T’must be sumpin’ in the water!
A boy balladeer works the Village
By D. Silverman
In 1895, a slight 17-year-old English orphan-boy, sailed into New York harbor to work aboard the four-masted Bidston Hill. Instead, he deserted ship to cast his lot with the Americans. After tramping about for a short spell, he sought out fortune—and steady employment—in Greenwich Village. At the intersection of Christopher Street and Greenwich Avenue, our teenage hero found honorable occupation as a bar-back/dishwasher in the saloon of a somewhat seedy hotel—while also honing the knack for storytelling that would land him the enviable attentions of three kings and a queen.
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The Village waterfront in those days was a continuous fringe of piers, jutting out piling-to-piling from the Battery up through Chelsea. Our boy arrived on a White Star ship, so he may well have disembarked at Pier 54 (now Little Island) or thereabouts.
For those passengers and sailors looking to venture inland, Christopher Street beckoned—the oldest street in the Village, with its extra-wide opening at the river just where the Hoboken Ferry docked. A ten-minute stroll uphill brought you to its origination at Sixth Avenue (where a garden now blooms).
John Masefield, future British Poet Laureate, was off to an inauspicious start in his early teens, when he took to sea for several ill-fated attempts at a seafarer’s vocation. His guardian aunt, seeking to quash any bookish tendencies, had steered her orphaned ward towards shipboard service over excessive education or literary pursuits.
What he found was seasickness along with an ear for sailor’s tales and romantic adventure.
Apparently, and perhaps mythically, once ashore and during his few months swabbing floors in the smokey din of a Village den of vice, he began to envision himself a poet and lay the groundwork for incipient renown.
In the following years, he penned any number of sea ballads and such—to no avail, until he returns to England at the end of his teens, where his first poem will be published in 1899. Many more soon tumbled out, including pieces in Pall Mall Magazine and Tatler. (The latter being notable because the magazine, still around today, was only seven months old when Masefield had two songs of the seven seas included.)
His first book, Salt-Water Ballads, came out in 1902—promptly succeeded by a second volume, Ballads, in 1903. Heady stuff for the 25-year-old Masefield, only recently failed at sailordom and short-lived bar-boying. But he was clearly a wordy sort and eventually churned out close to a hundred immemorable collections of poetry, sonnets, ballads, plays, stories, novels, children’s books, autobiography and non-fiction.
As Virginia Woolf wryly noted in Jacob’s Room:
“Youth, youth — something savage —something pedantic. For example, there is Mr. Masefield, there is Mr. Bennett. Stuff them into the flame of Marlowe and burn them to cinders. Let not a shred remain. Don’t palter with the second rate. Detest your own age. Build a better one.”
[Translation: Christopher Marlowe was a flaming hot Elizabethan poet and playwright—while Masefield and Arnold Bennett were, uh, not.]
Back to Christopher Street
Having presumably walked the length of Christopher Street many times, the unemployed teenage Masefield finally found himself a job at the end of the rainbow, in the saloon of the Columbian Hotel, 5 Greenwich Avenue; Luke O’Connor, Proprietor.
(Diagonally across from Jefferson Market, where is now-sited Cohen’s Fashion Optical.)
The bar, styled Columbian Hotel Garden, in the shadow of the Sixth Avenue Elevated, catered to sailors and longshoremen—with rooms above that Masefield describes as lodging “a sad set of drunkards [who] needed pick-me-ups before they could face the day’s work.” In 1899 the hotel was advertising:
“FURNISHED ROOMS, double for 2, $3 to $4 weekly, steam heat, bath, electric bells.”
(The ‘electric bells’ served, among other uses, to call down to young John—or “Macy” as he was affectionately known—to bring up those morning libations!)
Each afternoon he squeezed lemons for the most-popular cocktails: whisky sours and john collinses. Free snacks were provided for patrons, including “little salt biscuits called pretzels, sliced Bologna sausage, sardines, salt beef, rye bread and potato salad.”
Luke O’Connor and his establishment managed to keep a fairly low profile before ultimately being laid low by Prohibition—if it weren’t for housing the lemon-squeezing lyricist one summer, they might well be forgotten. But a few traces remain in the ledger:
On July 12, 1895, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that ten men were arrested for playing poker in a room on the second floor. The police had received a tip that gambling was going on nightly.
In 1901, an undercover inspector, investigating prostitution, attested: “A woman I met on Greenwich Ave wanted me to go [with her] to this house.” He described the hotel as a: “5 story brick building. Entrance on Christopher Street. Saloon on ground floor, wine room in basement.”
By 1916, an article in Vanity Fair touted the saloon as a village literary shrine—”where one can talk to the bartender about John Masefield, who used to sweep out the place” (nearly 20 years since).
Back in London after his New World wanderings, our writer-to-be returns to the slog, as an office clerk, while penning rhymes in his spare moments. Then that first poem runs in 1899 and we’re full-sail ahead… by the following year, the now 23-year-old, but quite boyish-looking, youth has somehow garnered an introduction to the famed Irish poet W.B. Yeats—and they began a life-long association.
Masefield also becomes fast friends with W.B.’s younger brother, the artist and writer Jack B. Yeats. Soon Masefield spends holidays at Jack’s home, Cashlauna Shelmiddy (snail’s castle), in Strete, a coastal village about 150 miles SW of London—where they bond over a shared love of seamen and buccaneers and model boats. Most notably, they spin out a series of ballads, drawings, and plays about the adventures of a cabin boy named Theodore (the ‘adopted son’ of a pirate)—a narrative they continued to elaborate for many years.
Masefield, after befriending the Yeatses, quits his day-job to become a writer. A few more pieces are printed, leading to his first bound collection, 500 copies of Salt-Water Ballads. (He dedicates one of the songs to Jack Yeats.)
Besides their many private correspondences and entertainments, the two will collaborate on a number of published works over the years, usually with Masefield doing text and Yeats illustrations.
In 1930, 35 years after sweeping floors in the Village, Masefield is appointed Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, a position he will retain through four monarchs until his death in 1967.
A Pier Appears
Ghosts of the Village’s sea-port days ply the waterfront again: Little Island’s gangway lifts off from the old Cunard White Star entrance; David Hammons’ skeletal “Day’s End” reminds us of Pier 52 and Gordon Matta-Clark’s cut-outs; and the new Gansevoort Peninsula-cum-Beach proffers stunning views of vessels traversing the North River.
Some calm evening, or crisp sunny day, swing over to Gansevoort and settle into a blue Adirondack chair, with your toes in the sand (and maybe a discreet pocket-flask of whiskey sours to tide against the chill), and enjoy a poem or two by Masefield, Yeats or Marlowe!
SEA-FEVER | BY JOHN MASEFIELD
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife; And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.