Thursday, June 12, 2014
The Shutterbug and the Underworld Empress
The entirely New York phenomenon that was Weegee was born on this day in 1899. Just to be clear, this is not he.
Instead it is an unknown but entirely entrancing fixture of some darkish corner of Manhattan nightlife, sometime in the late '30s or early '40s. If it weren't for Weegee and his brilliant photographs, so much of that demimonde - a world of hidden bars, gangsters, late-night automats, and all kinds of assorted grotesquerie and bizarerie - would be entirely lost.
These days, when the East Village is home to more bank branches than low dives, and when the SROs of the Bowery have made way for boutique hotels and just plain boutiques, the whole idea of an urban underworld is found only in the pages of writers like the great Joseph Mitchell (anyone who hasn't read him, by the way, knows nothing of New York) and in the thousands of images left behind by Weegee. Even as late as the days when as a young thing I was tentatively prowling around the darker edges of the city, you could here and there find traces of Weegee's city; now, I suppose, you'd find a Starbucks or a nice new coop for venture capitalists or tech tycoons or worse (is there worse?).
As for me, I'd rather thrown my lot in with the likes of Weegee and this dear lady - in my mind, I've decided she's the Countess Mitzi, and she's got a backstory that would strip paint (although probably not touch her faultlessly applied foundation or her dauntless foundation garment). In the light of day, she was probably a plumber called Alfred or some such, but thanks to Weegee, she has a little slice of immortality. We shall not see the like of either of them again.