Journals 5.2 – A Frenchman in America by Max O’Rell (Part 2)

The following is a continuation of my essay on A Frenchman in America.  See the earlier entry from 17th July for the first part.


St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, photographed in 1913.

O’Rell’s first impressions of New York were not overwhelmingly positive, but this was not helped by miserable weather, the after-effects of a stormy voyage, and a pang of homesickness. The mood of the locals was not good either. O’Rell was travelling during the great flu pandemic of 1889-90, which had spread from Russia, across Europe and now to America. Deaths from the flu reached their peak during January 1890, exactly when O’Rell arrived in New York.

The country is seized with a panic. Everybody has the influenza. Every one does not die of it, but every one is having it. The malady is not called influenza over here, as it is in Europe. It is called “Grippe.” No American escapes it. Some have la grippe, others have the grippe, a few, even, have the la grippe. Others, again, the lucky ones, think they have it. Those who have not had it, or do not think they have it yet, are expecting it. The nation is in a complete state of demoralization. Theaters are empty, business almost suspended, doctors on their backs or run off their legs.

Returning to New York later on his tour, O’Rell was able to give a more balanced view of the city, free from the effects of sea sickness and with the influenza crisis past its peak.

The more I see New York, the more I like it. After lunch I had a drive through Central Park and Riverside Park, along the Hudson, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I returned to the Everett House through Fifth Avenue. I have never seen Central Park in summer, but I can realize how beautiful it must be when the trees are clothed. To have such a park in the heart of the city is perfectly marvelous. It is true that, with the exception of the superb Catholic Cathedral, Fifth Avenue has no monument worth mentioning, but the succession of stately mansions is a pleasant picture to the eye. What a pity this cathedral cannot stand in a square in front of some long thoroughfare; it would have a splendid effect. I know this was out of the question. Built as New York is, the cathedral could only take the place of a block. It simply represents so many numbers between Fiftieth and Fifty-first streets on Fifth Avenue.

Now nestled incongruously between skyscrapers, the Neo-Gothic St. Patrick’s Cathedral began construction in 1858, but work stalled during the Civil War. It was finally completed in 1878. At the time of O’Rell’s visit, the spires had recently been added, in 1888 (incidentally, the landmark features in Gremlins 2, when a gremlin becomes a gargoyle on its façade!).

One of the first tasks for O’Rell upon his arrival was to give some interviews to journalists. The arrival of a popular author in the country was not an event to go unreported, and representatives arrived from the Tribune, the Sun, the Herald and the Star. O’Rell found being interviewed a generally pleasant experience, and was frank with his criticism of those who refuse to be interviewed, or consider it a nuisance (with the exception of a king or a prime minister).

Journalists in the US tended to be more concerned with gossip than those in Britain or France, and journalism was of a style approaching what we would now consider to be the tabloid press. Articles about O’Rell would generally include some detailed description of his appearance, a journalistic style peculiar to America at the time. O’Rell gives the following example:

“The lecturer is a man of about forty, whose cranium is getting visible through his hair. He wears a double eye-glass, with which he plays while talking to his audience. His handkerchief was black-bordered. He wore the regulation patent leather shoes, and his shirt front was fastened with a single stud. He spoke without effort or pretension, and often with his hands in his pockets, etc.”

Occasionally this approach was taken to extremes, such as a journalist who wrote ‘twenty lines consecrated to my lecture, and half a column to my hat’. The problem was that the hat was brown, whereas the fashion in America at the time was for black hats. O’Rell decided to take some drastic action:

I was so fond of that poor brown hat, too! It was an incomparably obliging hat. It took any shape, and adapted itself to any circumstances. It even went into my pocket on occasions. I had bought it at Lincoln & Bennett’s, if you please. But I had to give it up. To my great regret, I saw that it was imperative: its popularity bid fair to make me jealous. Twenty lines about me, and half a column about that hat! It was time to come to some determination. It was not to be put up with any longer. So I took it up tenderly, smoothed it with care, and laid it in a neat box which was then posted to the chief editor of the paper with the following note:

Dear Sir :

I see by your estimable paper that my hat has attracted a good deal of public attention during its short sojourn in your city. I am even tempted to think that it has attracted more of it than my lecture. I send you the interesting headgear, and beg you will accept it as a souvenir of my visit, and with my respectful compliments.

A citizen of the Great Republic knows how to take a joke. The worthy editor inserted my letter in the next number of his paper, and informed his readers that my hat fitted him to a nicety, and that he was going to have it dyed and wear it.

O’Rell had a generally positive view of the American press. By virtue of the gossipy style, the papers were ‘readable from the first line to the last’ and O’Rell predected that ‘journalism will become more and more American’ as ‘democracy makes progress in England.’

A free country possesses the government it deserves, and the journalism it wants. A people active and busy as the Americans are, want a journalism that will keep their interest awake and amuse them; and they naturally get it.

O’Rell cited the meeting between Stanley and Livingstone, 20 years previously, as an example of the power of American journalism, as Stanley’s expedition was funded by the New York Herald.

Speaking of American journalism, no man need use apologetic language. Not when the proprietor of an American paper will not hesitate to spend thousands of dollars to provide his readers with the minutest details about some great European event. Not when an American paper will, at its own expense, send Henry M. Stanley to Africa in search of Livingstone. Not so long as the American press is vigilant, and keeps its thousand eyes open on the interests of the American people.

Having conducted the necessary introductory interviews on his arrival in the States, it was time to ‘open the show’ in Boston. The first stop on the tour was the Tremont Temple in Boston, which had suffered fire damage in 1879, and would do so again just three years later in 1893. The existing larger building opened in 1896. O’Rell was greeted with an audience of about two and a half thousand people, and the newspapers gave favourable reviews the following morning.

Before examining the journal and looking at O’Rell’s observations in their historical context (the raison d’être of the blog), it would be a crime not to take a look at some of O’Rell’s anecdotes from his lectures, as they are so entertaining. Any more than a small selection would be beyond the remit of the blog, but as usual I strongly suggest getting hold of an original copy of the book to enjoy the full text.

I have never been able to lecture, whether in England, in Scotland, in Ireland or in America, without discovering, somewhere in the hall, after speaking for five minutes or so, an old gentleman who will not smile. He was there last night, and it is evident that he is going to favor me with his presence every night during this second American tour. He generally sits near the platform, and not unfrequently on the first row. There is a horrible fascination about that man. You cannot get your eyes off him. You do your utmost to “fetch him” — you feel it to be your duty not to send him home empty-headed; your conscience tells you that he has not to please you, but that you are paid to please him, and you struggle on. You would like to slip into his pocket the price of his seat and have him removed, or throw the water bottle at his face and make him show signs of life. As it is, you try to look the other way, but you know he is there, and that does not improve matters.

O’Rell goes on to reflect on some previous lectures in other countries, including Britain. In particular, he relates an experience from Birmingham, when a man sat in the front row frowning, ‘his mouth gaping, and his eyes perfectly vacant’. Surprisingly, the man appeared afterwards backstage to voice his appreciation:

He advanced toward me, took my hand, and said :

“Thank you very much for your excellent lecture, I have enjoyed it very much.”

“Have you?” said I.

“Would you be kind enough to give me your autograph?” And he pulled out of his pocket a beautiful autograph book.

“Well,” I said to the secretary in a whisper, “this old gentleman is extremely kind to ask for my autograph, for I am certain he has not enjoyed my lecture.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Why, he never smiled once.”

“Oh, poor old gentleman,” said the secretary; “he is stone deaf.”

On another occasion, O’Rell won over an unreceptive audience entirely by accident. He was faced with ‘half a dozen hair-parted-in-the-middle, single-eye-glass young swells’ in the crowd, who ‘never relaxed a muscle except for yawning.’

I had spoken for nearly an hour when, by accident, I upset the tumbler on my table. The water trickled down the cloth. The young men laughed, roared. They were happy and enjoying themselves, and I had “fetched” them at last. I have never forgotten this trick, and when I see in the audience an apparently hopeless case, I often resort to it, generally with success.

During his lecture in Boston, O’Rell offered the opinion that Americans are undoubtedly enormously successful but had perhaps sacrificed happiness in the pursuit of success, by living ‘in a whirl’. He contrasted the ‘little French shopkeeper’ who closes his shop at lunchtime to have dinner with his family to the American who puts ‘back in five minutes’ on the door and eats so fast that their ‘antidyspeptic pill-makers cover your walls, your forests even, with their advertisements.’ As a consequence of naming a particular firm of pill-makers, O’Rell received a letter on his return to New York, offering him $1000 to repeat the comment in every subsequent lecture on his tour. O’Rell took care not to mention the company again. It is a good illustration of the extent of his fame, that a company would be prepared to offer tens of thousands of dollars in today’s terms for a simple mention in some lectures.

Returning to the subject of American audiences, O’Rell gave the following assessment of various different characters he often encountered during his lectures.

The man who won’t smile is not the only person who causes you some annoyance.

There is the one who laughs too soon; who laughs before you have made your points, and who thinks, because you have opened your lecture with a joke, that everything you say afterward is a joke. There is another rather objectionable person; it is the one who explains your points to his neighbor, and makes them laugh aloud just at the moment when you require complete silence to fire off one of your best remarks.

There is the old lady who listens to you frowning, and who does not mind what you are saying, but is all the time shaking for fear of what you are going to say next. She never laughs before she has seen other people laugh. Then she thinks she is safe.

All these I am going to have in America again; that is clear. But I am now a man of experience. I have lectured in concert rooms, in lecture halls, in theaters, in churches, in schools. I have addressed embalmed Britons in English health resorts, petrified English mummies at hydropathic establishments, and lunatics in private asylums.

I am ready for the fray.

The third part of this article will follow in a few days.  There is a new post on Windows into History at least every other day, so please remember to add this blog to your favourites and come back soon!

About Roger Pocock

Author of Co-writer on Editor of
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