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Little Old New York

March 19, 2007

Yesterday I read Little Old New York, by Rida Johnson Young. I wasn’t going to write about things that weren’t available for free online, but to hell with that. This way I get to talk about pictures!

Anyway, I found this book at my grandparents’ apartment last year along with an early Edward Stratemeyer book, two or three Pollyanna sequels, an attractive edition of The Mill on the Floss, and maybe a couple of other things too. At the time, it was the part of my haul I was most excited about it, so I wanted to save it for last, and then I forgot about it and didn’t pick it up again until I needed something to read on the train back from school yesterday.

I looked up both the book and the author online, and couldn’t find out much about either. Rida Johnson Young was primarily a composer or a lyricist or something for theater and film, and Little Old New Yorkwas made into a movie twice, once in 1923 and once in the forties. It also may have been a play originally, but I’m not sure.

The really exciting thing about my copy is that it’s “illustrated with scenes from the Cosmopolitan photoplay starring Marion Davies.” The title page says “profusely illustrated,” but that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It’s certainly got as many as one would normally expect, plus two on the slightly battered but surprisingly intact dust jacket. It’s published by Grosset & Dunlap, which in the era during which it was published means that the dust jacket has a sort of mini catalog on the inside. It also might be a first edition–I’m not sure. I know it was first published in 1923, and 1923 is the copyright date inside, but I’ve seen several other G&D-published later editions of things with only the original copyright date listed, so who knows?

As for the story itself, it’s set in New York City in the first decade of the 19th century, when Greenwich Village was actually a village, and the people who built City Hall didn’t decorate the back because they didn’t think anyone would ever see it from that angle. There are a number of historical characters: Jacob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Robert Fulton, Washington Irving, and probably a few I didn’t recognize. And they don’t just make appearances; they’re major characters: Washington Irving is the hero’s best friend.

The hero is Larry Delavan: handsome, popular, the scion of an aristocratic New York family, and a born gambler. He thinks he’s also wealthy, but then his stepfather dies and leaves all his money to an Irish nephew called Patrick O’Day. Larry will get $100 a year for taking care of the kid, and that’s it, except that he does own the house he lives in — it belonged to his mother. Also, if Patrick doesn’t arrive in New York within a year, everything reverts to Larry.

At this point, I kind of hoped Larry would send someone to Ireland to murder Patrick, but as it turns out, that’s not necessary. Patrick O’Day is a feeble, sickly sort of kid. This would seem to bode well for Larry, but Patrick’s father is insane and determined to wreak revenge on his dead brother, so when Patrick dies on the boat on the way over, he forces Patrick’s sister Patricia to masquerade as her brother.

(A side note here. Who the hell names their kids Patricia and Patrick? I mean, really. I wish I could say that stuff like that doesn’t happen in real life, but I used to go to school with a pair of siblings called Lucia and Luca.)

Anyway, Pat and her dad don’t arrive in New York until the last day of the stipulated year, so Larry has time to be lulled into a false sense of security and promises Vanderbilt and Fulton that he’ll invest $10,000 in Fulton’s trial steamboat, the Clermont. He’s not too pleased to see Pat, but he claims to Vanderbilt and Fulton that he’s got some other source of cash to draw on. And continues to gamble a whole lot, which, you know, might not be the best idea, Larry.

So, Crazy Dad O’Day, on his deathbed, makes Pat swear not to reveal her true identity. This sucks, because after a while Pat kind of adores Larry and it causes her lots of angst and fits of weeping and such. Larry is also very fond of Pat, even though “he” keeps making fun of the girl Larry likes. Pat is desperate to help Larry out with his money troubles, but…well, it’s kind of complicated. The gist of it is this: it turns out boats can, in fact, be propelled by steam engines (who knew, right? I mean, the author makes it seem like no one had demonstrated a successful steamboat ever, while in fact Fulton himself and William Symington had both done it in 1803, in Paris and Glasgow, respectively. Okay done with history now. Back to fiction.), so the guy the $10,000 is owed to wants to collect. Larry can’t pay just now, but Pat basically promises the creditor that the bill will be paid, and Larry gets a few days respite. In which he decides to organize a prizefight. Smart, right? I don’t really understand odds in gambling, but basically, if Bob Brewster, the guy Larry’s put his last $2,000 on, wins, Larry will get $10,000. The problem is that Brewster is fighting the Hoboken Terror, who is gigantic and hairy — you know, the more-animal-than-man type. Just as Brewster’s about to lose, Pat rings the city fire bell, breaking up the fight. The crowd isn’t too happy, and they decide to give Pat to the Hoboken Terror to beat up.

Conveniently, the Terror (Percival Sweet in private life) rips Pat’s shirt off first. The mob isn’t particularly interested to know that she’s a girl, and still wants her to be beat up, but the Terror has other ideas, and they involve him beating up most of the rest of the mob. By the time he’s done, Larry & co. have arrived to rescue her, and of course Larry is more happy than not to find that she’s a girl, because now they can get married and both be rich.

I am going to follow this up shortly with pictures.

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