“In New York you are your own person. You may reach out and embrace all of Manhattan in sweet aloneness, or you can go to hell if you want to,” Harper Lee wrote in Go Set a Watchman.
New York City has long been associated with its literary past and present, but a new online audio tour curated by HarperCollins Publishers is taking book lovers on a never-before-heard virtual journey to the homes and favorite locales of some of America’s most beloved authors.
An interactive map features 7-minute audio recordings for each location detailing its historical, social and literary significance. Authors showcased include Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman) and Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), as well as Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, etc.) and Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), among others.
Discover key addresses that were significant in these famous authors’ lives, from the butcher shop on York where Harper Lee stopped for a scone at 7:30 every morning, to the artistic haven downtown where Zora Neale Hurston was known to collaborate with other writers and artists, such as Langston Hughes.
Here’s a sneak peek at some of the stories behind the places these cultural icons called home.
Harper Lee: 1539 York & 433 East 82nd Street
When people think of Harper Lee’s hometown, they naturally think of Monroeville, Alabama, the real-life counterpart to Maycomb in To Kill A Mockingbird. But New York City was Lee’s second home.
From 1949 to 2007, she spent a good portion of every year in one of two Manhattan addresses, traveling the city by bus rather than subway so she could look out the windows, going to Mets games at Shea Stadium, visiting used booksellers, lunching at Pearl Oyster Bar down on Cornelia Street. It’s mistake to think of Harper Lee as a recluse, as some do. She just liked her privacy. And in New York, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd.
In 1949, at age 23, Lee moved to New York. Her first apartment was a tiny cold-water flat at 1539 York Avenue, between 81st and 82nd Streets, a block and a half from the East River. She went to work first for a used bookseller, and then as an airline reservations clerk. She was so broke that she would pound on parking meters to see if they might disgorge a dime or two, but for the next six years she stubbornly wrote, in the evenings and on weekends. Since the apartment at 1539 lacked furniture, she used an old door, placed across two sawhorses, as a desk.
By 1956, she had produced only a few short stories, whereas her friend Truman, living not far away in Manhattan, had become a best-selling author. But when two close friends offered to fund her writing for a year, Lee quit her job, retired into her tiny apartment, and worked 12 hours a day on a novel. It wasn’t easy: at one point she became so frustrated she threw the manuscript out the window and was forced to rescue it from a snow drift on York Avenue. Finally, numerous painstaking drafts morphed into To Kill A Mockingbird. The novel was published by J. B. Lippincott (acquired by Harper & Row in 1978) on July 11, 1960, to near-instantaneous success. Within a few weeks it had hit bestseller lists across the country, reviewers loved it, and a movie sale was made.
After her 1539 York Avenue address was engulfed by a high-rise building in 1966, she rented a one-bedroom apartment in a nondescript five-story building at 433 East 82nd Street between First and York Avenues. She went twice a day to Ottomanelli & Bros. butchers up on York, first at 7:30 AM for a scone and a cup of coffee, later in the day for a well-trimmed lamb chop or a piece of chicken. She was a quiet presence, friendly with her super and the other tenants, but keeping to herself.
Over the years, she fell into a routine of returning to Monroeville in October and coming back to New York in the spring. Even after a serious stroke in 2007 forced her to return to Alabama for good, she kept the address at 433 East 82nd Street. In fact, her rent was still current when she died on February 19, 2016, although she hadn’t occupied the place in years. Harper Lee was wise to the incalculable value of a 900 dollar a month rent-controlled Manhattan apartment.
Click here to listen to the full audio clip.
Zora Neale Hurston: 43 West 66th Street & 267 West 136th Street
Alice Walker’s famous 1973 Ms. Magazine essay “Looking for Zora” raised Zora Neale Hurston up from her anonymous grave in a desolate Florida cemetery, bringing her work to a new generation of Americans.
Hurston died penniless and forgotten—a sad fate for the brilliant writer an early biographer called “one of the most significant unread authors in American history.” But the bleak story surrounding her demise is not one that Hurston, who didn’t believe in feeling sorry for herself, would have preferred to dwell on. In life, she was ferociously independent, irreverently funny, and absolutely sure of herself.
Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925 after a short story she wrote received an award from Opportunity magazine. It was typical of Hurst that by the time she left the prize banquet, she had secured a job as secretary to the bestselling author Fannie Hurst and parlayed another connection she had made into a scholarship to Barnard College, which she began attending in the fall.
In June of 1926, Hurst moved into an apartment at 43 West 66th Street, between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West, one of a small row of townhouses owned by the New York African Society for Mutual Relief and rented over the years to mainly black tenants. Forty-three West became Hurston’s favorite New York address, of many, and she stayed there on and off for the next five years. The apartment was a welcome haven for the writers and artists she knew, including her sometimes-collaborator, Langston Hughes. She not only provided pencil and paper to stimulate creation, “she knew when you were hungry,” Bruce Nugent remembered, and always made sure to have food on hand.
Hurston’s other home in Manhattan at this time was 267 West 136th Street in Harlem, known to other Harlem writers as “267 House.” This was a 19th century tenement building owned by Iolanthe Sydney, a black philanthropist who gave rooms rent-free to New Negro writers, artists and musicians.
The 1930s saw Hurston’s true artistic flowering. J. B. Lippincott (acquired by Harper & Row in 1978) published her first novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine in 1933; followed in 1934 by Mules and Men, Hurston’s collection of African American folktales, generally considered to be the first compiled by a black author; and Their Eyes Were Watching God, her masterpiece novel, which sank from sight soon after its publication in 1938.
Zora Neale Hurston gradually disappeared from public view, fading into poverty, before her death from heart disease on January 28, 1960. Through the efforts of Alice Walker and others, Their Eyes Were Watching God is now seen as a classic of our national literature.
Hurston’s New York homes have not fared as well. The notorious “267 House” was torn down in the 1990s and replaced, in 2003, by a trim four-story townhouse. West 66th Street is now a street of tall condominium and apartment buildings and the 43 West address no longer exists.
Click here to listen to the full audio clip.
Readers can dive into more New York literary heritage by visiting HarperCollins’ 200th anniversary website. To check out behind-the-scenes archives and artifacts in person, visit the “Harper & Brothers to HarperCollins Publishers: A Bicentennial Exhibition,” co-curated by Jennifer B. Lee and Karla Nielsen, open now through July 21 at the Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Admission is free.
Images and audio text provided courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.