Archive for April, 2016


“The public clamored for news of this wealthy family—celebrated as much for its celibacy as its eccentricity—and the press obliged. Despite a fortune built on fur and real estate, the eight Wendel siblings shunned high society, ensconcing themselves in an antiquated house of mystery amid the cacophonous commerce of midtown Manhattan. There, starved of society by a tyrannical brother, the seven sisters cuddled lapdogs instead of sweethearts. With stingy allowances and shabby clothes, they slipped into spinsterhood—and perhaps, it was whispered, insanity.”—Lori Chambers, The Fabulous Wendels, Drew Magazine


A memorial to the Wendel family on Fifth Avenue and 39th Street

The “Weird Wendels”

According to legend, when New York City millionaire Ella Wendel passed away in her Fifth Avenue mansion in 1931, she left her entire estate – valued at about $30 million — to her French poodle, Toby. This large inheritance, which was reportedly passed on to generations of poodles named Toby, made the Wendel dog and all his heirs the richest dogs in the world.

The story of Toby’s inheritance is a great story to tell, but sadly, it’s only a tall tale. The story of Ella Wendel, however, is extraordinary. Actually, it’s right out of the pages of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Picture Miss Havisham, the wealthy and eccentric spinster who lived in her ruined mansion in the early 1800s


Double-decker bus passengers gawk at the “Weird Wendel” Mansion, also known as the “House of Mystery,” on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street. Toby’s $1 million fenced-in exercise yard is to the right. 

In 1856, John Daniel Wendel built a red brick mansion on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street. John’s father, John Gottlieb Wendel, an associate and in-law of John J. Astor, had earned a fortune, first in fur (he and John Astor did their fur business in a little on house on Maiden Lane), and then in buying and leasing large chunks of Manhattan real estate. The younger Wendel used some of that wealth to furnish the mansion with every luxury of that age.

According to the 1870 census, John D. Wendel lived in the home — valued at $5,000 then — with his wife, Mary Ann, seven servants, and eight children: John Gottlieb Wendel II, Rebecca, Augusta, Josephine, Henrietta, Georgiana, Mary, and Ella. When the patriarch died, his huge inheritance was divided equally among the eight children.

And therein began the making of the “Weird Wendels.”


Even in the late 1800s, the Wendel mansion looked a bit out of place at 442 Fifth Avenue — and passersby couldn’t help but try to peak over the high wall. Drew University Library.

From the moment John Gottlieb Wendel II became the man of the house, he was obsessed with holding on to the family’s money. His biggest fear was that his sisters would marry and take their share of the fortune away from the Wendel family. So he turned the mansion into a prison for his sisters, barricaded the front door, and locked the key.

The Wendel House of Mystery

A story published in The Age newspaper in 1960 provides a glimpse into the Wendel world. According to the article, John locked up 10 of the 20 rooms, closed off the dining hall, emptied the glass winter garden of its tropical plants, and built a 12-foot wall around the yard.

He kept the front door permanently barred and shuttered, using only the tradesman’s small entrance to get in and out of the home. He nailed wooden boards over the ground-floor windows, and refused to install lights or telephones. He sold the piano and four of the family’s carriages, and refused to spend any money on repairs.


Although the Wendels owned over 100 parcels of New York real estate, John Wendel chose to work out of a small, dingy office at 175 Broadway (left). With no elevator, he reportedly had to walk up a few flights of rickety stairs to get to the office, which had no electric lights. New York Public Library Digital Collections

What he did to this grand mansion was a shame, but what John did to his sisters was a travesty and a sin. According to The Age, every evening John would meet with his sisters and warn them of fortune hunters who were out to get their money.

He’d tell them that they were ugly, and that no man would ever marry them except for their money. He banned all male visitors and alcohol from the house, and allowed his sisters to go out only one night a week (wearing Victorian-era clothes), as long as they were accompanied by him. Can you say Taliban?


John Gottlieb Wendel, “The Recluse of Fifth Avenue,” did everything possible to ensure his sisters remained old maids.

One time, Georgiana tried to escape by booking into a boarding house under a false name. John hired 29 private detectives and even paid beggars and boot-blacks to look for her. She was eventually found at the boarding home, and John had her committed to an asylum for the mentally insane, where she spent the rest of her life.

Only Rebecca was able to successfully escape, but that didn’t happen until 1903, when she was 61 years old. She married Professor Luther A. Swope, and, just as John had feared, took her share of the fortune with her.

One by one the siblings passed away. First Augusta and Henrietta, followed by John, who died of a stroke in 1914, and then Josephine, who died four months later. With Georgiana still in the asylum (where she died in 1924), and Rebecca with her husband, only Mary and Ella were left in the old house.

For the next ten years, Mary, Ella, and a small dog (also named Toby) lived within three rooms as the house fell apart around them.  To conserve money, they lit candles and burned only a few gas lamps. Meanwhile, thousands of dollars poured into the bank from the family’s vast real estate holdings every week.

Following Mary’s death in 1925, Ella was left alone in the house with her French poodle, Toby. Understandably, she pampered the dog to no end.


Ella Virginia von Echtzel Wendel in her final years, dressed in Victorian attire and sitting on a horsehair chair in a gas-lamp-lit room of the Wendel mansion. Drew University

According to news reports, Toby had his own silken bed (a miniature four-poster bed that was an exact replica of Ella’s bed) and a velvet-covered dining table, where Ella would bring him breakfast each morning.

He also had his own butler to wait on him, and a fenced-in exercise yard reportedly worth over $1 million (as the story goes, Ella had received an offer of $1 million for the land, but she refused to sell because “it was Toby’s exercise place.”)

In the late 1920s, Ella was reported seen “creeping down Fifth Avenue” every Monday morning wearing a dilapidated hat and unkempt shoes, and wheeling Toby in a baby carriage. At night, she’d let him play in the yard. Other than that, she never appeared in public.

On March 13, 1931, Ella Wendel died in her sleep in the home at the age of 78. Only about 19 “friends” and one distant relative — Stanley Shirk, the nephew of her deceased brother-in-law — attended the services at at her home. There, at the end of a semi-dark hallway (Ella had put in a few electric lights near the end of her life), with Toby at the head of her coffin, the small group listened to Dr. Nathan A. Seagle, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on West 69th Street, read from the First Corinthians.

As the group broke up, Toby ran down the hall following the procession. He stood on guard until the thick oak doors of the Wendel mansion were closed.  His loving mistress was taken away and buried in the Wendel plot at Trinity Cemetery, at 155th Street and Broadway.


Over 2,000 people eventually showed up to claim a share of the estate, including Thomas Patrick Morris (left), who claimed he was the son of John Wendel. Thomas claimed that John had secretly married Mary Ellen Devine at the Castle Garden in June 1876 (Thomas’ foster mother was Margaret Morris).

In the end, most of the $30 million estate went to various charities, including Drew University, to which Ella Wendel bequeathed the house, now valued around $4.5 million.

Following Ella’s passing, Toby’s life took a turn for the worse. With no special butler left to care for him, Toby was made to sleep in a plain basket in the kitchen and to eat his food like any ordinary dog from a saucer. At night he’d wander inconsolably through the dark, empty house looking for his mistress.

In October 1933, a veterinarian was called in to put Toby humanely to sleep. He was buried on the grounds of the Wendel summer estate in Irvington, New York, in accordance with the last wishes of Ella Wendel.


Ella Wendel had hoped that Drew University would preserve the old mansion, including the old zinc tubs in the bathroom, like this one pictured here. New York Public Library Digital Collections

Although Ella Wendel had requested that the home — complete with its gas lighting, zinc tubs, and 157 family trunks — be maintained as a memorial, Drew University chose instead to create a Wendel memorial room on its campus in Madison, New Jersey.

The university leased the Fifth Avenue property to the S.H. Kress store chain, which demolished the home and built its flagship five-and-dime store there in 1935.

Following a preservation battle, the Kress building was demolished and replaced by the 27-story Republic National Bank, pictured below, which was completed in 1986. Today all that remains of the old Weird Wendel mansion are bizarre tales like this one and a memorial plaque on the bank building (which thousands of people pass each day without even stopping to read.)



The Wendel mansion, right, in 1911. New York Public Library Digital Collections


Fifth Avenue between 38th and 39th streets in the 1880s. The corner of the Wendel mansion is just visible to the right.


442 Fifth Avenue today.









Grumpy Cat and Keyboard Cat couldn’t have held a candle to Buzzer, the “Most Photographed Cat in America” from 1906 to about 1920. Here’s Buzzer in New York City in 1912.

Buzzer IV, whom I had with me for eighteen years, was a large, short-haired yellow cat — half Chinese, half Persian — looking more like a small tiger. He was very haughty, but never vicious, and he seldom condescended to make friends with strangers.” –Arnold Genthe, photographer, in As I Remember, 1936

Among the more than 1,000 images of Arnold Genthe’s photographs in the Library of Congress Collection’s digital library, 82 feature his beloved cat Buzzer (actually, he had four cats named Buzzer over the years). Although Buzzer occasionally appears alone in these portraits, he is usually accompanying women, and, in particular, well-known women of New York City’s stage and screen.


Born in Berlin, Prussia, in January 1869, Arnold Genthe was the son of Louise Zober and Hermann Genthe, a professor of Latin and Greek at the Grey Monastery in Berlin. Genthe followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a classically trained scholar in philology, archaeology, and philosophy at at the universities of Jena, Berlin, and Paris.

In 1894, when he was 25, Arnold was asked to tutor the 15-year-old son of Baron F. Heinrich von Schroeder, who had an estate and a hotel in California. Although his plan was to stay in America one year and then return to Germany to become a professor, Arnold’s career took a major turn the day he purchased a camera for a few dollars at a small shop in San Francisco.

Arnold soon became engrossed in taking photos of the city’s Chinatown. According to Anna Strunsky Walling, who wrote about Genthe for Town and Country magazine in August 1933, the Chinese would run from him when confronted with the camera, which is why he taught himself to take candid photos of people in action.


Arnold Genthe is most known for his photographs of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It was in this year that Genthe also adopted his first cat Buzzer.

Although he is most known as a photojournalist for his amazing photos of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Arnold Genthe revolutionized portrait photography in the early 1900s. By using cameras with fast shutter speeds, he was able to take capture subjects who might be unable, or unwilling, to sit still long enough for a photo that was not blurry. Subjects like cats, for example.


This colorized photo of an unknown woman with Buzzer was reportedly taken in 1906.

In 1906, Arnold Genthe started photographing women and girls with his cat Buzzer. Over the next 20 years or so, one of Arnold’s four cats — all named Buzzer — would feature prominently in numerous portraits. As Arnold Genthe wrote in his autobiography, As I Remember:

“I prefer cats that have a deep purr and for that reason every cat I have owned was called Buzzer.”

Arnold Genthe and Buzzer Come to New York

In 1911, Arnold and Buzzer headed east to New York City. Here, the glamorous, rich, and famous of the day — Greta Garbo, Sinclair Lewis, Babe Buth, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt — all sat still — or not so still — for his camera.

Buzzer did not appear in the portraits of these rich and famous, but he did get to meet many a celebrity at Arnold Genthe’s studio.


We can see why Hafiz was a bit jealous of Buzzer, although he looks somewhat uncomfortable in this portrait. 

According to an article in the New York Sun on December 8, 1931, sometime around 1911 Buzzer “wrote” a letter to Oliver Herford’s cat, Hafix, in which he told Hafix about human backgrounds and mice-hole golf.

According to reporter Karl K. Kitchen, Hafix replied that he envied Buzzer for always being photographed with warm actressy backgrounds. (And as you and Virginia both know, if you see it in The Sun, it’s so.)


Author/illustrator Oliver Herford and his cat, Hafiz, illustrated by James Montgomery Flagg. 



Arnold Genthe’s Studio in the Thorley Building

From 1913 to 1916, advertisements and notices in several publications state that Genthe’s photographic studio was located at 1 West 46th Street, which was attached to the Thorley building on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and West 46th Street. This building has an interesting history, and I found some great photos, so I’ll take a little detour from Buzzer and venture to West 46th and Fifth.

In 1871, Charles Thorley opened his first flower shop on West Street. Over the next few years, he moved his shop several times, finally settling on the former home of Caroline S. Harper on Fifth Avenue at 46th Street. For the next 40 years, the House of Flowers at 562 Fifth Avenue — and its adjoining sister building at 1 West 46th Street — delighted the thousands who passed by each day.


Charles Thorley’s House of Flowers at 46th street and Fifth avenue is always filled with dwarf red celosias, ferns, aspidistras and other foliage plants. The 46th street side was lined with bay trees and smaller pyramid box. On each side of the vestibuled doorway, iron pots, suspended from tripods, were filled with rubbers and other foliage. The windows were elaborate with vases of chrysanthemums and the choicest foliage stock—-pandanuses, crotons and palms, while from the top were suspended large baskets of Scottii ferns. The whole effect was stunning and bound to arrest the attention of the thousands that pass by every hour. — “The American florist: A weekly journal for the trade” (1916) 

Here is the “Thorley Building” and its adjacent sister building around 1911, which is just before Arnold Genthe and Buzzer moved in with their photo equipment. The Euclid building, immediately to the right, and the other buildings to the right are still standing today, albeit, they look a bit different. 

In May 1919, Tifflin Products, Inc. and Louis Sherry, Inc. took over the lease of the property occupied by Thorley’s House of Flowers. Their plan was to raze the four- and five-story buildings on the lot and replace them with a larger structure, about seven stories or so, in which Sherry confections would be sold on the ground floor and offices would be above.


This photo, taken in 1924, shows the new building constructed by Tifflin Products, Inc. and Louis Sherry, Inc. in 1919-1920. To the right is the former Euclid building, now with a new Tutor-style facade and known as Finchley’s Castle, which housed a men’s clothing store. New York Public Library Digital Collections 


Here’s a photo I recently took of the corner of Fifth and West 46th Street.

The Final Years for Buzzer IV and Arnold

In later years, Arnold Genthe operated out of a studio at 41 East 49th Street, which was closer to the apartment he rented at 443 East 58th Street in the Sutton Hill neighborhood. Although he never married, he certainly had many women friends who adored Buzzer just as much as he did.

Six years before Arnold Genthe died of a heart attack while vacationing at Candlewood Lake in Connecticut in 1942, the photographer wrote of Buzzer in his autobiography, As I Remember:

“Buzzer was certainly an important figure in my studio and even today, years after his death, he is fondly remembered by young and old. I sometimes was accused of paying more attention to that cat than to people. Possibly I enjoyed his contented purr more than the idle chatter of an inopportune caller. I have not found another cat to take his place.”



Buzzer with silent screen star Ann Murdock in July 1914. 


Arnold Genthe was not just a cat man; he was also quite fond of his horses, and there are several portraits of him on horseback.

USS Maine mess cooks and cat

This ca. 1896 photo of the USS Maine’s mess cooks with the ship’s three feline mascots was taken by Navy photographer Edward H. Hart. 

I’m taking the Hatching Cat on the road again. My next presentation will be on Sunday, April 10, at the Thrall Library in Middletown, New York, at 2 p.m. 

We’ve all heard of the crazy cat lady, but what about the crazy cat man?

In the 1800s and early 1900s, when most New York City residents tossed stray cats (and dogs) into the rivers, many men–including sailors, firemen, policemen, politicians, and hoteliers – welcomed alley cats with open arms.

In my hour-long presentation, I wind the audience through the streets of Old New York and Brooklyn as I tell amazing stories of nine strapping men (9 lives) and the alley cats they adopted. Hear about:

  • The Brooklyn Cat That Survived the USS Maine Explosion
  • The Cat That Flew Around the Statue of Liberty
  • The NYC Post Office Feline Police Force –and 6 More Amazing Tales

Fun for cat fanciers and history fans alike! Remember, if you know of a library or group in the New York City area that you think would be interested in this presentation, please contact me and let me know.