The scenes featuring Gloria in “The Lost Weekend” are said to be shot in PJ Clarke’s bar, still at the corner of Third and 55th, but no longer under the shadow of the El.
It was not “New York’s New Yorkiest” joint, however, as declared by Walter Winchell, the leading radio personality of the 1940s and 1950s. That honor fell squarely on The Stork Club.
Unlike PJ Clarke’s unfortunately, nothing is left today of The Stork. Owner Sherman Billingsley was arguably one of New York’s greatest celebrities from the 1940s and 1950s. Where he once fought union pickets and sabotage, while throwing customers out (who dared to patronize the rival Harwyn club), a peaceful pocket park marks the former location of the famous glitzy eatery and bar.
There aren’t that many relics of old New York left. Probably one of the best “New Yorkiest” venues still in existence is the storied Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. It’s a puzzling institution in that many New Yorkers don’t seem to know about it. When I asked my Dad where he went to college, he told me proudly “Cooper Union” and when he noticed my quizzical look, proceeded to tell me about it.
The Bernard Olcott Story starts off 2016 with a rewrite of my post “THE LOST WEEKEND” (the original of which I have just removed from this site). When I wrote “THE LOST WEEKEND” last June, I reminisced about a picture of my Dad hamming it up with several friends in a photo booth heavy laden with cultural significance – see above picture. All of which was lost to me since I did not grow up in the 1940s. I shrugged off that photo booth picture, effectively asking if anyone recognized anything about it. Nobody did.
That photo, it turns out, is a window into the New York City of yesteryear. This essay, and the next three will use the above image as a departure point into a black and white world. I’ll take you back to New York City of the 1940s, my Father’s formative years as a newly minted Cooper Union graduate, and you’ll:
- Read about the biggest movie of 1945,
- Ride the El,
- Hear old style New Yorkers interact,
- Learn a valuable lesson at Cooper Union (a venerable institution dating back to the Lincoln Administration),
- Review a mysterious death in 1943 with what little facts are available, and
- Come back to a colorfilled present with a shared activity across time.
Why should you care? Well, somehow you found this blog. Perhaps in riding the El with my Dad, you may see some of yours in him. Maybe you like nostalgic stories about Gotham City which was, in some ways, a completely different city from today’s Big Apple.
It could be that you are intrigued with the backstory of the founding of a business or how the tremendous loss of a parent could leave so little trace behind. I still haven’t been able to figure out what happened to my paternal Grandmother, who passed away during this era.
Later in life, Bernard Olcott (left) was definitely ascendant in comparison with his older brother Edward (right).
Given what Dad said, together with Michael’s move out of Richmond Hill, he very well may have been a bit of, as we say in the 21st century, a “troll.” Meaning that he was prone to saying outrageous things, just for the delight (and the attention) in seeing other people’s reactions. Such trait was not unknown in Dad himself, especially as he grew older.
So I suspect that Dad did not enjoy that same glowing, beaming face of Michael Olcott that I enjoyed as a kid. On the contrary, it seems that Dad was constantly criticized in his own home, both for real and exaggerated shortcomings. From his Mom and Dad both. That had to be harsh. In such adversity, just like Avis Rent-A-Cars, Dad had to try a little harder.
So, what gives with all those dinners with me, my Dad, and my Grandfather ending in something less than a sweet goodbye? What were the nature of the barbs being flung wide and far, and why so often? Dad himself was a class act concerning his own folks; he never complained to me about them, at least not directly.
A clue to understanding these dynamics has come from my friend, Dr. Giedre Kumpikas, President of the Lithuanian National Foundation and host of the Lithuanian Radio Hour here in New York. She tells me that in the Lithuanian-American community, the eldest son typically occupied a special place of prominence and favoritism.
Michael and Patricia Olcott had two boys, Edward and Bernard, in that order. Was Edward openly favored?
For my entertainment, Michael would utter a few worlds of both Lithuanian and Russian. I would repeat and try to commit them to memory to dazzle my pals back in Florida whom, I was sure, had never heard any words of either. But it was impossible to remember. The only word I could grasp was the Russian word for pussycat — “koshechka.” He grinned widely at me when he said it.
After dinner and just before dessert, Michael would produce a fresh five dollar bill and present it to me, just as the Lord must have presented the tablets to Moses. And like Moses, I was transfixed by the vision of the prideful face looking down at me from the other side of the dining table. No one had ever glowed at me like that. All of a sudden, Dad would nudge me and ask, “what do you say?” He was a little annoyed as if I had no manners (or had forgotten them). Immediately, I would snap out of my reverie and say “thank you Grandfather.”
In order to understand my father Bernard Olcott the man, we need to turn our attention to a pivotal character in his life. Just like Andy Kaufman was the comedian’s comedian, Michael Olcott was my father’s father. And before examining my Dad’s relationship with his own father, let me start with my own direct memories of the man, Michael Olcott. He treated me very differently from the way he did his own son.
Michael passed in the late part of the summer in 1972 so my memories of him are as a little kid in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My point of reference from those times was as a 7 to 14 year old boy, whose life was split between school in central Florida (Mom’s house) and summers back in New York City (my Dad’s home). Of course, I accepted my bicoastal existence as normal but, looking back, it most definitely was not. I was shuttling between one of the most conservative counties in the USA (Orange County, Florida) and the most liberal (New York County, otherwise known as Manhattan). In the late 1960s. Need I say more?