11 October 2012

Penthouse Serenade

"Just picture a penthouse way up in the sky  
With hinges on chimneys for stars to go by 
A sweet slice of Heaven for just you and I  
When we're alone
From all of society, we'll stay aloof 

And live in propriety there on the roof  
Two heavenly hermits we will be in truth  
When we're alone
We'll see life's mad pattern  

As we view old Manhattan 
Then we can thank our lucky stars 
 That we're living as we are
In our little penthouse, we'll always contrive  

To keep love and romance forever alive 
 In view of the Hudson just over the drive  
When we're alone"
 - Will Burton & Will Jason, music and lyrics,  1931, Famous Music, NYC.
Recorded by Ruth Etting, March 7, 1932, Columbia Music,  2630D (Matrix 152123),  NYC 


No other city brings to mind the glamour of the penthouse like New York City does.   Los Angeles was (and is) a sprawling town trying to maximize its suntan.  Paris is the city that has rules to prevent it from overshadowing its glorious self.     New York, like its people, stretches upward toward whatever is newer, brighter, higher.   A summer night somewhere near the corner of  East 42nd Street  and Lexington Avenue.  A woman stands  on the fire escape, wrapped in solitary  elegance, against a background of clotheslines in Martin Lewis's Glow of the Evening  (1929).  She gazes toward her architectural counterpart over a row of apartments: the Chanin Building, which opened just a few months before the stock market crash in 1929.

This is also a story of immigrants and people who were unafraid to leap about on tall buildings, even before the creation of Superman.   Ramon and Rosita,  a stunning dance team from Mexico City, dance a dance called the Southampton Hop on the roof of the Chanin Buidling, with the Art Deco spire of the Chrysler Building as their backdrop.  You can almost hear the lyrics of Penthouse Serenade as you look at the duo.  They were in New York to appear in the revue Midnight Follies at the Hotel Metropole in 1929. 

Joseph Spah, who performed under the name Ben Dova,  immigrated from Strasbourg, France. Known for his stunts (that's him teetering on the edge of the Chanin Building's roof in top hat and tails).  His greatest feat may have been his unplanned jump from the burning Hindenberg blimp in 1937.  He survived but, to his chagrin, broke his ankle in the process. 
The artist Martin Lewis traveled the farthest to get to New York City, arriving  at the age of nineteen from his native  Australia.  After years of working as a commercial illustrator, Lewis had his first solo exhibition of etchings in 1929.  Drypoint  is a difficult technique to handle but, in Lewis's hands, it loses none of its sharpness as he layers it with virtuoso displays of shadings.  I am not alone in preferring his night scenes for this reason.   Even the young boy walking by the shuttered factory in 1939 lives in  an urban wonderland, awash  in angles of light and shadow.  
As you have noticed by now, this is an East Side story.   The poem  From Third Avenue On (below)  by Djuna Barnes is determinedly unromantic.  Barnes, a reporter for several New York dailies, likely knew that the street had been used for practice marches by a ragtag voluntary infantry during the Civil War.  Her taste and her talent was for the unusual combination, the sharp contrast as in stairs and stars or prayers and swearing.  City lights are not natural and that is one of their attraction.

"And now she walks on out turned feet
Beside the litter in the street
Or rolls beneath a dirty sheet
Within the town.
She does not stir to doff her dress,
She does not kneel low to confess,
A little conscience, no distress
And settled down.
Ah God! she settles down we say;
It means her powers slip away
It means she draws back. day by day
From good or bad.
And so she looks upon the floor
Or listens at an open door
Or lies her down, upturned to snore
Both loud and sad.
Or sits besides the chinaware,
Sits mouthing meekly in a chair,
With over-curled, hard waving hair
Above her eyes.
Or grins too vacant into space—
A vacant space is in her face—
Where nothing came to take the place
Of high hard cries.

Or yet we hear her on the stairs
With some few elements of prayers,
Until she breaks it off and swears
A loved bad word.
Somewhere beneath her hurried curse,
A corpse lies bounding in a hearse;
And friends and relatives disperse,
And are not stirred.
Those living dead up in their rooms
Must note how partial are the tombs,
That take men back into their wombs
While theirs must fast.
And those who have their blooms in jars
No longer stare into the stars."
  - From Third Avenue On by Djuna Barnes from The Book of Repulsive Women, New York, Guido Bruno: 1915.

By 1931, Americans were officially Depressed, none more so than New Yorkers, whose city, the mecca for aspiring moderns, bore the dubious distinction of being the home of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929. Nearly half the theaters on Broadway had gone dark and the crash had accelerated a trend, already begun, of the exodus of the movie industry from New York and its environs, to Los Angeles.
In his book Celluloid Skyline (2001), James Sanders argues that absence only heightened the romance of Manhattan for filmmakers and film-goers alike. As for 1931, it was the year that Charlie Chaplin's City Lights was released and even the usually optimistic Frank Capra struck an unusually dark note in his comedy Platinum Blonde, whose plot - society dame is wooed and won by brash newspaper reporter - will be familiar to fans of Capra's 1934 classic, It Happened One Night.

1. Martin Lewis - Glow Of The Evening, 1929, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca. 
2. Martin Lewis - East Side Night, 1928, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca.
3. unidentified photographer - Ramon & Rosita Dance the Southampton Atop The Chanin Building, ca. 1929, Bettman Archive, NYC.
4. unidentified cinematographer, Ben Dova on the roof of the Chanin Building, 1933, British Pathe, London.
5. Martin Lewis - Little :Penthouse, 1931, British Museum, London. 
6, Martin Lewis - Shadow Magic, 1939, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca. 

You may also be interested in Djuna Barnes: Some Hard Captious Star, posted here August 23, 2011 and
The Book Of Repulsive Women, posted here March 17, 2010.


Unknown said...

that was a really wonderful insight. very well written too; enjoyed thoroughly! =]


John said...

Martin Lewis was a wonderful artist, and his night scenes are visual poetry of the highest order. Joseph Pennell was celebrated for his prints of New York, but Lewis’s perspective I think is at once more intimate and more captivating.

Art said...

Oh! Love the photo of the dancers on the rooftop!

Jane said...

Drew, it was the Chanin Building that did it. It was like a grain of sand in my shoe - an irritant that got me thinking. Glad you liked this.

Jane said...

John, I share your enthusiasm for Martin Lewis. Once you see his images, it influences the way you see New York, I think.

Jane said...

Art, your comment made me realize that Louis Malle also used this type of camera angle for the Eiffel Tower scenes in "Zazie dans le Metro."