Visiting Babylon Boulevard, New York’s 19th-Century Bohemian Underworld

On the Creation of a New Utopia Through Photography

Plate 9: The Baroness of Babylon Boulevard

Upon examination of the 1850 lithographed map “City of New-York” by cartographer S. A. Miller, the careful observer will note that Babylon Boulevard is conspicuously missing from the street index. In fact, Babylon Boulevard does not appear on any map—it was more of a state of mind. Occupied by the denizens of New York’s bohemian underworld, it was a place where people of different genders, races, languages, nationalities, and identities mingled freely in the era before the Civil War. “Babylon” comes from babel, derived from the Hebrew word ללב (bālal), meaning to jumble or confuse. According to the ancient myth, the inhabitants of the city of Babylon sought to construct a tower so high that it would reach the heavens, a project that required the labor of thousands of people from different regions who at the time spoke the same language, like all of humanity. When God observed the blasphemous ambition of the tower, he angrily transformed their language into a cacophony of different tongues. The workers could no longer communicate and thus abandoned the project, and God scattered them across the face of the earth.

Thousands of years later, people on every continent were still unsettled and in motion. Throngs of immigrants from around the world converged daily in New York City, arriving by steamer or cabin cruiser. For many, America represented a promised land of opportunity and tolerance, a haven of self-invention offering escape from the rigid limitations of European society at best, or persecution at worst.

New York was a melting pot of immigrants, artists, and rebels. Some found common ground by forging a community at Pfaff’s Restaurant and Lager Beer Saloon at 647 Broadway in Manhattan. Charles Pfaff’s underground beer hall was modeled on the subterranean drinking establishments that were popular in Europe. Sunlight filtered into the smoke-filled cellar through tiny circular windows in the sidewalks above. An advertisement for Pfaff’s in the Saturday Post of 1859 boasted, “The best of everything at moderate prices.” Pfaff’s proudly offered its customers a daily supply of international newspapers in five different languages. Clientele from around the world mingled in the underground dining hall furnished with long communal tables, socializing freely in an atmosphere that welcomed everyone.

Henry Clapp, known to many as the “King of Bohemia,” found a common language with the patrons who frequented his establishment. At that time the term “bohemian” was not used commonly in America, and had in fact been imported from Paris by Clapp himself, along with his newfound taste for French laissez-faire café life. In Paris, Clapp had collaborated with the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, translating his work into English. His stay in Paris energized him “with contempt for [America’s] puritanism and a mania for shocking it.” Clapp returned to New York inspired to cultivate an egalitarian atmosphere at Charlie Pfaff’s beer hall. He transformed the saloon into a salon by attracting a crowd of artists, writers, actors, and poets. Some New Yorkers repudiated the poets and actors as indolent, crude, idealistic—and poor, because they rejected traditional paths to success and fulfillment. Bohemians were shunned as lovers of art and drink, as raconteurs who were instigators only of bon mots; poverty was often the price of admission to their camaraderie. Like their philosophical counterparts, the Transcendentalists, they saw America as an unfolding utopian dream of personal freedom.

“Posthumorous.” From Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios by Stephen Berkman.

Clapp began by organizing informal literary discussions, and then with the help of this new literary crowd he founded the Saturday Press, a literary journal that showcased poetry, fiction, and commentary written by many of Pfaff’s stable of bohemians. Although it was short-lived, it embodied the emerging literary life of New York.

Ada Clare, soon anointed “Queen of Bohemia,” saw her mission at Pfaff’s as purifying and guarding a better bohemia.

Soon after Henry Clapp founded the Saturday Press, Walt Whitman began frequenting Pfaff’s and contributing poems and observations to the magazine. He helped cultivate the circle of actors, writers, and journalists whose irreverence earned them a seat at the table. Whitman’s irreverence was succinctly characterized by his fellow writer William Dean Howells, who regarded Whitman’s literary celebrity as “largely the infamy resulting from…his obscene writings”:

If he is indeed “the distinctive poet of America,” then the office of poet is one which must be left hereafter to the shameless…The secrets of the soul may be whispered to the world, but the secrets of the body should be decently hid. WALT WHITMAN exults to blab them.

Pfaff’s was more than an equitable establishment; it was New York’s first bohemian gathering place and perhaps the first establishment in the city to welcome gay men, and it also welcomed women at a time when American society was almost entirely segregated by gender. The fledgling poet Ada Clare took a seat at the literary table at Pfaff’s, and with that bold initiative began her writing career. Her first poem was published in the Atlas, a New York weekly where the editors promoted her work. The free-spirited Clare held extended editorial meetings and dinner parties for fellow bohemians at her home. A farcical account of a party that referred to Pfaffians with royal pseudonyms was published in the Saturday Press on December 31, 1859:

The Royal Bohemian Supper. Among her most illustrious guests were her royal Captive, the Grand Seignor of Turkey [Christopher Bey Oscanyan]; Count Wilkinski, Minister Plenipotentiary from the Court of Empress Anna Maria [Edward G. P. Wilkins]; the Countess of Peopia; Lady Gay [Getty Gay]; Baron Clapper [Henry Clapp Jr.]; Sir Peter Porter, Knight of Malta; Sir Archinald Hopper; and Lord Pierceall, Troubadour to Her Magesty [Robert W. Pearsall].

Ada Clare, soon anointed “Queen of Bohemia,” saw her mission at Pfaff’s as purifying and guarding a better bohemia. Whitman expressed his admiration for her, stating that “she represented the idea of a modern woman: talented, intelligent, and emancipated.” She also helped open the doors of Pfaff’s to other women, including Adah Isaacs Menken. Besides sharing similar names, they were both struggling actresses in their early twenties. Both wore their hair short, parted on the side and combed over like a man’s. Adah Isaacs Menken became a regular at Pfaff’s. Bisexual and biracial, she told the story of her life in narratives that cast her alternately as Jewish, Black, Caucasian, Spanish, and once as a descendant of Portuguese royalty. Menken saw herself as a poet and at Pfaff’s she was in her element, surrounded by a literary crowd of other writers and poets. Whitman, Charles Stoddard, and Fitz-James O’Brien became devoted friends—as did Alexander Dumas, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and George Sand later in her life. Adah’s poetry expressed her consciousness of her own complex identity. She began writing and publishing poetry in The Clipper, a New York newspaper. Her diary reveals a young woman who was an independent thinker, ready to challenge convention:

My extreme individuality manifested itself at an early age of seven and eight in different ways… there was an under-life that even to this day no human has fathomed. I have always believed myself to be possessed of two souls, one that lives on the surface of life, pleasing and pleased; the other deep and unfathomable as the ocean; a mystery to me and all those who know me.

Separating fact from fiction in Adah Menken’s life is difficult, but according to records she was born in New Orleans, and her father, who died shortly after her birth, was a free man of color. Her French mother remarried, and Menken’s stepfather taught Latin and Greek at a private academy for boys. Under his tutelage Menken received a remarkable education as a young girl. She read the classics, studied several foreign languages, and went to the theater frequently. She also learned to dance and ride horseback at the academy stables, a skill that would be surprisingly helpful on the stage.

Ironically, Menken became famous for her portrayal not of a woman but of a young boy. In 1861 she was cast as the male lead in the play Mazeppa, based on Lord Byron’s epic poem. H. M. Milner, the creative director, staged a dramatic extravaganza with elaborate sets and costumes, culminating in the startling entrance of a beautiful black steed. The melodramatic climax occurred when the warrior prince, played by Menken, was stripped naked and strapped by his Polish captors to his horse, which then galloped up a mountain built into the set. This was a difficult stunt that most actors shied away from, and other productions of the play had substituted a dummy or mannequin atop an old nag for this scene. Menken’s childhood training with horses served her well, giving her the courage and skill to ride the horse, bare-back and spread-eagle, a daring feat of horsemanship. She performed it with her hair cut short like a boy’s, wearing only a flesh-colored leotard, appearing to be completely naked in the dim theater lights.

Mazeppa opened at New York’s Broadway Theater in 1861, lighting up the stage during one of the darkest years of the Civil War. A writer at the New York Post reviewed the play, adding that it was “a pleasure and a duty” to see Menken’s performance, especially of the climactic scene, which she carried off with bravado and rugged sensuality. The play was a massive success and the role made Menken the highest paid actor working in theater at the time. She went on to portray other male roles, including Leon, a Creole, in The Child of the Sun; the Chief of the Comanches in Mextaxa; and Don Leon de Mendez in A Mexican Caballero. From a multiplicity of stage roles she constructed a single public persona large enough to contain them, allowing her a freedom of movement and identity that was unprecedented at the time.

“Zohar’s Voyage.” From Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios by Stephen Berkman.

Throughout the Victorian era, non-binary characters disrupted narrowly defined roles of gender. Intersecting identities were featured in sideshows and became part of the popular imagination: the bearded woman Madame Clofullia, P. T. Barnum’s hermaphrodite Annie Jones, and the gun-slinging Annie Oakley are a few examples.

In nineteenth-century America, homosexuality was not officially considered a crime, and in fact there wasn’t even an agreed-upon word for it—the term “homosexual” would not come into use until the twentieth century. Bohemians, rebels, artists, and outliers found freedom of expression in nineteenth-century New York, when sexual identities were less clearly defined than they came to be later. Perhaps phrenology provided the best description for gender fluidity in the era: “adhesiveness,” defined as the capacity for intense and meaningful same-sex relationships. Walt Whitman received a very high score for adhesiveness after his examination by the well-established New York phrenologist Lorenzo Fowler. He was proud of this result, just as he took pride in his open affection for men.

In Victorian England, by contrast, laws against homosexuality were mercilessly enforced. When a pair of cross-dressers known as Fanny and Stella walked openly though the streets of London in women’s clothing, they were arrested and charged with “the abominable crime of buggery.” The Buggery Act was passed in 1533, and section 61 of the Offences against the Person Act of 1861 stipulated punishments for “Buggery, committed either with Mankind or with any Animal,” but buggery itself was never defined, in these or any statutes. Instead, it was enforced by judicial precedent. After a night in jail, the two “tarts” were called into a packed courtroom, where they stood before the magistrate with their wigs askew and beard stubble poking through their makeup. The young men were found not guilty and dismissed, free to return to their life touring together in second-rate theater revues. Fanny and Stella were the first in London to dress in full drag publicly as a form of social rebellion. Although their actions set a precedent in the city, it would be at least a hundred more years before any pertinent laws were changed.

Perhaps the most unexpected cross-dresser in America was Brigham Morris Young, a son of the founder of the Mormon church. He was publicly known for establishing the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association of the Latter Day Saints, intended to inspire young Mormon men to follow their dreams. Young gleefully led the way by performing in drag under the pseudonym Madam Pattirini. His beautiful falsetto voice drew large crowds of devout Mormons between 1895 and 1900, who did not know that the lady in lace was in fact the cross-dressing son of the leader of their very straight-laced church.

Like the ancient city, New York’s “New Babylon” is mythic—a confluence of many races, languages, nationalities, and identities.

The origin of the term “drag queen” is uncertain, but it could be an early reference to hoop skirts worn by cross-dressers on stage, which would “drag” along the ground. Other theories mention the practice of cross-dressing theatrical troupes to adopt regal titles. An investigation into a popular Bowery establishment in New York known as Paresis Hall reported that men there “act effeminately; painted and powdered, they are called Princess this, and Lady So and So, and the Duchess of Such and Such.” Such phony titles were probably parodic in Britain, directed against the ruling class and royalty; American cross-dressers may have seen them as an act of defiance against harsh laws inflicted across the pond.

Another theory is that the term “queen” came from Oscar Wilde’s scandalous Queensbury trial. Wilde had been engaged in a homo­sexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglass, better known as Bosie, whose father was the Marquess of Queensbury. He had a particular disdain for Wilde and a reputation as a persistent persecutor of lascivious behavior. When Queensbury discovered that Wilde was involved with his son, he left a threatening calling card for Wilde: “To Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic].” Wilde oscillated between hiding his sexual orientation and seeking public acceptance of it, but he was not prepared to be publicly slandered. Against the advice of his friends and his legal counsel, who urged him to flee, Wilde waged a legal battle against Queensbury, which he felt was the honorable thing to do. Wilde lost the case, and was charged with the crime of sodomy, arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to two years of hard labor in 1895. The garrulous author was placed in solitary confinement—an excruciatingly cruel and unusual punishment. Although he was singled out by these proceedings, he was certainly not an exception in the culture as a whole; his notoriety made him a martyr for social justice.

“Humboldt’s Parrot.” From Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios by Stephen Berkman.

Wilde had his share of detractors; some speculate that his legal problems began in 1894, when Salomé was banned from the theater for its licentious portrayal of biblical characters. Salomé was described by Edward F. S. Pigott, the official Examiner of Plays, as “half Biblical, half pornographic.” The character Jokanaan refers to Salomé as “daughter of Babylon,” personifying the biblical Whore of Babylon, who “decked with gold and precious stones and pearls,” performs the dance of seven veils, summoning seduction by power and greed. Perhaps the British aristocracy saw the play as a metaphor of greed induced by the Industrial Revolution. Wilde was known to have observed that Salomé was a mirror in which everyone could see themselves: the artist, art; the dull, dullness; the vulgar, vulgarity. The play was banned from the British stage, and it premiered in France in 1896, while Wilde was in prison.

The ancient city of Babylon has long been associated with decadence and desecration, but it was also a center of learning and culture. The hanging gardens of Babylon, with their elaborate mechanical aqueducts and terraces of flora and fauna, were celebrated as among the Seven Wonders of the World. The Tower of Babel—not the mythical version but one that was actually constructed in Babylonia—was a massive feat of engineering and design that took more than four decades to construct. The historical tower was actually built by thousands of workers speaking many different tongues.

Like the ancient city, New York’s “New Babylon” is mythic—a confluence of many races, languages, nationalities, and identities. Pfaff’s was at the center, where Whitman and other bohemian artists converged, perhaps even aspiring to build their own transcendental tower to heaven.

Against this backdrop of a thriving literary and theatrical empire, artists from around the world were able to make their own original contributions. Like many immigrants and foreign visitors who arrived in New York, the Baroness of Babylon Boulevard found a culture open to freedom of expression, and her portrait is a testament to self-invention. With her faint Mona Lisa smile and penetrating gaze, she is an enigmatic muse of mysterious origin, a persona like many of Pfaff’s bohemians. Framed in chiaroscuro light reminiscent of an old master painting, she is the epitome of both old and new, classic and revolutionary, with one foot rooted in traditions of the old country and the other stepping into a new world. There was never a better time or place to fashion a new identity and start over—in the end, it was a time of beginnings.

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From Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios by Stephen Berkman. Used with the permission of Hat & Beard Press. Copyright © 2020 by Stephen Berkman. All rights reserved.

Stephen Berkman
Stephen Berkman
Stephen Berkman is a Bay Area-raised, Los Angeles-based Jewish photographer. He makes his living creating historical photography for large-scale Hollywood films. He is obsessed with Victorian culture and technology.





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