The Sidewalks of New York

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This Christmas my cousin Patti handed me this little book which had belonged I believe, to her grandfather, my great grandfather. Although Patti largely stays with my mom these days, she also has an ancestral home nearby which disgorges the occasional family tidbit. (Past Patti posts highlighting our history, some family photos and including a lovely pair of earrings – which incidentally I was wearing Christmas Day – can be found here and here.)

The back of this little missive declares that it was Compliments of Bowman Hotels. A quick search reveals that Bowman Hotels were part of the Biltmore-Bowman chain, Biltmore being a more recognizable name for me.

New York Biltmore Hotel, via an early postcard in the Columbia Library collection.

A Canadian by birth, John McEntee Bowman learned the hotel business working at Holland House in New York and in 1913 purchased his first Biltmore hotel ultimately building it into one of the most recognized hotel chains in the world. (However, it would appear John died in Manhattan, at the age of 56 after an unfortunate gallstone operation.)

Pams-Pictorama.com Collection.

Biltmore hotels, both a part of this empire and others which have evidently just taken the name, proliferate worldwide even today. I have fond memories of joining folks for drinks at the Biltmore in Santa Barbara, a beautiful spot overlooking the ocean, back in the in pre-pandemic years.

Historic photo of the interior of Biltmore Hotel NYC. For sale on eBay at the time of publication.

Among the Manhattan hotels at the time those would have been the Biltmore, Roosevelt and the Commodore. These all exist today in one form or another – evidently the only original piece of the Biltmore remaining is the clock made famous by J.D. Salinger and William Shawn who would meet there, creating the notion of meet me under the clock at the Biltmore.

Sadly it seems that the Roosevelt has fallen victim to the pandemic economy. For years I went to a monthly fundraising meeting held there, fairly intact in the early 90’s, and was only vaguely aware of its former storied grandeur. It was decidedly tatty then and underwent (at least one) renovation which in turn moved our meetings elsewhere. These hotels all had a choice proximity to Grand Central Station and the wider 42nd Street area making their real estate attractive even in the decades to come.

Pams-Pictorama.com Collection.

Twelve hotels existed in 1923, the year of copyright, and are listed at the beginning of the book. These ranged from Los Angeles to Havana and also included the still extant Westchester Biltmore Country Club, where I was also a guest once. The Atlanta outpost was noted as now building.

I don’t know if Mr. Bowman et al produced these complimentary books for all the cities this chain was eventually to reside in – if there are extant copies of The Sidewalks of Chicago for example, I was unable to find them. A few copies of this pocket-sized volume are available online with prices ranging widely from $19-$89. (The most expensive does have a sporty blue leather cover, most appear closer in appearance to mine.) Clearly folks held onto them as useful beyond their stay for their maps and other information.

Meanwhile, the Little Leather Library had a larger life of its own. Cheerful leather volumes of everything from Sherlock Holmes to Browning and Speeches and Addresses can be found in these editions. Special cases for your collection or perhaps sold as sets can be sourced online.

Boxed set of Little Leather Library. Not in Pams-Pictorama.com Collection.

To be clear, Sidewalks of New York, only portrays the sidewalks of Manhattan; it does not touch on the other four boroughs. The book is designed as a self walking tour of Manhattan, highlighting areas from the Financial District, Greenwich Village, the fashions of Fifth Avenue and the theatre district. It doesn’t go much further north, mixing some historic highlights with contemporary points of pleasure.

Pams-Pictorama.com Collection.

It was written by Bernardine Kielty (1890?-1973) who appears to have been a biographer of artists and historic figures (her biography of Marie Antoinette turns up repeatedly) but perhaps best know for editing a large compendium of short stories in 1947 in a volume that is still praised today. (I may have to read that if I can find a copy although they seem a bit dear.) Her papers were left to Columbia University and are notable for her correspondence with numerous other writers of the day ranging from Somerset Maugham to Isak Dinesen.

About Greenwich Village she writes probably the section of the city most anticipated. It has come to connote Bohemia, New York’s Latin Quarter, with cellars full of wild eating places; attics full of artists; Batik shops and radical book store; long haired men and determined-eyed women.

The map of Greenwich Village, understandably useful, is gently dogeared in my copy as below – although my image of my great grandfather in no way includes frequent trips to the Village and the need to find his way around.

Pams-Pictorama.com Collection.

In fact I am a bit fascinated by the idea of my great-grandfather having reason to stay at any of this luxury line of hotels (let alone have a need to find his way around Greenwich Village) and have to deeply suspect that the little book came to him another way. For a hard working Italian immigrant who owned first a deli at the Jersey shore, which later morphed into a bar and restaurant across the street, a stay at any of these hotels seems somewhat unlikely. (I have written about that side of my family in a post here.)

This book is well worn by some owner however, it’s cover cracked down the center from use, the spine bearing signs of time in a pocket, leather rubbed away. In the introduction Kielty writes, New York, to many people, is a Mecca. They come to the city, expectant and eager, convinced they are going to see life in its most vivid form…They conjure up pictures of theatrical contrast – of the magnificently rich and the piteously poor; and some of them wonder curiously about the quaint spots, those oases in the busy city life, where history peeps through. Despite all of our contemporary drama, still true today.

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