Journals 5.3 – A Frenchman in America by Max O’Rell (Part 3)

The following is a continuation of my essay on A Frenchman in America.  For the previous parts please see the earlier entries from 17th and 21st July.


The original Metropolitan Opera House, photographed in 1905

Travelling around the US for several months obviously involved staying in many different hotels, but O’Rell considered them ‘all alike’, with a ‘large hall, a counter behind which solemn clerks, whose business faces relax not a muscle, are ready with their book to enter your name and assign you a number.’

For the time being you lose your personality and become No. 375, as you would in jail. Don’t ask questions; theirs not to answer; don’t ring the bell to ask for a favor, if you set any value on your time. All the rules of the establishment are printed and posted in your bedroom; you have to submit to them. No question to ask — you know everything. Henceforth you will have to be hungry from 7 to 9 am; from 1 to 3 pm; from 6 to 8 pm. The slightest infringement of the routine would stop the wheel, so don’t ask if you could have a meal at four o’clock; you would be taken for a lunatic, or a crank (as they call it in America).

Then there are the bedrooms, lacking any paintings, in contrast to Britain or France, and with stern notices outlining ‘what the proprietor’s responsibilities are, and at what time the meals take place’, and ‘all that you must not do, such as your own washing in the bedroom’.

First of all, a notice that, in a cupboard near the window, you will find some twenty yards of coiled rope which, in case of fire, you are to fix to a hook outside the window. The rest is guessed. You fix the rope, and — you let yourself go. From a sixth, seventh, or eighth story, the prospect is lively.

The dining rooms were a further reminder that ‘a paid servant’ is ‘a master in America’. The guests tended to be awe-struck by the organised and disciplined nature of the room, and solemnly and quietly ‘bolt their food as quickly as they can’. The chief reason for this was the head waiter, who took his responsibilities very seriously:

With a superb wave of the hand, he signs to you to follow him. He does not even turn round to see if you are behind him, following him in all the meanders he describes, amid the sixty, eighty, sometimes hundred tables that are in the room. He takes it for granted you are an obedient, submissive traveler who knows his duty. Altogether I traveled in the United States for about ten months, and I never came across an American so daring, so independent, as to actually take any other seat than the one assigned to him by that tremendous potentate, the head waiter. Occasionally, just to try him, I would sit down in a chair I took a fancy to. But he would come and fetch me, and tell me that I could not stay there.

O’Rell was much more complimentary about the ‘queenly’ waitresses, with their ‘stately bearing’. He noticed that they tended all to have the same hairstyle, ‘a gigantic mass of frizzled hair’, worn almost as a badge of honour. But a great amount of freely flowing hair was not without its consequences:

All the waitresses have this coiffure. It is a livery, as caps are in the Old World; but instead of being a badge of servitude it looks, and is, alarmingly emancipated — so much so that, before making close acquaintance with my dishes, I always examine them with great care. A beautiful mass of hair looks lovely on the head of a woman, but one in your soup, even if it had strayed from the tresses of your beloved one, would make the corners of your mouth go down, and the tip of your nose go up.

O’Rell was disappointed by the amount of food wastage in hotels, something that was unfamiliar to a European. Although the term ‘American Dream’ was many years in the future, there is no doubt that there was a great deal of success and wealth in the US in the late 19th Century, and the country was not many years away from becoming the world’s largest economy. However, this was the height of the ‘Gilded Age’ as coined by O’Rell’s contemporary and rival Mark Twain, with a clear dividing line between the very rich and the very poor, and little between those two extremes. The wealth in the hotels was on display in a way that displeased O’Rell.

Every day, and at every meal, you may see people order three times as much of this food as they could under any circumstances eat, and, after picking it and spoiling one dish after another, send the bulk away uneaten. I am bound to say that this practice is not only to be observed in hotels where the charge is so much per day, but in those conducted on the European plan, that is, where you pay for every item you order. There I notice that people proceed in much the same wasteful fashion. It is evidently not a desire to have more than is paid for, but simply a bad and ugly habit. I hold that about five hundred hungry people could be fed out of the waste that is going on at such large hotels as the Palmer House or the Grand Pacific Hotel of Chicago — and I have no doubt that such five hundred hungry people could easily be found in Chicago every day.

Clothing was also much cheaper in the US than elsewhere, and O’Rell observed that it was cheaper to buy shirts than pay for them to be washed, so he was able to pack light and buy clothes to last for many years.

O’Rell was impressed with New York in general, and felt safe there. He contrasted Fifth Avenue and Broadway with the ‘great thoroughfares of London’, where people were ‘obliged to rush into vehicles to escape the sights presented at night’.

Here you can walk at night with your wife and daughter, without the least fear of their coming into contact with flaunting vice.

Next on the agenda for O’Rell was a meeting with Edgar Wilson Nye, a famous humourist better known as Bill Nye. Originally a respected journalist, he was the founder of the Laramie Boomerang. O’Rell described the hallmark of his performance:

When his audience begins to scream with laughter, he stops, looks at them in astonishment; the corners of his mouth drop and an expression of sadness comes over his face. The effect is irresistible. They shriek for mercy. But they don’t get it.

Nye was one of many famous friends O’Rell visited during his travels. In Melrose he met up with Nathaniel Carl Goodwin, ‘a very good actor, who is now playing in Boston in a new play by Mr. Steele Mackaye. Mr. Nat Goodwin told many good stories at supper. He can entertain his friends in private as well as he can the public.’ Amongst other films, Goodwin played Fagin in an early film adaptation of Oliver Twist, which is sadly now lost. He also stared in a play by James Brander Matthews, author of Americanisms and Briticisms, the subject of Snippets 4 on this blog). James Morrison Steele Mackaye was one of the most famous actors in America, who had also written several popular plays and founded three theatres in New York.

In Boston, O’Rell called on Oliver Wendell Holmes, a member of the ‘Fireside Poets’ (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was also a member).

The “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” is now over eighty, but he is as young as ever, and will die with a kind smile on his face and a merry twinkle in his eyes. I know no more delightful talker than this delightful man.

O’Rell’s wish for a gentle death for his old friend was prescient. His death in 1894 was described by his son as follows: ‘His death was as peaceful as one could wish for those one loves. He simply ceased to breathe.’ (Oliver Wendell Holmes, by Miriam Rossiter Small)

In New York, O’Rell visited the studio of noted photographer Benjamin J. Falk, known for his portraits of theatrical characters. He had established his studio on Broadway in 1881, but a few years after O’Rell’s visit he would be forced to move away from Broadway, with the construction of tower blocks robbing his studio of the necessary light conditions. While O’Rell was there, he was shown a phonograph, a revolutionary device at the time, that had only been invented by Edison 13 years before. O’Rell was offered the chance to record the first page of one of his previous books, Jonathan and his Continent, and hear it played back.

Marvelous, this phonograph! I imagine Mr. Falk has the best collection of cylinders in the world. I heard a song by Patti, the piano played by Von Bülow, speeches, orchestras, and what not! The music is reproduced most faithfully. With the voice the instrument is not quite so successful. Instead of your own voice, you fancy you hear an imitation of it by Punch. All the same, it seems to me to be the wonder of the age.

Adelina Patti was a famous opera singer, described by Verdi as the finest singer who ever lived. Some of her performances, perhaps the very one heard by O’Rell, can be found on Youtube. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the piano performances of Hans von Bülow, a composer, pianist and conductor, and one of the first German musicians to tour the States. Of course, we now know that the human voice sounding like ‘an imitation of it by Punch’ when recorded is not a fault of the equipment, but the result of the way the ear conducts sounds from the human voice or an external source.

O’Rell was also able to do some sight-seeing in New York. He was overwhelmed at the sight of the original Metropolitan Opera House, which was opened in 1883 and has since been demolished, and ‘its boxes full of lovely women, arrayed in gorgeous garments, and blazing with diamonds!’ This was another example of the striking rich/poor divide.

How interesting it would be to know the exact amount of wealth of which New York can boast! In this morning’s papers I read that land on Fifth Avenue has lately sold for $115 a square foot. In an acre of land there are 43,560 square feet, which at $115 a foot would be $5,009,400 an acre. Just oblige me by thinking of it!

The fourth part of this article will follow in a few days.  You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen.  WordPress members will see each post in their reader.  If you are not a member of WordPress you will receive an email instead.


About Windows into History

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