Great Writers and the Greenwich Village Historic District
The Greenwich Village Historic District has been home, over the years, to countless writers, authors, poets and other literati. Known as an area for artists, the writers who worked in the Greenwich Village Historic District held salons and other gatherings of their peers in the neighborhood, making the area famous no only for the writers who lived there, but for their communities which produced whole literary movements beyond the individual works each writer produced. Hop in for a west-to-east tour of sites of the GVHD literati, from Mark Twain to Lorraine Hansberry.
121 Charles Street – Margaret Wise Brown’s Writing Studio
This most unusual home is also known as Cobble Court; before the house was moved to Charles Street in 1967, it was located at 1335 York Avenue on the Upper East Side. From 1942 until her death in 1952, Margaret Wise Brown – the best-selling children’s book author of The Runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon, and other stories – used this “Cobble Court” house (since enlarged) as her writing studio. On March 5, 1967, facing demolition, the Cobble Court house was moved to its present-day lot at 121 Charles Street in Greenwich Village, and, in 2000, was expanded in size. At the time, it was located at 1335 York Avenue, near the Upper East Side residence that she shared with her partner, socialite Blanche Oelrichs, who went by her pen name, Michael Strange. Brown is credited with popularizing the picture book and helping to reimagine children’s literature by centering stories on a child’s reality rather than on fairy tales.
75 ½ Barrow Street – Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay lived in “the narrowest house in the Village,” 75 1/2 Bedford Street. The GVHD designation report writes of Millay: “Gentle poet, her loving nature made itself felt to her generation, enriching their lives through its beauty.” Her house, a three-story building with an unusual stepped gable, is reminiscent of the Dutch tradition. Edna St. Vincent Millay lived here from 1923 to 1924. According to the Millay Society, “In the immediate post-World War I era, Millay emerged as a major figure in the cultural life of Greenwich Village, when the Village served as an incubator of every important American literary, artistic, and political movement of the period. As part of this milieu, Millay’s work and life came to represent the modern, liberated woman of the Jazz age, free of the restrictions of the past…” View historic photos from of the house from our historic image archive here.
87 Christopher Street – H.M. Koutoukas
From c. 1960 to 2010, absurdist playwright H.M. “Harry” Koutoukas lived in this apartment building. While here, he contributed to the burgeoning Off-Off-Broadway theater movement in the 1960s through his award-winning work at downtown venues, such as the Caffe Cino and La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. According to the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, “As with other Off-Off-Broadway pioneers who rejected the theater establishment, Koutoukas fully embraced the creative and experimental opportunities that the relaxed attitudes, intimate spaces, and limited finances of unconventional downtown venues nurtured. He wrote at least 52 plays over his career, based on a compilation by Cino historian Magie Dominic, and took part in more than 150 productions.”
309 Bleecker Street and 59 Grove Street – Thomas Paine
One of the early literary celebrities who lived in The Village was Thomas Paine (1737-1809), author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man. Common Sense (1776) was an early call for the independence of the American colonies from Britain. Widely distributed with more than 500,000 copies sold, the pamphlet has a big influence on the Declaration of Independence. Another sign of the pamphlet’s great influence was the hugely negative Loyalist reaction to Common Sense. The Rights of Man (1791), was a reply to Burke’s critique of the French Revolution. Although he was a best-selling author in the 1770s, by the time of his death in the early 19th century Paine was largely forgotten in America. He was often referred to as “The Infidel” and was not understood by many of the petty bourgeois who surrounded him. Paine first lived in Greenwich Village in a house at 309 Bleecker Street, which was demolished in 1930. He later moved into a house at 59 Grove Street, where he died on June 8, 1809. That house also no longer stands, but a plaque on the existing house marks Paine’s residence there, as does the century-old bar located in the building, known as ‘Marie’s Crisis,’ partly in tribute to Paine.
#4 Patchin Place – e. e. cummings
The poet e. e. cummings lived at No. 4 Patchin Place for four decades, until his death in 1962. Patchin Place was a cul-de-sac of small workingmen’s houses off of West 10th Street between Sixth and Greenwich Avenues, across from the Jefferson Market Courthouse (now the Jefferson Market Library). It was during his years on Patchin Place that cummings was his most prolific. While clearly the Village was a source of inspiration for cummings, as it was for so many in those years of the early and mid-20th century, the Village actually only makes very few explicit appearances in his poetry.
John Reed, the radical journalist and author of Ten Days That Shook the World, also lived at Patchin Place in the years just before he died in 1920 (and he was a friend and frequent attendee of Mabel Dodge’s salon, see more below!).
Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place – Edgar Allan Poe
Probably the most romantic and tragic figure in the American literary world of the first half of the Nineteenth Century was Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). In February of 1837 Poe arrived in New York and took up his residence at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place with his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Clemm. They did not have an auspicious start to their time in the Village, though Poe was another of Ann Charlotte Lynch Botta’s salon attendees (see below), and met her at this time. By the spring of that year they had already moved to 113-1/2 Carmine Street (just south of the district, though it was included in the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II, which was designated in 2009). On Carmine Street, Poe wrote The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Gold Bug. This house was located across the street from St. John’s Graveyard, a melancholy setting, which must have appealed to his romantic nature. Another move, to West Third Street, produced The Raven and brought to its author the fame he deserved. In April of 1846 Poe moved away from Greenwich Village for the last time.
112 Waverly Place and 337 Bleecker Street – Lorraine Hansberry
Trailblazing playwright, author, and activist Lorraine Hansberry’s first apartment in the Village was at 337 Bleecker Street (above what is now a hat shop), where she lived from 1953 to 1960. After that, with the success of her award-winning Broadway play, Raisin in the Sun, she bought and moved to 112 Waverly Place. GVSHP unveiled a historic plaque at 112 Waverly Place in celebration of Hansberry’s time there (you can learn more about our historic plaque program here). According to the LGBT Historic Sites Project, “Hansberry lived parallel lives: one as the celebrated playwright of A Raisin in the Sun, the first play by a black woman to appear on Broadway, and the other, as a woman who privately explored her homosexuality through her writing, relationships, and social circle.”
116 Waverly Place – Ann Charlotte Lynch (Botta)
Ann Charlotte Lynch (Botta) was an American poet, writer, teacher, and socialite whose home was the central gathering place of the literary elite of her era. Arriving in the Village in 1845, Ann took up residence at No. 116 Waverly Place, and established one of those notable literary salons which brought together many writers including Edgar Allan Poe, William Cullen Bryant, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Horace Greeley, Margaret Fuller, R. H. Stoddard, and Bayard Taylor. Another notable salon which attracted many Village writers was that of the talented but retiring magazine editor, Evert Augustus Duyckinck, at No. 20 Clinton Place (just outside the historic district). Richard Watson Gilder, editor of the Century magazine was another host who gathered about him many of the foremost literary and artistic figures of the day. He lived at No. 13 East Eighth Street in the 1880s, in a house which is no longer standing.
12 West 9th Street – Henry Jarvis Raymond
Henry Jarvis Raymond, founder and first editor of the New York Times and first editor of Harper’s Magazine, lived at No. 12 from 1860 to 1867. A leading Whig and Republican, he served New York as Speaker of the State Assembly, then as Lieutenant Governor, and finally as Congressman (1865- 67), at which time he was National Chairman of the Republican Party. Raymond “had occasion more than once to display not only moral but physical courage in defense of his principles,” wrote Elmer Davis, in History of The New York Times. “As a reporter and editorial writer he was remarkably gifted; his writing was rapid, his style clear; a rare virtue in those times, his copy was legible.”
(Check out our blog series “They Dwelt on 9th Street” for more of the brilliant figures whose lives and work graced this literary street, including author and philosopher Maurice Sendak and the poet and baseball enthusiast Marianne Moore.)
21 Fifth Avenue – Mark Twain
Mark Twain also lived in The Village in the so-called “Mark Twain House” at 21 Fifth Avenue. A prolific writer who often chose the American scene as his theme, he was equally renowned as a raconteur and public speaker and was constantly in demand as an outstanding leader in the literary world. Twain moved to the Village in 1900 and spent the rest of his life as a New Yorker. Twain – the pseudonym used by Samuel Langhorne Clemens — acquired international fame for his travel narratives, especially The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), and Life on the Mississippi (1883), and for his adventure stories of boyhood, especially The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).
23 Fifth Avenue – Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Bohemian Literary Salons
In the second decade of the twentieth century, Mabel Dodge was known internationally as the “New Woman,” a liberated radical whose wealth enabled her to be a patron of artists, writers, philosophers, and reformers who defined the avant-garde. During her time in Europe, Mabel created a new Renaissance salon to entertain the leading cultural elite. Among her guests were Gertrude and Leo Stein, Alice B. Toklas, André Gide, James Joyce, painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rubinstein, and American art historian Bernard Berenson. In 1912, Mabel moved to New York City and created a salon at 23 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village for “movers and shakers” who challenged bourgeois morals and inextricably altered life in America. Among the many cultural change agents who gathered there were writer/reporter Walter Lippmann, Harlem Renaissance writer/photographer Carl Van Vechten, and muck-racking journalist Lincoln Steffens.
#18 West 10th Street – Emma Lazarus
In 1883 the Lazarus family moved to 18 West 10th Street, a beautiful Italianate-style home (pictured above) which is featured on GVSHP’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map. It was in 1883 that Lazarus was asked to write a poem about the Statue of Liberty. “The New Colossus” made Lazarus famous around the world with her lines “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Lazarus, who’s been called a reclusive spinster, was a lifelong Villager, descended from some of the first Jewish Portuguese immigrants to the New World. She began writing poetry when she was 11 years old, and as an adult she was broadly published, writing volumes of poetry and translations, and joining the world of writers, corresponding regularly with poets and writers of the time including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James (whose home on Washington Place was just east of the Greenwich Village Historic District).
To find out more about the Greenwich Village Historic District’s 50th anniversary, its history, and celebrations, go to www.gvshp.org/GVHD50.