The ghosts of Riverside Drive

The lives lived in a row of seven townhouses on Riverside Drive are the subject of Dan Wakin’s new book. Photo: Michael Garofalo
A new book peels back the layers of one Upper West Side block

Perhaps you’ve strolled past the row of seven stately townhouses on Riverside Drive between 105th and 106th Streets without paying them much mind. They’re beautiful, yes— overlooking the Hudson to the New Jersey Palisades, the houses are relics of a bygone Upper West Side, from an era before the neighborhood we know grew up around them. But what of the people who lived in these grand dwellings?

Disparate stories of the block’s artists, industrialists and criminals form the historical thread that runs through Dan Wakin’s new book, “The Man with the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block” (Arcade).

Wakin, a longtime reporter and editor with The New York Times, grew up on West 106th Street, around the corner from the buildings he refers to as the “Seven Beauties.” He started piecing together local history after moving back into his childhood apartment in 2000 as a husband and father, and delved into the dwellings’ colorful pasts for a 2007 Times story that served as the book’s foundation.

“I had grown up around these buildings and walked by them so many times that they had become a routine part of my mental landscape,” he writes. “They were deeply familiar. Yet I knew nothing of the lives that were carried on within these walls. And some day one of those forgotten stories would be mine.”

More recently, Wakin recalled reflecting on the transience of individuals and their stories as compared with the relative permanence of the buildings they temporarily inhabit. “It really made me desperate to know: who were the people inside these buildings and what were their lives like?” he said during a conversation with Straus News.

“The Man with the Sawed-Off Leg,” his first book, draws on deep archival research to evoke the all-but-forgotten lives lived at 330 through 337 Riverside Drive.

The title story centers on a daring 1934 armored car heist executed by a ragtag group of ex-bootleggers and waterfront toughs with ties to the West Side docks and the Albany underworld. The audacious robbery, perpetrated in broad daylight in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, landed a record sum and went off without a hitch — save for the accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound to the knee suffered by one of the criminals during the maritime getaway.

The unfortunate robber — Bernard McMahon, a.k.a “Bennie the Bum” — was spirited by his associates to 334 Riverside Drive, then a somewhat seedy boardinghouse. A local doctor was summoned to the townhouse and performed an amputation, but to no avail — Bennie the Bum succumbed to his injuries soon after. For good measure, the doctor hacked off McMahon’s other leg so that his corpse could be stuffed in a trunk for disposal.

The sordid Depression-era tale stands in contrast to the stories of the prosperous early inhabitants of the gorgeous Beaux-Arts homes, which were built at the turn of the 20th century for the ascendant gentry who made their fortunes during the era’s industrial boom.

The mansion at 330 Riverside Drive, now occupied by members of the Catholic prelature Opus Dei, was the home of baking powder mogul R.B. Davis and his heirs (the Davis name still adorns the iconic red-and-gold cylinders found in grocery aisles); next door lived the film star Marion Davies, the mistress of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who bought the 331 Riverside for Davies and used his newspaper empire to boost her acting career; the Fabers of pencil-manufacturing renown and the Shakespearean actress Julia Marlowe also lived on the block. Wakin chronicles cameos in later decades from the likes of Duke Ellington and Saul Bellow.

Wakin didn’t approach the book from any particular ideological viewpoint with respect to historic preservation, but the fact that these historic townhouses still stand (the buildings enjoy landmark status) makes their history that much more tangible.

“When the buildings remain, these lives, these ghosts, can always be recovered,” he said. “But when historic buildings are torn down, not only is the actual structure erased, but the possibility of recovering those memories becomes diminished.”

“In any block, like that block of Riverside Drive, there’s bound to be some incredible history that’s faded away and is unknown but can be dug and can then be part of your life,” he added.

Through the lens of the fascinating but disparate lives lived side-by-side on a single block, Wakin gets at something essential about New York City. “I think it’s the fact that people of such diversity — not just ethnic or racial or religious diversity, but economic and professional diversity — all live incredibly close together and all benefit from that proximity,” he said.

“This block had actors, painters, inventors, hard-nosed businessmen, kept women, gangsters. How much more New York can you get than that?”

Michael Garofalo: