I just cracked open Adventures in Old New York* (Bowery Boys 2016), a birthday gift presented to me last month. There’s an entire chapter on Central Park, which I have visited too many times to count, but I didn’t know the quarter mile path bordered by huge American Elm trees that makes a straight shot north from the zoo to the Bethesda fountain and terrace is called the mall**, and that the southern part of it is known as Literary Walk. It’s here that our Bowery Boys make the gay connection. Literary honorees include Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Shakespeare, but there’s also a statue of Fitz-Greene Halleck. Who? Never heard of him.
Turns out Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867) was a Connecticut-born writer of romantic and satirical poetry who was so popular that 10,000 rabid poetry fans joined President Rutherford Hayes for the dedication of his Literary Walk statue in 1877, marking the tenth anniversary of the writer’s death. Considering late nineteenth-century mores, they likely played down the gay part. Halleck was dubbed “the American Byron” during his lifetime. Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “No name in the American poetical world is more firmly established than that of Fitz-Greene Halleck.” Charles Dickens spoke fondly of Halleck, and Abraham Lincoln read his poems out loud to friends at the White House. Newspapers published his newly-minted poems all across America and Great Britain. Those are huge endorsements, considering that Halleck’s writings had “gay” written all over them.
Halleck was love sick for a certain fellow poet Joseph Rodman Drake (1795-1820), who partnered with Halleck in writing the Croaker Papers, a satirical send up of New York society. Published anonymously and serialized in leading newspapers, these poems seemed to delight even their targets of derision, the upper crust of New York City. Drake’s relationship with Halleck was fictionalized in what many call America’s first gay novel, Bayard Taylor’s “Joseph and His Friend” (1870). Taylor knew both men and even delivered a speech at the dedication of a Halleck statue in Connecticut. Drake's image on a vintage cigar box label (below):
But Drake, who had studied medicine, was unable to prevent his early death from tuberculosis, and Halleck mourned the loss for the rest of his life. Drake had married a year before his death, and Halleck reluctantly served as best man.
“I officiated as groomsman, though much against my will...He is perhaps the handsomest man in New York – a face like and angel, a form like an Apollo...I felt myself during the ceremony as committing a crime in aiding and assisting such a sacrifice.” Such was the extent of Halleck’s obsession with Drake that in his will the poet asked for Drake’s body to be exhumed and buried next to him.
Halleck’s biographer described the poet’s last major work, “Young America,” as both a jaded critique of marriage and a pederastic boy-worship reminiscent of classical homosexuality.
All of this is news to me. So a recent warm spring day found me strolling Central Park’s Literary walk, where I located Halleck’s granite statue. There he sits, with legs crossed, for all eternity (image below). According to the Bowery Boys, his was Central Park’s first statue of an American.
*528 pages of fascinating details of NYC’s history told in a way that never fails to captivate. The Bowery Boys are the transplanted midwestern guys – Greg Young and Tom Myers – who produce award-winning podcasts about NYC, their adoptive home.
**The "mall" is on the east side of the park, running roughly from 66th-72nd streets.