First, the anthology apology. I have not read every diary written by New Yorkers or those written about New York. There are thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, and most have never been published or made available to archives. Some, no doubt, are locked in attics or safes. Some were lost at sea; others burned. Some were destroyed by their creators for fear of discovery. I can only assure the reader that I’ve made a rigorous survey of the discoverable.
What you will find here is an unorthodox history covering roughly four centuries of the New York experience. The criterion for selection was simple. I chose these entries because I liked them. They moved me, fascinated me, made me angry, made me laugh, invited tears, or simply satisfied my curiosity. They also serve a more vital purpose, and that is to transform the New York of postcards, the gray, still abstraction of granite, the denatured Gotham of science fiction, into a living city. And so in this spirit, they provide the kind of detail of daily life that so delights the armchair anthropologist.
A baked apple from Schrafft’s. The contents of Tiffany’s knicknackory. Mario Cuomo’s turtle story. Oysters the size of “cheeseplates.” Thomas Edison’s sexual fantasies. The diarists you are about to read are skillful observers who offer an intimate memoir of lives and deaths set against a dynamic interplay of elements– “a violent orgy of lights,” writes Albert Camus of one New York night. The city is never gray and never still. Lovers of diaries, please enjoy. —Teresa Carpenter, editor, New York Diaries
January 1, 1953
A blissful moment alone with Julian Beck in the apartment, drinking to the year with wordless laughter. Then four friends arrived: Jerry Newman and John Clellon Holmes, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and we drank port and got high on gage.
Holmes is the author of Go, a novel now popular among the vipers [potheads], and he it was who wrote that New York Times Magazine oddity, “The Beat Generation.” Jack Kerouac, who he credits with inventing the phrase, is a novelist who was a contemporary of Julian’s at Horace Mann. He was the football champ who surprised everyone by winning scholastic honors. Kerouc is a hero, a free-flowing spirit. He can’t do anything except display his talent. Sadonic and handsome to a fault, he became raucous, drunk and incoherent as the night wore on to morning. But a hero on a binge is still a hero.
—Judith Malina, who married Julian Beck, a modern expressionist painter; they cofounded the Living Theater and were pioneers of experimental drama.
January 3, 1880
After breakfast took Alice out to drive in the Park.
—Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States
January 26, 1838
My wife, daughter Margaret, Jones and I dined with Mr. & Mrs. Olmstead. The dinner was quite à la francaise. The table, covered with confectionery and gew-gaws, looked like one of the shops down Broadway in the Christmas holidays, but not an eatable thing. The dishes were all handed around, in my opinion, in a most unsatisfactory mode of proceeding in relation to this important part of the business of man’s life. One does not know how to choose, because you are ignorant of what is coming next, or whether anything more is coming. Your conversation is interrupted every minute by greasy dishes thrust between your head and that of your next neighbor, and it is more expensive than the old mode of shewing [sic] a handsome dinner to your guests and leaving them free to choose. It will not do. This French influence must be resisted. Give us the nice French dishes, fricandeau de veau, perdrix au choux, and cotelettes a la province but let us see what we are to have.
—Philip Hone, a New Yorker of humble origins who served as mayor for one year in 1825
February 3, 1947
I’m happy to be escorted this evening to the Savoy by Richard Wright; I’ll feel less suspect. He comes to fetch me at the hotel, and I observe that in the lobby he attracts untoward notice. If he asked for a room here, he would surely be refused. We go eat in a Chinese restaurant because it’s very likely that they wouldn’t serve us in the uptown restaurants. Wright lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, a white woman from Brooklyn, and she tells me that every day when she walks in the neighborhood with her little girl, she hears the most unpleasant comments….
The Savory is a large American dance hall, nothing exotic. Wright puts a bottle of whiskey on the table. They don’t sell whiskey here, but the customer has the right to bring his own. We order sodas; we drink and look around. Not a white face…Most of the women are young. They wear simple skirts and little pullovers, but their high-heeled shoes are sometimes bizarre. The light or dark tint of their skin dresses their bare legs better than nylon stockings. Many are pretty, but they all seem especially lively. What a difference from the strained coldness of white American women. They dance simply and quite naturally; you need perfect inner relaxation to allow yourself to be so utterly possessed by the music and rhythms of jazz. It’s this relaxation that also allows dreaming, feeling, loafing, and laughing of the sort that’s unfamiliar to most white Americans.
I listen to the jazz, watch the dancing, and drink whiskey; I am beginning to like whiskey. I feel good. The Savoy is the biggest dance hall in New York, the biggest in the world: something in this statement is soothing to the spirit. And this jazz is perhaps the best in the world; in any case, there’s no other place where it can more fully express its truth.
—Simone de Beauvoir, feminist philosopher
February 7, 1955
After lunch, and how I hated giving up time for lunch. So many ideas I had while I bolted my food, and so many of them must be lost.
—Norman Mailer, American novelist
May 9, 1971
I rang Marlene [Dietrich]’s bell, and soon she opened her door—cautiously—a small, not awake, very, very old person—so old that the creature was sexless—bleary blue eyes, straight line for a mouth. “Oh, who? What? …” She had obviously forgotten that she’d asked me to lunch. She was plastered—ancient and plastered and very small. I gathered her in my arms. She, fragile, relaxed gratefully. I saw that her hair was thin to baldness on top. And when I held her at arm’s length and saw her legs—they were ugly, veins knotted. But somehow, deep within this wreck where not one glimmer of her beauty was visible, the young girl peeped out… She finally pulled herself together and swiftly cooked a hamburger, made a salad, peas, mashed potatoes… Thinking of Marlene exhausts me… We ate in the kitchen, where a wig block, with Marlene’s hair upon it, led an active life of its own. “They go their way,” she said, poking at the tight blond curls. I could see the future thousands, viewing this Blonde Venus apparition, “Isn’t she marvelous!” She is. Her restorative powers are tremendous.
—Leo Lerman, Condé Nast editor and esthete
July 7, 1952
Tolstoi’s journal. He warns of the weakening of the self by “even such innocent means” as cigarettes and wine. I read this as I waken from my darling hashish sleep. The hashish makes me ravenously hungry. The hunger is impractical as there is no money.
August 2, 1948
And now, despite all, or perhaps because of all, of course, to finish the work of the novel once and for all. Got a letter from Neal, had an urge to answer right away, but would end up losing a day’s work on a fresh-beginning Monday, so will wait. Worked, slept, walked, worked grudgingly—then, in the middle of the night, wonderful interlude for myself—spaghetti with the blood-red sauce and meatballs, Parmesan, grated cheddar, chicken cuts, with red Italian wine and chocolate ice cream, black demitasse coffee; and a 28-cent Corona cigar; and the life of Goethe (and loves)—all in the kitchen. And I never planned this, I just did it. Then I went back to work at 2 a.m. Spent night correcting 50 pages of ancient manuscript and rewriting parts, now a 30-page chapter, to be typed. Went to bed at 7 a.m.
–Jack Kerouac, beat poet whose “mood diaries” tracked his creative process and life in New York
August 14, 1945
Peace. At last—everyone going mad with joy. 7 p.m. Truman had surrender of Japs announced & the din was terrific—horns, bells, whistles, etc. Sailors kissing girls & almost broke their backs! Drove down B’way honking horn—fun—confetti paper all over. Mr. Gans had whiskey party in the lobby & then for hamburgers!
–Sara Hoexter Blumenthal, a young Jewish woman from a well-to-do German family
September 20, 1863
Saturday last the Judge went to a clambake at Manhattanville, a singular kind of entertainment. The clambake is indigenous, I think, to this country…. A large hole was dug in the ground and it was filled with large stones. A fire was built in it until the stones were heated red hot, and then a large quantity of seaweed was thrown in, upon which was placed clams, lobsters, chickens, sweet potatoes, potatoes, oysters, ducks, geese, etc., with pans in which were butter, salt, peppers, and lemon to be mulled into sauce. This was then covered over with seaweed and a tarpaulin….. These different articles were distributed in tin basins, and the Judge says everything was admirably cooked. It is an Indian practice.
—Maria Lydig Daly, a patrician who, over her family’s strong objections, married the son of Irish immigrants
October 20, 1844
I moved into Mrs. Elwells [sic] rooms with Hurlbut on Wedsday [sic] last, front rooms are appropriated to me, the back ones to him. I pay $5 per week for which I am to have breakfast and tea added to my room. The misfortune I find is that Mrs. Elwell knows nothing of cooking, cant [sic] make a warm biscuit, nor boil an egg. I shall take my meals I think at Cowings after tomorrow.
—John Bigelow, author, editor, and diplomat
December 7, 1847
St. Nicholas Society dinner last night. Instead of sitting down at five, it was half past six before feeding commenced, and as I’d been ass enough to omit my usual dinner, my gastric juice was by that time eating up the coats of my stomach and I was in that disgusting state of faint, weak, headachy misery to which a postponement of pabulum always reduces me, for dinner deferred maketh the stomach sick. And then sitting down with an omnivorous appetite and filling myself up with 1. Oysters, 2. Soup, 3. Fish, 4. Turkey, 5. Venison, 6. Canvasback duck, 7. Miscellaneous trifles, the enumeration of which under 17 several subdivisions I omit for the present, this promiscuous kind of abundant pasture, moistened by a little hock and a little champagne and a tolerable sufficiency of sherry and a few sips of vitriolic Schiedam—all this swinery or hoggishness, or whatever it may be called, gave me a shocking sick headache, which I deserved.
—George Templeton Strong, lawyer from a privileged New York family
December 10, 1849
On the corner of Broadway and Ninth Street is a chocolate store kept by Felix Effray, and I love to stand at the window and watch the wheel go round. It has three white stone rollers and they grind the chocolate into paste all day long. Down Broadway, below Eighth Street, is Dean’s candy store, and they make molasses candy that is the best in the city. Sometimes we go down to Wild’s, that is way down near Spring Street, to get his iceland moss drops, good for colds.
—Catherine Elizabeth Havens, 10-year-old heiress from a wealthy American shipping family
December 31, 1909
Ullmans came after dinner and took us to see Maude Adams in “What Every Woman Knows” by J.M. Barrie. This I enjoyed quite well. Miss Adams is overly cute and too conscious of the humor of her part in relation to her stupid husband. We did not mix in the crowd of New Year’s Eve celebrators but came home and got a pitcher of chop suey from the Chinese restaurant and at 12 o’clock began the New Year on tea and Chinese lunch.
—John Sloan, cartoonist and illustrator who ran with the Village Bohemian circle during the early 20th century