Official blog for historical novelist Nancy Bilyeau, author of the Joanna Stafford trilogy, Dreamland, The Blue, and The Orchid Hour
Wednesday, August 9, 2023
The Hidden Street I Chose for The Orchid Hour
And now I’d like to take you behind the scenes of my writing process and explain my choice of a location for my fictional nightclub, The Orchid Hour. Some of the best-known clubs of the Roaring Twenties were either in midtown (The El Fey Club) or Harlem (The Cotton Club). I contributed a guest post to author Tony Riche’s blog on Times Square of the 1920s. Read it here.
But in certain ways, I wanted to model my nightclub on Chumley’s, a real-life speakeasy in the West Village. While it was favored by literary stars like Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Eugene O’Neill, it was carefully hidden. Its Barrow Street entrance was located at the end of a nondescript courtyard, and the Bedford Street entrance to Chumley’s was an unmarked door. After all, the whole point was to hide their drinking from the police!
For The Orchid Hour, I wanted to pick a place closer to the main part of Greenwich Village but on a little-known street. So I settled on MacDougal Alley. It’s a cul-de-sac that runs east off MacDougal Street in the block between West 8th Street and Waverly Place. People who love Greenwich Village history cherish MacDougal Alley.
Named after a Scotsman who was a hero of the Revolutionary War, the alley was home to the stables for the great townhouses along Washington Square North beginning in the 1830s. Despite its proximity to people who would have felt comfortable in a Henry James novel, the alley was in an area considered unsafe. The newspapers complained that this part of the city was “in the nighttime infested with base and unprincipled persons, who take advantage of the darkness in consequence of the dense foliage of the trees and the dimness of the ordinary street oil lamps to perpetrate acts of violence.” When gas lamps were installed in 1849, there was some relief.
MacDougal Alley is technically a “mews,” which means it’s a row or street of houses or apartments that have been converted from stables. Around the time that horses were replaced by automobiles, MacDougal Alley became a beacon to artists, perhaps drawn by the ivy-covered brick walls and the gas lamps. Many of the buildings were turned into artists’ studios.
Here are just a few of the people who lived off MacDougal Alley:
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who founded the Whitney Museum of American Art, had a studio on the alley, prompting horrified headlines such as "Daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt Will Live in Dingy New York Alley.”
A beautiful artist’s model and silent film actress named Audrey Marie Munson dubbed “American Venus” lived there around 1915. As one newspaper put it: “ ‘Venus of MacDougal Alley,’ Whose Beauty Is Embalmed in a Thousand Sculptures.” Later a man would murder his wife in hopes of marrying Munson and that dimmed her career.
Isamu Noguchi, after a stay in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona, moved to a home and studio number 33. Some of his best-known works, a series of interlocking sculptures begun in 1944, were created here.
From 1949 to 1950, Jackson Pollock lived at number 9.
Audrey Marie Munson
Gertrude Whitney in studio
What’s MacDougal Alley like now? The cobblestones were paved over, and at some point it became a private street, locked to the public, although you can peer through the gates and see its charm. The homes are very expensive. One of the properties sold for $5 million in 2009. I must admit that whenever I wander past, I hope that someone will take note of my interest and beckon.