This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
Leon Trotsky disembarked at New York harbor on January 13, 1917, expelled from Europe for agitating against World War I. His family would settle in the Bronx and call New York home for nearly three months.
The city in 1917 was teeming with revolutionary sentiment, often centered around immigrant communities. The Yiddish-language Forward—which Trotsky dismissed as “a newspaper with the stale odor of sentimentally philistine socialism”—circulated daily to some 200,000 readers. Volkszeitung preached social democracy to the city’s German readers. To this mix, a small group of Bolsheviks published the Russian-language Novy Mir (“New World”) from 77 St. Marks Place, one block from Tompkins Square Park. Trotsky would find work at Novy Mir during his brief US sojourn, commuting to the Lower East Side on the old elevated Third Avenue El.
In his classic biography of Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher writes that the revolutionary’s time at Novy Mir was Trotsky’s “first close association with any Bolshevik circle.” It was in New York that Trotsky formed a bond with Nikolai Bukharin that lasted some eight years, until Bukharin sided with Stalin in the struggle for leadership of the Soviet Union. Here, too, Trotsky met the radical Alexandra Kollontai, though she traveled so much that they spent little time together. The group staked out a far-left, anti-war stance and attempted to sway milquetoast US socialists toward Bolshevik orthodoxy. For a time, Trotsky claimed, the humble brick basement at 77 St. Marks Place served as “the headquarters for internationalist revolutionary propaganda.”
There is little remarkable about the narrow rowhouse just off First Avenue, which since 2000 has housed the Mexican restaurant La Palapa. Inside, an earthy, candlelit vibe predominates, with an ornamental circle of corn husks on the wall and clay figurines nestled in illuminated alcoves. Although the building’s present-day circumstances are more cozy than memorable, it played an outsized, albeit supporting, role in 20th century history—Trotsky, Bukharin, and Kollontai are just a few of the famous names to cross its threshold in the last 100 years.
Like the rest of the block, the plot of land on which 77 sits was carved from a farm owned by Nicholas William Stuyvesant, to whom it passed from great-great-grandfather Peter Stuyvesant, the last director-general of New Amsterdam. Peter received the land in exchange for surrendering to the English in 1664.
The plot first appears in the city’s land records as a distinct property in 1852, when William W. Campbell sold the deed to Zetotes Dickinson. But at that point, it had already passed through a number of hands as part of a larger parcel. Thomas E. Davis was likely the first to develop the lot during his brief ownership from August through November 1843. At the time, Davis was buying all the land he could from the various Stuyvesant heirs in an effort to develop a fashionable residential neighborhood to rival nearby Bleecker Street and Astor Place.
The building spent its first seven decades in relative obscurity, passing from one owner to another, some of whom left lasting changes. In 1873, for instance, Henry Struckhausen converted the attic into a full fourth floor at the cost of $1,700. Not until Novy Mir established its headquarters in the building in 1916 did 77 St. Marks Place imprint itself on the city’s history.
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New York fascinated Trotsky with its wealth and vaulting geometries, “the fullest expression of our modern age.” The family’s $18-a-month apartment offered novel amenities like electric lights, an automatic elevator, and, most thrilling for their two sons, a telephone. When not writing or addressing meetings, Trotsky would head to the public library to research his host country. He was struck by the contrast between New York’s growing affluence and the penury of so many of its citizens.
Once, peering from Novy Mir’s basement window, he spotted “an old man with suppurating eyes and a straggling gray beard” fish a stale hunk of bread from the trash and bang it against the can in a futile effort to split the crust. “Finally,” Trotsky wrote, “he looked about him as if he were afraid or embarrassed, thrust his find under his faded coat, and shambled along down St. Mark’s Place.”
The February Revolution in Russia electrified the intense community of Novy Mir radicals. “Meeting followed upon meeting,” often held at 77 St. Marks Place. Trotsky’s impassioned speeches were the highlight, and he lambasted the Kerensky government as a fig leaf for the ruling class and for continuing Russia’s involvement in the war. The New York Times reported on one meeting at which Trotsky predicted that the provisional government “would probably be short lived, and step down in favor of men who would be more sure to carry forward the democratization of Russia.”
Even after Trotsky left New York in March of 1917, St. Marks Place remained a locus of revolutionary activity. In June of that year, the New York Tribune reported that one of a rash of anti-conscription meetings being held throughout the Lower East Side took place at 77 St. Marks. “Guardsmen” dispelled the melee with nightsticks and bayonets, arresting any man unable to present a draft registration card. “Speakers harangued the crowds in Yiddish, Russian and other languages,” the Tribune wrote breathlessly. “The Stars and Stripes were absent.” Among those detained for lack of a registration card was 20-year-old Fred Fedatoff, of 77 St. Marks Place.
Early next year, Novy Mir set up a recruiting station for New York Russians to enlist in the Red Army, even sending a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson requesting permission to organize “a Russian legion for the defence of the revolution in Russia,” as reported in the New York Tribune. Many heeded this and other calls to join the revolution. In the end, as many as 10,000 Russians left the United States to return to the young country, causing one of the largest “reverse” migrations in US history.
Soon after, Novy Mir closed shop. Around the start of the 1920s, the rowhouse at 77 St. Marks Place entered a quieter but no less controversial phase.
It is not certain when the abortionist Samuel Schwartz, his wife Jeanette, and their three children arrived at 77. The family first appears at this location in the 1920 census, sharing the building with the Hermanns, Schreibers, Browns, and Weinstocks. The Browns and Weinstocks had purchased the property in 1907 and held it intermittently in the name of the family matriarchs, Lizzie and Lena. Samuel bought the property from them in 1920.
In 1925, he filed for permission to convert the ground floor into a maternity hospital. The plan was for his family to live on the second floor, nurses on the third, and the fourth, formerly a single-family residence, to be used for storage. The following year, Samuel transferred ownership of the building to Jeanette.
Jeanette had immigrated to New York from Romania in the last years of the 19th century. Samuel followed a few years later. Their first child, Eloise, was born in 1908. Two more children followed, Suzanne in 1914 and Meyer in 1916. Rosa, Jeanette’s widowed mother, lived with them into the 1930s. The daughters soon married and moved out: Essie, in 1928, to a Brooklyn attorney named Henry Feller, while Susie became Suzanne Weinstein at some point in the 1930s. By 1940, only Meyer, now 24, still lived at home.
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On July 29, 1941, a 34-year-old housewife and mother of two from White Plains was admitted to a local hospital “in a semi-conscious condition.” Agnes Pearson died that evening of peritonitis. Examiners determined the cause of death to be complications from an illegal abortion. Pearson’s husband, Herbert, told police that she had traveled to Manhattan for the procedure.
The next day, police arrested two New York doctors, Samuel Schwartz and Dr. Nathan Schwartz, who was unrelated. During questioning, Samuel, who was 68 years old at the time, told authorities that this was not his first abortion-related arrest. The men were held in county jail with bail set at $10,000.
Although illegal, abortion in the ‘20s and ‘30s was often obtainable—an open secret. Still, the procedure entailed serious risks for both patient and physician. A 1927-28 study found that illegal abortions accounted for at least 14 percent of maternal mortality in the United States. Clinicians convicted of “conspiracy to commit abortion” could serve years in prison.
Moreover, authorities in the 1940s had begun enforcing anti-abortion laws with greater zeal. The Romanian-born Samuel Schwartz, who had specialized in women’s health for decades, must have known that his position was becoming more tenuous.
Authorities moved quickly in the physicians’ case. A grand jury heard evidence against both men on the charge of first degree manslaughter within a week of their arrest and indicted them both. Nathan was charged with performing the abortion while Samuel “at least administered the anesthetic.” The case captured attention outside of New York City. On August 7, 1941, the front page of the Peekskill Evening Star juxtaposes news of the indictment with Nazi forces pushing toward Leningrad and the death of Mussolini’s son in a plane crash. The two doctors paid the high bail and walked free. At a September arraignment, Samuel pleaded not guilty, and the case was left pending.
Yet, a year and a half later, while awaiting trial in Westchester County, the doctor was again arrested on abortion charges. This time the judge set bail at $25,000. Henry Feller, Samuel’s son-in-law, protested the exorbitant amount, as reported in the New York Herald Tribune.
“Judge, how can we make this bail?” Feller said. “How am I going home to my wife and tell her that her father is in jail?”
“Blame it on me,” replied the judge.
By February 1945, the now 71-year-old Samuel changed his plea in the later abortion case from not guilty to guilty—but continued to maintain his innocence in the earlier case of Agnes Pearson’s death. The judge sentenced him to six months in a workhouse and then suspended the sentence until April so the doctor could be home for Passover before he began serving time. Finally, in 1946, both Samuel and Nathan evaded further punishment when a Westchester county judge dismissed their five-year-old manslaughter charges.
But the Schwartzes’ time at 77 St. Marks Place was coming to a close. Jeanette transferred ownership of the property to her three children in 1942. It is unclear whether the couple still lived in the rowhouse when she died in 1950. If they did, they would have received a scare in 1948, when home invaders pistol whipped one of their tenants, 30-year-old Louisa de Sota. The blow to de Sota’s scalp caused the gun to fire into the ceiling. Other tenants came running, and the attackers fled.
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In 1953, three years after Jeanette died, the three Schwartz children, Eloise, Suzanne, and Meyer (who had followed his father into medicine and now called himself Dr. Michael Garson), sold the property at 77 St. Marks Place to Charles and Charlotte B. Lester for $23,000. Arranging the sale was an up-and-coming attorney named Emanuel P. Popolizio, better known as Wally, who would one day head New York’s Housing Authority under Mayor Ed Koch. Permit papers for the sale reveal that, in an echo of the building’s Novy Mir days, a Ukrainian print shop named Dnipro was operating in the basement.
The Lesters appear almost nowhere in contemporary newspapers, but with their purchase, they became landlords of a prominent tenant: English-American poet W. H. Auden. The writer had been peripatetic since his 1939 arrival in New York, but in 1953, in search of a “homier nest,” he moved into the flat on the second floor of 77 St. Marks with his writing partner and former lover, Chester Kallman. Auden would remain there until 1972, the year before his death.
The painter Larry Rivers, who lived in the next flat up, described the couple’s housewarming party:
Chester invited a tall, muscular sailor who showed up in a uniform, a boy from Iowa, who after three cups of Chester and Wystan’s concoction of English tea, white wine, and hundred-proof vodka slipped into a pair of black silk stockings and sheer lace panties and demurely worked a kosher salami into his asshole, singing ‘Anchors Aweigh.’ Wysten told Chester in a loud stage whisper to ‘get that hidee-ola out immediately.’
Auden was one of several literati moving to the Lower East Side at the time. Two years before, in 1951, Allen Ginsberg moved into 206 East 7th Street. Norman Mailer claimed 39 First Avenue, six blocks south of Auden. It was the heyday of New York’s post-war beats-and-bohemians moment, with writers and artists spilling from Greenwich Village into the cheaper Lower East Side, now marketed as the East Village. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko displayed their work at galleries scattered around East 10th Street. The Phoenix Theater set up shop in the former Yiddish-language Jaffe Art Theater and helped kickstart the Off-Broadway movement.
Conditions in Auden’s walk-up were bleak. Hannah Arendt, one in a parade of famous visitors, wrote that “his slum apartment was so cold that the water no longer functioned and he had to use the toilet in the liquor store at the corner.” (Auden would also escape to Austria most summers.)
Stefan Lutak, Holiday Cocktail Lounge’s longtime owner, recalled the poet sifting through a streetside trash can like Trotsky’s vagrant some 50 years earlier. Auden explained that he was looking for his $30,000 check, which someone had thrown away. Finding no luck, Auden came in for a drink still reeking of garbage.
“He was rich man, but sloppy,” Lutak explained.
Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was an occasional visitor at Auden’s apartment in the late 1960s, writing that it was best to visit his friend for tea because “by four o’clock he had finished the day’s work but had not yet started the evening’s drinking.” During one of Sacks’s visits, Auden explained the difference between an alcoholic and a drunk: “An alcoholic has a personality change after a drink or two, but a drunk can drink as much as he wants.”
“I’m a drunk,” Auden added, for clarity.
The flat at 77 St. Marks almost claimed another famous tenant, Russian poet and exile Joseph Brodsky. When Brodsky was forced from the Soviet Union in 1972, he fled into Auden’s care, but not in New York. Three months before Brodsky’s arrival Auden had abandoned the city for Oxford and Kirchstetten, Austria, where Brodsky moved in with him. In Brodsky’s description, Auden set about sponsoring his younger friend’s new life in the West “with the diligence of a good mother hen.” Auden spoke “ruefully about having given up his flat on St. Marks Place—as though I were planning to settle in his New York,” Brodsky wrote.
Instead, Auden was to be the building’s last celebrity occupant. The neighborhood was changing. In his exit interview with the New York Times, the poet confessed to carrying five dollars at night in case of muggers—plus, he did not care for the new macrobiotic specialty shop that had replaced the delicatessen around the corner.
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Back in 1957, the Lesters sold the property to the Alpha Powderpuff and Novelty Corporation, the property management vehicle of Albert Lorber. Trained as a medical chemist, Lorber got into the property business with his brother, Morris, and held onto 77 St. Marks Place for the rest of the 20th century. In his later years, he collected rents from an address in Coral Gables, Florida.
But as the millenium approached, Lorber began to withdraw from the New York real estate scene. He passed 77 St. Marks Place to a property management LLC in 1996, after which the building’s records show a steady pace of renovations, mortgage payments, and management delegations—same as any rental property in one of the country’s most sought-after neighborhoods.
Perhaps the last sign of the building’s illustrious 20th century past was the 1983 installation of a plaque to recognize No. 77 as Auden’s longtime residence. Someone stole it in 1997.