A New York Life
Emily Geminder Feb. 9, 2010, 6:49 p.m.
In 1906, Stanford White, the red-mustached playboy starchitect of his day, was shot and killed on the roof of what was then Madison Square Garden, a lavish amphitheater he himself had built. It was already something of a fateful jab at White that some years later the New York Life Insurance Building supplanted his Garden. But in the final karmic punch line, the concrete blot that is today’s Madison Square Garden was unceremoniously plunked atop the site of White’s Penn Station, his most famous ruined creation of all. Or maybe it was a close second. Because to hear the shooter on the roof tell it, White’s propensity for creative destruction wasn’t limited to brick and mortar. The millionaire Harry Thaw shouted, “You ruined my wife!” before firing three shots point-blank at White’s head. (A few witnesses, according to The New York Times‘ account, claimed it was actually “life” instead of “wife.”)
The wife or possibly life in question was Evelyn Nesbit, a chorus girl and model whose It-girl status had been carefully tended by White. He invited the teenager to the right parties, had her teeth fixed and pushed her on his infamous red velvet swing-first with her clothes on and then without. With its grand ballrooms and rooftop gardens all basking in resplendent wealth, Madison Square Garden was the gilded Eden for a budding American plutocracy, and Nesbit, as historian Paula Uruburu aptly put it, played the Garden’s Eve. Seductive, swindled and inevitably fallen, she found herself at the center of what quickly became known as “the crime of the century.”
The sensational murder trial, which dished on the love triangles, drug use and bizarre sexual deviancies of famous millionaires, was the stuff of dreams for the rapidly growing national press. New manufacturing advances had made print cheap and illustrations plentiful. Editors, eager to harness the uncharted potential of their medium, seized on the graphic true-crime drama and filled their pages with images of the stunning damsel Nesbit, cocaine-addled “Mad Harry” and the voluptuary dead man. When Nesbit remarked that she lived “in the everlasting now,” she could have just as easily been pronouncing our collective American fate.
BEFORE IT WAS White’s Garden, Madison Square belonged to the original maestro of spectacle, P.T. Barnum. This was the man who coined the term “show business,” who all but invented media hype, who, at the time of his death, The Washington Post called “the most widely known American that ever lived.” Barnum’s unwieldy trajectory sent him ricocheting from fortune to bankruptcy, slave owning to the abolitionist’s pulpit, carnie life to politics. As an old man, he railed against spiritualist “frauds” despite the fact that he’d spent a lifetime capitalizing on the boundless resiliency of American belief.
It was a career launched when, at the age of 25, Barnum purchased an elderly slave, pried out her teeth, and convinced the public she was the 160-year-old nursemaid of George Washington. He never said, “A sucker is born every minute,” but that was exactly the point. For a man who trafficked in the mythology of his own celebrity as much as any of his “curiosities,” his was a fame entirely manufactured yet so epic, everything stuck.
When the great showman blew in with his Hippodrome, Madison Square Garden was still known as Union Depot, the original terminal of the New York and Harlem Railroad. The property sat beside the marshland that is now Madison Square Park and was once a potter’s field, later a military parade ground, and later still a “House of Refuge” for juvenile delinquents. By 1873, the railroad company had relocated its operations to the newly completed Grand Central, and Barnum snapped up the lease. Over the next decade, the property shape-shifted from bandstand to Wild West show to the gospel revivals of Moody and Sankey, but the biggest act was of course Barnum’s circus.
The night before it opened, in 1881, the whole show paraded up Broadway by torchlight. Overlooking windows, according to one of Barnum’s several autobiographies (all selling in the millions of copies and all unabashedly contradicting one another), went for up to $10 a piece. Barnum declared that half a million spectators witnessed his menagerie of wild beasts quick-stepping to four brass bands, bagpipers and a chorus of jubilee singers. But of more interest to the showman were the roughly 100 newspaper editors from up and down the Eastern seaboard in the audience, whose train fare and hotel lodging he called “a very costly piece of advertising, which yet yielded us a magnificent return.”
Barnum was hardly the first to use the press as his personal ventriloquist’s dummy, but he took new advances in transportation and technology and the potential of celebrity and fashioned it all into a brazen experiment in mass marketing. The report of the New York Evening Telegram was typical of his magnificent returns. “… More natural history can be learned in an hour than in a month from books, and the great museum of living curiosities comprises the most curious specimens of humanity. As for the circus, which is given in three rings, there can no longer be a doubt as to its being the greatest the world ever saw.”
THE SAME YEAR Barnum died, Stanford White commenced work on Madison Square Garden. It was 1891, and the architect was at the peak of his career, widely regarded as the man behind the face of modern Manhattan. Unlike the largely classless religious revivals and big tops that swept Barnum’s Hippodrome, White’s Garden was designed with a more exclusive demographic in mind. The neoclassical palace boasted the world’s largest amphitheater, as well as a swimming pool, a racetrack, a restaurant, a concert hall and a tank for aquatic shows. (“Especially ones in which girls wear skin tights,” White stipulated.) A tower modeled after the Giralda in Seville was perched at one corner, and an elite few kept private apartments there, White naturally being one of them.
Evelyn Nesbit described the tower in Prodigal Days, one of her memoirs. (She, too, had a penchant for self-contradicting autobiographies.) “Many nights—or, I should say, mornings—around three o’clock, Stanford and I would ride up in the elevator to its last stop, then climb the stairs to the top of the tower. Here one reached a narrow spiral stairway leading to the feet of Diana. I loved to climb to this high point and, holding tight to Diana’s heel, gaze out over the city.”
The Diana was a 13-foot sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens poised at the Garden’s pinnacle. Arching her bow boldly, the nude Roman huntress was called by the Philadelphia Times an illustration of “the depraved artistic taste of New York.” The Diana had originally been clad in a thin gilt garment Nesbit herself might have called “abbreviated,” the word she used to describe her attire when she first awoke to find herself in White’s bed. (Whether she was drugged, plied with champagne or something else is unclear, but the loss of consciousness progressed the narrative of many a contemporary sex scene.) Whatever pretensions of modesty the Diana claimed, time soon rubbed them off anyway.
ITS DAYS AS a regular Garden of good and evil more than two decades past, the arena of White’s flamboyant life and equally flamboyant death was torn down in 1926 to make way for a nearly 1.2 million-square-foot building devoted to life insurance. The Manhattan business of wealth had given way to the business of business, a purism of distilled commerce in which even life and death could be monetized. The city turned perpendicular to accommodate the newly market-oriented society, and the days of opulently festooned gilt seemed quaint and old-fashioned. The Garden, for all its grandeur, never actually turned a profit. If White had lived two years more, he would have seen its owners put the property on the market, eventually to be picked up by New York Life Insurance for $2 million. White himself—though his prolific spending habits never showed it—was flat broke at the time of his death.
Whatever Barnum did or didn’t say about America’s capacity for being suckered, life insurance was not always an easy sell. An 1853 New York Times editorial said, “He who insures his own life or health must be victim of his own folly or other’s knavery.” Of course, attaching monetary value to human life was not really a new revelation. In fact, when the life insurance industry began to catch on in the 1840s, it was often to insure the lives of slaves. New York Life was founded in 1845 as Nautilus Insurance, and according to an 1895 history of the company, 339 of its first 1,000 policies were for slaves’ lives.
By the time the New York Life Insurance Building opened in 1928, the industry was regarded as a staid enterprise deeply entrenched in the fabric of the United States economy. Calvin Coolidge pressed a button in the White House and an American flag unfurled in the company’s newly completed headquarters. A year later, just out of office, Coolidge began his term as a director of New York Life. Herbert Hoover took over the post in 1935.
The New York Life Building was the final installation in what might be called Cass Gilbert’s Gothic Towers with Hats triptych. Times had changed, however, since Gilbert completed the Woolworth Building in 1913. Suddenly there was the existence of zoning laws to contend with, which shifted the balance of power between architect and contractor. To make things more difficult for Gilbert, New York Life became anxious about the building’s finances and repeatedly scaled back his endeavors.
In 1926, with the drawings complete and the steel half-fabricated, New York Life asked Gilbert to review the design once more. He wrote to the company’s president in protest. “If the exterior design were reduced to a perfectly plain brick building of the Army Supply Base type without cornices or ornamentation, the cost could be still further reduced and estimates might be obtained thereon from your contractors as soon as sketches could be prepared.”
The tensions perhaps explain the building’s slight incongruousness of scale. The American Institute of Architecture Guide called it, “Limestone Renaissance at the bottom, birthday cake at the top.” But birthday hat might be just as fitting, as the building’s conical crown, even after being glitzed up and refashioned in 1967, sits slightly disproportional to the 39-story structure.
Before his death, Stanford White had been something of a mentor to the young Gilbert, and when Madison Square Garden was demolished, Gilbert tried to save part of its Giralda tower. But the project would have been costly, and he couldn’t find anyone to finance it.
Gilbert’s building, from which he’d distanced himself during its construction, was declared a local landmark in 2000. Then in 2004, New York Life put about 300,000 square feet on the market, which was taken during the following few years by companies that included an engineering firm, Thornton Tomasetti; a publisher, Addison Wesley Longman; and the Henry Luce Foundation. It didn’t hurt that Madison Square had recently undergone an extensive restoration. The neighborhood, formerly a soulless corporate canyon, was now a corporate canyon flush with five-star restaurants and a well-moneyed park.
Not quite White’s rococo pleasure house, and definitely not Barnum’s Hippodrome, it was Gilbert’s city, sometimes called the “American Perpendicular,” that stuck. It was a city that made for a constant negotiation between finance and just about everything else, a city in which it was folly not to monetize your own life.
And with New York Life the largest mutual life insurance company in the world, it was and is a city that can put anything into the safety of numbers. It’s also, of course, still a city of It girls, tell-all memoirs and engineered realities. Even when we doubt all we’re being told, even when we know there’s a boardroom and a team of producers behind every reality show confessional, belief is all-immersive and freeing. No one who wandered through Barnum’s fantastical museum was entirely impervious to the con behind the curiosity. Belief is a strange comfort, and there’s nothing more American than condensing the vast, imperial sweep of our curiosity into safe, well-lit spaces where we can know it bit by bit. (And sell it, too, if at all possible.) Barnum once tried to buy Shakespeare’s birthplace, and White’s buildings appropriated the great European empires of the past.
If we believe in anything, we believe in realness—real-life memoirs, real TV drama, real videocams and blogs, the real true Hollywood story—so long as it goes down easy and preferably comes with insurance, too.