It’s pretty well known that Brooklyn Heights has had more than its share of great writers as residents, but in response to a question from Heights resident “Lauren” the Eagle has interviewed another Heights resident, former Borough Historian John Manbeck, about the neighborhood’s literary history.
We all (or most of us, I presume) know about Walt Whitman, who served as editor of the Eagle in its early days, and whose poetic masterpiece, the epic Leaves of Grass, was printed in a shop housed in a building that was demolished to make way for the Cadman Plaza apartment complex. Mr. Manbeck tells of many other well known Heights inhabitants. These include the unrelated Millers, Henry and Arthur; the latter remembered as much for having been the last husband of Marilyn Monroe as for his great work as a playwright. The marriage took place after he left the Heights, but Mr, Manbeck reports that the poet Norman Rosten, who lived at 20 Remsen street, met Monroe when she was Miller’s girlfriend at a party at 84 Remsen). Others are The poet Hart Crane, who wrote The Bridge inspired by the view of the Brooklyn Bridge he admired from 110 Columbia Heights; Truman Capote, who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood while living in the basement of 70 Willow Street; and Norman Mailer, who once gave a smile and wave to my daughter as I pushed her in her stroller on the Promenade.
Mr. Manbeck gives the many inhabitants of February House (the now demolished 7 Middagh Street) their due. I’ll only mention that the poet W.H. Auden, before moving there, lived in the top floor apartment at One Montague Terrace, just across Montague Street from where I now live, where he wrote New Year Letter, and that ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee, once described by BHB’s late and beloved founder John “Homer Fink” Loscalzo as “The Original Kim Kardashian”, lived in February House while writing her mystery novel The G-string Murders.
A few of those Mr. Manbeck mentioned surprised me. I didn’t know that John Dos Passos, whose USA Trilogy novels I enjoyed years ago, lived below Hart Crane at 110 Columbia Heights. Nor did I know (or perhaps had forgotten) that the great chronicler of New York street and intellectual life Alfred Kazin lived at 150 Remsen, having been lured here by the historian Richard Hofstadter, who lived at 134 Montague. I’m surprised that Mr. Manbeck didn’t mention W.E.B. Du Bois, who lived on Grace Court in his later years, in a house sold to him by Arthur Miller. Of course, Du Bois was there years after he wrote The Souls of Black Folk.
Mr. Manbeck gives close attention to Thomas Wolfe (photo; not to be confused with the recently deceased Tom Wolfe). He describes Thomas Wolfe as “the biggest writer … over 6 feet 6 inches tall and completely undisciplined.” In the early 1930s Wolfe lived successively at 111 Columbia Heights, then 101 Columbia Heights, then 5 Montague Terrace, where he worked on his last completed novel, Of Time and the River. In 1938 he died of tuberculosis at the age of 38. It was during his residency in the Heights that Wolfe wrote his marvelous short piece for The New Yorker, “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn”.
I now have to close with a personal anecdote. Mr. Manbeck notes that, before moving to the Heights, in 1929 Wolfe lived on Verandah Place in Cobble Hill. My wife and I got to know the couple who now own the house on Verandah where Wolfe had lived, because their daughter and ours were classmates and friends in nursery school. One weekend afternoon father and daughter were relaxing in their living room when they heard a woman’s voice speaking authoritatively from the sidewalk downstairs. They went down and found that she was leading a tour group from Wolfe’s home state, North Carolina, who were viewing Wolfe landmarks in New York. The father offered to show them the basement apartment, which was then used as a storage room, where Wolfe had lived; they were thrilled. He gestured to the kitchenette and said, “This is where Mr. Wolfe made his breakfast”; then opened the door to the tiny bathroom and said, “This is where Mr. Wolfe shaved.” For some time after, the daughter was afraid to go into the basement, thinking she might find “Mr. Wolf” shaving.
Wolfe’s Wikipedia entry notes that one critic compared him to Walt Whitman. Thus, our circle is closed.
Thomas Wolfe photo: Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress (public domain).