Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group
Author Daniel J. Wakin discussed his new book with a sold-out BNHG presentation on January 18, 2018 at the Hostel International-New York. Below is an excerpt from his talk:
My book, The Man With the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block, tells the stories of the remarkable people who lived in seven townhouses on Riverside Drive over the past 115 years. The buildings were built right around the beginning of the 20th century, and it’s no surprise that most of the residents with the big biographies in those early years were men — a fashion magazine mogul, a path-breaking scientist, a Goodyear Tire executive, an entrepreneurial dentist, a baking powder magnate.
But what was surprising were the women, several extraordinary women, who made their mark on American culture. Let me mention two in particular: Julia Marlowe and Marion Davies.
Marlowe, who was born in 1866, was hellbent on a stage career. After coming to New York like so many other aspiring actors in the history of this town, Marlowe built her reputation through the 1880s and 1890s. But in 1901, she scored a major success, a coup big enough to give her financial security — and the wherewithal to buy 337 Riverside Drive. It came from the romantic potboiler “When Knighthood Was In Flower,” a stage adaptation of a novel about Mary Tudor — the sister of King Henry VIII — and her love for a commoner. Marlowe, naturally, played Mary. She also directed. “The play was bringing within my grasp all I had longed for through so many hard-working years,” she wrote in an as-told-to autobiography. “Freedom, independence, the right to choose without restraint.” This was, of course, well before women had the right to vote in this country.
A generation later, another actress was living on the block, or better maybe to call her an actress undergoing invention: Marion Davies. Davies was the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, who bought 331 Riverside for her and spent a fortune remodeling it. It was part of his effort to make Davies, a former chorus girl, a respectable actor. He produced her movies, guided her career and ordered up positive reviews in his newspapers. While Davies was a gifted comedienne, Hearst wanted her to be a star of epics and high-toned romances. And she actually won some recognition for that kind of a role in a well-reviewed 1922 movie. The title? “When Knighthood was in Flower.” It was the film version. So two different actors living on this tiny strip of Riverside Drive played the same character just 20 years apart. For one, it spelled independence. For the other, it was just another way of being maintained as a mistress. But that is not giving Davies her due. She remained Hearst’s companion until he died, lived in luxury and forged a real Hollywood career for herself. It was her choice.
Another woman on the block, Lucretia Davis, became mistress of 330 Riverside Drive on the death of her father, Robert B. Davis — the founder of Davis Baking Powder, and the granular source of her fortune. Davis and his wife Jennie were locked in a brutal divorce in 1910, a highly publicized case in which Jennie was made out to be the villain — although her letters paint a different picture. Part of the melodrama in the newspapers suggested that Jennie threatened that if Davis did not come up with more monthly support, little Lucretia would have to — God forbid! — go on the stage to earn a living. “You will be responsible if she falls into the many pitfalls of that career and becomes a low woman,” Jennie supposedly wrote him. That’s a third perspective on the stage.
In another oddity, Lucretia Davis and Julia Marlowe, these two very different neighbors, shared a spread in The New York Times. In the edition of Jan. 13, 1907, Marlowe’s picture is grouped with other theater luminaries, opposite the portraits of “Some Well Known Society Folk” on the facing page. They included, you guessed it, Lucretia Davis.