The subject is Roe

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The second floor of Le Grenouille, the former stable of Mme. Restell.

Monday, June 27, 2022. A very warm weekend in New York. What you’d expect on a bright and sunny Summer day. Hot is a better word for it. Although it dropped down to the perfect 70s by mid-evening. Otherwise very quiet in my neighborhood

The subject is Roe. What will happen is what always happens in situations like this. Prohibition fosters substitutions, solutions. I read somewhere that one of the major Wall Street banks has already lined up an insurance policy for employee seeking an abortion. It will require her traveling to another place/county, and all expenses will be covered.

It is a matter or subject men never give a thought to — unless there is a direct relationship (a wife, girlfriend) to the matter. Many years ago in the late ’60s, I lived in an apartment (a railroad flat, two to a floor) in an old tenement over on First Avenue in the upper 80s (rent-controlled $124. A month, my wife’s idea). A third floor walk up; four small rooms known as a railroad flat. It was already a very old building, what was left of neighborhood family apartments built for the working people early in the last century. Modest but cheap.

One flight up, on the fourth floor was an older couple who had lived there for almost forty years, and raised a family there. Mrs. Illar, a jolly lady, Hungarian by birth, was long married to Mr. Illar, also a Hungarian by birth and a railroad worker by trade. Mrs. Illar was a very friendly — but not overly — neighbor. Sometimes coming home from the office, in the warmer weather, I’d see her sitting at the window overlooking the avenue, arms resting on the windowsill.

This was a not uncommon sight in all the working family neighborhoods — the mother sitting in the window watching the world. It was an important factor in the residential neighborhoods of working people and their families. Now that neighborhood on the Upper East Side is dominated by apartment towers of 20 to 40 stories, and inhabited by a generally more “professional” working class (who can afford the ample rents).

I was reminded of that neighborhood and my history of living there because of the Roe v. Wade decision, which the world now knows: the US Supreme Court took it off the books. I was reminded of Mrs. Illar because — and I was shocked hearing about it at the time as a young, fairly naïve man in my 20s — I learned from my wife Sheila, who had befriended our kindly upstairs neighbor, that over the years, Mrs. Illar had performed 29 abortions in her apartment in her kitchen.

Ann Lohman (a.k.a. Madame Restell) based on a photograph, 1888.

This goes back to the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s. I don’t know about the ‘60s because she was a senior citizen in her 70s by the time we met her. I don’t know what she charged, but it was income that helped. And she was also the kind of woman who also wanted to help.

It was a business that always had practitioners in New York. And, no doubt, elsewhere; anywhere. Reaching back into the latter part of the 19th century on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, there was a mansion owned by a woman who called herself Madame Restell. She was in business, and very prosperous (and owned the lot next door where she built a small apartment house). She kept her horses in the stable behind the house on 52nd Street.

In the last quarter of the 19th century the Madame was the abortionist for society in New York. She also operated her business out of the stable. The center of her “operations” was on the second floor, which mid-20 century would become the center of private dinner parties.

Mme. Restell and her townhouse are long gone but the stable remains and for the past 50 or 60 years, it has been the home of La Grenouille.

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