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From Longhorn to the "Mayor of Greenwich Village"

Lew Ney was a member of the Glee Club while he attended The University of Texas. He's pictured here in a photo from the 1906 Cactus yearbook on the bottom row, second from the right.
Lew Ney was a member of the Glee Club while he attended The University of Texas. He's pictured here in a photo from the 1906 Cactus yearbook on the bottom row, second from the right.

Before Lew Ney became the Mayor of Greenwich Village (and a signer of the door featured in the current exhibition The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925), he was a Longhorn. Born and raised in Austin, Texas, as Luther E. Widen, Lew Ney graduated from Austin High School and enrolled in The University of Texas in 1904. He began his undergraduate career in the College of Engineering but after one year transferred to the Humanities Department. He was an active member of the Glee Club as a second tenor for three years before leaving the University in 1907.

Ultimately, Ney received his undergraduate degree from Nebraska and his

Detail of Ney from the Cactus yearbook photo.
Detail of Ney from the Cactus yearbook photo.

master’s degree  in psychology at Iowa State University. He moved to Greenwich Village in the early 1920s and married Ruth Thompson in 1928. He was known in the Village as a writer, printer, type designer, and publisher. Most notably, he published the magazine Parnassus and the early works of writers Parker Tyler and Maxwell Bodenheim.  He is most famous for his creation of the exquisite typesetting font (L283) that was well suited for poetic works.

Eventually, Ney would become a community character proclaimed “the Mayor of Greenwich Village.”

The bookshop door with Ney’s signature is on display in The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925 through January 22. Also, visit the related web exhibition, which uses the door as an entryway into the lives, careers, and relationships of New York bohemians of that era.

Special thanks to The Alcalde for assisting with the yearbook images.

Published by Lew Ney, 'Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms 8' was founded by Parker Tyler, and Charles Henri Ford, who dropped out of high school to edit it. This spring 1930 issue was published when Ford was just seventeen. It features several writers whose archives reside at the Ransom Center: Tyler, Ford, Paul Bowles, and Louis Zukofsky. The Center also houses important collections of contributors Kay Boyle, John Herrmann, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams.
Published by Lew Ney, 'Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms 8' was founded by Parker Tyler, and Charles Henri Ford, who dropped out of high school to edit it. This spring 1930 issue was published when Ford was just seventeen. It features several writers whose archives reside at the Ransom Center: Tyler, Ford, Paul Bowles, and Louis Zukofsky. The Center also houses important collections of contributors Kay Boyle, John Herrmann, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams.

In the Galleries: A map of Greenwich Village from The Greenwich Village Quill

A map of Greenwich Village from 'The Greenwich Village Quill' (1925). The shop was near the corner of Christopher Street and Greenwich Avenue.
A map of Greenwich Village from 'The Greenwich Village Quill' (1925). The shop was near the corner of Christopher Street and Greenwich Avenue.

As it is today, Manhattan was the center of American magazine publishing in the 1920s. The vast majority of those who signed the door in Frank Shay’s Bookshop in Greenwich Village had some role in the business as editors, publishers, printers, or contributors to a variety of publications.

While some bookshops in New York at the time were havens for experimentation and likely carried few magazines beyond the “little magazines” produced for a small literary audience, Frank Shay’s tastes were much broader. His friends and customers alike worked for and likely purchased a wide range of the available publications of the day. Magazines are a valuable source for reconstructing literary movements and shifts in popular and coterie tastes. Works that we recognize as monuments today were often first experienced by readers in little and big magazines alike: landmark poems and chapters of serialized novels were read alongside forgotten avant-garde manifestoes or advertisements for household products

This map, drawn by Robert Edwards, was published in Quill, a magazine popular with the Village community. The map shows the bookshop in its final year in business, 1925. Shay no longer ran the shop, as can be seen in the description of the shop at number 49 in the legend. Frank Shay is called “Parnassuswaggoner” because he had moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, with his travelling bookshop, “Parnassus on Wheels.” Of particular note are the map’s designation of two distinct immigrant communities, “Erin” (Ireland) and “Italia,” concentrated in particular areas of the Village, and the presence of “Aristocrats” and other wealthy community members in the elegant blocks surrounding Washington Square. Immigrants and “Aristrocrats” alike are frequently absent from the Bohemians’ descriptions of their community, so Edwards’s decision to highlight them here is notable.

A hard copy of Quill magazine and an enlarged version of Edwards’s map can be seen in the current exhibition The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925, on display through January 22.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears discusses Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. Photo by Pete Smith.
Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears discusses Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. Photo by Pete Smith.
Richard Williams, an independent scholar researching the Erle Stanley Gardner collection at the Ransom Center, discusses his work at the fellows’ brown bag luncheon. Photo by Pete Smith.
Richard Williams, an independent scholar researching the Erle Stanley Gardner collection at the Ransom Center, discusses his work at the fellows’ brown bag luncheon. Photo by Pete Smith.
Elana Estrin interviews undergraduate student Sonia Desai about her work at the Ransom Center. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Elana Estrin interviews undergraduate student Sonia Desai about her work at the Ransom Center. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Len Downie, Vice President at Large of The Washington Post, reviews a document in the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate papers during his visit to the Ransom Center. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Len Downie, Vice President at Large of The Washington Post, reviews a document in the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate papers during his visit to the Ransom Center. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.

In the Galleries: The Greenwich Village bookshop door

Front side of door from Frank Shay's bookshop in Greenwich Village. The door is covered in more than 240 signatures on the front and back side.
Front side of door from Frank Shay's bookshop in Greenwich Village. The door is covered in more than 240 signatures on the front and back side.

In the early 1920s, noteworthy visitors to Frank Shay’s Bookshop at 4 Christopher Street began autographing the narrow door that opened into the shop’s office. Signed by over 240 artists, writers, publishers, and other notable habitués of Greenwich Village, this unusual artifact is a literal portal to the past, revealing the rich mix of innovators— from anarchist poets to major commercial publishers—that defined this slice of Bohemia from 1920 to 1925.

The shop was a haunt of legendary figures: novelists Upton Sinclair and John Dos Passos browsed alongside artists John Sloan and James Earle Fraser. Poets Edwin Arlington Robinson and Vachel Lindsay rubbed elbows with publishers Thomas Seltzer and John Farrar. Playwright Susan Glaspell and Theatre Guild founder Lawrence Langner crossed paths with Algonquin Round Table members Donald Ogden Stewart and Heywood Broun.

This narrow pine door began its life in a flat at 11 Christopher Street once occupied by the novelist and prominent Villager Floyd Dell. In 1921 the building was demolished, but not before Frank Shay saved the door—painted red at the time—and took it across the street and installed it at the back of his shop. As Christopher Morley tells the story, Shay enjoyed an afternoon drink in his office and hung the door to hide this then-illegal activity; these were the days of Prohibition.

According to Morley, the first signer was artist Hendrik Willem Van Loon. His name appears in the center front, accompanied by a cartoon ship. We do not know whether signing the door was a privilege reserved only for some customers. The vast majority of signers were well known; a small number were local businesspeople or friends of the shop’s various owners.

As the number of signatures grew, the door became a well-known curiosity, and people visited the shop to see it. Over the five years that the shop was in business, the door was covered with approximately 242 signatures, most in pencil. Shay likely added the blue “frame” before he sold the shop in 1923. Varnish was added at some point, protecting most of the signatures, though some had already smudged or faded beyond recognition.

When the shop closed in 1925, then-owner Juliette Koenig moved the storied door to her New York apartment. In 1960 she put it up for sale, and the Ransom Center purchased it.

The Greenwich Village bookshop door can be seen in the current exhibition The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925, on display through January 22, 2012. Many of artist Van Loon’s cartoons appear on the walls throughout the exhibition.

A close-up of signatures on the door. Novelist Upton Sinclair appears at the bottom of this selection.
A close-up of signatures on the door. Novelist Upton Sinclair appears at the bottom of this selection.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Dale Rapley, of Actors From The London Stage, performs at Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Dale Rapley, of Actors From The London Stage, performs at Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center’s Audio-Visual Equipment Technician Jason MacLeod runs the audio for Wednesday’s Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center’s Audio-Visual Equipment Technician Jason MacLeod runs the audio for Wednesday’s Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Undergraduate student Adriane Pudom examines Frank Shay’s bookshop door in the Center’s current exhibition 'The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925'. Photo by Pete Smith.
Undergraduate student Adriane Pudom examines Frank Shay’s bookshop door in the Center’s current exhibition 'The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925'. Photo by Pete Smith.
Afternoon sun shines through the north atrium’s etched windows. Photo by Pete Smith.
Afternoon sun shines through the north atrium’s etched windows. Photo by Pete Smith.

Slideshow: Installation of door from Frank Shay’s Greenwich Village bookshop

The two exhibitions The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925 and Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored are now open at the Ransom Center. In the image gallery below, staff members install the bookshop door in the galleries on Friday.

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Help identify unknown signatures from the Greenwich Village bookshop door

This previously unknown signature was identified as the English publisher Jonathan Cape by University of Texas at Austin English Professor Michael Winship.
This previously unknown signature was identified as the English publisher Jonathan Cape by University of Texas at Austin English Professor Michael Winship.

Yesterday, the Ransom Center launched the web exhibition The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925. The exhibition uses a door from a bookshop owned by Frank Shay in Greenwich Village in the early 1920s as an entryway into the lives, careers, and relationships of New York bohemians of that era. The door is signed on both sides by more than 240 artists, writers, publishers, and other notable 1920s Village habitués, and the web exhibition uses the signatures to reconstruct the intersecting communities that made Greenwich Village famous as an epicenter of Modernism.

Although about 190 of the signatures on the door have been identified, more than 50 signatures are still unknown, and visitors are encouraged to submit information about any signatures they might recognize.

Curator Molly Schwartzburg shares that she received the first confirmed identification yesterday with the launch of the website. The signature was identified as the English publisher Jonathan Cape by The University of Texas at Austin’s own Michael Winship, the Iris Howard Regents Professor of English Literature. Cape’s distinctive signature includes a slash at the end of his last name, which worked as a red herring on the minds of the project’s curators until Dr. Winship made his suggestion. The identification was confirmed swiftly with a trip to the stacks and reviewing an inscription by Cape in a book.

Six more submissions have come in since, most from New York City. Staff will be investigating these leads in the next week, and the web exhibition will be updated accordingly.

Curator Molly Schwartzburg confirmed the signature identification by comparing the signature to this inscription by Jonathan Cape inside the cover of Christopher Morley's copy of "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie" by Jean Rhys.
Curator Molly Schwartzburg confirmed the signature identification by comparing the signature to this inscription by Jonathan Cape inside the cover of Christopher Morley's copy of "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie" by Jean Rhys.

"The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925" web exhibition now live

The Ransom Center has the web exhibition The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925. The exhibition uses a door from a book shop owned by Frank Shay in Greenwich Village in the early 1920s as an entryway into the lives, careers, and relationships of New York bohemians of that era. The door is signed on both sides by more than 240 artists, writers, publishers, and other notable 1920s Village habitués, and the web exhibition uses the signatures to reconstruct the intersecting communities that made Greenwich Village famous as an epicenter of Modernism.

Read an essay about the web exhibition that will appear in this Sunday’s print edition of The New York Times Book Review.

A gallery exhibition of the same name, which includes the actual door, opens Tuesday, September 6, at the Ransom Center.