Manhattan in Middle Age
by ELIZABETH GUMPORT
New York is a city that looks better from a distance. The gap can be temporal – the poverty of youth becomes, in time, one’s golden freedom – or spatial. A friend from Chicago complained that Manhattan lacked alleyways: in the summer, our garbage stunk and burned on the sidewalks. On the Brooklyn Bridge, the smell disappears, and all you can see are buildings massed at the edge of the island, the offices crowned with lights, glowing like bottles in a dark bar. The boundaries of other cities blur – at what point do the sprawling lights become suburb? – but Manhattan is an island, cut cleanly against the night. As pure image, New York is flawless: tidy, discrete, simple to hold in your mind, and for this reason particularly easy to romanticize. Emblem, icon, colophon: its skyline stands for a story.
It is this fantasy that makes the reality bearable. “There is really only one city for everyone, just as there is one major love” the novelist Dawn Powell wrote in 1953. “New York is my city because I have an investment I can always draw on – a bottomless investment of twenty-one years (I count the day I was born) of building up an idea of New York – so no matters what happens here I have the rock of my dreams of it that nothing can destroy.”
Born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, Powell arrived in New York in 1918. The city was the largest in the Western Hemisphere: 2.3 million people lived in Manhattan alone. Her life sounds like the life of many new arrivals: she moved frequently, first renting on West 85th Street, and then West End Avenue, and finally a series of apartments in Greenwich Village. For a time she worked as a typist; once she appeared as an extra in a film. Before she became a novelist, she freelanced: American Agriculturalist, Southern Ruralist, Oil and Gas Journal, a piece on “Pekinese poodles” for Dogdom. She went through a phase of screaming in her sleep.
In 1920, Powell and Joseph Gousha took the ferry to Staten Island for their first date. That November, after addressing a brief letter to her aunt – “please come and give me away next Saturday” – she married Gousha at the Church of Transfiguration, known as the Little Church Around the Corner, on East 29th Street. In the following years, Powell would give birth to an autistic son, who once beat her so hard she had to be hospitalized. Powell drank a lot, Gousha drank more, and they were almost always broke or near-broke.
In Powell’s New York novels, scenes and images accumulate; parties propel, or stand in for, plot. Restaurants and cafes figure prominently in many of her novels; Café Julien, which serves as the hub of The Wicked Pavilion, was inspired by Powell’s beloved Hotel Lafayette, on Washington Square between University Place and Ninth Street. The hotel was demolished in 1950 and replaced with apartments.
Powell’s novels feature artists and editors, writers and failed writers, the “quartette of midnight friends (male) who would not know each other by day but view everybody’s business (particularly their catastrophes) with a philosophic pleasure” and the “completely New York people” who “only remember you when you’ve gone into your fourth printing.” Her subject is the man who believes, or once believed, that “New York loved him as it loved no other young man.”
“… spangled skyscrapers piled up softly against the darkness, tinseled parks were neatly boxed and ribboned with gold like Christmas presents waiting to be opened. Sounds of traffic dissolved in distance, all clangor sifted through space into a whispering silence, it held a secret, and when letters flamed triumphantly in the sky you felt, ah, that was the secret, this at last was it, this special telegram to God—Sunshine Biscuits. On and off it went, Eat Sunshine Biscuits, the message of the city.”
In many ways Powell’s life was what one imagines the life of an author to be, at once glamorous and sordid: drinks and debts, famous acquaintances (Edmund Wilson was one, Hemingway another), pithy asides (“I don’t make beds,” Powell said. “I break them.”), and perpetual professional dissatisfaction. Over the years, she bounced from publisher to publisher. For a time she worked with Maxwell Perkins, after whom she named her cat.
Powell saw herself as a descendent of Edith Wharton, and her novels as Menippean satires, but believed their subject matter caused critics to dismiss them as frivolous. “This is obviously an age that can’t take it,” Powell complained. "When someone wishes to write of this age—as I do and have done—critics shy off—the public shies off." No subject is in itself serious or unserious: whether something is drama and comedy depends not on the events of the plot but the attitude of the author.
“Thirty is really the most important age for women. . . They have to be started towards fame or a family by that time, and if they’re not, they’re done for. So you see it’s very necessary that I should crowd the next few years.” Powell often lied about her age.
People think New York changes, but it never does. It doesn’t matter whether the year is 1919 or 2009: the city has always been too expensive and too vicious. A letter Powell wrote to a college friend shortly after her arrival in New York touched on what would become the central themes of her novels. “Beauty,” she stated, “is after all the only thing in the world that matters—not mental or spiritual beauty or any of that lying rot, but splendid physical beauty. . . Let us not mention money—it is so obvious that it is money that makes beauty possible, so that very likely money is the only thing that matters more than beauty.”
What is true is not always nice, and it is true that happiness begets happiness. People who luck into money or beauty find more of it, and more; its early absence only makes its later arrival more unlikely. Money burns, youth melts away, and the failure of one person makes possible the success of another: in Turn, Magic Wheel, a young author uses his friend’s failed marriage to a Hemingway-like figure as fodder for his novel. To survive here, you must protect yourself: “I will be absolutely free,” Powell wrote when a long-term affair ended. “No affections can touch me.” The city demands a novel as hard as itself: “Nothing will cut New York but a diamond.”
Powell’s novels are like New York parties, where familiar faces – ravaged by alcohol, the hour good for going home having long past them by – appear again and again. A number of characters who figure or are mentioned in Turn, Magic Wheel return for A Time To Be Born, set in the early days of World War II.
“Drink,” muses one, “seemed the only protection against the lacerations of his mind, now that he was back in New York, his foot rocking away once more on the touted ladder of success. At this time the famous ladder was propped against nothing and led nowhere, and anyone foolish enough to make the world his oyster was courting ptomaine; yet the ladder tradition was still observed, and until the flames reached them young people were still found going through the motions of climbing.” Later, he tells another character, "Youth is all I demand of a woman."
A title Powell considered but never used: Promiscuity Recollected In Senility
The city that unduly privileges youth also extends it. Powell called Manhattan “the town for middle age. Elsewhere, middle age is surrounded by its grandchildren or young and chaperoned into discretion.” We become addicted to our endless childhoods. Trying to leave proves futile: if New York is bad, everywhere else is worse.
On a trip home to Ohio, Powell found in Cleveland “private homes as big as our public libraries, the beautiful country clubs, the glorification of material conveniences, the vast invincible Magazine Public that in New York we can thank God forget. . . I caught the language again quickly and the familiar combination of open hearts and closed minds that represents so much of the country except New York, where we have closed hearts first, and minds so open that carrier pigeons can fly straight through without leaving a message.”
While working at the MacDowell Colony, Powell learned Edward MacDowell had gone mad on the estate, and wondered if his wife “started this place after his death to see how many other artists would be driven nuts by it, too.”
Once you get out of the game, it’s hard to get back in, and for some people this is reason not to play at all. Even those like Powell, who love the hustle, or are addicted to it, know a world exists across the river. Powell always retained an image of herself as outsider.
In the autobiographical short story “What Are You Doing In My Dreams?” she envisioned a split self, half of which lived by day in New York and “the other half by night with the dead in long-ago Ohio.” Edmund Wilson described Powell’s real theme as “the provincial in New York who has come on from the Middle West and acclimatized himself (or herself) to the city and made himself a permanent place there, without ever, however, losing his fascinated sense of an alien and anarchic society.”
Located to the north of the Bronx in Long Island Sound, Hart Island – accessible, like Staten Island, only by ferry – has served since 1869 the home of New York Cemetery, the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. New York Cemetery is a potter’s field, and each year inmates from Riker’s Island inter over a thousand bodies in its mass graves. When the executor of her estate declined to claim her remains, Powell was buried on Hart Island.
She was lucky: those of us raised in New York have no other half, no dream-island to fall back on when the real city disappoints. We are all New York, and it is the rest of the world that seems unreal. Failure here means failure in full; a life lived elsewhere would be less than a life.
In the end, of course, it hardly matters. Nobody wins the game: youth is all anybody demands of a woman, and we are not so long young. The best we can hope for is to die and be buried in New York.
Elizabeth Gumport is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer from New York City. This is her first appearance in these pages.