What’s the best part of living in New York? Visitors may think of Broadway shows, restaurants, or museums, but New Yorkers know that the answer is other New Yorkers. It’s exciting to live among so many strangers—to speculate about their stories and hidden talents. New Yorkers love wondering about the fascinating lives unfolding next to their own.
This week, we’ve dipped into the archive to bring you historical portraits of ten unique New Yorkers. Susan Orlean introduces us to Fab Five Freddy, the charismatic host of MTV’s first hip-hop show, “Yo! MTV Raps”; Hilton Als takes us on a tour of the nineteen-eighties dance-music scene (and recalls his own life as a Manhattan d.j.); and Hendrik Hertzberg visits with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their West Village apartment. Whitney Balliett gets to know the jazz legend Charles Mingus, and George W. S. Trow watches the former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland as she helps coördinate an exhibit at the Met. Dawn Powell chronicles literary New York in her diaries, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., tells the story of Anatole Broyard, the author who, to avoid being labelled a “black” writer, spent his adulthood “passing” as white. Maeve Brennan shares a surprising story from her life in the city. Finally, Joseph Mitchell profiles Mazie P. Gordon, the “queen of the Bowery,” following her as she befriends New Yorkers who are down on their luck. These pieces go some distance toward confirming a widespread suspicion: the other people in your neighborhood really may be as interesting as they seem.
“Living Large,” by Susan Orlean
“The coolest person in New York at the moment is a man named Fred Brathwaite, who is known most of the time to most of his friends as Fab Five Freddy, Fab, Five, or just Freddy. Freddy has a lot of jobs.” Read more.
“Mazie,” by Joseph Mitchell
“A bossy, yellow-haired blonde named Mazie P. Gordon is a celebrity on the Bowery. In the nickel-a-drink saloons and in the all-night restaurants which specialize in pig snouts and cabbage at a dime a platter, she is known by her first name.” Read more.
“Spinning Tales,” by Hilton Als
“We wanted to be known in New York, which was the only part of America we were interested in then. Our parents were cut off from America because it was not their home; Miss V. and I cut ourselves off from our parents by making New York our home.” Read more.
“The Long-Winded Lady Returns,” by Maeve Brennan
“When I looked out the bathroom window, which does not face the Square but stares straight across at the flat side of an apartment building, I saw with satisfaction that the tenants there still leave their shades up at night so that it is easy to see into all the rooms.” Read more.
“Mingus at Peace,” by Whitney Balliett
“Charles Mingus has spent much of his life attempting to rearrange the world according to an almost Johnsonian set of principles that abhor, among other things, cant, racism, inhibition, managerial greed, sloppy music, Uncle Tomism, and conformity.” Read more.
“Haute, Haute Couture,” by George W. S. Trow
“Diana Vreeland is a master of the art of mock dismissal and other aspects of boss-lady psychodrama. She has authority: not the simple authority of genius but a more eclectic sort.” Read more.
“White Like Me,” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
“Anatole Broyard was born black and became white, and his story is compounded of equal parts pragmatism and principle. He knew that the world was filled with such snippets and scraps of paper, all conspiring to reduce him to an identity that other people had invented and he had no say in.” Read more.
“Everywhere’s Somewhere,” by Hendrik Hertzberg
“So far, John Lennon and Yoko Ono have not been heard to complain that the city is unlivable. When that happens, we’ll know that they’re here to stay.” Read more.
“A Diamond to Cut New York,” by Dawn Powell
“I believe firmly that I have the perfect New York story, one woman’s tragedy viewed through the chinks of a writer’s book about her, newspaper clippings, café conversations, restaurant brawls, New York night life, so that the story is tangled in the fritter of New York—it could not happen anyplace else.” Read more.