Mae Murray’s New York City: Her Early Life

Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips settles the questions about Mae’s birth, details that were eliminated from her selective memory.

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She was not born on her father’s yacht as he sailed the world.  Nor did hail from Portsmouth, Virginia, as she began telling inquirers as early as 1910.

Mae Murray in the 1910 U.S. Census.

Mae Murray in the 1910 U.S. Census. She gives Virginia as her place of birth.

In truth, Mae was born in 1885 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1880s.

The Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1880s.

Rather than soaking up the character of the European capitals as she matured, Mae was fighting for survival  in poverty.

Mae's world in the 1880's. Several blocks from where she was born.

Mae’s world in the 1880’s. On Hester Street, only several blocks from where she was born.

Mae was born in a tenement on Broome Street.

Mae's birth certificate

Mae’s birth certificate

I tried to find the location when I was in the area in December 2011.  It is now a parking lot. As I made my way down Broome Street, I felt a bit like Scarlett O’Hara when she returned from the war. Remember how she kept her eyes on the horizon for a glimpse of her beloved Tara. Alas, the home where Mae was born fell victim to a wrecking ball.

The spot where Mae was born is now a parking lot.

The spot where Mae was born is now a parking lot.

Mae was born at the corner of Broome and Norfolk.

Mae was born at the corner of Broome and Norfolk.

When Mae was a child, family moved to 420 East 89th Street.  Her father died here in 1896 from the ravages of alcoholism.

Mae's father died here in 1896.

Mae’s father died here in 1896.

On a chilly December afternoon, Cee Cee, Mae’s granddaughter, and I rode a subway out to the Lutheran Cemetery where her father, grandparents and various uncles are buried. Sadly, there were no markers.

A cemetery guide took us to the spot where Mae's immediate family are buried.

A cemetery guide took us to the spot where Mae’s immediate family are buried.

Cee Cee and Michael at the Koenig grave plots.

Cee Cee and Michael at the Koenig grave plots.

By the turn of the century, Mae, her mother, and brother were living in an apartment in this building at 1041 5th Avenue. After her husband died, Mary Koenig took a job as a housekeeper for the Whitney family, who lived just down the street.

Mae lived in this apartment building on 5th Avenue in 1900.

Mae lived in this apartment building on 5th Avenue in 1900.

Mae’s career began on the stage in about 1904. Her earliest plays were performed at the Herald Square and Knickerbocker theaters.

Herald Square Theater

Herald Square Theater

Knickerbocker Theater

Knickerbocker Theater

When Mae married William Schwenker in 1908, she had visions of living in the family’s fashionable apartment on Riverside Drive.

Mr. and Mrs. Schwenker

Mr. and Mrs. Schwenker

As it turned out, she spent only two nights in the Schwenker family digs.  The family kicked the newlyweds to the street. They survived in cracker-box dwellings.

The Schwenker's fashionable apartment building at 550 Riverside Drive.

The Schwenker’s fashionable apartment building at 550 Riverside Drive.

Mae was discovered for films while performing in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915 at the New Amsterdam.

The New Amsterdam on 42nd Street.

The New Amsterdam on 42nd Street.

By the end of the decade, Mae, now a star, returned to New York and rented an apartment at the fashionable Hotel Des Artistes on Central Park.

Hotel Des Artistes

Hotel Des Artistes

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Mae in her apartment at the Hotel Des Artistes.

Mae in her apartment at the Hotel Des Artistes.

Mae really hit the big time when she and husband Robert Z. Leonard established their own production company on West 44th Street.

Mae and Bob Leonard at their new production facilities in 1921.

Mae and Bob Leonard at their new production facilities in 1921.

Mae’s connection to New York continued for the rest of her life. If she was down on her luck in California, she fled to New York in hopes of rekindling the fire. When money ran out, she slept on park benches in Central Park. She had a grand view of the Hotel Des Artistes from her bench.  Memories! Memories!

One artist's depiction of a homeless Mae Murray.

One artist’s depiction of a homeless Mae Murray.

When musical comedy star Peggy Fears learned of Mae’s distress in the 1940s, she made arrangements for Mae to move into a maid’s room at the Hotel Des Artistes.

Mae often stayed at The Royalton when she came to New York in the late 1950s. When she stayed there, the hotel was a bit rough around the edges. It has since been restored.

The Royalton Hotel on 44th Street.

The Royalton Hotel on 44th Street.

In 1959, before she left Los Angeles for New York, Mae put most of her belongings in storage. A clueless attendant at the storage facility typed “Mrs. M. Murray” on the confirmation. In black pen, Mae corrected the document . She was “Miss” M. Murray.

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Mae’s great-niece, Elisa, grew up wanting to be a dancer, just like her famous relative. She moved to New York as a youngster to follow her dream. She wrote to Mae about her ambitions and to get some pointers.  Her letters went unanswered.

Elisa has taught dance in the New York City public schools for decades. I was struck by her resemblance to the Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.

Elisa and Michael at a coffee shop near Lincoln Center (2011).

Elisa and Michael at a coffee shop near Lincoln Center (2011).

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4 thoughts on “Mae Murray’s New York City: Her Early Life

  1. Wonderful pictures, Michael! Thanks so much for posting them. It helps to bring the story of her beginnings to life. Too bad there aren’t any photos of the building where she was born.

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