Monday, April 25, 2016

The Death of Stephen Foster

The Death of Stephen Foster

"Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More," published in early 1855, was both a reflection of recent events in his personal life and a portent of things to come. He and Jane separated for a time in 1853 and his close friend, Charles Shiras, died during that same period. During 1855, both his parents died. His song output diminished -- only four new songs in that year -- and his debts increased. He was forced to draw advances from his publishers, then found himself unable to supply the new new songs he had promised them.

As the Civil War approached, Foster's once-promising song writing career seemed to be doomed. His contracts with his publisher had ended, and he had sold all future rights to his songs to pay his debts. Possibly in an effort to revive his popularity, Foster reverted to writing plantation melodies. Of the four he wrote in 1860, one is among his most memorable (and infamous) compositions -- "Old Black Joe." Belying the racial condescension its title epitomizes in the Civil Rights era, "Old Black Joe" comes closest of Foster's famous songs to the African-American spiritual, and it approaches that tradition with sympathy and respect. It is like a secular hymn, praising the noble spirit of the laborer at the end of his life.

Sometime during 1860, Stephen finally left Pittsburgh and moved his family to New York. About one year later, Jane took their son Marion back to Pennsylvania, and Stephen spent the remaining few years of his life in New York, living alone in lodging houses and theater district hotels. His trunk of manuscripts and letters was lost somewhere in these moves. Because of the uncertain economy of war time, he no longer could get a publishing contract, and like all other songwriters was forced to sell his compositions outright to publishers with no prospect of future earnings. Instead of writing his own lyrics, as he had done so successfully in the past, he began collaborating with a young poet, George Cooper, probably late in 1862 or early in 1863."

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"[O]n January 13, 1864, he died at age 37 with 38 cents in his pocket and a penciled scrap of paper that read, "dear friends and gentle hearts." His brother Henry described the accident in the New York theater-district hotel (1) that led to his death: confined to bed for days by a persistent fever, Stephen tried to call a chambermaid, but collapsed, falling against the washbasin next to his bed and shattering it, which gouged his head. It took three hours to get him to the hospital, and in that era before transfusions and antibiotics, he succumbed after three days." (2)

Telegram from Stephen Foster's friend and writing partner, George Cooper, to Foster's older brother Morrison, tersely communicating Stephen Foster's death and asking him to come at once.

 Footnotes on What Became of the American Hotel:

(1) "In January 1864, while at the American Hotel, he was taken with ague and fever. After two or three days he arose, and while washing himself fainted and fell across the wash basin, which broke and cut a gash in his neck and face. He lay there insensible and bleeding until discovered by the chambermaid who was bringing the towel he had asked for to the room. She called for assistance and he was placed in bed again. On recovering his senses he asked that he be sent to a hospital. Accordingly he was taken to Bellevue Hospital. He was so much weakened by fever and loss of blood that he did not rally. On 13th of January he died peacefully and quietly."  Foster, Morrison.  My Brother Stephen (1932 reprint).

Note: While Foster biographer Deane Root states that Foster died in a hotel in the Theater District, in 1864 that district was centered on a long stretch of the Bowery, between Chatham Square and Astor Place.  Henderson, Mary C. The City and the Theatre: New York Playhouses from Bowling Green to Times Square (1973).  The American Hotel, itself, in 1876 was located at 15 Bowery.  New York City Directory (1876), p. 36.  Fifteen (15) Bowery lies on the east side of the street at almost the very foot of Bowery, between Bayard and Pell Streets, a block and a half north of Chatham Square.   By 1921, it was known as the Lanier Hotel.  By that time, of course, the Theater District had long since departed uptown to Times Square.
The Lanier Hotel (f/k/a the American Hotel), located at 15 Bowery, July 7, 1921.  
Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection.

In 1853, when Foster moved to New York for the first time (his wife, Jane, followed in 1854 and the couple then moved to Hoboken, N.J. for a few months, before both returned to Pittsburgh) this area of the Bowery was still the center of the Theater District.  The newly rebuilt Bowery Theater, across the avenue at 30 Bowery, attracted an upscale patronage with spectacular melodramas.  The rebuilt theater seated 4,000 and with a stage 126 feet square, secured its place as one of the largest playhouses in the world.  

By 1860, however, when Foster had returned to New York determined to make a living as a composer there, the Theater District was moving uptown to the blocks between Houston and Union Square and the lower Bowery was no longer seen as a place for middle class citizens.  His wife and young son moved with him, but left by the following year because of Stephen's drinking.

While the Bowery Theater was torn down in 1929, it is likely that the American Hotel, along with most of the other buildings on the east (odd-numbered) side of the Bowery between Division Street (Chatham Square) and Bayard Street survived into the late 1960's or early 1970's.  

1949 Hagstrom's map, showing - just to the left of the red hand-drawn circle - 
the three blocks north of Division Street, east of the Bowery and 
 south of the Manhattan Bridge, which existed until 1973.

The northernmost of these three blocks, just off the SE corner of Bowery and Canal was a public park called "Manhattan Bridge Park."  In the late 1960's, the City begin to contemplate clearing the area for new, affordable housing for the Chinatown community.  In 1968, apparently, the Department of Parks gave up the parkland to the south for what was [later] built as Confucius Plaza.  Christopher Gray "Streetscapes" column, NY Times, June 23, 1996. 1968 came and went, however, and Confucius Plaza was still a dream.  Community residents in the neighborhood apparently were able to maintain the former park for another five years as a community garden called "the Chinese Garden" which had 39 trees and with wide, stone steps.  Wright, Charles, "Death of a Garden, or Confucius Plaza Rises," The Village Voice, September 13, 1973, p. 57.  All three of these blocks, five acres in all including the park/garden and several century-old structures, were demolished in 1973-74 for the construction of the massive Confucius Plaza housing complex.  Ferrara, Eric.  The Bowery: A History of Grit, Graft and Grandeur.  2011, p. 46. 

Empty lot of the former "Chinese Garden" just west of the Manhattan arch of the 
Manhattan Bridge, looking southeast towards the intersection of Division 
Street and the Bowery, 1973.  The brutalist, cube-like One Police Plaza,
 which opened the same year, is visible in the center right of the photo. 
Image by Sarah Longacre.
 Site of 15 Bowery, 2016 Google Map.  The entire five acre site, which
used to be divided by Bayard going west to Forsyth Street, and 
Chrystie resuming is southward path south of Bayard to 
Division Street, is now the Confucius Plaza housing complex.

Two years later, in 1975-76, Confucius Plaza opened.

(2) This biography of Stephen Foster was written by Dr. Deane Root, Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh and Director of the Center for American Music, as part of the Center's Web site on Stephen Foster.