Over the years, New York City has seen it all: two-bit swindlers and high-priced mistresses, desperate kidnappers and dogged investigators, high society and gritty lawlessness.
Daniel J. Wakin’s meticulously researched and delightfully fun new book “The Man with the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block” (out Jan. 23, $22.99, Arcade Publishing) ties together all those themes by chronicling the lives that passed through seven Beaux Arts town houses on Riverside Drive between 105th and 106th streets.
The “Seven Beauties” were built at the turn of the last century and have since housed residents both famous — like William Randolph Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies — and infamous — like Madeline Tully, a madam who lived at 334 Riverside Dr. when Bernard “Bennie the Bum” McMahon was brought in for emergency medical care after an armored car robbery. Spoiler: His leg gets sawed off.
Wakin, deputy editorial director of NYT Global, alternates recounting the spectacular car heist, which netted more than $400,000 cash, with chapters on each building. He spoke with amNewYork.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
It was never meant to be a book. It really started out as kind of a hobby and then became an obsession. . . . The idea came from writing an item about my building for our co-op newsletter and realizing the incredible wealth of information out there in newspaper databases. This was back, oh, 10 years ago — the Times electronic archive, a new and improved version, was relatively recent. Then it occurred to me, well why don’t I try this at some other building that maybe is more important and interesting? So I randomly picked a couple of the town houses around the corner from me because I knew they were in a landmarked district. And that’s when I was just completely captivated by the idea of uncovering fascinating stuff that was at one time, was totally anonymous and no one knew about, involving really interesting, important people and some not so important but just fascinating characters.
What was the first story you uncovered?
I think that the first big one was the armored car robbery, which is sort of half the book, the story of this gang that used one of the buildings as a hideout. That was kind of a big one because there was so much press about that case in the ’30s and then even in the years that follow, sort of on anniversaries there’d be another recap of this case, and then The New Yorker did a two-part series about it. So there was a wealth of information.
How long did it take to write?
I gathered a fair amount of information and realized I had enough for a great article for the [city section of the Times] . . . and so I pitched it as a story and it ran [on Aug. 26, 2007] kind of in a very superficial form, right, just the bare bones, which was plenty for a good-sized newspaper article. . . . So I’ve been kind of on-and-off working on it since then. Sometimes a year or two would go by when I didn’t even think about it. And then I really got serious about writing it about a year-and-a-half ago.
How did you know when to stop researching all these lives?
I think I had to stop because I really had to start writing once I got the book contract. I still regret not digging further and developing some of the storylines even more, but I imagine [every author] feels that way. . . . There were a few strands that looking back now I regret not developing more. I wish I had spent more time researching [Saul] Bellow and his life and his biography and learning more about him.
Whose writing about old New York do you like?
I’ve read some of Pete Hamill’s New York novels, which I love. And also, it’s kind of obscure and not super serious . . . “Time and Again” [by Jack Finney] … it’s kind of an amazingly evocative book about New York in the past. It starts in the ’70s, a modern-day guy through sort of semi-magical methods sends himself back into 19th-century New York . . . It is so incredibly evocative, it’s very almost tactilely 19th-century New York, the sounds and the smells. . . . And “Winter’s Tale,” I was very struck by that, Mark Halperin’s descriptions of New York. And of course, E.L. Doctorow and “Ragtime” is a classic of that. And in recent years I’ve been reading Edith Wharton, and Edith Wharton is just such a brilliant anatomist of New York society.
What is that essential quality about this city that for you is epitomized in this one block?
You think of a city as a giant metropolis filled with anonymous souls but then you realize, there are so many tight and concentric circles of people who are thrown together from every different walk of life, all living together and interacting, sometimes they don’t even know they’re interacting . . . It’s just sort of pure coincidence, but somehow all these coincidences, if you look at them all together, you realize what a small town the city is, and what a melting pot it is, not just for ethnicities but for people of different walks of life.