Monday, April 1, 2013

The April Fool

Most of my morning has been spent working on this post. Everything looked great, lined up the way I wanted, etc. That was in the Chrome browser that Blogger allegedly prefers. When I looked at it in the Internet Explorer Web Browser, it was a bit of a mess. I've spent two hours fighting to get the text and photos to line up properly. And I just can't seem to win this one. Sorry, I have other things to do and I'm leaving it the way it is.

The morning was appropriately groggy. So was I. The very first email I opened contained news that at the last minute the Vermont Views website, which was listing our community radio station (which I run) as "non-profit of the month" had changed its mind. As I sank into a resigned sigh, the words "April Fool!" entered in my consciousness. There was an audible low guttural growl which emerged from somewhere within my being. It's April. The poet called it "the cruelest month". The poet may have been right.

Over the last two weeks, I've started many a post for the blog, only to abandon them all for various reasons. I had a cataract removed and was laid low for three days by reactions to the surgery. One partial post was forsaken when there were problems at the radio station which resulted in the rest of my day, and most of the next, being spent in email correspondence. I no longer feel in control of my time. I wonder if I ever really was.

Unpacking at the new WVEW studio
Yesterday was Easter. I became a bit lost in reverie. I spent most of last Easter working with the radio station's engineer wiring our new studio It had been almost a year since the fire at the Brooks House which had taken us off the air.
Tuesday, April 10th, 2012 - logging into a computer to
turn on the transmitter and return WVEW to the air. 
We lost everything in the fire - our transmitter was in the studio and our antenna was on the roof. When something like that happens, the station is given one year to get back on the air or lose its broadcast license. Before we left the studio that day, I logged onto one of our new computers and used it to turn on our new transmitter which was now located (with our antenna) at a school on a hill on the outskirts of town. For a few brief minutes, we were on the air. I called Laura over at Austanspace and asked her to tune us in. She heard us. It was real, it worked. While we were working in the studio, the Easter Zombie Walk made its way through downtown. It's an annual local tradition. I hope it was held this year, I haven't been able to find anything on it - I had wanted to go out and photograph it. I made my way out to Austanspace's Shire for Easter dinner. That morning, I'd also put up an Easter blog post which addressed my love for those absurd biblical era movie spectaculars. I'd intended to do another one this year. How on earth did I get all that done? And that list of accomplishment is decidedly meager compared to what I used to accomplish on any given day  during my years in New York City. At any rate, two days later, after calling an early halt to the station's Board meeting, I ushered the Board members into our new studio, logged in once more to the transmitter, and returned our station to broadcast mode. This year, I accomplished - nothing much. And I was busy from the moment I got up until the moment I went to bed.

"Jubilee" Jim Fisk
Today is the birthday of James (Jubilee Jim) Fisk. He was one of the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age. Born on the other side of the state, his family moved to Brattleboro when he was a child. His father became the owner and manager of a hotel on the corner of Main and Elliot Streets, known as the Revere House, in the days when Brattleboro was a resort town famous for its "water cure". At the age of 15, he ran away and joined the circus. There are reports that he made a fair amount of money by smuggling cotton during the US Civil War. He became a stockbroker working in the office of Daniel Drew, another famous thief of the financial world. (Drew's money founded a Methodist Seminary which expanded to become Drew University, which I attended in 1968-1969.) Daniel Drew was the kind of guy who used to have his cattle drink water to increase their weight just before their price per pound sale. His shady deals became known for using phony and unauthorized stocks, thereby lowering their value. Such stock were soon called "watered down" in his dubious honor.

At the offices of Daniel Drew, Jim Fiske hooked up with Jay Gould. Together they assisted Drew in manipulating the price of Erie Railroad stock, which they swindled away from Cornelius Vanderbilt. They eventually swindled the Erie away from Drew for good measure. They were openly allied with New York City's notoriously corrupt mayor "Boss" Tweed in the bribing of judges and legislatures. They also caused a financial panic which ruined many investors when they convinced President Grant to purchase and hold on to gold; they had the United States Assistant Treasurer in on the deal while they manipulated the price. For their offices, Gould and Fiske bought the Pike Opera House building at 23rd Street and 8th Avenue in NYC.

Samuel Pike had purchased much of the old Clement Clark Moore estate and built upon it a five story opulent 1,800 seat opera house which cost over a million dollars, unheard of at the time. Although the area quickly became a theater district, Pike was never able to lure patrons away from the Academy of Music on 14th Street. Within a year of its opening, Pike closed it. Fisk and Gould bought it and spent another million renovating the building, renamed it the "Grand Opera House", and became theatrical impresarios as well as financiers.

Pike's Opera House

Josie Mansfield
Now, Fisk had married young, and lived apart from his wife. She stayed in Boston with a close female companion. He also purchased a building close to the Opera House and had a secret tunnel built to connect the two. The apartment was for his mistress, Josie Mansfield, an actress.

Edward Stokes

  Mansfield's affections were soon shared with one of  Fisk's employees, Edward Stokes.  Stokes left his wife and children and moved in with her. Together, they attempted to bribe Fisk through the use of letters which detailed some of his underhanded dealings.  Fisk refused to pay up, and started a public relations battle. Stokes was arrested on charges of embezzlement. (It's a long story.) One year to the day of his arrest later, nearly bankrupt and ruined, Stokes shot and killed Jubilee Jim Fisk on the staircase of the Grand Central Hotel. Fisk was 36 years old.

Fisk's body was brought back to Brattleboro for burial in the Prospect Hill cemetery where a large monument was erected to his memory. The monument's central stone is surrounded by four scandalously underdressed (i.e. bare breasted) women, each of whom holds something connected to Mr. Fisk. One holds pieces of railroad track. One, a money bag. Another holds a steamship (another Fisk story). The last holds an emblem of the Opera House.

Fisk's story became the subject of a 1937 movie, "The Toast of New York", bears a great resemblance to part of the plot for the movie "Citizen Kane", and was the subject of several best selling books. Edward Stokes served four years of his prison term before being paroled. Fisk had given freely to charity and was in held in esteem by many - upon his release, there were numerous threats made against Stokes who spent the rest of his life looking over his shoulder and feeling hunted. Fisk's wife died in poverty in Boston. Josie Mansfield made her way to Paris where she married before returning to the states. The rest of her story is unknown. She was rumored to have lived under assumed names in Boston, and in New Jersey where she allegedly died, as per a report in the New York Times. There is one published report that she found her way back to Paris where she died at the American Hospital. There are also newspaper reports that, paralyzed and in dire poverty, she entered a convent in South Dakota to avoid the poorhouse, passed and was buried in an unmarked grave.

The Grand Opera House puttered on for many years, never very successfully. It was purchased and turned into a movie theatre, the RKO Grand in 1938. It continued operating until 1960 when it was  closed, slated for demolition when the Ladies' Garment Union began  redevelopment of the area into the Penn South residential apartments for union members and their families. Two weeks later, it burned to the ground. It was eventually replaced with a nondescript three story office building, the memories of Robber Barons, the Grand Opera House, Jubilee Jim, his mistress, and the Gilded Age long gone.

A current view of the corner of 23rd Street and 8th Aveue, New York City


Anonymous said...

Folks sure did a whole lot more living in a shorter time than we do now.

Austan said...

Saturn square'll get you if you don't watch out.

sdt (a.k.a. stevil) said...

mbj/Delores - speaking for myself, I sure accomplished a lot more in my 20's and 30's every day than I even imagine doing now. Let alone swindling Commodore Vanderbilt out of an entire railroad and causing the "Black Friday" panic...

sdt (a.k.a. stevil) said...

Austan - in Fisk's case, payback was a bitch. Considering my current more corpulent persona (now that I can see well enough to be horrified at my size in that photo) next year maybe I can be Jubilee Jim in the Easter Zombie Walk.