New York is a city of con artists, cutups, philanthropists, philosophers, overachievers, and dealmakers. Legends are made, by putting a name on a skyscraper or on Page Six. These are the stories of eight legendary New Yorkers, all of whom you should know, whose legends have been blown out of proportion. Their names are all over New York. They were the toast of society. They won prizes, inherited fortunes, created empires —— but at the end of the day, they hurt more than they helped.
John Jacob Astor
New Yorkers know the Astor family for all the sites in the city named after them: Astoria, Queens; Astor Place; Astor Court; the Waldorf-Astoria hotel; Astor Row; and Astor Ave in the Bronx (where they stabled horses) — even one of the lions guarding the NYC Public Library was initially and informally named after John Jacob. The family dynasty was founded by brothers George and John Jacob, two German immigrants. John Jacob came to the US determined to make his fortune and kicked things off nicely in the fur trade. He would go on to become a multimillionaire — the first in America.
But the foundation of the Astor family fortune is based in John Jacob Astor’s real estate dealings in New York. During the Panic of 1837, when banks began accepting only gold and silver in payments after a period of unchecked inflation on paper money, banks in New York lost nearly $100 million and the entire country took a hit to the tune of a seven-year depression on par with the Great Depression. Property values in the city also took a major tumble, and Astor, who was looking to diversify out of the fur trade, stepped in and started snapping up land.
Astor dipped his toes into the real estate pool early in the 1800s, leasing land from Vice President Aaron Burr that he in turn broke into lots and rented to tenants. So if you’ve ever wondered why we rent in New York, as opposed to buying in London, this tradition has its roots in the money-making agenda of John Jacob Astor.
He did smartly realize there would be interest in developing further north in Manhattan and subsequently spent plenty of time grabbing property there, but he would often let it lie, undeveloped and unused, if there were no renters. His fever for buying deeply discounted property in New York City during The Panic was so great that a government agency forced him to pay more for some of the insanely good deals he was finding. He was known to be a tough landlord, foreclosing on people who couldn’t pay in spite of the economic downturn.
In short, John Jacob Astor didn’t care much about improving New York City. He cared about making money. His lack of community spirit and philanthropy hardly make the proliferation his family name a proud contribution to some of the city’s big landmarks.
Ah, Dick Clark — more than just the Ryan Seacrest of his time, Clark was a Bronxville-born radio DJ when he started out who turned into the face of a multimedia empire. But let’s focus on the 1950s, when Clark was one of the two biggest-name radio DJs in the nation and the payola scandal broke.
In 1959, after the discovery in 1958 that the game show Twenty One was fixed, the records hit the fan for the music industry, as the US House of Representatives Legislative Oversight Committee quizzed hundreds of jockeys on payola. Memorably, WABC DJ Alan Freed went down in history as the poster boy for payola while Dick Clark got off with a slap on the wrist. All DJs involved in the scandal denied accepting payola, but it was such a common practice that it is highly likely that any single DJ did in fact dabble in payola. As Performing Songwriter details in a profile piece on the scandal, Clark himself had “part ownership in seven indie labels, six publishers, three record distributors and two talent agencies.” So, in addition to playing records, he would be getting paid for monies made on plays of any songs his companies controlled. All Clark had to do to make a song a hit was buy the rights to it and then put it on his radio show and American Bandstand. He ditched connections to all of the companies before the hearing, managing to dodge any blame.
And while it’s true that Clark’s American Bandstand was racially integrated at his insistence, after the scandal, before that he was considered the opposite of Freed — who played R&B and rock tracks by the original, usually black, artists and not the white covers. But where Clark showed up to the hearings looking smooth and squeaky clean, like white bread sprayed with teflon, Freed was dirty, sweaty, and smart-mouthed.
Clark’s reported takeaway, as told in an interview to Rolling Stone years later? “Protect your ass at all times.”
Ol’ Dirty Bastard
ODB. Big Baby Jesus. Rainman. Ason Unique. Orisus. Wu-Tang Clan member. Jester. Mariah Carey’s guest rapper. Platinum status artist. Father of 13. Brooklyn native, Staten Island resident. And FBI file-having violent criminal/drug and gun trafficker.
The FBI released a slew of files, by Freedom of Information Act request, at the beginning of 2012, and ODB’s info happened to be included. It was like The Wire up in there.
As part of the file it was revealed that the NYPD arrested ODB nine times between 1987 and 1999 (he died of a drug overdose in 2004). He was actually charged with petty larceny, assault with intent to cause serious physical injury, fraud on transit (most likely jumping the subway or ditching a cab fare), attempted assault, disorderly conduct, and criminal contempt. He was arrested for but not charged with various assault charges in various degrees, acting in a manner to injure a child, attempted murder in the second degree, criminal use of a firearm, criminal possession of a weapon, reckless endangerment, and attempted murder in the first degree.
The file also confirms his participation in a shoot-out with the NYPD in 1999 in Brooklyn, for which he was never indicted, and that ODB was the target of a known thievery ring that targeted rappers. The latter group shot and robbed the rapper, bursting into his home when he was sleeping.
And lest anyone forget, there was also that infamous incident when he took MTV along for a ride in his limo while he picked up food stamps.
Compare what ODB gave us — a few good songs and some jester-style verses — with what he put back into the NYC community, especially Brooklyn and Staten Island, by way of crime and irresponsible behavior, and you’ll see that he is absolutely overrated.
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner. One of the founders of The Village Voice. Political activist. And genuinely crazy motherfucker. Ladies and gentlemen, Norman Mailer.
Whether you think Mailer is predominately a genius or a jackass has a lot to do with how much ego and Hemingway-wannabe-ism you can take from your favorite writers. While a point of view is important, Mailer courted controversy like he was getting paid by the scandal (and in a sense, perhaps, he was). He is equally well known for his public meltdowns as for his writing.
His very public misfires include a drunken bitchfight over a bad review on The Dick Cavett Show that ended with a rumored headbutting of Gore Vidal; an unsuccessful run for mayor of NYC; and that time he got drunk and stabbed his second wife with a penknife.
Mailer was one of a handful, alongside Truman Capote, to innovate New Journalism and balanced that innovation out by being an insufferable pain in the ass. Unlike Hemingway, Mailer’s dubious cult of personality has largely outlived his work.
William Randolph Hearst
Enjoy those snarky headlines in the New York Post? Read Page Six religiously? Like your reporting with a side of misrepresentation bordering on falsehood? Then Hearst is the New York newspaperman for you. And, during the 1890s you wouldn’t have been alone — at the peak of his media empire, one in four Americans were getting their news from Hearst-owned papers.
But that’s not all — Hearst started one of the first media empires. He expanded Hearst news to include a radio broadcasting arm, produced newsreels, and is credited by many with creating syndicated comic strips. Hearst also produced over 100 films.
But while running the New York Journal, Hearst’s competition with Joseph Pulitzer and his New York World heated up — and in order to win the circulation battle, the two men resorted to what would be called yellow journalism. This meant suspending all morals in order to become the dominant paper. It also meant the public had a chance of being misinformed and misled as the paper’s headlines and reporting became deeply sensationalized and at times completely manufactured. He used his dozens of papers to push for his own agenda within the government and is often blamed for getting the US into the Spanish-American war, often referred to as the first “media war.”
Other than a lovely art collection and some legacy philanthropic foundations, what did Hearst leave us? The legacies filled by 24-hour news networks and Rupert Murdoch today. Oh, and he’s why you still can’t go to Cuba directly.
President Millard Fillmore
Four New Yorkers have held the office of President of the United States of America. Martin van Buren, who by historical accounts did a fair job in a rough economic climate, and the Roosevelts, Franklin and Theodore, both considered giants. And then there’s Millard Fillmore.
As vice president, Fillmore took office after Zachary Taylor died and diverted the US considerably from what the actual elected presidential agenda called for. Fillmore was so off the rails on the crazy train that Taylor’s entire cabinet signed their resignations when he took office. The man was pro-slavery (he would go on to actively oppose Lincoln), signing the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850, which declared that all runaway slaves were to be returned to their masters upon capture. When Vermont passed Habeas Corpus Law, nullifying this federal law, Fillmore threatened to use the US Army to enforce it in the state.
He went into office as a Whig, the final member of that party to be elected president, and after he left joined the Know Nothing party — basically a more violent version of today’s Tea Party who were particularly afraid of Irish and German Catholic immigrants. After his presidency and through the Civil War, he supported Union President Andrew Johnson over President Lincoln and even commanded the Union Continentals, a group of old white men playing soldier in upstate New York who shared his views.
Fillmore may have been raised into an exalted office, but history consistently judges him as one of the ten worst president of all time.
Barbara Woolworth Hutton
How do you make a million? Don’t ask New York City-born Barbara Hutton, the granddaughter of tycoon Frank W. Woolworth, founder of the eponymous department store chain, and original “poor little rich girl” who blew millions from her family inheritance.
The secret to her failure? Shopping. Her special area of interest was jewelry. She was also hellbent on proving that money can’t buy you love after a troubled childhood with a philandering father and mother who committed suicide. She is widely reported to have battled addictions to alcohol, drugs, and sex with playboys to fill the void.
She married seven times, including the actor Cary Grant (in a move that would parallel his character in Hitchcock’s Suspicion), and shopped for herself and all her husbands. Her second husband, a Danish count who was also the father of her only child, was reportedly the hubby to take greatest advantage of her fortune. But she’d go on to marry several other royals (rising to the rank of princess) of no means and luminaries from the sporting world. She died broke in a hotel in California.
Within three generations, Barbara became one of the major contributors to the collapse of the entire family fortune and disgrace brought to the Woolworth name.
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and pornography is something you recognize when you see it. Art is somewhere between the two, and Andy Warhol’s pop art movement is often hailed as a cornerstone of 20th-century New York artistic advancement.
Celebrity, advertising, and art were moving closer together in the 1960s (especially on Madison Avenue), and Andy Warhol may have used his various forms of art to draw the lines between between them. But the success he saw with his ubiquitous portraits of everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Elizabeth Taylor to the Campbell’s soup can certainly helped to advance a culture that uncritically glorifies celebrity and uses it to sell… well, just about everything.
Celebrity endorsements? Reality TV? The kitsch driving the fame of the Kardashians, for which they show zero winking appreciation? All traceable to the work of Andy Warhol.
Don’t worry — Warhol himself wouldn’t mind this critique. One of his famous quotes (not the 15 minutes one) is the one he’d use to utterly excuse himself from any sort of cultural glut he’s contributed to: “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”
Sounds like the Kardashian life philosophy, if they knew what one of those was.