Villager Expat

Two years ago I moved away from Greenwich Village. Now I'm trying to move back.

August 7, 2020

"A Chinese divorce": my 3rd great aunt's marriage to her wealthy Chinese husband and her influence

"Chinese Divorce Suit," The Mail (Stockton, CA) 24 Jun 1886, p.2

Years ago in a laundry shop in Paterson, when the city was a prosperous manufacturer of textiles and silk, young and pretty Minnie Kiersted stopped by weekly to drop off her employer's laundry. She caught the eye of Chinese owner Wang Sing Bow, better known as Charley Sing.

In reports of their divorce trial the papers called him "the most successful Chinaman in the City of Churches." On Sundays he dressed in a Prince Albert coat, high silk hat and patent-leather boots, and wore "a locomotive-headlight diamond."

In Minnie's testimony she said he had lured her and her sister (my great-great grandmother) to opium dens in Manhattan's Chinatown, all legal in their day.

"Wong Sing Bow's Child," The Times Union (Brooklyn, NY) 17 May 1889
"Wong Sing Bow's Child," The Times Union
(Brooklyn, NY) 17 May 1889

They married twice--but divorced only once. Accusations of "Infidelity" lobbed back and forth. At the time of her second wedding in 1878, Minnie testified, she was pregnant with another man's child. Over the course of her divorce proceedings from 1886 to '94 she had two more children with different men, but the man she was living with and later married was not their father.

Charley Bow was caught keeping a minor in his opium den.

"Chinese Divorce Suit," The Mail (Stockton, CA) 24 Jun 1886, p. 2
"Chinese Divorce Suit," The Mail (
Stockton, CA) 24 Jun 1886, p. 2

Charley denied the allegations, and a month later it was found that the girl's mother, an inmate at the Pearl Street House, had given the girl to him. He wasn't prosecuted.

In "Melican Wife Fooled Wong" we learn that Minnie took his real estate, 

"Melican Wife Fooled Wong," The News (Paterson, NJ) 1 Apr 1893
"Melican Wife Fooled Wong," The News (Paterson, NJ) 1 Apr 1893
"Melican Wife Fooled Wong,"
The News (Paterson, NJ) 1 Apr 1893

and then his furniture.

"Wong Sing Bow's Trouble," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 23 Jun 1886

In the end, Charley lost the claim and custody of their son, George Sing Bow.

In 1909, a Paterson paper reported that the Commissioner of Vital Statistics in Illinois received a request for a duplicate copy of the marriage certificate.

"Kierstead Wedding," The News (Paterson, NJ) 26 Jan 1909
"Kierstead Wedding," The News (Paterson, NJ) 26 Jan 1909

He really loved his son. I wonder if they ever spoke to each other again.

As for Minnie and her wildness, who knows who were the fathers of her children. She settled down after she won the suit. Her second husband John Popp died and she lived out her days with a daughter named Minnie, who was out of the house and married at 14, and sons John Jr. and William who lingered, along with a boarder named George H. Bowers.

On the wedding certificate for my great-grandmother Lulu, dated December 23, 1990, she names her parents as Bella Kiersted, who died in an influenza epidemic in Brooklyn a few days later on January 3rd, 1901, and her foster father Charles Lange. I doubt either were at the wedding. The maid of honor was Lulu's landlady and the best man was George H. Bowes, who has to be Minnie's son.

For young laundresses in Paterson in 1875, the excitement of dates in New York with dashing Chinese men flush with cash must have been irresistible. The flings and unplanned pregnancies that led to marriage did improve their lives. Life in Brooklyn was a step up. The sisters seemed wise beyond their years and were living well. They betrayed themselves when they divorced their husbands over infidelity--was it a surprise, really?--and made terrible second marriages, Minnie to a fishmonger and Bella to a German laundryman who scraped by, and she died young.

Minnie's children didn't escape the working class but my grandfather, Lulu's son, born and bred in Brooklyn, made it ("Walking in their footsteps," 19 Jun 2020). Living in Brooklyn he saw success firsthand. When his father deserted them, he went to work and made connections that led to plum jobs on Wall Street. But he never forgot where he came from. He lived with his mother Lulu or supported her throughout her life, and took in relatives and in-laws who were down on their luck. He told me these stories on my visits to Arizona, which he wouldn't let me write down and I've mostly forgotten, but I remember his interjections about an aunt named Maude, said in an Archie Bunker drawl,"oh Mawwd," and a guy named Samuel Kowalski who shows up in census records as Lulu's brother. "Sammy Kowalski, oh geez." But he didn't turn them away.

If Minnie and Bella hadn't jumped headfirst in love with the Chinatown businessmen who brought them to New York, my grandfather's life, and mine, could have turned out very differently. What have I learned here? I've spent way too much at home and the library.

Contact: Debbie Carter, (212) 925-3721, VillagerExpat@aol.com

Photo credit: D.W. Griffiths' "Broken Blossoms." Opium den., (1919) Digital Collections, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
First news clip: "Chinese Divorce Suit," The Mail (Stockton, CA) 24 Jun 1886, p. 2.

July 18, 2020

In 1923 in Asbury Park, my Brooklyn grandmother's acting career gets sidetracked by a man

Remember our midnight swim? Love, Ralph

"Did you have to send me that postcard?"

"I thought it was romantic."

"My mother saw it!"

"Don't worry. We're getting married. Everything's alright now." 

It was a moonlit night in April as they drove down Ocean Avenue in his Haynes touring car. Exhilarating! but the racket of spring peepers made it impossible to have a conversation. Her thoughts drifted to talks with her sister Evelyn.

He's a good catch, MariaUndertakers always make a living.

He's not an undertaker! He sells pianos and he's musically inclined.

He's in music for now but he'll take over his father's business someday and you'll live in a mansion. He's your ticket out of Brooklyn. You can't be an actress forever.

June 26, 2020

A stonecutter in the family: the Casper monuments business near Green-Wood Cemetery

G Casper Monumental Work,Lettering Jobbing Etc., 24th n. 4th av, Brooklyn, ca. 1880
Photo ©Cathy Tipton, all rights reserved. Used by permission.

He came from Germany in 1846 when he was 20 and made headstones for a living. His monuments mark the resting places of families in Green-Wood Cemetery with love and respect, and commemorate their lives forever.

How did he become a stonecutter? . . .

June 19, 2020

Walking in their footsteps: my relatives from Brooklyn, known and unknown

Bond trader Frank Carter on Wall Street in the 1940s
He didn't like to talk about his childhood in Brooklyn. As the first in the family to work on Wall Street in the corporate world, clients and peers in his day made assumptions about you by your ethnic background. He was proud of being from Brooklyn. Flatbush was nice then, but his father, a bookbinder, deserted his mother and him by the time he was 13 and my grandfather had to go to work, first part-time as a bellhop in a hotel, then full time after his first year of high school. A serious person and a reader like his mother, he wanted a better life. But at 16, at the start of WWI, a wave of patriotism was sweeping the city. He tried to sign up for the draft by lying about his age but was sent home when his mother showed up. He was the breadwinner in the family. He couldn't go. Back at work, he befriended the Wall Street businessmen who passed through the hotel, found a mentor, and eventually became a bond trader with his own firm at 111 Broadway. Unlike his father, who divorced and remarried twice more, he was a a rock. After familial setbacks, and seeing what could be lost in stock market crashes and wars, . . .

June 12, 2020

From my mother's manuscripts: a 1940's childhood worshipping a teenage aunt, longing for happier days at Lake Hopatcong

Doris at Lake Hopatcong
I was playing across town at Millie's house, where I had followed my aunt Doris. They were playing at the piano with two other teenage girls when all of a sudden they said, "Bobbie, you have to go home. You can't play here anymore."

I wanted to be with Doris constantly. She was sixteen and I was eight, and while she was my dad's younger sister, we had grown up like sisters next door to each other.

I followed Doris and her friends to school. I acted older, copied the way she dressed. It was more exciting to be with them than with third graders. To watch Doris dress for a date was a thrilling experience, like watching a movie star prepare for the cameras. I helped her put on her makeup but the climax was the anointing with perfume. Carefully holding the pink cut-glass bottle in one hand, she adroitly squished the satin-covered rubber ball with the other--squish, squish, squish. Apple Blossom. Soon her small corner bedroom became more heady than the apple orchards across from the fairgrounds. We couldn't breathe, and ran gasping from the room. Doris only laughed. "Well, that'll last through the movie." Especially at the Palace when the famers came to town on Saturday nights. "That's why it's called the horse-opera, Bobbie."

"Why do I have to go home?" I had asked the girls. . . .

April 7, 2020

Indulging in Ancestry while staying at home: the great-grandmother who left England and put me in the U.S.

"Why did she come here?" I asked.

"She had a fight with her boyfriend," my grandmother said. I had asked about her mother who immigrated to the United States from England. I was in love with England. It was 1964 and I'd just seen Mary Poppins. When my mother told me we were English, I was eager to know more about the woman whose picture was on my grandmother's mantel.

"She was a governess," Grandma said. I was filled with visions of a great-grandmother who was like Mary Poppins and had a boyfriend as handsome as Dick Van Dyke and thought why oh why did she come here only to marry a fireman, have six kids, and live in a small house in New Jersey?

"The English can be mean" was the explanation she gave me, and her cautionary words come back to me whenever I feel myself falling for an English accent or a man in a suit from Savile Row. But they sound like words Beatrice could have said herself. She never went back to England, even to visit relatives.

At a time when many of us are living under stay-at-home orders, I've been on Ancestry everyday marveling at the powerful search engine that instantaneously finds ancestors and official documents about Beatrice.

She came here in 1905 on the Caronia, . . .

March 6, 2020

Mount Adams, painted by my mother in the 1950s when she lived in Cincinnati

Mount Adams, ca. 1956, by Barbara Carter
casein on board, 15 in. x 20 in.
Followers of the FB page "Greater Cincinnati History Group" have posted 123 likes so far to my mother's picture of Mount Adams. Painted in 1956, my dad had just completed his two years in the service at Fort Bragg, NC, and accepted a spot in GE's management training program. 

My parents lived in an apartment in Glen Meadows. It was two years since my mother had graduated Carnegie Tech's College of Art and  would be two years before she became a mother. 

No pictures on the wall? My parents
must have just moved in
Free from the distractions of caring for a family, she worked as an artist at Gibson Greeting Card then quit when they didn't give her anything to do, then worked at a glass company where she designed etchings for drinking glasses. She felt frustrated by the workplace after the serious training of Carnegie Tech's fine arts department and gave up on commercial art, but she didn't stop seeing as one, and was inspired by the Mount Adams landscape to render this picture. I hope to find a permanent public space for it in Cincinnati. The enthusiasm of the Facebook group has been heartwarming.

I'd also like to donate the glasses she designed but I don't know the name of the glass company. Someone suggested Sterling Cut Glass and I've sent them a message but I see other glassware companies on Google that could have been part of Cincinnati's Art Hill in the 50s.  Here's my photo of three glasses. They aren't overtly commercial as the etched glasses they're making today but instead illustrate hobbies and businesses in Cincinnati at that time. 
Barbara Carter original illustrations for a Cincinnati glassware company

Contact: Debbie Carter, VillagerExpat@aol.com, (212) 925-3721

February 27, 2020

Lost artwork: a search to recover my mother's missing paintings

50th Street snow scene, 1986
by Barbara Carter
Here is a watercolor of a 50th Street snow scene my mother painted from her apartment window on Beekman Place. It's part of her series "Midtown Merchants" which is featured in this week's East Midtown Partnership newsletter. Here is a link to the Midtown Merchant Series on Flickr; a movie appears below.

While this blog began with a search for an apartment in Greenwich Village after I made the mistake of moving away, the need to fix this has evolved into other subplots about what's missing in my life. An even deeper desire to find a permanent home for my mother's artwork has led to a search for missing paintings that were lost in moves. In the mid 80s my father sold their house in Lloyd Harbor, Long Island during real estate boom to buy a company in Palmer, Massachusetts, because he was tired of working for other people. Ten years later they moved again to retire in NYC. My parents thought the city's art museums and restaurants would make New York the perfect place to retire, but a noisy apartment drove them out and they moved back to the tranquility of Lloyd Harbor, Long Island, where my dad could indulge his hobby of caring for a lawn and my mother could paint and garden.

January 12, 2020

A Soho moment

Soho, NYC
Soho mesmerizes me. I slow down from my usual fast-paced self, thinking about other things, paying no attention to what's happening around me to stroll and look, really look, through the big gleaming store windows at the nicest clothes, shoes and handbags in the world. Shoppers decked out in leather and spikey heels glide across the lumpy Belgian block streets like there's nothing to it. I look up and admire the cast-iron buildings. It's not cool to look up at buildings in New York but no one's paying attention to me. It's like floating through a lovely dream. I think I would be happy living there again. 

But I'm stuck in a lease in Midtown. It's been almost a year and and it went by quickly and as much as I'd like to get out of here my hair stylist, the voice of reason in my life, said the next year will go by quickly too; stick it out, it would cost too much money to move. 

November 24, 2019

Lingering at the Waverly Diner for its art of the past

Going to diners became a habit when I moved to New York. The urge to get out of my apartment strikes as soon as I wake up, as much to escape a small space as a craving for that first cup of coffee. I don't like Starbucks. I always pick a Greek diner with windows.

Waverly Diner, looking north to the Jefferson Market Library

The Waverly Diner sits on a corner, and from a table on the raised platform I can look out at Sixth Avenue and down Waverly Place towards the park. A few weeks ago I sat by the window and saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez come up the subway steps with someone, looking lost. They turned every which way then took off down Sixth Avenue.

October 16, 2019

Psychics and gypsies: a shared fascination by the women in my family

As I walk past psychic storefronts in the Village I'm tempted to go in and make an appointment but I'm wary. I want to talk to my mother again, and things that happened around her passing have made me seek her out. She wrote a story about the day she found her Grandma Annie with a gypsy and that no one would believe her when she ran home to tell. Was this story true? I made a trip to my mother's hometown this week to look for traces.

Annie's Gypsy
by Barbara Carter

On my way home from kindergarten I would always cut through Annie's backyard. The chickadees were at the pedestal birdbath in her garden . . .

October 1, 2019

My tenement apartment in Soho, and how air rights have changed the neighborhood

The view from across the street, 
my former tenement building (Google Maps screenshot)
I wasn't getting my hopes up. I'd seen an apartment in this building three years ago. It was on a high floor and overlooked the small park and tenements with antique stores where I lived 17 years ago. But the home of an old woman who used to emerge from the front door of the house to go sit on the benches with the Italians in the park has been torn down, and a glass tower twice as high as the tenement buildings has taken its place.

September 11, 2019

Veterans Fishing Station, a/k/a The Clam Bar, Cold Spring Harbor

Photo courtesy of Jeff Springsteen,
used by permission

Do you remember those days hanging out at the Village Green?
Engineer boots, leather jackets and tight blue jeans
--Billy Joel,
"Scenes From an Italian Restaurant"

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing two lithos of my mother's at the financial services firm Deloitte U.S. in Rockefeller Center (below). One is an image of the Veterans Fishing Station in Cold Spring Harbor, a/k/a The Clam Bar, next to the Village Green that Billy Joel sings about. The Whalers Inn across the street is now the Harbor Mist restaurant. Many thanks to Huntington town historian Robert C. Hughes for identifying the site and to Jeff Springsteen for sharing the photo of his friends from 1978-79 ("I Grew Up in Cold Spring Harbor" Facebook page).

September 1, 2019

Small talk with friends in New York restaurants

On this Labor Day my friends from the Chinese restaurant Charlie Mom are on my mind. It was my Cheers, I made small talk with the waiters, mostly about my never-ending apartment hunt. For the apartment upstairs, David told me, they were asking $4,000 a month for a thousand square feet. "They remodeled it." After a long pause in which we both imagined how nice it could be--a Greenwich Village apartment that used to be a house in the 1800s, the brick walls, original wood floors, lots of windows--we agreed that the rent was ridiculous and anyone would be crazy to pay it. "Rent is money thrown away." And the rents in Greenwich Village were over the top.

August 3, 2019

Celebrating John Sloan's birthday around the world

A Woman's Work, 1912,
Cleveland Museum of Art

What images come to mind when you think of John Sloan? For many women from as far away as Spain, Turkey and Iceland who remembered his birthday on Twitter yesterday, it's his paintings of women hanging laundry.

Sloan painted these scenes from his apartment windows in Greenwich Village and, later, Chelsea. In his time, clotheslines were ubiquitous in immigrant neighborhoods (for  photos see "A Fine Line: The Art of the Clothesline" on MCNY Blog: New York Stories).