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The Loneliness of the Skyscraper Window-Washer

Mar 24, 2011 2:17 PM | 1 comment

"He was strapped to a window frame just a few feet under the huge clock.  The cold of a November morning swept away from the gilded dome of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank above him.  He shifted his weight.  The wind snapped at the chamois strung around his neck. Below, toy-like cars and tiny figures wove a crazy pattern in front of the Long Island Rail Road station."

This vivid, poetic storyline from the November 16, 1952 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle describes not the antics of some real-life Spiderman, but rather the daily grind of one humble 34-year-old New Yorker, Ed Kemp.

Kemp was an employee of the Standard House and Window Cleaning Company, on 126 Broadway in Brooklyn; a window-washer with seven years experience under his belt.  His particular task at the Williamsburg Savings Bank was a cruelly sisyphean one -- on the first of every month, he started cleaning the topmost window on the 43-story building, and slowly wound his way downward, washing window after window after window by hand so that, weather permitting, he would have cleaned all 1,100 windows by the end of the month.  His reward for completing this herculean task?  Starting over again at the top of the building for another long, spiralling descent.

Grease pencil marks the spot, as Kemp dangles hundreds of feet above downtown Brooklyn.








In its half-page story, the Eagle paints a surprisingly thoughtful portrait of Kemp and his solitary life in the sky.  Gone is the newspaper's usual brisk and boisterous tone, replaced in this piece with sometimes wistful, sometimes reverent prose.  

Describing Kemp, the Eagle reporter Vic Timoner, writes, "he only spoke when he was sure of what he was saying...he only moved when he was sure of where he was moving."

Kemp emerges as a quietly heroic figure, a "husky six-footer" who without complaint braved dizzying heights in service to the strangers he saw only through a glass, darkly.  Gazing in on men and women working, talking, laughing, living, he remained always separated from them by those hundreds of window panes, suspended in his own quiet, windy limbo. 

While Timoner portrays the work of a window cleaner as a grimly noble struggle against ambient dirt and pigeon dung, the job was also an inherently dangerous one.  As the pictures show, Kemp was held up only by a harness belt that clamped onto a window frame with no scaffolding or platform to support him.  Earlier Eagle articles show that even these meager safety measures were hard-won.   

A brief article from November 3, 1929 describes a protest march to City Hall, attended by five hundred unionized window cleaners.  In addition to demanding a ten percent pay increase, they wanted the city to take action against building owners who had yet to install safety hooks on building exteriors.  They had lost 84 members of their ranks to fatal falls since 1928.

Another article, from 1937, describes the harrowing experience of one cleaner, James Osman, whose safety belt broke while he was washing panes on a building in Manhattan.  He dangled sixteen stories in the air, above a crowd of 2,500 gawkers, until a plucky telephone operator found a seven-foot pole to offer out the window to Osman.  He was pulled to safety, and a generous superintendent gave him the rest of the day off. 

Not so lucky was George Urban, who fell seventeen floors in January of 1944.  His lifeless body was found on a protruding extension of an office building on Tuesday the 18th, two days after his wife reported to police that he hadn't come home from his window washing job.  That same year, state legislators enacted a new, stricter safety code to protect workers.  This required old, rusted anchor bolts on the exterior of buildings to be replaced with non-corrosive ones, so that cleaners could trust the supports to which they strapped their safety belts.  Building owners had difficulty complying with the code, however, because of wartime shortages in materials.  A New York Times article from November 18, 1945 reported that skyscraper windows had gone unwashed since July of that year as window washers awaited the installment of safer anchors and hooks.  A dirty pall fell over the high-rises of New York City. 

Even after buildings were brought up to code, the life of a window washer was full of hazards -- not the least of which was human error.  In March of 1946, one Brooklyn cleaner fell four stories to his death after forgetting to fasten his safety belt.

What of our man in the sky, Ed Kemp?  Did he harbor a fear of falling?  Ever stoic, he replied, "I wouldn't be up here if I was afraid."  It seems for him the greater danger was loneliness.  Kemp said of his job, "It's a good life.  Lonely.  But you see people, even if you don't speak to them.  They're sociable enough but they kind of look at you like they feel sorry for you."

"Is it un-American for mothers to work?"

Mar 24, 2011 10:25 AM | 1 comment

There is no question that World War II had a major impact on the role of women in the work place.  Brooklyn's female task force was no exception to this trend--particularly given the amount of labor needed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard "to make the weapons to beat the Axis."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle Drawing, December 1945

For many, the choice to seek employment meant sacrifice--particularly when children were involved.  Enter the Mayor's Committee on Wartime Care of Children.  It was the duty of the committee to provide support, advice and childcare options for "temporary widows" (i.e. wives of soldiers) who were transitioning from stay-at-home mom to working single mother. 

Nursery for Working War Mothers, 1943

But support was not always eagerly given.  The motivations of working mothers were almost immediately called into question.  Working mothers were often "blamed" for encouraging improper child rearing; taking jobs away from unemployed men; and causing overcrowding in day care centers.  One female official implied that "many women were trying to evade their home responsibilities and make money under the guise of patriotism." 

Mrs. Genevieve B. Earl, a Committee member from Brooklyn, stated that the city "can't be a dumping ground for children."  Officials insisted that young women who were already employed in "non-essential industries" transfer their work to war industries, allowing mothers to stay at home.  This, of course, ignored the fact that many mothers needed to work for an income. 

Despite voices of disapproval, the Committee did provide support.  Social workers in offices located across the five boroughs offered counseling on this "knotty problem."  City and state funding was allocated through the Committee on Wartime Care of Children for the development of nursery schools and child care centers.  Such centers were operated by non-profits and citizen groups.  Government funding paid for 2/3rds of the operating cost and parents or private donations covered the remainining 1/3rd.  By 1944, there were 52 such centers serving 2,700 children between the ages of 2 and 10 in New York City alone. 

Members of the Committee inspect the Williamsburg Day nursery

In August 1944, a nursery at the Jewish Community Center at 681 Linden Blvd, which received funding from the Committee, was highlighted in the Eagle.  Each day, 25 children, all of whom had mothers working in war industries, adhered to a "busy routine" of playing, learning and eating (and, apparently, carpentry):

Young Artist

Stephen Grenitz and Anna Levenberg at play at the nursery

 Sherry Skudin and David Steur at the nursery

Tina Carsten sawing wood at the nursery

As quickly as the support for working mothers came, so did it disappear.  By 1946, the federal government stopped providing funding for child care.  New York was one of two states (California was the other) to extend state funding, but even the state funding dried up by the fall of 1947.

The assumption that men came home and went straight back to work was a naive one.  Many men never came home.  And many returned with serious injuries, illnesses or psychological traumas that prevented them from resuming their "breadwinning" duties.

As New York State considered cutting off funding for child care, a group of mothers and children protested in Brooklyn, arguing that the war had changed life at home permanently and that there was still a need for child care. 

Mother's Protest Closing of Nurseries, 1947

Funding continued to decrease after 1947, and the question of state and federal funding for child care continues even today.  But we must give credit to the working mothers of post-war Brooklyn for asking an important question of their government: 


Gentrifiers and Nannies: two new books, two upcoming author talks

Mar 21, 2011 11:20 AM | 0 comments

The intermittent stream of new books with significant content relating to Brooklyn has recently delivered to our desks two substantial volumes that will be of interest to our readers.

Suleiman Osman's The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) offers a history of Brownstone Brooklyn's transformation from the run-down slums of the 1940s and 1950s to the current landscape of beautifully renovated houses and apartments selling for millions of dollars. The "brownstoners" celebrated the historic buildings they occupied, joining with poorer residents to battle city planners and local machine politicians. But  by the 1980s the gentrifiers had become "yuppies" and an anti-gentrification movement raised complex questions about the value of gentrification for the original occupants of these increasingly expensive neighborhoods.

Suleiman Osman, Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University and long-time patron of the Brooklyn Collection, will be presenting an illustrated talk here in the Brooklyn Collection Reserve Room in the Central Library on Wednesday May 11th 2011, at 7:00 P.M. As usual we will serve wine and delicious snacks before the talk.

Tamara Mose Brown's book, Raising Brooklyn: Nannies, Childcare and Caribbeans Creating Community (New York: New York University Press, 2011) takes an intimate look at the lives of the childcare workers of Caribbean origin who underpin the economic wellbeing of Brownstone Brooklyn's two-income families. Through careful observation and interviews, Mose Brown shows that while some may be exploited and isolated, for many, daily interactions with each other in social spaces such as parks and libraries allow for a healthy collective life and a flourishing cultural identity. 

Tamara Mose Brown, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, CUNY, will present an illustrated talk here in the Brooklyn Collection Reserve Room in the Central Library on Wednesday May 25th 2011  at 7 P.M.  In spite of the miserable fiscal climate we will not allow our audience to go hungry into this talk either. Cheese and wine start at 6:30 P.M.


Una Furtiva Lagrima

Mar 16, 2011 11:37 AM | 1 comment

Enrico Caruso's golden chord, which kept the world so enthralled, first began to fade at the Academy of Music in Brooklyn on December 11th 1920. There, in the first act of Donizetti's opera, L'Elisir d'Amore, leaning on the shoulder of whichever chorus member happened to be closest to him, Caruso filled handkerchief after handkerchief with blood as he struggled to sing through the pain of a hemorrhaged vessel in his throat.

During a prolonged 45 minute intermission Caruso was examined by his physician and forbidden from continuing with his performance. As the intermission dragged on, the audience -- especially the 300 standees -- grew nervous and attempted to hasten the beginning of the second act by breaking into sudden outbursts of applause, but it was all to no avail. Members of the orchestra appeared on stage only to retrieve their instruments and head home for the night. The musicians were in turn followed by the opera company's Press Representative, William J. Guard who, begging for the indulgence of the audience, explained: "I regret to inform you that shortly before this evening's performance Mr. Caruso burst a small blood vessel in his throat. I assure you the injury is not serious, but despite the artist's protest he has been peremptorily forbidden by his physician to continue." Guard then went on to outline the management's ticket refund policy as the opera-goers gathered their things and slowly filed out of the building.

Though not attributed as a direct cause of his death, the throat hemorrhage that night certainly presaged Caruso's fate. Eight months later his passing was front page news in the Eagle, a paper that frequently covered all things Caruso in both life and death.

We have two photo files on Caruso down in the morgue. The photos include headshots, costumed portraits, photos of his family, and paparazzi-like snapshots of Mrs. Caruso with the suitors she entertained after the tenor's death.

Like the first photo in the post, this too captures Caruso dressed for the role of Eléazar from Halévy's La Juive.

Here is a recording, from the Internet Archive, of Caruso singing the best known aria from that opera, "Rachel, quand du seignur."

And here we see an Eagle-doctored photo of Caruso dressed as Don José in Bizet's opera Carmen.

And a recording of Caruso singing the "Flower Song" from that opera.

 Caruso as Radames in Aida.

And -- you guessed it -- a recording from 1911 of Caruso singing "Celeste Aida" from that opera.

In addition to the photo files in our morgue, I also unearthed a rather slim Biographical File on Caruso -- containing but one article from a 1997 Sunday edition of The New York Times. The article highlights the one and only Enrico Caruso museum in North America, housed in the two-story Gravesend brick home of Italian-American Aldo Mancusi. If you want to learn more about Caruso you can either visit us here at Brooklyn Public Library, or head out to 1942 East 19th Street to see Mr. Mancusi's collection. But before heading out on the B,Q line you can take a virtual tour on YouTube.

I leave you with another Caruso aria, this time from the Donizetti opera in which Caruso performed at the Academy of Music on Brooklyn on that fateful night. Here he is giving exquisite voice to the longing of the peasant, Nemorino, in the aria "Una Furtiva Lagrima."

Brooklyn's Vitaphone Studios

Mar 10, 2011 10:00 AM | 0 comments

Jack Benny about 1930. The woman on the right may be Mary Livingstone, Jack Benny's wife and comedy partner.

The photograph collections of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle are stored in two locations in the library: the 30,000 or so showing Brooklyn scenes are maintained for convenience in file cabinets in a small room close to the Brooklyn Collection reading room. These are the images that are most in demand with our patrons, and it is these that we have made available online where copyright issues permitted. At some time in the distant past these photographs must have been separated out from their companions during a grand triage.

The bulk of the collection remains in the "morgue"--and what a collection! No one who opens a drawer and starts looking can prevent him or herself from being inexorably drawn into the next folder and then the next.  Will it be an original photograph of the Emperor Haile Selassie, or one bearing witness to a touching rescue of kittens from a hole in the wall? An ancient Native American with a face lined like a dried riverbed, or Mrs Erna Smith who hosted a luncheon for ten ladies in remarkable hats? Scenes direct from the trenches of World War I, or construction photographs from a 1930s skyscraper? And in fact, the great triage left plenty of images of Brooklyn still to be discovered in the library's lower decks. Just last week, for example, I came across a folder of images of the old Vitaphone Studios, successors to the better-known Vitagraph Co. down near Avenue M in Midwood.

Exterior of the new sound stage at the Brooklyn Vitaphone Sudios (no date)

The Vitagraph Studios were considered leaders in the art of the silent movie in the early years of the 20th century. Between 1898 and 1926 the studio turned out hundreds of films that enthralled audiences nationwide. Vitagraph was bought by Warner Brothers in 1925, and in 1928 they created a subsidiary that they called Vitaphone to exploit the new field of talkies. The first production was a short film showing the New York Philharmonic.

The discovery in the Eagle morgue files is a group of 8 photographs of the Vitaphone Studios dating from the 1920s and 1930s. Specializing in short movies, the Vitaphone studios often employed vaudeville stars and well-known musicians.

Mischa Elman violinist 1926. The pianist is Josef Bonime. 

The reason we know the name of the pianist is that the invaluable Youtube has yielded up footage of the very recording session documented in the photograph above:

Eddie Craft (Bell Lab) Herman Heller (Musical Director) on sound stage, Brooklyn Vitaphone Studios 1926

An invaluable source of information on Vitaphone is the Vitaphone Project  which seeks to obtain and restore Vitaphone movies. An article in the Editor's Guild magazine by Kevin Lewis provides a short history of the company. He writes, "An East Coast studio was necessary in those early days of sound because the Vitaphone shorts featured vaudeville artists such as Burns and Allen and Metropolitan Opera stars such as Giovanni Martinelli, who would not travel to Los Angeles."

Here for your listening pleasure is that same Giovanni Martinelli in an aria from I Pagliacci, recorded at the Vitaphone studios in Brooklyn in 1926.


The building, at 1277 E. 14th St., currently houses the modern orthodox Shulamith School for Girls.

Left to right: Albert S. Howson, Stanley Watkins, H.M. Warner, Will N. Hays, W.C. Rich, Herman Heller, Henry Hadley, S.L. Warner