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“We’ve already lost too many trees, houses and people…your community – you owe something to it. I didn’t care to run.” – Hattie Carthan
Welcome to Black History Month at the Brooklyn Collection. As most of you know, many great artists, leaders, educators, activists and politicians contributed to Brooklyn’s rich and indispensable Black history. Today we thought we would highlight one of those activists, Ms. Hattie Carthan, a community leader and environmentalist who forever changed Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Hattie Carthan moved to Brooklyn from Virginia, and was once described as “the best thing ever transplanted to Brooklyn.” Considering Brooklyn’s transplant rate, that’s quite a compliment!
In the 1960’s, when blockbusting swept through her neighborhood, Hattie did her best to encourage her neighbors to form a block association. Sadly only seven people showed up to that first meeting. Undeterred, Hattie rallied those neighbors into creating a back-to-school party for the children and the following summer she used the funds that were raised from a pig and chicken roast and bought something she knew the whole neighborhood would appreciate: trees.
Four saplings were planted on Vernon Avenue. But that was just the tip of the iceberg for Hattie. By the time she was finished Bedford-Stuyvesant would have 1,500 new trees spread across 100 blocks thanks to her perseverance.
Hattie’s focus was not just on new trees. She watched over the old trees, too, and in 1969 she set her sights on a 40 foot transplanted magnolia tree, originally planted in 1885. Hattie not only saved the tree from bulldozing, she also got the City of New York to designate the tree as an official city living landmark the following year.
But Hattie still wasn’t done! After saving the magnolia tree she set her sights on the three brownstones behind it and turned them into the Magnolia Tree Earth Center - a conservationist’s dream, with nature programs for school children, summer work study, programs for seniors, a vegetable garden, a research library and even on-the-job training. The Magnolia Tree Earth Center opened on September 18, 1980 when Hattie, by then known as the “Tree Lady of Brooklyn,” turned 80.
The following year, Hattie was presented with the Brownstone Revival Committee’s first annual Genesis Award. By then the Magnolia Tree Earth Center was considered an environmental education institute. From Hattie’s work blossomed the Bedford-Stuyvesant Beautification Program.
Hattie Carthan passed away on April 23, 1984. Her tenacious spirit and hard work not only revitalized Bedford-Stuyvesant’s greenery, it also gave the community an environmental center that flourishes to this day. To honor her work, Brooklyn Botanic Garden Research Center created a hybrid yellow magnolia, which they named in her memory and planted during the ceremony to honor her life.
And because she persisted, Hattie’s 40 foot magnolia tree is still with us.
If you want to learn more about Hattie Carthan, please come visit the Brooklyn Collection or check out our Ephemera collection and clippings file.
Swimming is one of the best ways of keeping physically fit, and can be enjoyed by people of all ages. There are those that swim recreationally, and then there are those brave souls who test the limits of their capabilities by endeavoring to swim the English Channel. One such person was Mrs. Betty Cohn of 120 Ocean Parkway, who became the first grandmother to swim the channel when she swam from France to England in 1951.
News of her swimming prowess was carried in newspapers around the world. like the Singapore Free Press, and Melbourne Australia's Argus newspaper where she said quite unequivocally,"My advice to all grandmothers is, throw away your rocking chairs and knitting needles and get into the water...I've been swimming 45 year, and I'd rather be in the water than on the land."
Always training, she works out at the Hotel St. George gym.
Her road to the English Channel wasn't all smooth sailing. She had to back out of the competition in 1950 due to a lack of financial support. But Mrs. Cohn was very determined. "I'm sure I can do it, I have no fear"
To practice for the 21 mile test in stamina, she took on the comparatively calm Hudson River in the summer of 1950 by swimming 12 miles from Palisades Park to the Statue of Liberty in 4 hours and 15 minutes.
Before her swim her grandchildren apply grease to lessen the affects of the cold water.
Her husband and coach, Dr. Harry (doesn't care much for swimming") Cohn, applies eye-drops.
Afterward the ever confident Mrs. Cohn remarked, "I knew I could do it, now bring on the channel!"
Betty Cohn takes off from Idlewild Airport bound for London with the well wishes from her granddaughter, Zena, grandson Michael, and her son Pvt. Bernard Cohn.
Looking like a modern day "Venus" Betty Cohn relaxes in the waters off of Cape Gris-Nez in France as she waits for more favorable weather conditions.
In August of 1951 with assurance, tenacity, and spinach and milk for nourishment, Mrs. Betty Cohn made history as the first grandmother to swim the English Channel. Well Done!
Recently, I had a to check a number of microfilm reels of the Brooklyn Daily Times. As I scrolled through the reels, a recurring comic feature caught my eye. Modish Mitzi features stunning fashion illustrations and the trials and tribulations of the titular Mitzi, a wealthy fashionista who always has to have the latest styles. With the help of her equally stylish friends Polly and Adelaide, and of course, the funds from her very accommodating father, Mitzi somehow manages to both navigate her socialite lifestyle and always be wearing the most up-to-the-minute 20s and 30s fashions while doing so.
This is the first panel of a comic that appeared in the January 5, 1928 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Times. Titled "Such a Few Little Bundles," the strip has Mitzi proudly showing Dad some of her purchases from the day's shopping trip. As you can see from the panel above, the strip's relatively light narrative is mostly an excuse for fashion and style commentary and detailed fashion illustrations to match.
This last panel from a strip titled "Not What's New, But What's Newest" shows a common theme of the strip: Mitzi always has the very latest fashions, even more so than Polly and Adelaide. In this comic, Mitzi generously gave her friends some bolts of "very new silk prints," but has of course kept the most cutting-edge fabric for her own dress.
I wanted to find out more about the comic and its author, Jay V. Jay, so I did some sleuthing. According to this blog about historic American newspaper comics, Modish Mitzi began in 1923 and ran for over 15 years. Allan Holtz, the comic historian who wrote about the strip, adds: "On top of that it even spawned imitators. A few other titles of this genre are The Stylefinder Family...and The Connoisseur. But easily the most bizarre of the lot is Comrade Kitty, which discussed proletariat fashions in the socialist newpaper The Daily Worker." Who knew that fashion comics were such a popular genre?
Most interesting of all, however, was a comment on Holtz's blogpost regarding the identity of Jay V. Jay. It turns out that the pseudonym actually represents three women who created the comic: writers Virginia Vincent and Jeannette Kienkintveld and artist Laura Johnston. According to the Women in Comics wiki, they even based the comic's three main characters on themselves:
Source: Washington Post, 2 March 1924
"Laura Johnston, artist...insisted upon being her own heroine because what was the use of being the artist if you couldn't give yourself the handsomest clothes?...Adelaide, the Catty Blonde, [is] Jeannette Kiekintveld, who objects to being called catty, and is overruled by the others who say that all blondes are catty...Pretty Polly [is] Virginia Vincent, who is the Younger Generation because she is two years the junior of the others." It was a thrill to discover that this comic which I found so beautiful and funny (I definitely detect a tongue-in-cheek tone to their treatment of Mitzi...) was created by three women.
For more Modish Mitzi, you can search Brooklyn Newsstand (as the comic was occasionally printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle during 1934), come to the library and use our Local Newspapers on Microfilm collection, or simply browse the Barnacle Press website, which has a number of Mitzi strips posted online.
For now, one more comic from the Brooklyn Daily Times titled "Mitzi Just Wears Herself Out!":
This week, guest blogger Sunny Stalter-Pace marks the 50th anniversary of dancer and choreographer Gertrude Hoffmann's death with a post sharing some information about Hoffmann's early life and career. Stalter-Pace is writing a biography of Hoffmann and has used the Gertrude Hoffmann Collection here at the Brooklyn Collection as part of her research.
Gertrude Hoffmann (1885-1966) enjoyed a long career as a performer, choreographer, and producer. Brooklynology introduced the versatile vaudevillian in a blog post that’s now more than 5 years old; it followed that post with another on her most famous act, the scandalous “Vision of Salome” dance. Since October 21 will mark 50 years since her death in Los Angeles, now is a good time to look back on her early career. Her remarkable life on stage is outlined in a typed resume titled “Gertrude Hoffmann: Experiences and Credits” that is part of the Gertrude Hoffmann Collection at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Born Catherine Gertrude Hay in San Francisco, Gertrude Hoffmann changed her name several times early on. She was Kitty Hayes at the Alcazar Theater, then Gertrude Hayes at the Grand Opera House. (These stage names, plus the German character actress named Gertrude Hoffman whose career overlapped with hers, have made it tough to pin down some of the basic chronology of Hoffmann’s life.) She performed as a dancer in the pantomimes, operettas, and extravaganzas that were popular in the late Victorian era. As a member of the Belasco Stock Company, she supported stars of the day such as Florence Roberts and Eddie Foy.
Gertrude played the punningly named “Miss Judge” in the San Francisco tryout of The Night of the Fourth. When the touring company left for New York, she went with them. The show was a failure, playing a mere 14 shows at Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater. But one thing came out of it that was a success: Gertrude married the show’s music director Max Hoffmann in 1901.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Gertrude and Max worked in a touring stock theater group called the Bijou Musical Comedy Company. He wrote the songs, and she staged the dance numbers and performed in the shows. One collaboration was “Sadie My Creole Lady,” a song that debuted in the Bijou show called What Happened to Jones? On the cover of the song’s sheet music an illustration of the titular Sadie seems to make coy eye contact with the viewer. An inset photograph of Gertrude Hoffmann shows her propped on one elbow, reading on a bench. This is no modest ingénue, though: she posed in such a way that her legs, clad in striped tights, are exposed up to the knee. Gertrude’s tights – or lack thereof – would become an important sticking point in her later dances.
Source: Historic American Sheet Music, David M. Rubinstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Members of the Bijou Company traveled to Brooklyn on Labor Day weekend in 1902 to help open the fall season at the Orpheum Theater. The Orpheum was located on Fulton Street and Rockwell Place, near the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Gertrude Hoffmann appears on the top of the Orpheum Bill with fellow Bijou stock company member Little Chip and the New York Theater Ballet. They performed what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle termed a “novel singing and dancing act, ‘My Zulu Lu,’ which has been the hit of the summer season at the New York Theater Roof Garden” (August 31, 1902). This fake African number appeared on the same bill as a duo whose importance to African American theater cannot be overstated: Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, brother and sometimes collaborator of Harlem Renaissance man James Weldon Johnson.
When she appeared at the Orpheum again in 1907, Hoffmann shared a bill with another innovator, cartoonist Winsor McCay. Hoffmann had established herself as a solo performer, one who focused on celebrity imitations. An advertisement in the Brooklyn Public Library’s Gertrude Hoffman Collection shows her as a dainty puppeteer. She sits on her suitcase, holding the strings that lead to celebrity puppets like George M. Cohan, dancer Adeline Genée, and vaudeville’s reigning bad girl Eva Tanguay. Individually they may have been more famous than Hoffmann, but she could bring them all to life onstage.
Source: Gertrude Hoffman Collection at the Brooklyn Public Library.
I’ve only touched on the first decade of Hoffmann’s more than forty years onstage. Some highlights of her later acts included counterfeit Russian ballets, snake dances, and acrobatic acts that would rival present-day Cirque du Soleil. But there was one constant from her early days. In a life otherwise marked by constant change, Gertrude married her music director Max in 1901 and stayed married to him until his death in 1963.
Source: Gertrude and Max Hoffmann Papers, Special Collections & Archives, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University.
Sunny Stalter-Pace is writing a biography of Gertrude Hoffmann. She is an associate professor in the English Department at Auburn University, where she teaches modern drama, American literature, and critical theory. Her first book, Underground Movements: Modern Culture on the New York City Subway, was published by University of Massachusetts Press in 2013. Find her on Twitter at @slstalter.
Note: Previous posts on this blog had spelled Hoffmann’s name with only one N, but primary source documentation spells it with both one and two Ns. In this post, we defer to the expertise and research of our guest blogger, who determined it should be spelled with two Ns based on the spelling of Hoffmann's legal married name.
A couple of months ago, a colleague at the Brooklyn Museum Library tweeted that she had found a film reel in their collection with nitrate film. Since nitrate film is highly flammable and needs to be stored in special conditions in order to prevent it from catching fire, the library needed to identify the film quickly in order to decide whether or not to keep such a dangerous item. All they knew was the film's title, "Brooklyn Progress," the date range, 1933-1937, and that the content included a kind of tour through prominent Brooklyn sites.
Photo courtesy J.E. Molly Seegers
I offered to use Brooklyn Collection resources to try and identify the film, and lo and behold, I was able to find it in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle by using Brooklyn Newsstand:
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 7, 1937
The film was created for Borough President Raymond V. Ingersoll's re-election campaign in 1937. The film's voiceover, according to the Eagle article, has this to say by way of introduction:
"This talking picture...takes the form of an inspection tour of the achievements of the present administration of Borough President Ingersoll and Mayor LaGuardia. Our two actors, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Citizen represent you in this film...Through their eyes you will see the accomplishments of the Fusion-Ingersoll administration in Brooklyn."
A few days later, the Eagle ran an op-ed called "Pictorializing a Campaign" by John A. Heffernan, which describes the film as "a new campaign method" and muses on the "political adaptation of the products of modern science to its purposes."
Having identified the film, the Brooklyn Museum Library searched other collections to see if any other institutions held a copy, and found that only one seems to exist, at the Museum of Modern Art. So they decided to donate their copy to the Library of Congress's Packard Campus for Audiovisual Conservation. Read more on their tumblr here. Excitingly, the experts at the Library of Congress identified the reel as the original camera negative. Due to its historical value, they plan to expedite the film's digitization, so hopefully it will be available for all of us to watch sometime soon.
Those of you who know a bit about BPL's history might recall that Ingersoll was instrumental in helping our Central Library finally get finished, but Ingersoll's "accomplishments" memorialized in the film would not yet have included a completed Central Library, as it was not finished until 1941. However, since Brooklyn Public Library is listed as one of the sites seen in the film, it's possible they visited the Central Library construction site, which could be very interesting to see. Or perhaps they visited some other library branches. Once the film is digitized, we'll be able to find out.
Borough President Raymond V. Ingersoll, center, signing construction contracts for Central Library on December 29, 1937. Also pictured are Philip P. Farley, consulting engineer to the borough president; Edwin L. Garnin, president of BPL's board of trustees; Francis Keally, architect, and Lauson H. Stone, BPL board of trustees member. Photo by Roy Pinney.