BOOK REVIEW: New York Stories: Life at the Dakota by Stephen Birmingham – May 2017

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

For people who love Manhattan but live upstate, this book, originally published in 1979 and recently re-reissued, is a treat. Though not quite a tell-all, its cultural historian’s feel for the context of historical fact, combined with its gossipy insider’s viewpoint and juicy tidbits, make Birmingham’s biography of the city’s most famous apartment building excellent entertainment. And, there’s an upstate connection.

The Dakota, built in 1884, was the brain-child of Edward C. Clark, a New York attorney who was the financial and managerial genius behind the Singer Sewing Company. The story of how Clark and Singer got together and created a vast fortune is worth the price of admission. In any case, it was Edward Severin Clark (known as “Severino”), Clark’s eldest son, who gave the money for the Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, and the list goes on from there. The Clark family is responsible for Kingfisher’s Castle on Lake Otsego, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Clark Sports Center, the Otesaga Hotel and golf course, the Cooper Inn, The Farmers’ Museum, and the Fenimore Art Museum. In Birmingham’s account, the Clarks remain offstage, mostly, though their stewardship of the Dakota was admirable. They provided a high standard of maintenance while keeping costs low for the residents until, with the death of the younger son, Stephen, the building reverted to the Clark Foundation. The family had been content to run the building at a loss, but the foundation’s charter required it to sell any “unprofitable property.” The story of how the Dakota’s tenants managed to buy the building and keep it from being razed to make way for more profitable ventures, a tale involving the wizard-king of New York real estate, William Zeckendorff, and other skilled players, affords readers a glimpse of the Byzantine world of wheeling and dealing that formed the business background of our current President.

Just as fascinating is Birmingham’s analysis of the social status of the Dakota—as author of The Right People: A Portrait of the American Social Establishment, he was in the know. It’s East Side vs. West Side, old families, old money, business, and banking vs. new people, new money, show business, and chic. WASPS vs. the melting pot, conformists vs. creative types. Who lived in the Dakota? The Steinways and the Schirmers, Rex Reed and Eugenia Sheppard, Lauren Bacall and Leonard Bernstein, Paul Gallico and Betty Friedan. Restauranteurs, authors, directors, producers, musicians (Roberta Flack) and, of course, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. An admiral and a general, three ambassadors, some CEOs, lawyers, and a few real estate magnates.

But, when the building first went up, rich people didn’t live in apartment houses, especially not when they were so far uptown, as the Dakota was in those days, at 72nd and Central Park West. However, when a young realtor named Douglas Elliman was able to convince a respected U.S. Senator, Elihu Root, to move in, members of the Senator’s circle followed and Elliman’s career was made. The Dakota became acceptable to at least a portion of New York society.

“From the beginning,” Birmingham writes, “the building seemed to take on a human personality—and a quirky almost demented one at that. One did not live at the Dakota long before it could be sensed that here was not an ordinary apartment house, but a living, breathing Presence, a wild lover whose behavior could neither be explained nor predicted but whose embrace one craved, regardless.” Never mind that, architecturally, it was a hodgepodge of styles, that it was hugely inefficient to heat and contained tons of wasted space. Never mind that apartment layouts were bad—some rooms with enormous windows, others with none, long winding corridors and kitchens that existed far from dining rooms—none of it mattered. “The senseless quality,” says the author, “was what the Dakota residents loved most about it.” Moreover, it was haunted.

When John and Yoko took over Robert Ryan’s apartment, they held a séance and Rex Reed’s wife, who had recently died, appeared. A poltergeist became active after Jo Mielziner’s death. Heavy objects went flying through the air and an elevator rose from the basement by itself. A can of paint was hurled from the roof into the courtyard and an entity, that tenants called the Mad Slasher, cut deep gouges in the upper walls of the new elevators. A group of painters saw a young girl in a yellow dress and white stockings bouncing a red ball; they heard her say, “It’s my birthday.” A man who corresponded exactly to the description of Edward Clark appeared to an electrician.

The only thing missing from the book is an update. It stops in 1979, before John Lennon’s death. One wants the inside scoop on that, to know more about what happened during the 1980s boom and the crash of 2008, and what the residents did to celebrate the Dakota’s hundredth anniversary—probably something spectacular. Unfortunately Stephen Birmingham died in 2015. But he’d have done a bang up job, I bet. ~