Archive for the ‘Featured Felines’ Category

 

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Margaret Owen and Lilly in 1922

When we left Part I of this curious cat tale of Old New York, young Margaret Owen was just about to dunk her two Angora cats into a basin of blue dye. The blue cats, she thought, would match her blue suit and look great parading down the boardwalk at Atlantic City. They’d also make a great gift for Otto Harbach and Arthur Hammerstein, the writer and director of “The Blue Kitten.” 

Margaret Owen was obsessed with the color blue. Everything in her apartment was blue, as were all her clothes and accessories. The petite singer had also recently auditioned for a chorus role in “The Blue Kitten,” which was appearing at the Selwyn Theatre (today, the American Airlines Theatre) on West 42nd Street.

So one day, while dying some old woolen stockings in a basin of blue dye, she got a wicked idea when her cat Lilly dipped her paw into the basin. She picked up the cat and dunked her right into the bowl of blue water. Then it was her cat Otto’s turn (I don’t know if this was his name, but several newspaper articles refer to him as Otto).

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“The Blue Kitten” was a musical comedy that ran from January to May 1922 at the Selwyn Theatre.

Despite the cats’ howls, Lilly held them down in the water for about five minutes until she was sure the dye had taken. (She took care not to immerse their heads – she used a piece of cotton dipped in the dye to swab their faces.) When she was all done, she wrapped the cats in an old blue towel and placed them on a blue cushion to dry.

Now, Margaret Owen was not the only person who rented an apartment from building owner Clarice Carleton Holland at 75 West 50th Street. Hearing the cats’ howls and thinking that Margaret was killing them, several neighbors called the Humane Society.

Over the next few days, things did not go well for poor Otto. Sensing something was wrong with the lackadaisical cat, Margaret took Otto to Dr. Harry K. Miller’s dog and cat hospital (aka, The New York Canine Infirmary), which was then located at 146 West 53rd Street. There, the blue Angora succumbed to an apparent poison in the dye.

Enter stage left, Harry Moran, Superintendent of New York’s Humane Society. Harry Moran told Margaret he was taking her and Lilly to the West Side Magistrates Court, where she would appear before Magistrate Peter A. Hatting on charges of animal cruelty.

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The old West Side Magistrates Court at 314 West 54th Street was built in 1894. Today it’s home to the Midtown Community Court. The building still bears its terra cotta visions of justice.

Margaret put the blue cat in a blue silk bag and brought her to the court, where she was met by her attorney, Benedict A. Leerburger of the firm of House, Grossman & Vorhaus.

Magistrate Hatting ordered Margaret, Superintendent Moran, Mr. Leerburburger, and the cat to go to the Humane Society headquarters to have Lilly’s fur analysed by a chemist.

Pending the test results and Lilly’s status, the judge said, he would make his decision.

“If Miss Owens and Mr. Leerburger want any lunch, the Humane Society will supply them with it,” the judge reportedly said as he sent them on their way to have Lilly examined.

“What kind of lunch?” Mr. Leerburger asked the magistrate. “I can’t get along on a cat’s diet,” the attorney said. “I need more than milk for sustenance.”

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Margaret at court with Lilly, who was then still dyed blue (you can just barely make out the cat on her shoulders).

 

Two veterinarians and a specialist on poison were called to assist with Lilly at the Humane Society. They washed the cat and had the water analyzed. It turned out that the blue dye contained 5% arsenic.

Because Lilly had licked a lot of the dye off and become very sick, the magistrate said it was almost a case of fatal poisoning. (Margaret denied knowing anything about Otto, claiming that he was a friend’s cat that she had taken to the animal hospital as a favor for her.)

Mrs. Anna Doyle, Margaret Owen’s probation officer, was convinced that Margaret had not intended to harm the cats. Lilly had survived the ordeal, so Mrs. Doyle asked the judge to go easy on Miss Owen.

“You’re a spoiled child,” the magistrate admonished Margaret during her sentencing. “What you need is a guardian. Are you married? No? Then I’ll send you back to your father until you get another guardian.”

In addition to remanding Margaret to her parents in Florida, Judge Hatting told her that the Humane Society would have custody of Lilly until her blue color had vanished.

Margaret’s Story Goes Viral

Within days after Margaret appeared in court with Lilly, the story of the blue-dyed cat that had died from dyeing (referring to Otto) made all the major newspapers across the United States. Her story was also cabled to the Paris newspapers, where the idea of dying your pets to match your wardrobe was much appreciated by the high-society Parisian women.

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The Paris women were a little more intelligent, though. First, they thought it would be better to dye their dogs, since cats aren’t fond of parading about with their mistresses. They also found that coffee, caramel, or tea, mixed with cream (and a little bit of quinine to discourage licking), made a great safe dye.

Superintendent Moran was completely against this fad, and had a reputation for prosecuting those who tried it in New York City. Even if coffee, tea, and caramel was used, he said, these were poisonous for animals, and thus, punishable under the law as a misdemeanor crime against animals.

10 Years Later…

I do not know what happened to Margaret Owen and Lilly. Hopefully they lived happily ever after in Florida, but for some reason I don’t think Margaret kept herself out of trouble for the rest of her life.

What I do know is that in 1930, Clarice Carleton Holland, the widow of Dr. Bukk G. Carleton, sold the building at 75 West 50th Street to William F. Beach, who in turn sold it the Underel Holding Corporation on behalf of John D. Rockefeller. By 1931 the holding corporation had acquired all the lots on the street, giving them the entire 50th Street frontage on which to construct Radio City Music Hall.

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Once upon a time, a young woman dyed her cats blue in an old brownstone and brick apartment on this very site at the northeast corner of W. 50th Street and Sixth Ave. Radio City Music Hall opened on December 27, 1932. Photo by P. Gavan

Incidentally, the animal hospital where Margaret Owen brought Otto and Lilly is still in operation as the Miller-Clark Animal Hospital in Mamaroneck, New York. Established in 1902 at 118 West 188th Street (according to old newspaper ads), it is one of the longest running veterinary practices in New York.

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Here is Lilly, Margaret Owen’s once pure white Angora cat, in February 1922.

Every once and a while I come across an old animal story that goes into my special folder called “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.” The following Old New York City cat tale is somewhat funny, very bizarre, and a bit tragic. It most certainly belongs in my special folder.

Once upon a time, a young woman was obsessed with blue…

Blue eyes, check. Blue clothes, check. Blue rugs and draperies, check. Blue walls and electric lamp shades, check. Blue china and blue satin chairs, check. Blue cats…hmmm

Miss Margaret Owen was a wealthy and temperamental petite young lady who just loved the color blue. Everything she owned was blue – well, almost everything. The blue-eyed singer had even tried out for the chorus in “The Blue Kitten,” a musical comedy based on the book by Otto Harbach and William Gary Duncan, and directed by Arthur Hammerstein.

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Margaret Owen with Lilly in 1922

She said blue soothed her and calmed her sometimes overwrought nerves.

Although she was only 22 years old, Margaret had her own spacious apartment in a five-story brownstone and brick apartment building in midtown Manhattan. She also had a maid to do all her washing and cleaning. (All courtesy of her wealthy father, H.W. Owen, a former stock broker who had retired to Florida.)

One day in January 1922, Margaret’s maid took the day off. That left Margaret alone with a pair of yellowing wool stockings that were driving her mad. She simply could have no peace until she did something with those stockings.

So Margaret rolled up the sleeves of her blue smock and turned on the hot water faucet for the marble basin in her blue dressing room. She poured in a bottle of indigo and a few packets of Diamond–brand blue dye. Her new blue stockings were going to look so perfect with her pretty blue suit…

Well, everything was going fine until Lilly, one of Margaret’s two white Angora cats, came bounding into the room. When the curious, eight-month-old kitty dipped a white paw into the blue basin, Margaret clapped her hands in delight!

As it turns out, Margaret had recently bought a blue leash for her kittens, because she had heard that women were walking their cats on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. She thought, wouldn’t it be romantic to be the mistress of a very beautiful blue cat that she could parade down the boardwalk? And wouldn’t a blue cat make a great gift for Arthur Hammerstein?

Oh heck, wouldn’t it be great to also give Otto Harbach a blue cat while she was at it? All she had to do was dunk her kitties in the blue water, just like her stockings…

A Brief History of Margaret Owen’s Neighborhood

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Margaret Owen lived with Lilly and Otto at 75 West 50th Street, which would have been just to the left out of sight (this 1931 photo shows #1 to #71, right to left). All of these brownstone and brick apartments on the north side of West 50th Street were purchased and torn down in the year this photo was taken. In the background is St. Patrick’s Cathedral. New York Public Library digital collections 

This story takes place in Margaret’s apartment building at the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and West 50th Street. This part of Manhattan was the site of the 18th-century Hopper Farm, aka, The Great Kill Farm, a large 300-acre estate that extended from about Sixth Avenue to the Hudson River between 48th and 55th streets. (The Great Kill was a small stream that emptied into the Hudson River at the foot of what is now 42nd Street.)

Hopper Homestead

The Hopper homestead, located near Hopper’s Lane (a diagonal road that ran just west of present-day Broadway between 51st and 53rd Street), was still standing in 1872 when The New York Times wrote about the quaint old house. Museum of the City of New York Collections

Over the years, two large lots of the Hopper estate on the east side of the Bloomingdale Road (Broadway) were conveyed to numerous people, starting with John Horn in 1782, followed by his daughter Jemima and her husband Matthew Dikeman (1815), James Meinell (1822), and the New York Dry Dock Company (1843).

In 1859, all of the old Hopper land along Sixth Avenue between 50th and 51st streets was still vacant, save for a few shanties once occupied by the piggeries of Hogtown (the pigs had all been cleared out that year, in what The New York Times called “The Great War on the New York Piggeries”). One such shanty still standing on the very site of Margaret’s apartment was occupied by an Irish hermit named Billy who killed himself in 1860.

hogtownnewyorkThe district of Hogtown extended from 50th Street to 58th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenue. This illustration is a view of Sixth Avenue at 56th and 57th streets sometime prior to 1859. Today this is the site of Carnegie Hall, constructed in 1889.  

That year (1859), Joseph D. Beers, who now owned the land on the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and West 50th Street, signed a covenant with the Trustees of Columbia College, who owned the adjacent property (what would later be the apartment buildings shown above at #1 to #69).

Under the covenant, the land could only be used for first-class dwelling houses and never for any business purposes. The covenant was supposed to be binding to all persons who owned the land from that day forward.

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The land between Sixth and Fifth Avenue and 50th and 51st Street was still vacant — save for one building near Fifth Avenue — when the Dripps map was created in 1867. 

In February 1871, Joseph Beers conveyed his land to Anna M. Lynch, who built a brownstone with a basement office that was used for a real estate business. The trustees of the college took Mrs. Lynch to court for breaking the covenant, but she ended up selling the property to Thomas Thatcher during the trial.

By this time, the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad had been erected along Sixth Avenue and many businesses were in the area, so the case was dismissed. Shortly thereafter, the block was filled with four- and five-story brownstone and brick apartment buildings like the one where Margaret lived with her Angora cats.

Back to Lilly and Otto…

I know you’re dying to know what happened to the blue-dyed cats, so stay tuned for Part II of this crazy cat story. Meow.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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) 

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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.

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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 

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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.”

 

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Buzzer with silent screen star Ann Murdock in July 1914. 

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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.