Rex Stout installed his “seventh of a ton” behemoth of a detective, Nero Wolfe, in a luxurious brownstone on West 35th St. Although the precise location fluctuates from book to book, there is a plaque at 454 honoring Wolfe and his faithful operative Archie Goodwin.
The walk through Hell’s Kitchen to this location wasn’t particularly beautiful aside from the wig shops. My grandfather owned a beauty parlor in Long Island City when I was growing up, and I loved the wigs he kept on mannequin heads so his clients could try a cut and color before committing. He turned Italian brunettes into blonde bombshells.
“At least until their five o’clock roots came back by dinner,” my father said.
They always left the shop looking and feeling glamorous.
The walk to each location makes me look at Manhattan differently. I walk down blocks I don’t usually see. Sometimes people walk with me. How grateful I am for their love on these trips and always. This sculpture is called THEY WERE THE LAST THREE by Gillie and Marc. The last three northern white rhinos in existence in 2018, Fatu, Najin and Sudan, perched precariously on each other to symbolize their “uncertain place in this world as the last of their kind.” The work was created as a “beacon of hope and love,” though extinction viewed above a mask doesn’t feel hopeful to me, and a reminder of the profound impact of humans on the environment.
But onto the destination of this installment, 454 West 35th St.
Rex Stout featured Nero Wolfe in 33 novels and 39 novellas. Read that again. Somehow this author produced 33 NOVELS AND 39 NOVELLAS featuring Nero Wolfe. I’m going to admit I’ve never heard of Rex Stout or Nero Wolfe, so this location didn’t grab my imagination for the specific reason of loving the author or the character. But the lack of familiarity turned out to be an even greater adventure, opening my mind to a larger awareness of the entire city as a backdrop for characters visible only to the people who know about them.
When I was a little book-obsessed girl growing up in Brooklyn, I fantasized about finishing a book in a Manhattan townhouse and having my name on a plaque like this, along with the name of the book and characters. I spent the last seven years writing a book in a Manhattan townhouse. Now my agent has it and I’m waiting. Is it done? I have no idea. I think so. But I can’t say. Stay tuned for that part.
I wrote a lot of drafts of this novel, which takes place during the Italian Renaissance. Well, one of the drafts took place partly during the Italian Renaissance and partly in future Manhattan. One of the characters was an inventor and he lived in the penthouse of this building at 56 Leonard Street. Apparently the most expensive condo in this building is $50 million. Was that one his? YES IT WAS. How did he get so rich? He invented a surveillance device called The Cube. Why was this character in a novel about the Italian Renaissance? Things were chaotic in those early drafts.
But the character, Magnus Berg, was deleted along with the entire future storyline. Good riddance, Magnus Berg. And yet, he was so vivid. In my mind, he was real. More real than Nero Wolfe, a character I don’t know at all. Presumably someone lives in Magnus’ luxury penthouse. Maybe. Who can tell these days. But if someone does, they live in there with Magnus whether they know it or not.
On the block where Nero Wolfe did his sleuthing, something grabbed my attention. Bob’s Park. Tucked behind a green metal gate, with a list of rules on the door. For $2, residents can get a key and enter. The keys cannot be duplicated. That’s one of the rules. No pets (no exceptions). Children must be supervised. No littering, no drugs. No radios or boom boxes. No fires, no harm to the plants and flowers. Key holders only, doors closed behind them.
On May 8, 1995, Doreen Carvajal wrote an article about Bob for The New York Times:
In a narrow sliver of Hell’s Kitchen — blooming with dogwood and signs announcing the opening of the first neighborhood park in more than half a century — no one enters without passing the dark, doleful eyes of “Bob.”
Nero Wolfe is imaginary, but Bob was real. Very real. Why did he get a park named after him, this character who once lived and breathed on this block?
“We talked about what we could name the park,” said Joe Restuccia, a neighbor who helped organize the $100,000 park project. “We decided we didn’t want to call it Robert Kennedy Park because that sounds like a somebody. We wanted a name that sounded like our somebody, Bob’s Park.”
Bob was the “self-appointed patrolman of West 35th Street who chased away drug dealers and his own insomnia by standing guard outside their homes in the morning darkness.”
He was their annual Christmas Santa, their neighborhood warrior, a jewelry maker with shoulder-length brown hair who liked to dress in feathered American Indian headdresses and Scottish kilts, with a boa constrictor dangling from his shoulders.
Bob loved the neighborhood “more than his life.” he gave neighbors coffee through the window of his apartment, where he sometimes went without heat or electricity. Residents in his building had to use ladders to get between floors because the staircases were so deteriorated. His missing snake was eight feet long when they found him, having cleared the building of rodents.
In 1992, Bob was stabbed to death in his crumbling apartment. His killer was never found. I have to imagine Nero Wolfe would have solved the case.