Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lost and Found

It isn't often you get the chance to rediscover something that had been lost to history for over fifty years. Tempering my pride at having done just that, however, is the fact that what I rediscovered was fairly trivial. Nevertheless, it is with pride that I now reveal:

Ethel Merman's Birthplace.

That is, she was born in the house that stood precisely here. But where is here? And why didn't anyone know? And how do you know? These are all excellent questions.

First of all, why didn't anyone know? Well, as her biographer Caryl Flinn writes,
In both of her autobiographies, Merman says that she was born... at 359 Fourth Avenue, Astoria [Queens]. Several sources indicate a residence on 33rd Street; the official municipal record gives 265 Fourth Avenue, Long Island City [also Queens].... Sources vary on whether Merman grew up in her birth home or if the family moved when she was a girl.... In her first autobiography, she gives 2903 1st Avenue as the place where she grew up; in her second, 31st Avenue. Her biographer Bob Thomas claimed it was 359 Fourth Avenue.... Like the birth address, the record will never be set entirely straight.
Well I feel confident I set them both straight. But her biographers shouldn't feel bad about not having figured out Ethel Merman's birthplace; indeed, Merman herself wasn't sure: "Since then they have changed the names of the streets in that section and I don't know what it is now called," she writes in her 1978 autobiography, Merman. As Flinn writes, "As early as 1950, Ethel went 'home' to search for her childhood house and couldn't find it."

First of all, the street name changes: these are easy to decipher; "Fourth Avenue" has been called 33rd Street since the 1920s. That was easy to figure out. But what about the number? Where was 359 Fourth Avenue? That was harder to figure out.

As it happens, I live on 35th Street, and I have walked on 33rd Street many times. Several of the old houses have their old addresses. Here's a picture, courtesy of the incomparable Forgotten NY:

So we see 512 Fourth Avenue is now 32-57 33rd Street and 510 Fourth Avenue is 32-59 33rd street. (In case you're wondering, they're between Broadway and 34th Avenue on the east side of the street.)

We learn several things from this. One is that even-numbered addresses were on the east side of the street. Another is that the numbers decrease as you go south. So 359 Fourth Avenue would have been several blocks south of Broadway, perhaps around today's 36th Avenue, on the west side of the street.

So then I did a little "archival research." In the federal censuses of 1910 and 1920 I found the (Zim)Merman family living at 359 Fourth Avenue, between Webster and Washington Avenues—that is, today's 37th and 36th Avenues. (I also found Ethel Merman's mother and grandmother living at the same address in 1900.) I know this block; the west side consists entirely of newer buildings. I thought that this was as far as I'd get. Then I noticed the east side of the street:

As you can see, there are three late-19th-century houses here. So I looked at this side of the street in the censuses, and found that there were indeed three houses on the east side of Fourth Avenue in the early 20th century: 354, 356, and 364.

Here's a view of the block in Google Earth:

You see that they fit perfectly. You can even count the lots where 358, 360, and 362 would have stood had they existed. This lets us triangulate that 359 would have stood across the street from 360. Which is now the right-hand side of the picture at the top of the post.

So that mystery is basically solved. As for the birth record that states she was born at 265 Fourth Avenue, I think that must be a mistake. The census records clearly show that the Zimmerman family was living at 359 Fourth Avenue when Ethel was born (in 1908), and Ethel repeatedly said she was born at home.

So what, then, of the question of whether she moved during childhood, and where to? Well, the 1930 census shows her and her family living at 29-08 31st Avenue. Thus it is clear they moved sometime during the 1920s (the building at 29-08 31st Avenue, an apartment building called the Windsor Garden, was built in 1927). At the very least this gives us a terminus post quem for the move to the Windsor Garden; whether or not there were other previous moves is a good question.

To quote Sarah Silverman, "Yeah, I'm proud of myself."


Anonymous said...

I don't have anything else to add, but since I bugged you last post I feel honorbound to contribute.

Anonymous said...

Man, good contribution.

Karim - Positive thinking

Anonymous said...















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