Up in the Old Hotel (Vintage Classics)

BOOK: Up in the Old Hotel (Vintage Classics)
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About the Book

About the Author


Title Page

Introduction by William Fiennes



The Old House at Home


Hit on the Head with a Cow

Professor Sea Gull

A Spism and a Spasm

Lady Olga

Evening with a Gifted Child

A Sporting Man

The Cave Dwellers

King of the Gypsies

The Gypsy Women

The Deaf-Mutes Club

Santa Claus Smith

The Don’t-Swear Man

Obituary of a Gin Mill

Houdini’s Picnic

The Mohawks in High Steel

All You Can Hold for Five Bucks

A Mess of Clams

The Same as Monkey Glands


Goodbye, Shirley Temple

On the Wagon

The Kind Old Blonde

I Couldn’t Dope It Out


The Downfall of Fascism in Black Ankle County

I Blame It All on Mamma

Uncle Dockery and the Independent Bull


Old Mr Flood

The Black Clams

Mr Flood’s Party


Up in the Old Hotel

The Bottom of the Harbor

The Rats on the Waterfront

Mr Hunter’s Grave

Dragger Captain

The Rivermen


Author’s Note


About the Book

Mitchell is the laureate of old New York. The hidden corners of the city and the people who lived there are his subject. He captured the waterfront rooming-houses, nickel-a-drink saloons, all-night restaurants, the ‘visionaries, obsessives, imposters, fanatics, lost souls, the end-is-near street preachers, old Gypsy Kings and old Gypsy Queens, and out-and-out freak-show freaks.’ Mitchell’s trademark curiosity, respect and graveyard humour fuel these magical essays.

Written between 1943 and 1965,
Up in the Old Hotel
is the complete collection of Joseph Mitchell’s
New Yorker
journalism and includes
McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr Flood, The Bottom of the Harbour
Joe Gould’s Secret

About the Author

Joseph Mitchell was born near Iona, North Carolina, in 1908, and came to New York City when he was twenty-one years old. He arrived at Pennsylvania Station on Friday, October 25, the day after the stock-market crash that is generally considered to have been the beginning of the Great Depression. He eventually found a job as an apprentice crime reporter for
The World
. He also worked as a reporter and feature writer at
The Herald Tribune
The World-Telegram
before landing at the
New Yorker
in 1938. Mitchell’s ‘Profiles’ and ‘Reporter at Large’ articles are among the best the magazine has ever published. His colleague Calvin Trilling dedicated a book to him stating ‘To the
New Yorker
reporter who set the standard – Joseph Mitchell’.
The Times Literary Supplement
said Mitchell was the ‘finest staff writer in the history of the
New Yorker
and one of the greatest journalists America has produced.’

Mitchell frequently spent days wandering around New York with a pair of binoculars studying the facades of old buildings. He was one of the founders of the South Street Seaport Museum. His favourite institutions in the city were the Metropolitan Museum, Fulton Fish Market (on the cover), the Grand Central Oyster Bar, McSorley’s ale-house, Grace Church, the Belmont racetrack, the Staten Island ferry, the Gotham Book Mart and the William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge in the Staten Island Marshes.

‘Joe Gould’s Secret’, which appeared on September 26 1964, was the last piece Mitchell ever published. He went into work at the
New Yorker
almost every day for the next thirty-one years and six months but submitted no further writing.

Joseph Mitchell was married to the photographer Therese Mitchell. They had two daughters. Joseph Mitchell died May 24, 1996.



piece of writing Joseph Mitchell ever published was the essay-novella called ‘Joe Gould’s Secret,’ which appeared in the
New Yorker
on September 26th, 1964. Mitchell had first written about Joe Gould in 1942, introducing a blithe and eccentric down-and-out – ‘a notable in the cafeterias, diners, barrooms, and dumps of Greenwich Village for a quarter of a century’ – who claims he understands the cawing of seagulls so well that he can translate poetry into it. Gould tells Mitchell about a work-in-progress, a book called
The Oral History of Our Time
, which he has been writing for twenty-six years and which is already eleven times as long as the Bible, and possibly ‘the lengthiest unpublished work in existence.’ The
Oral History
contains descriptions of Greenwich Village night life in such venues as Eli Greifer’s Last Outpost of Bohemia Tea Shoppe, and discursive essays on a variety of Gouldian preoccupations, including the zipper as a sign of the decay of civilization, and the emasculating effect of the typewriter on literature. But the book is primarily an archive of talk: the transcribed monologues of the citizens of New York. More than half of the
Oral History
consists of conversations taken down verbatim or summarized – Mitchell describes it as ‘a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay, a repository of jabber, an omnium-gatherum of bushwa, gab, palaver, hogwash, flapdoodle, and malarkey …’ But Gould speaks of the project with high seriousness. He believes that ‘what people say is history.’ His ambition, he declares, is to ‘put down the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude – what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows.’ This, curiously, is one way of talking about Joseph Mitchell’s
Up in the Old Hotel

Joseph Mitchell was born in 1908, in Fairmont, North Carolina, where his father was a farmer who traded in cotton and tobacco. He began submitting newspaper stories as a student at the University of North Carolina, and moved to New York in 1929 with the idea
writing about politics. He got a job as a ‘district man’ on the
Herald Tribune
, ‘hoofing after dime-a-dozen murders’ in Brooklyn and Harlem
. The latter, especially, left a deep impression. ‘Until I came to New York City,’ Mitchell would write in an introduction to
My Ears Are Bent
(1938), a collection of his early newspaper stories, ‘I had never lived in a town with a population of more than 2,699, and I was alternately delighted and frightened out of my wits by what I saw at night in Harlem.’ By the time his stint there was over, Mitchell was ‘so fascinated by the melodrama of the metropolis at night’ that he forgot his ambition to be a political reporter.

Instead, he went to sea, working on a freighter shipping heavy machinery to Leningrad. Returning to New York, Mitchell found a job at the
, writing features and interviews. He wrote about strippers, Eleanor Roosevelt, lady prize-fighters, Noël Coward, pickpockets, Tallulah Bankhead and George Bernard Shaw, and he began contributing short pieces to the
New Yorker
, the weekly magazine founded by Harold Ross in 1925. Mitchell joined the staff of the
New Yorker
in 1938, and the magazine immediately gave him two great gifts. The first was a form. The Profile – a portrait of an individual drawn from interviews, observations and background research – is now a journalistic commonplace, but in the 1930s it was an innovation, conceived and developed at the
New Yorker
by Ross and writers like Alva Johnston, Meyer Berger and St. Clair McKelway. The Profile, according to Ross, showed that it was possible ‘to write history about living people’. Joseph Mitchell would become its greatest exponent.

The second gift was time. Released from the ticking-clock schedules of newspaper reporting, Mitchell now had the freedom to immerse himself in his stories, spending weeks or even months with his subjects, watching and listening. ‘There was this anomaly,’ he would say, much later. ‘You can write something and every sentence in it will be a fact, you can pile up facts, but it won’t be true. Inside a fact is another fact, and inside that is another fact. You’ve got to get to the
facts. When I got [to the
New Yorker
], I said to myself I don’t give a damn what happens, I am going to take my time.’

At first, taking his time, he concentrated on characters in and around the Bowery in lower Manhattan, a Damon Runyon world of
, flophouses, speakeasies, gambling dens and all-night greasy spoons, haunted by Bellevue psychiatric hospital and the corrupt city politics of Tammany Hall. He was drawn to loners, outcasts, eccentrics and down-and-outs. In the first book in this collection,
McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon
(1943), we meet – in addition to ‘blithe and emaciated’ Joe Gould – Mazie Gordon, the ‘bossy, yellow-haired blonde’ who presides over the ticket cage at a Bowery cinema; Jane Barnell, who has a beard thirteen and a half inches long; nine-year-old child prodigy Philippa Duke Schuyler, who reads Plutarch, plays poker, and has composed more than sixty pieces for the piano; and Commodore Dutch, ‘a brassy little man who has made a living for the last forty years by giving an annual ball for the benefit of himself’. We meet Johnny Nikanov, self-declared king of thirty-eight families of Russian gypsies; and the Caughnawaga Mohawks who have no fear of heights and work as riveters on the steel structures of bridges and buildings; and Charles Eugene Cassell, proprietor of Captain Charley’s Private Museum for Intelligent People, who claims to be the first person to have collected stamps.
McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon
is a pageant of idiosyncrasy, and a shout of wonder at the variousness of human experience. There’s nothing quite like it.

In his next two books collected here,
Old Mr Flood
(1948) and
The Bottom of the Harbour
(1960), Mitchell gravitated away from Greenwich Village and the Bowery to the waters around New York. He shares Herman Melville’s vision of New York as a city of the sea – ‘your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted around by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs’ – and his stories gather into a rousing shanty of fishing-boat chandleries and Fulton Fish Market fishmongers; of skiffs, draggers and dredges; of Long Island bays and Staten Island tide marshes, bushels of littleneck and cherrystone clams, sludge bubbles upsurging in the East River, gulls hunting for fish scraps along Peck Slip. No-one since Melville has written so vividly and lovingly of the waters and waterfronts of the Eastern Seaboard.

BOOK: Up in the Old Hotel (Vintage Classics)
10.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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