Journey to the Abyss

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Lower Broadway, circa 1890s.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023. Fair weather, yesterday in New York with temps in the mid-to-upper 50s during the day; the same weather we had over the New Year’s Eve weekend. The city was very quiet, very low traffic and lots of the businesses and the restaurants closed specifically for the holiday.

The holiday’s day-off inspired me to take some time to look over my always expanding book collection to figure out which books I can say goodbye to in this new year.  Then I came upon Journey to the Abyss; The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918, edited and translated by Laird M. Easton (Knopf).

Click to order Journey to the Abyss.

Not surprisingly, diaries always attract me although I admit they can be slow going and even drown you in boredom. I’m sure that when I bought this book and saw that it was almost 900 pages in length, I naturally thought it would lose me quickly because my time to read is limited. Nevertheless, after picking it up again all these years later I could not put it down!

Count Harry is a fascinating fellow and an excellent writer and reporter. A member of an aristocratic and wealthy German family, well educated, his sphere of interest was mainly European in flavor, but he covered the whole world. He was one of those men who “knew everybody” of his day, and had the curiosity to seek out, meet and appreciate a wide variety of personalities in the arts and culture, politics, literature and society. His entries reveal a cognizant, highly sociable man of intellect – not without its flaws – and a thinker.

The posts move along so quickly that before the day was out I’d covered the first hundred pages, leading me to believe that I’ll probably read the whole thing again just to see “what else.”

To quote from the book’s sleeve: “The diaries present brilliant, sharply etched, and often richly comical descriptions of his encounters, conversations, and creative collaborations with some of the most celebrated people his time: Otto von Bismarck, Paul von Hindenburg, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Straus, Igor Stravisnky, Sergei Diaghilev, Vaslav Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Sarah Bernhardt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Marie Rilke, Paul Verlaine, George Bernard Shaw, Max Klinger, Max Beckmann, Aristide Maillol, Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Eduard Vuillard, Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Pierre Bonnard,” to name only a handful of the characters the age of the Belle Epoque whom he met, knew, and wrote about intimately in his private diaries; as well as many Americans.

SS City of New York, the ship that Count Harry Kessler traveled on to New York.

The following is an abridged excerpt from his diaries written 132 years ago this year, in 1892 when, as a 24-year-old, he made his first visit to America, and New York, on what would become a round the world tour.

New York was just emerging a major capital in the world. It wasn’t there yet. The city was still mainly what we know as downtown although the rich had already begun to build their palaces on Fifth Avenue south of 59th Street, and the Central Park, still in development, was already 20 years old. But the Age of the Robber Barons in the American Industrial Revolution was in place and roaring, attracting worldwide attention. These are a few excerpts from that first trip on the steamships The City of New York, arriving in our town just a week from today (120 years ago).

Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, 1897. The house on the far right is the Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion where Bergdorf’s stands today. The empty space in front of it is now occupied by the Pulitzer Fountain. To the left and center is where the Apple Cube now stands and the space to the left is occupied by the General Sherman statue today.

New York. January 4, 1892. Monday.
Today at noon we had our first glimpse of land …. The yellow beach of Long Island, the low chain of hills behind it, the bizarre, zebra-striped lighthouse of Fire Island, Sandy Hook, Staten Island, New Jersey …. Villages come into view until we pass the Sandy Hook lighthouse …. Fishing boats with swollen sails rock on the waves; steamships, their smokestacks puffing, come toward us; two-story, white ferries plash by majestically. As twilight descended, framed by the heights of the Narrows, New York lay before us, a low zigzag line in the evening fog …. Above the city there floats a bright red glow; the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge shine like a ruby necklace in the night, over the land and the water the sickle moon casts its pale beams. And what a wild phantasmagoria is such an entrance into a harbor at night!

Fire Island Lighthouse.

New York. January 5, 1892. Tuesday.
Through the streets. The overwhelming impression is one of nervous haste and unrest. People don’t walk, they run, most while reading a newspaper. Since the pavement is miserable one of them breaks a leg from time to time, but that’s not important, here there are more than enough people. One horse-drawn bus chases the other through the streets. On the avenues, trains rush by overhead. In every possible spot there are advertisements; concise, to spare time, and most addressing the reader directly to heighten the effect. The problem is to make the strongest possible impression in the shortest possible time. In the end it is as if you were wandering through a gigantic outside market in which everyone praises his wares with cries and drumrolls.

Horse drawn street cars.

New York. January 6, 1892. Wednesday.
Two characteristics of life here strike me ever more vividly: the lack of service, e.g., in the hotel, and the lack of concern for the personal safety of the individual everywhere you go. Everyone must look out for himself as best he can.

My room at the Hoffman House is made once every morning, otherwise no one bothers about it. The dirty water in the washbowl remains there, fresh water is not brought, and if you ring, a servant comes with an angry face and asks grumpily what one wants. It is impossible in the hotel to have a coat pressed or a button sewed. On the omnibuses there is not the slightest provision to prevent a passenger from being run over by the opposite bus while disembarking or banging his head against a post of the elevated train. Today it snowed, melted, and then froze over, and the streets are alike an ice rink, but it doesn’t occur to anyone to cover them with sand. No one seems to know that a street’s pavement requires repair from time to time.

The elevated train.

New York. January 10, 1892. Sunday.
Visits: Everywhere the decorations are very gorgeous, very tasteful, not too richly overladen at least as far as the gilding goes, but absolutely no original, individual taste. The rooms could be equally at home in Paris as here. In the end you have the impression of visiting an upholstery exhibition, everywhere the same Henri II or Louis XV or Louis IVI furniture, the same parquets, the same Gobelins, this overabundance of paintings. Absolutely no individuality as in the small boudoirs of Paris or in the English sitting rooms. There is nothing of the individuals personality in these rooms.

In the afternoon a reception at Mrs. Ives’s. One spoke a lot about the death of the Duke of Clarence. One young girl said “the prospects of one or two American girls have brightened by that.” Prince George (late George V of England) has fallen in love with them in Bermuda. She asked me if it would not be possible for Prince George to marry an American from a good family, since  here there is no nobility …. The newspapers have launched a campaign against the owners of “dives,” notorious bars in the Bowery. The articles are always on the front pages. Each one does this as publicity for their virtue and seeks to give the appearance of being the only one who wages this “crusade. Interesting as a sign that here the issue deeply interests many people. Would very many people in Germany … be so interested in such matters?

Mrs. Astor.

New York. January 16, 1892. Saturday.
In the evening dined with the Degeners’ with young people, almost all descended from German fathers and mothers. They all speak German, but with an (American) accent, and among themselves they speak English. Before and after Degeners’ attended a political dinner of the Reform Club at the Sherrys’. Met Spring, Williams, and other leaders of the Democratic Party …. “Honorable So-and-so” from Georgia was speaking about the tariff issue with so much passion that the champagne glasses were shaking.

When someone says something that hits a chord, they all stand up and shout for minutes, waving their napkins. Certainly the Americans are, of all the people I know, the ones with the best lungs.

I brought up the deficient street cleaning, repair of the pavement, etc. Why aren’t the people responsible thrown out? Everyone is too busy to bother about something like that, that’s why they let it happen, and the same thing is true of politics. That’s why politics is in the hands of crooks who turn it into a business and bums and idlers who have nothing better to do.

New York. January 18, 1892. Monday.
In the evening the New Year’s Ball, the greatest ball of the season, organized by the Astors, McAllister, Bradley Martin, the crème de la crème of New York society.

Over one thousand invitations were sent. The room where one danced was white in the rococo style with garlands of fresh red roses. The sight was not much different than in Europe, only that the girls were almost all thoroughly beautiful, slender appearances with blond hair, dazzling skin, and frequently dark, glowing eyes. The tone is much freer than in Europe.

The girls themselves conduct in turns the conversation instead of leaving this business to their partners as in Europe. This gives the entire conversation something comradely. You get to know a young girl better in one evening than you do in Europe in a week.  Generally it seems that the women here are fully responsible for society, the men are too occupied with their business to be able to sparkle either socially, or insofar as that is necessary in society, intellectually.

New York. January 21 1892. Thursday.
In the morning I walked along South Street down by the harbor. The houses here are small, from the old days. Where the thick crust of dirt that covers them has cracked, the old glaring coats of red, yellow, and great paint appear. Ramshackle wooden arcades cover the tops and protect the wares piled in front of the doors for display: stiff, clumsy sailor’s jackets with their sleeves stretched out; dusty, worn-out suits which flutter ghostlike back and forth in the wind; unhealthy hunks of red flesh, keeping time with the clothes, piles of slimy clams in cozy proximity with oranges, apples and half-rotten bananas.

The smell that all of this creates is benumbing, a sort of compromise between fish, tar and rotting fruit. The pavement consists of a row of deep holes in which half-melted, dirty snow, rusty pieces of iron, rotten banana peels …

South Street, 1901.

Through this filth a swarm of men from all the countries of the world, white and black, European American, and Chinese, wades and pushes yet you are surprised to see the relative peace and quiet that prevails here when you arrive from Broadway or Wall Street.

Men stand in front of the bars and smoke their pipes contemplatively; street urchins tussle with each other in the mud, old discarded carts are left abandoned in the middle of the street. You would almost forget that you are in New York if the sailboats were no anchored directly on the bank of the street, their masts today glittering against the flat winter sky, and if in the background the Brooklyn Bridge did not thrust its majestic arc against the bright sunlight.

Banana cart, Lower East Side.

January 22, 1892. Friday.
At noon spent a long time on the Brooklyn Bridge (ed’s note: then the highest elevation in the city, giving view to the entire southern end of the very hilly Manhattan as well as Brooklyn). I know little that can compare with the view: underneath the wide, majestic river; on its banks the two large cities with their undulating sea of roofs, their domes and towers, their smoking chimney stacks, their rows of wharves reaching down to the water.

Untold numbers of rowboats rock on the green waves of the river, steamships hasten out to sea, ferries with long trails of white steam travel busily back and forth. And beyond, over the towers of the city, over the forest of masts in the harbor, the bay glistens, the white sails glow in the sunshine. The feeling of unlimited wealth of bold, youthful energy, of the grandiose creation of million of people, the sensation of immeasurable strength, creates the feeling of an almost painful aesthetic  beauty; as is the case with all great natural spectacles, among the towering peaks of the Alps, on the storm-tossed sea.

(Courtesy Kenneth M. Newman, Old Print Shop, New York City).
Looking southwest from the Brooklyn Bridge.

New York. February 29, 1892. Monday.
In Madison Square Theatre. A Trip to Chinatown; a female dancer appeared in a thin muslin dress reaching to her feet. The auditorium and the front part of the stage were darkened; the dancer was lit from behind. The muslin dress became invisible and the body of the woman appeared starkly lit. She would have been more forthright, that is, less provocative and lascivious if she had appeared naked. The public, among them women, families, etc., clapped.

The Patriarch’s Ball.

Later the Patriarch’s Ball, the final and most chic of the season. Danced with Miss Cameron, Mrs. Astor, Miss McAllister, etc.

The most striking figure in the social scene here is Ward McAllister, its “leader” and autocrat, characteristic of it in both its faults and its merits. He lacks everything that, in Europe, belongs to Chesterfield or Metternich: family, connections, an elegant appearance, wit. On the other hand he posses an inborn genius for the role of head chef or steward, has insatiable social ambition, unshakeable aplomb, and unlimited free time.

Several decades ago, as the new Croesuses began to want to spend their money in the manner of London or Paris, it turned out that the women did not understand how to do this and the men did not have the time. McAllister took everything in hand. He bought the silverware, arranged the flowers, ordered the dinners, led the balls. Where he was, there everything was “in style,” his clique soon was the society or at least he made it appear thus in the newspapers.

Ward McAllister.

He published the names of his clients, along with a few representatives of the families of the New York patricians, which he added. It came to exactly four hundred and these “Four Hundred” have been in undisputed possession of the social throne ever since.

They are mostly hospitable, likeable millionaires, “exclusive” not for any particular reason but because exclusivity, like diamonds, champagne, and French paintings, comes with belonging to “Society.”

The men are businessmen, the older ones are often vulgar, the younger for the most part boring, loud and suffering from ulcers. The girls, by contrast, are prettier than the ones you see at European balls: tall, slender apparitions with dark eyes and a complexion like milk and roses; never abashed and yet seldom forward, well read without being bluestockings, they ride splendidly and dance like sylphs.

You wonder how the haggard men, who resemble traveling salesmen and stand around in the doorways, could have such daughters and sisters. I only know one type of woman whom I prefer to the well-brought-up American girl, that is, the aristocratic and beautiful Englishwoman.*

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