Born into a wealthy family at 14 West 23rd Street in Manhattan, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) refused to accept her designated role as a society wife, instead becoming one of the foremost writers in English in the early 20th century. Her first-hand knowledge of the aristocracy fueled her witty, scathing observations about Gilded Age morals and manners, notably in The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920); the latter novel made her the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. She settled in Paris and in 1916 was awarded the French Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her World War I humanitarian work with refugees.
Although Jackie Kennedy (1929-1994) was a popular first lady, it was following the assassination of her husband, President John F Kennedy, that she truly won the hearts of the American people. Four days after Kennedy’s funeral, at which she had cut such a dignified presence, Mrs Kennedy granted journalist Theodore H White of Life magazine an opportunity to interview her. “Don’t let it be forgot that for one brief shining moment there was Camelot,” she told White, quoting the stage musical. She thus enshrined the myth of the Kennedy presidency that no amount of retrospective scandal has diminished. Born Jacqueline Bouvier in Southampton, New York, she worked as a photographer-reporter at the Washington Times-Herald and married JFK in 1953. After the assassination, she moved permanently to Manhattan where she worked in publishing. Her second marriage was to the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
The groundbreaking investigative journalist Nellie Bly (1864-1922) was born Elizabeth Cochran in Cochran’s Mills in Pennsylvania in 1864. She acquired her famous byline at the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885 and was soon dispatched to Mexico, where she filed a series of articles on hardship and corruption that led to her expulsion from the country. In 1887, she joined Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. For one of her early assignments, she feigned mental illness to get herself admitted to the Blackwell’s Island Asylum (on modern-day Roosevelt Island). Released after 10 days, she wrote a six-part exposé damning the conditions at the asylum that led to improvements in patient care. In November 1889, America’s most famous female journalist set out to circle the globe more quickly than Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days; she completed the journey in 72 days. Widowed by her millionaire husband in 1903, Bly inherited a steel-container manufacturing company for which she patented inventions. Returning to journalism after the company went bankrupt, she wrote about suffragism and reported from the front during World War I.
The possessor of a languid, low-key purr, Billie Holiday was one of the greatest jazz and blues singers of the ’30s and ’40s. She was born Eleanora Fagan (or Elinore Harris) in Philadelphia in 1915 and suffered a troubled childhood – in part due to her jazz-musician father’s absence. In 1929, Holiday and her mother Sarah moved to Harlem where they both worked briefly in a brothel. That same year, Holiday began to sing professionally in clubs. She made her first recording in 1933. After honing her intimate, improvisatory style, she became a star and a major influence on other singers by the late ’30s. Holiday’s image romanticized her as a melancholy loser in love; in real life, she fell prey to exploitative men. A long-time heroin addict, she died in 1959. Nothing has eclipsed the emotional intensity of her voice.
Herman Melville (1819-1891) was born in the boarding house that stood at 6 Pearl Street in what is now Lower Manhattan’s Financial District; the house is long gone, but a plaque and a bust mark the spot. As a young seaman, Melville sailed on two different whalers and a harpooner; his adventures – which included capture and mutiny – fed his early novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), as well as his 10th and last one, Billy Budd (1891, published 1924). Universally regarded as one of the greatest American novels, Moby-Dick (1851) – the tale of Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the eponymous white whale – was unsuccessful during its author’s lifetime. By 1866, Melville was working as a customs inspector at the New York docks, a job he kept for 19 years.
The birth-control activist and sex educator Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was born in Corning in upstate New York. A radical leftist feminist, she moved to Greenwich Village in 1910 and began working as a nurse among the poor of the Lower East Side. After witnessing the death of a woman from a self-induced abortion, Sanger resolved to make birth control available to women. The Comstock Law, which banned the mailing of contraceptives, forced Sanger into exile in England in 1915. The following year, she spent 30 days in jail for opening a birth-control clinic in Brooklyn. In 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League, a precursor of the Planned Parenthood Federation, and two years later opened the first legal birth-control clinic at 45 West 15th Street in Manhattan; it moved to 17 West 16th Street in 1930 and remained open until 1973. In the 1950s, Sanger (who had controversially supported eugenics) underwrote the research for developing the first contraceptive pill.
Born a sickly child in a Manhattan townhouse at 28 East 20th Street in 1858, Theodore Roosevelt Jr (1858-1919) started a cult of rugged masculinity and outdoorsmanship. He was already a reformist Republican politician when he heroically led the Rough Riders – the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry – during the 1898 Spanish-American War. Taking office as vice president of the United States in March 1901, he became the nation’s 26th president following President McKinley’s assassination that September. The face of progressivism and “Square Deal” politics, Roosevelt served until 1909. He is one of the four presidents commemorated in the sculpted monument at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
Political trailblazer Shirley Chisholm was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in 1924. Forty years later this champion of working-class people became the first African American woman from Brooklyn to be elected to the New York State Assembly. Her most famous piece of legislation as an assemblywoman created the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge program, which enabled low-income students to pursue further education. In 1968, the liberal Democrat Chisholm became the first African American woman to be elected to Congress. She served New York’s 12th congressional district – which included Bed-Stuy – from 1969 to 1983. Chisholm fought for the legalization of abortion and other women’s rights, as well as lesbian and gay rights. She died in 2005 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
George Gershwin (1898-1937) was one of America’s greatest classical composers and writers of jazz and popular songs. Born at 242 Snediker Avenue in East New York, Brooklyn, in 1898, Gershwin began his career as a piano player and Tin Pan Alley song-plugger when he was 15. He was soon composing songs and collaborating with orchestrator and musical director William Daly on Broadway musicals. In 1924, he wrote his masterpiece, the jazz-influenced Rhapsody in Blue. After short spells in Paris (during which he wrote An American in Paris) and Hollywood, Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess (1935), a hybrid opera and African American musical regarded as his most ambitious work. He was working on Hollywood projects when he died after an operation to remove a brain tumor in 1937. Among the standards he wrote are ‘Swanee,’ ‘Someone To Watch Over Me,’ ‘’S Wonderful,’ ‘I Got Rhythm,’ ‘You Can’t Take That Away From Me’ and ‘Embraceable You.’
The painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) – celebrated for his frequently humorous and nostalgic depictions of small-town American life – was born on West 103rd Street in Manhattan. Appointed art editor for Boys’ Life magazine when he was 19, Rockwell began painting for the Saturday Evening Post in 1916, and by 1963 he had contributed 323 covers to the weekly. The humble settings of Rockwell’s paintings indicate his values: soda counter, doctor’s office, baseball field, hair salon, schoolroom – and, frequently, home sweet home. In 1943, Rockwell’s idealized Four Freedoms paintings toured the country, raising $132 million in war bonds. As an illustrator for Look magazine from 1963 to 1973, Rockwell adapted to the times, contributing memorable paintings about racism including The Problem We All Live With, Southern Justice and New Kids in the Neighborhood.
This article is an updated version of a story created by Vincent Amoroso.