. “I liked the way they behaved. I understood them.”

Carstairs earned the respect of her male counterparts in the world of speed-racing, and she proved to be a supportive and generous friend to many. Sir Malcolm Campbell, who held the world speed record on land and on water at various times in the 1920s and ‘30s, is said to have described Carstairs as “the greatest sportsman I know.”

Though she lived openly as a lesbian, Carstairs married her old friend Count Jacques de Pret in 1918 in order to gain access to her trust fund and appease her drug-addicted, adulterous mother, Frances Evelyn Bostwick, who disapproved of her daughter’s sexual proclivities. Upon Evelyn’s death, though, the marriage was annulled on grounds of non-consummation.

Carstairs bedded dozens of women in her life—among them, reportedly, actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich—but avoided long-term romantic attachments. It was said she kept a photographic file of 120 of the women she’d slept with, but her life’s companion was Lord Tod Wadley, a stuffed leather doll 12 inches in height that was a gift from a girlfriend in 1925.

What fostered Carstairs’ attachment to Lord Wadley is unclear, but she was rarely without him and even had tailored clothing made for him on Saville Row.

In 1934, Carstairs purchased Whale Cay (pronounced “key”)—a small island 30 miles northwest of Nassau and 90 miles east of Miami—for the sum of $40,000. She moved there and set up what might be described as a relatively benign fiefdom.

Quickly making the island her own, Carstairs hired locals from her own and neighboring islands to clear away vegetation and build an extravagant plantation that boasted a huge house for herself and her guests as well as small cabins for her workers, a dock, a school, a church, a fish cannery, and a general store.

Carstairs also undertook a reworking of the island’s social structure. New laws were created according to her whims (adultery and alcohol were outlawed), she took for herself the right and privilege to name all the island’s newborns, and she formed a private militia—complete with uniforms and machetes—to enforce these laws.

Shortly after arriving on Whale Cay, Carstairs had impressed the locals, many of whom were adherents of a form of voodoo known as obeah, by throwing a knife so skillfully she cut off the head of a snake several yards away. Many of the island’s residents also attributed special powers to Lord Wadley, so it’s not difficult to understand how Carstairs came so quickly to assume an almost royal role on the island.

Carstairs, who played host at Whale Key to many famous friends over the years (among them the Duke and Duchess of Windsor), was often seen by the island’s longtime residents riding about on her motorcycle, with the ever-present Lord Wadley strapped in behind her.

In 1975, long since out of the public eye and afflicted with failing health, Carstairs sold Whale Key, thereafter dividing her time between Miami and Long Island. When she died in 1993, her beloved Lord Wadley was cremated and buried along with her.

This story originally appeared in the Spring/Fall 2012 issue of Zelda, the Magazine of the Vintage Nouveau.

Still Changing After All These Years

“It’ll be a great place if they ever finish it.”
—O. Henry, on New York City

In 1929, photographer Berenice Abbott returned to the United States from Paris, where she’d spent eight years, first serving as Man Ray‘s photographic assistant and later establishing her own reputation as a portrait photographer.

She intended to spend only a few weeks in the U.S. but was so taken by the transformation New York City was undergoing, with dozens of tenements and other older buildings being razed to make way for the new skyscrapers that were cropping up all over the Big Apple, that she decided to remain in New York.

She supported herself for some years with portraiture, but she dreamed of documenting the modernization of New York in much the same manner Eugène Atget, a documentary photographer whose work Abbott had championed during her years in Paris, had captured a changing Paris decades earlier.

In 1935, the WPA supplied Abbott with money, a photographic assistant, and a team of nine research assistants. She spent the next four years documenting Depression-era New York.

These resulting images are remarkable in their ability to conjure an earlier time in the life of this most dynamic of cities, for showing modern-day New Yorkers and the city’s visitors just how much the city has changed in the ensuing 75 years. New York City not only doesn’t sleep, it refuses to sit still.

A few years ago, we did a bit of strictly amateur “after” photography to contrast with Abbott’s “before” shots, even as her photographs were an updating of what had come before. Stroll with us through these neighborhoods, all south of 23rd Street; treasure what remains from Abbott’s time and imagine what is still to come.

To view the then-and-now images side by side, just click the thumbnails below.

If you’re intrigued by the above, you’ll find much, much more of Berenice Abbott’s work here.

Times Square Tintypes: Helen Westley

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles American character actress, Helen Westley.
 

BELIEVE IT OR NOT

THERE‘s always a woman in the case. And the Theatre Guild has HELEN WESTLEY.
Her full name is Henrietta Remsen Meserole Westley. She comes from a clan of prim old Huguenots. Two streets in Brooklyn, Remsen and Meserole, are named after her ancestors.
Is downhearted because men look upon her in a motherly fashion.
For years her stage was the back room of Greenwich Village cafés and bookstores. She wandered in, strutted her stuff and wandered out—a will-o’-the-wisp. One evening a group of intellectuals planned to start a theater. This little elf entered and this time she didn’t leave. Today she’s a trade-mark.
Her passion is reading subtitles aloud. Talking pictures annoy her.
She believes in God and is a member of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Claims she is a good luck piece of the Guild. Must have a hand in everything they do. She played in both Strange Interlude and Faust the same evening. Merely left one play about the third act, hurried down the street with makeup on and went on in the other.
Her purse is large enough to pass as baggage at any hotel. It always contains a mess of bills, cosmetics, letters, keys, bric-a-brac and ashes.
Flowers, she thinks, are horrid. Her summer home, a shack at Croton, is surrounded by weeds.
Haunts second-hand stores. She detests breaking in new garments. Her shoes are one size too large. At present she is wearing a cane.
Likes to use big words in conversation. The listener generally doesn’t know what they mean.
She never gets peeved. Is always quaint.
Adores babies and makes special visits just to pinch their cheeks. She has a gentle pinch.
Went to Paris once. Drank milk of magnesia all the way over so she wouldn’t get seasick. Stayed eleven days and never went outside of Montmartre.
Envies Heywood Brown for his ability to dress better.
The only restaurant she ever liked was in Chicago. Raved about it for five months. Then arranged a supper party there. Paying the railroad fare of four guests. Arriving, she learned the restaurant had been closed by the Health Department.
Studies Yoga philosophy.
Belongs to over twenty freak societies. With the hope that some day one of them might amount to something.
Calls upon her friends without notice. And whenever the desire seizes her. Regardless of the time. Thinks nothing of returning a book at three in the morning.
She buys costumes from old Theatre Guild plays and uses them for street clothes.
Her most precious possession is a jade necklace. Whenever she gets another piece she adds it up to the necklace. It now hangs about her knees.
Before her daughter, Ethel Westley, was born she attended the Metropolitan Opera House and visited the art museums weekly so the child would be artistic.
She claims she was the first modern woman.
Traffic doesn’t bother her. When wishing to cross a congested avenue in a hurry she merely lets out a terrific shriek. People as well as autos stop.
She feels she should know more policemen.
Goes for long walks with a bottle of milk under her arm and feeds stray cats. While on these journeys she also buys liver for dogs. The delicatessen store near the Guild Theatre has a standing order to feed all stray cats and charge it to her milk fund.
Thinks the North was right in the civil war.
When her daughter was to be married the entire Theatre Guild acting asked her what Ethel would like for a wedding gift. She replied: “Ethel is very fond of coffee pots.” Ethel received thirty-eight coffee pots.
She groans when she walks up a flight of stairs.
She washes herself with oil.

Times Square Tintypes: George Gershwin

In this chapter from Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles George Gershwin, who then cast one of the longest shadows over Broadway.
By 1932, when this book was published, Gershwin had written most of the orchestral works that remain so celebrated today, including Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Piano Concerto in F (1925), An American in Paris (1928), and The Second Rhapsody (1931), and had experienced great success on Broadway with such shows as “Oh, Kay!” (1926), “Strike Up the Band” (1927), “Funny Face” (1927), “Girl Crazy” (1930), and “Of Thee I Sing” (1931).
 
 

“STRIKE UP THE BAND”

 
A man of note. George Gershwin.
He loves to go shopping. Is always buying presents for friends.
Suffers from indigestion. Every night before retiring he takes agar-agar, a new medicine.
Was born in Brooklyn, September 16, 1898, and came to this country at the age of six weeks. Has two brothers, Ira and Arthur, and one sister, Frances. As a youngster he was the champion roller skater of his neighborhood.
Smokes a cigar out of the side of his mouth and wears a high hat gracefully. He didn’t start to smoke until he was twenty.
His father, Morris, because of his unconscious humor, is the life of his Gershwin parties. Morris has been designer of fancy uppers for women’s shoes, owned several cigar stores, owned a billiard parlor, owned a Turkish bath place and was a bookie. Morris also entertains by imitating a trumpet.
Took his first piano lesson when he was thirteen. At sixteen he was working for Remick’s. His boyhood idols were Jerome Kern and irving Berlin.
The thing he values most is an autographed photograph of King George of England. It bears this inscription: “From George to George.”
He wrote his first song when he was fourteen. It was a nameless tango. His second composition (now he had learned to title them) was “Since I Found You.” It was never published. His first published song, “When You Want Them You Can’t Get Them And When You’ve Got Them You Don’t Want Them,” he sold to Harry Von Tilzer for five dollars.
Twice a week he visits an osteopath.
Hates cards. His favorite game is backgammon. Occasionally he shoot craps.
He once worked as relief pianist at Fox’s City Theatre. Was fired because an author complained that he didn’t know how to play the piano.
An English publisher sends him copies of rare and first edition of such authors as Galsworthy, Shaw and Barrie in return for an occasional song.
His first piano teacher, whose memory he cherished, was Charles Hambitzer. His present teacher is Mme. Boulanger in Paris. The first time he went to Paris to study he came back with a trunkful of shirts and ties. On his last trip he returned with a $10,000 organ which he has yet to unpack.
Hard liquor doesn’t appeal to him. He likes a glass of real beer. After more than one cocktail his eyes begin to shine.
The first long piece he ever wrote was not “The Rhapsody in Blue.” But one called “135th Street.” It was performed by Paul Whiteman in the Scandals of 1921 for one performance only. It was taken out because it was too sad.
He is very particular about his clothes which are made to order. Even when he made only $25 a week he spent $22 for a pair of shoes.
Writes whenever the mood seizes him. He may have just returned home after a party and still attired in his evening clothes he will sit down at the piano. Or he may compose wearing pajamas, or a bathrobe—or even nude.
He is physically very strong. Especially his arms which are powerful. He is a swell wrestler.
His brother Ira writes the lyrics for his songs. Before, Irving Caesar and Buddy De Sylva had the honor.
“The Rhapsody in Blue” was played for the first time, February 12, 1924, at Aeolian Hall. It took him three months to write it. It took him eight months to write “An American in Paris.” His first real popular hit was “Swanee.” This was written for the revue that opened the Capitol Theatre.
Is bashful about playing the piano at parties. He has to be coaxed. Once he starts, however, you can stop him. He says, “You see the trouble is, when I don’t play I don’t have a good time.”
In the volume called Great Composers As Children he is the only living composer listed.
One evening the family discussing the new Einstein paper. George expressed his surprise at the compactness of the scientific vocabulary. He said: “Imagine working for twenty years and putting your results into three pages?” “Well,” said Papa Gershwin, “It was probably very small print.”

Read More »