Crime Was Weegee’s Oyster
ON the north side of Broome Street, between the Bowery and Elizabeth Street, you can stand where a dead guy once lay. Of course in New York City you can stand on lots of spots where dead people once lay. There are, after all, “eight million stories in the naked city,” as the narrator of “The Naked City,” the 1948 film noir classic, intoned. But as Andrew Izzo sprawled on this sidewalk on the Lower East Side in 1942, Arthur Fellig, one of the city’s most famous photographers, took his picture.
Late on the night of Feb. 2, 1942, Izzo and accomplices tried to hold up the Spring Arrow Social & Athletic Club, near the Bowery. Shot by an off-duty cop, Izzo staggered toward Elizabeth Street and fell dead on his face, his gun skittering across the sidewalk.
Born Usher Fellig in 1899, in an eastern province of Austria, he came with his family through Ellis Island (where his name was Americanized to Arthur) to the Lower East Side in 1910. He left home as a teenager and began working as an assistant to a street photographer who shot tintypes of children on a pony. Through the 1920s he worked as a darkroom assistant at The New York Times and Acme Newspictures, which was later absorbed by U.P.I. Photos.
Weegee’s peak period as a freelance crime and street photographer was a whirl of perpetual motion running from the mid-1930s into the postwar years. Ceaselessly prowling the streets during the graveyard shift, he took thousands of photographs that defined Manhattan as a film noir nightscape of hoodlums and gangsters, Bowery bums and slumming swells, tenement dwellers and victims of domestic brawls, fires and car crashes. He gave it its enduring nickname, the Naked City.
“Weegee captured night in New York back when it was lonely and desolate and scary,” said Tim McLoughlin, editor of the “Brooklyn Noir” anthology series, the third volume of which has just been published by Akashic Books. “He once said he wanted to show that in New York millions of people lived together in a state of total loneliness.”
Manhattan has changed a lot since Weegee’s heyday. Now the Naked City is probably best preserved in the archives of the International Center of Photography, which houses some 20,000 of Weegee’s photographs, along with hundreds of his filmstrips, the newspapers and magazines where his work originally appeared, and two of his hats.
Christopher George, an archivist at the center, has created online maps of many Manhattan sites associated with Weegee. He led me to Centre Market Place, between Broome and Grand Streets. It’s now a quiet row of renovated town houses in the shadow of the former Police Headquarters building, itself converted to luxury apartments.
But when Weegee lived in a single room at 5 Centre Market Place from the mid-1930s to 1947, the street was a drab block of tenements inhabited by reporters and photographers who worked the crime beat. No. 4, known as “the shack,” was their main hangout. Frank Lava’s gunsmith shop, with its wooden revolver sign, was at No. 6. Weegee lived over the John Jovino Gun Shop at 5. (It has since moved, with its own revolver sign, around the corner to Grand Street.) You can still see over the door at No. 7 the gold-lettered sign for Sile Inc., purveyor of “Humane Police Equipment.”
Every morning the narrow block was crowded with paddy wagons (Weegee called them “pie wagons”), bringing in the night’s arrests from various precincts for booking and processing. The newshounds crowded the sidewalk for the morning “perp walk,” when cops paraded their handcuffed catch.
“The perp walk is a combination of courtesy and hubris on the part of the police department,” said Mr. McLoughlin, a former court officer who bought his first service revolver at Jovino’s shop in 1983. “The press wants the photos, and the police want the credit. So the perp walk could be rather elaborately planned.”
Weegee sometimes bribed the police to bring a perp in a different entrance, “so he’d be the only guy standing there with his camera, while everybody else was waiting around the corner,” Mr. McLoughlin said. One of his most striking perp-walk shots was of Norma Parker, a pretty young woman who in 1936 held up a number of restaurants on lower Broadway using a cap pistol, for which The Daily Mirror nicknamed her the Broadway Gun Girl.
“Crime was my oyster,” Weegee wrote in his 1961 memoir, “Weegee by Weegee.” “I was friend and confidant to them all. The bookies, madams, gamblers, call girls, pimps, con men, burglars and jewel fencers.” For his behind-bars portraits of famous gangsters like Dutch Schultz, Legs Diamond, Waxey Gordon and Mad Dog Coll, colleagues called him “the official photographer for Murder, Inc.”
An enthusiastic promoter of his own legend (he billed himself as “Weegee the Famous” and “the World’s Greatest Photographer”), Weegee claimed that his elbow itched when news was about to happen. “Somehow, the word spread that I was psychic because I always managed to have my pictures in the hands of the paper before any news of the event was generally known,” he wrote in “Weegee by Weegee.” Co-workers gave him his nickname after the rage of the time, the Ouija board, and he phoneticized it as Weegee.
His prescience was aided by the police and fire department short-wave radios he installed near his bed (though he had no telephone, claiming he was “allergic” to it) and in his ’38 Chevy. In the car’s trunk he carried photo equipment, a typewriter for photo captions, clothes, salamis and cigars.
From Centre Market Place, Weegee often strolled over to the Bowery for both work and relaxation. Walking the Bowery today, you encounter striking juxtapositions, like homeless men from the Bowery Residents’ Committee shelter cadging smokes outside the former CBGB next door, now a John Varvatos store selling $500 sweaters. In Weegee’s day similar culture clashes happened at Sammy’s Bowery Follies (267 Bowery, between East Houston and Stanton Streets), which from 1934 to 1970 attracted what The New York Times once described as a mixed crowd of “drunks and swells, drifters and celebrities, the rich and the forgotten.”
Weegee (who disparaged The Times as a paper for the “well-off Manhattan establishment”) called Sammy’s “the poor man’s Stork Club” and wrote in the newspaper PM in 1944: “There’s no cigaret girl — a vending machine puts out cigarets for a penny apiece. There’s no hatcheck girl — patrons prefer to dance with their hats and coats on. But there is a lulu of a floor show.”
Among the regulars, he wrote in his 1945 book, “Naked City,” was a woman they called Pruneface and a midget who walked the streets dressed as a penguin to promote cigarettes. When the midget got drunk, Weegee wrote, he “offered to fight any man his size in the house.”
Weegee held two book parties there. At the photography center Mr. George showed me silent-film footage taken in 1946 at the party for Weegee’s second book, “Weegee’s People.” Pretty uptown blondes and dowagers in pearls mingle with toothless crones and panhandlers, as models parade in their foundation garments, and a man with a flea circus puts his tiny performers through their paces.
Next door in front of No. 269 (now the Bowery & Vine liquor store), Weegee performed one of his “psychic” feats. Late on Christmas Eve 1942, he snapped a shot of a local inebriate collapsed on the sidewalk. As Weegee continued on he heard a commotion behind him. The man had stumbled into the street and been struck down by a taxi. Weegee labeled his photographs of the incident “Before and After.”
Around the corner, the proprietor of a cafe at 10 Prince Street, where a coffee shop is today, was smoking a cigarette outside on the evening of Nov. 16, 1939, when an unknown gunman shot him dead. When Weegee arrived moments later, the body was still lying in the doorway, and the fire escapes of all the tenements on the block, which remain largely unchanged today, were crowded with gawkers. He captioned the photograph “Balcony Seats at a Murder.”
Sixty years later history sadly repeated itself at this address when robbers shot and killed the owner and the manager of the Connecticut Muffin Company.
By the end of the war, Weegee was in fact “Weegee the Famous.” Short and pug-ugly, with a boxy Speed Graphic camera always in hand and a cigar permanently in his teeth, he was recognized throughout the city and, increasingly, the country.
His book inspired “The Naked City,” a film in which Weegee makes a fleeting, Hitchcock-like appearance. That prompted a move to Hollywood, where Weegee hobnobbed with stars and got tiny acting parts in a few more films. But he never really fit into what he called “the Land of the Zombies” and moved back to Manhattan in 1951.
His crime photography days were over. Until his death in 1968 he experimented with film and trick photography and toured the United States and Europe, giving lectures and enjoying his fame. In his travels he met Peter Sellers on the “Dr. Strangelove” movie set; an excerpt from an audiotaped conversation is on YouTube.
In 1968 the theater and film director Syeus Mottel, who was experimenting with still photography, was walking in Washington Square Park with a girlfriend. “I see Weegee sitting on a bench looking very forlorn, with an old camera, really a piece of junk, hanging from his neck,” Mr. Mottel recently recalled. “When I asked if he had any advice for a young photographer, he said, ‘Yeah, sharp elbows.’ ” While the young woman charmed Weegee, Mr. Mottel took photographs. When it came time for dinner, Weegee suggested Bernstein-on-Essex, a kosher Chinese restaurant.
In 1957, suffering from diabetes, Weegee took a small apartment at 451 West 47th Street in Hell’s Kitchen, a town house owned by his friend Wilma Wilcox, an amateur photographer. When he died he left the place crowded with equipment “and stacks and stacks of thousands of photos and negatives strewn about,” Mr. George said. “His philosophy of archiving was to keep everything in a barrel, so if anyone wanted anything, they’d come over and fish.” Much of that material came in the early 1990s to the International Center of Photography, which has mounted several exhibitions.
“Along with everything else there was a cardboard box labeled ‘Weegee,’ ” Mr. George said. “It was opened several months after it arrived. Weegee was really in there.” It was his cremated remains. “Apparently some staffers got the heebie-jeebies from having the ashes around,” he said, “so I.C.P. arranged to have them dispersed at sea.”http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2007/12/13/arts/WEEKEND_EXPLORER_FEATURE.html