Dawn Powell lived in Greenwich Village and wrote about it as well as or better than anyone. A fiction writer, playwright and essayist who has attained the cult status of “a writer who should be much better known,” Powell was born in Ohio in 1896, made it to New York City as a young adult, and lived and wrote in the Village until she died in 1965.
While famous artists of every stripe are attached to the Village, Powell is a personal favorite – a singular writer in several ways. Her novels are witty and captivating, generally romps through the intertwining ambitions and affairs of mid-20th-century writers, bohemians, and conventional strivers. She confronted major hardships, produced a prodigious body of work, was admired by such literary giants as Ernest Hemingway and Gore Vidal, and lived her feminism as a determined, independent writer at a time when few women did. Indeed, “she took lovers as boldly as a man” (see this Times review).
To this reader and Village romantic, Powell’s stories are escapes into an evocatively drawn neighborhood, both more egalitarian and more stylish than today, a high-spirited place of spontaneity and possibility.
Because her characters lived, wrote and drank in the Village, just as she did, the locations invoked are too many to enumerate. Powell resided at 9 East 10th Street, and then at 95 Christopher Street. She apparently frequented the cafés of the Hotel Lafayette at 30 East 9th Street and the Hotel Brevoort on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and East 8th Street – both beloved by writers and artists, and both torn down and replaced by apartment buildings using the same names, Lafayette and Brevoort.
In the lively 1936 novel “Turn, Magic Wheel,” a chapter opens:
In the Brevoort Café they found their favorite corner table, or rather Dennis’s favorite table, for if he sat here he could watch all the mirrors for Corinne and if some day she should come in the next room with another man, that actor for instance, he could watch them from here and the next day when he asked her where she’d had tea and she answered “Oh, I was at Olive’s” he would say “Liar, I saw you at the Brevoort with that man.”
Later a rambling party gets going with an invitation to a famous 14th Street eatery:
“Come over to Lüchow’s with our gang,” he insisted. “We’re all tight as ticks and tomorrow’s Saturday.”
Powell keeps delivering those little kicks of the local, like the thrills of recognition you get from familiar locations in a movie. From the 1948 powerhouse “The Locusts Have No King,” there’s:
The round-faced rosy little fellow waiting for a taxicab in front of the Jefferson Market looked familiar but Frederick did not recognize him as Sam Flannery until he eagerly saluted him.
Or the colorful transition:
After Frederick left Murray pouring himself a shot of rye, he hurried over to the Greenwich Avenue drugstore to telephone Dodo.
Of course, that shot of rye was being poured in the morning.
Not just the Village, but the vistas and moods of the entire city permeate Powell’s writing. Lovesick, many of us have viewed our environs much like Lyle Gaynor, in this passage from “Locusts”:
New York was a city named Frederick, Lyle thought. …Coming out of Fifth Avenue at Fifty-ninth she read his name into whatever she saw; down that street was the restaurant where they must go for the curried dishes he loved; further along was the motion picture house with the Italian movie he wanted to see; here was the gallery with the Marsh show he would like; here was a shop to order slipcovers for his furniture; here was the refugee shirt-maker she had recommended to him.