04 January 2010

Getting a Table in 1912

The other day, I picked up a curious little volume of New York social history called "Welcome to Our City." It was published in 1912 and written by one Julian Street, a novelist, essaying and flaneur of his time. It contained four pungent satirical portraits of life in Times Square during the first decade of the 20th century. I have found the dissections bitingly entertaining, particularly the one titled "Lobster Palace Society," which looks at the mores and behavior of those swells who threw money around at decadent, lavish eating halls like Rector's. I found this description of one such mythical bon vivant, named Mr. Feldman, so delicious that I felt compelled to reprint the section here. Read, and enjoy yourself:

Watching the sifting process, we saw a couple elbow their way through the crowd. The man's eye caught that of the head waiter. He raised two fingers.

The head waiter bowed, with, "Ah, good evening, Mr. Feldman." He did not look up Mr. Feldman in his book, but said to an assistant: "Table twenty-six for Mr. Feldman," and hastily unhooked the rope.

Mr. Feldman passed in. Behind him trailed a lady wearing staccato scents and an alarmingly diminuendo dress. Instinctively you knew she had a little, yipping, woolly dog in a flat somewhere not very far away; also plenty of siphons on the ice, and books which were not by Meredith or Henry James.

Clearly, in Mr. Feldman we had seen a man who really knew the ropes. He was not made of common clay but, to all appearances, of pâté de foie gras and truffles. He never had to reserve tables in advance. No matter what a crush there was, he always sailed majestically in and found a place. If the regular tables were occupied, a special one was carried in and laid for him.

The "Mr. Feldman" kind of man distributes largesse with a plump and lavish hand. He has cocktails named fro him, drinks vintage champagnes, sends for the head waiter, called him "Max" or "Louis," dresses him down, and gives him a twenty-dollar bill. "Mr. Feldman" does not pay spot cash in the Lobster Palaces. He merely tips his waiter with a bill and signs his name across the check. Check-signing is one of the most impressive rites of the Tenderloin. It signifies not only that "Mr. Feldman" runs an account and settles by the month, but that he always has aisle seats, down in front, for the first night of each new "girl show," an can play on credit in the gambling "clubs." So it is natural that, as "Mr. Feldman," with a superbly unconscious air, signs and rises from the table, people gaze at him in awe, and whisper: "Who is that?"

"Mr. Feldman" is sometimes young, but usually he is middle-aged and just a little bald. His complexion is of either a pasty cream colour, or an apoplectic purple, shading off to a lighter tone about the prominently upholstered neck. There are deep wrinkles beside the nose, fleshy pouches beneath the eyes, diamonds on the fingers, and very fancy buttons on the evening waistcoat. The whole is mounted upon creaky legs.

While "Mr. Feldman" lives, he lives very high, and when he comes to die, he does it so quickly that he actually interrupts himself in the midst of ordering another bottle. His colour changes. If he was purple, he turns mauve; if cream-coloured, a lovely shade of pale green. An attentive waiter catches him as he starts to flop over on the wine coolers. He has stopped ordering, so his friends know he must be dead.

Obituaries in the next day's papers refer to him as a "prominent clubman" or a "well-known man-about-town," and like as not, mention a hitherto (and hereafter) unheard-of-wife, who lives in New Rochelle or Flushing. Several friends go out there to the funeral, but not one single head waiter. The friends think it would be nice to sing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" with the service. On the way back to New York they "roast" the widow for not providing drinks. Then, with a pleasant sense of duty done, they return to the Lobster Palaces. By night the Tenderloin has forgotten "Mr. Feldman" as completely as it has forgotten the old Long Acre farm. If people should trouble to investigate the matter further—which no one does—they might find that "Mr. Feldman" left, besides the trailing lady, the widow and the waistcoat buttons, six children and a mortgage.

No so very different was Mr. Feldman's experience than that of getting a table at a hot restaurant today. Except people dress more poorly.

(The above illustration, from the book, is by Wallace Morgan, a noted magazine and newspaper illustrator of the first half of the 20th century.)


Anonymous said...

Hmmmm ... could that piece have been a bit of anti-Semitism disguised as social satire?


Brooks of Sheffield said...

I think Street is just sending up Mr. Feldman's manners and attitudes, not his race. Just sounds like a portrait of the average fatcat to me. If you read the book, you'll see that Street's appraisal of Times Square mores leaves no one's unscathed.

Jill said...

New Rochelle or Flushing? Flushing?

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Flushing was once quite the, bucolic suburb.

Anne said...

"Flaneur" must be the word of the week - second time I've seen it used in the past couple of days. I know, because I had to look it up!