Naked City: “This is my brain child . . . handle with care please.” (part 1)
This week marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of Naked City. To commemorate this historic event, this monumental achievement in humankind, we’ve assembled some relevant images and texts. There’s nothing new and nothing original here, just a gathering of material related to Naked City by Weegee and his colleagues, (with as little unoriginal writing from me and as much of Weegee’s own words and images as possible). Let’s begin with the birth of the book. (The book was born in Brooklyn, printed in beautiful gravure by Ullman Company, Inc., 319 McKibbin St.) After a full-page (presumably a) self-portrait of Weegee holding a 4×5 Speed Graphic, equipped with a Kalart synchronized range finder, side mounted flash unit, and a Kodak Ektar 127mm f4.7 lens, captioned: “Weegee and his Love – his Camera,” and sandwiched between the foreword penned by William McCleery, editor of PM, Picture News, and the first chapter, “Sunday Morning in Manhattan” is an introduction, written by Weegee, called “A Book is Born:”
A Book is Born
One just doesn’t go up to strange men, women, children, elephants, or giraffes and say, “Look this way please. Laugh- cry show some emotion or go to sleep underneath a funeral canopy.” They would have called me crazy and called a cop who would have called the wagon with the guys in white and I would have wound up in the psychopathic ward at Bellevue Hospital in a strait jacket.
For the pictures in this book I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power l can’t explain, and l caught the New Yorkers with their masks off. . . not afraid to Laugh, Cry, or make Love. What I felt I photographed, laughing and crying with them.
I have been told that my pictures should be in a book, that they were a great social document. As I keep to myself, belong to no group, like to be left alone with no axe to grind, I wouldn’t know. Then something happened. There was a sudden drop in Murders and Fires (my two best sellers, my bread and butter). I couldn’t understand that. With so many millions of people, it just wasn’t normal, but it did give me a chance to look over the pictures I had been accumulating. Put together, they seemed to form a pattern. I pasted the photographs up into a “dummy” book and left it with the publishers with a note “This is my brain child . . . handle with care please.”
The people in these photographs are real. Some from the East Side and Harlem tenements, others are from Park Avenue. In most cases, they weren’t even aware they were being photographed and cared less. People like to be photographed and will always ask “What paper are you from, mister, and what day will they appear,” the jitterbugs and the Sinatra bobby-sock fans even want to know on what page it will appear. To me a photograph is a page from life, and that being the case, it must be real. Naked City, pp. 11-12
William McCleery’s foreword is fascinating, this is a lengthy quote:
Persons looking on Weegee’s incredible photographs for the first time find it hard to believe that one ordinary earth-bound human being could have been present at so many climactic moments in the city’s life.
The simplest explanation of the phenomenon is that true love endows a man [or woman] with superhuman qualities, and Weegee is truly in love with New York. Not the New York that you and I know, but the New York that he has known, first as a poor immigrant boy and later as a free-lance newspaper photographer specializing in crime and violence.
Loving the city, Weegee has been able to live with her in the utmost intimacy. When he goes to bed in his room across the street from police headquarters, the city murmurs to him from the police-approved shortwave radio beside his bed. Even in slumber he is responsive to her. He will sleep through fifteen unpromising police calls and leap out at bed at the promising sixteenth. In sickness and in health he will take his camera and ride off in search of new evidence that his city, even in her most drunken and disorderly and pathetic moments, is beautiful. Of course Weegee, being an Artist, has his own conception of what constitutes beauty, and in some cases it is hard for us to share his conception; but insofar as we can share it, we can share his love for the city.
When he cruises in his 1938 Chevrolet. His love is beside him, talking to him from another shortwave radio: and as he listens to her he is also watching her, and he will stop to photograph the drunk asleep in front at the funeral parlor as further evidence of his love’s infinite variety.
Weegee is a rather portly, cigar-smoking, irregularly shaven man who has seen and recorded a great deal of ugliness and disaster, but he remains as shy and sensitive as if he had spent his life photographing babies and bridesmaids. This, I think, is further evidence that he has been inspired not by a taste for sensationalism but by his love for the city and her children – especially the troubled and unfortunate ones, the kitten-loving ones who sleep on fire escapes in the summer.
I think that Weegee’s subjective portrait of New York must be regarded as a work of creative art, because, although all at the elements were there for anyone to use, no one has ever used them as Weegee has. This portrait lived first in Weegee’s heart and imagination. He patiently sought and painstakingly assembled those elements in a manner that would make it possible for us to see his city and believe it, and love it — and yet want to make it better. You don’t want those kids to go on sleeping on that fire escape forever, do you?
New York, Editor, PM Picture News, Naked City, pp. 6-7
In Weegee by Weegee (1961), Weegee wrote this about Naked City:
In the spring of 1944, the Museum of Modern Art invited me to give a lecture. I accepted. After the lecture, a lot of people came over to tell me that I should have a book. I thought that this was a good idea. It had never occurred to me, but it was a good idea. I assembled my pictures, picking out the best of what had taken me almost ten years to accumulate, and began to make the rounds of the book publishers.
When I showed my pictures to the editors, surprised looks came over their faces. “Where’s the picture of the sailor in the rowboat in Central Park?” “Where’s the picture of the Statue of Liberty?” “Where’s the picture of the Fulton Fish Market?” They wanted all the clichés, including: “Gentlemen will kindly adjust their clothing before leaving this room.”
The first time I heard these questions, I thought the guy was nuts, but the next publisher asked the same questions: “Where’s the picture of the sailor in the rowboat in Central Park?” Etc., etc., etc., I came to the conclusion that all publishers were intellectually constipated.
Somebody suggested Duell, Sloan & Pearce, a young firm that was supposed to be interested in new works and new authors. I took my pictures to Duell, Sloan & Pearce, and left them to be looked over. To me, a picture is like a blintz . . . eat it while it’s hot. But they took their time. After six months, I went back and said: “Look, when are you going to publish my book?” “What book?” “You remember, I left the pictures.” “Pictures, what pictures?” “You remember.” “Oh, yes, now where can they be hiding?”
They finally discovered the pictures in the ladies’ room. I took my pictures back and made the rounds of more publishers. I got the same questions again, but I just couldn’t see myself taking a picture of a sailor in a rowboat on Sunday afternoon. Sunday is for sleeping. I made up a beautiful presentation with the best of my pictures . . . ﬁres, murders, and so forth . . . and again took them to Duell, Sloan & Pearce. They hesitated. It would cost them $10,000 [approximately $132,576.67 in 2015] to publish the book and publishers don’t like to take chances. That didn’t stop me. I was on a holy crusade. I decided that it all depended on one man, Frank Henry, who was in charge of the non-fiction books. I put on a real campaign to get him to say “yes.”
As soon as I would walk into his office, his telephone would start to ring. It would keep on ringing. I would say, “Look, Frank, you can’t do any business in a business office. Let’s go across the street to the Champs Elysées.” (A high-class bistro.) Still, it took months. I would take Frank out, buy the drinks, and we would discuss my book, which by now had a title, Naked City.
The miracle happened. The book was published. Like a caesarian operation, but Naked City was born. It got rave reviews in the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, Time, and Newsweek. Time played it straight; they gave it half a page with pictures, and they reviewed the book. Newsweek, instead of reviewing the book, reviewed Weegee. It was a very nasty review, but funny. Among other things, they said, “Weegee is a nudist. After seeing him dressed, it’s a great improvement.”
Of course, when a book comes out, you must have a cocktail party. The usual thing is to take a room in a hotel and serve a lot of booze. All the freeloaders come. The book reviewers don’t have the time to come because they are either at home writing their own books or out selling the review copies. When the publisher proposed a cocktail party for Naked City, I said, “Look, they’re a dime a dozen. Let’s do something different. There’s a saloon on the Bowery, Sammy’s. We’ll throw the literary cocktail party at Sammy’s.” We did. Everyone came. Sammy bought a thousand dollars’ worth of books, all the food and liquor were on the house, and it was really sensational.
When you have a book come out, you must have a lot of interviews. In 1945, the first interview had to be with Mary Margaret McBride on NBC. If you weren’t on her program first, you were a dead duck. For my interview, Miss McBride did something unheard of in those days. She was planning to go on vacation, so she made a record—not a tape recording—of our interview. (She was a real doll.) The next day, as I was driving around, I turned on the car radio, and there I was . . . talking.
Once you had been on Mary Margaret McBride’s program, you could make the rounds and get on all the other programs. I did; I went on every one of them. I was going to make damn sure that everyone knew about Weegee and Naked City. One program was Margaret Arlen’s spot on CBS. The CBS idea of an ad lib interview was to rehearse you until you were blue in the face, give you a manicure, a shave and even a haircut. As a matter of fact, they even tried to improve my English. (What English?)
One of my last stops was at New York’s favorite egghead station, WQXR. (The WQXR listeners read the New York Post, smoke filter-tipped cigarettes, and like guitar music.) Before I got on the air, a woman announcer warned me, “Now two things, Mr. Weegee: no profanity and no plotting to overthrow the government.”
I said, “Nice to have known you, dearie. As one egghead to another, give me your phone number, so I can take it off my mailing list.” I was really getting around and becoming known all over…
Naked City became a best seller. I was compared to Shakespeare, O. Henry, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and even Weegee. Naked City sold so fast that the publishers had to rush copies to Macy’s by cab. Scribner’s Book Store on Fifth Avenue gave it a full window display… that is, after I did some arguing with them. I said, “Look, this will bring in people who have never been in a bookstore before.” Scribner’s replied, “We don’t want that kind of people…” (Weegee by Weegee, 1961, pp. 81-84)
(To be continued…)