The year is 1944, and in a brick row house by a lush Greenwich Village garden lives a “shy little black cat” named Jenny Linsky with her caretaker, the old sailor Captain Tinker. While the particular adventures and fanciful musings of this feline may have come from the creative imagination of author and illustrator Esther Averill, the cat, her owner, and the Village locations where these tales are set were all quite real.
Esther Averill was born on July 24, 1902, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and graduated from Vassar College in 1923. Her early career focused on journalism, first as a cartoonist for a local newspaper, then as an editorial staffer for Women’s Wear Daily. She moved to Paris in 1925 to pursue photojournalism, and in 1931 she founded a children’s picture book publishing company, the Domino Press. In 1941, Averill returned to the United States and settled in Greenwich Village, living on MacDougal Street and then at the Hotel Albert, during which time she worked at a branch of the New York Public Library. She is best known, however, for her series of children’s books centered around Jenny Linsky, a small yet precocious black cat. The first in the series, The Cat Club, was published in 1944, and Averill wrote and illustrated a total of 13 stories about Jenny and friends over the next 30 years.
While the places Jenny and her cat companions visit on their various adventures are based on real locations in Greenwich Village, Averill seems to purposefully blur the line between reality and imagination. She modifies the names and spatial relationships between almost-familiar sites just enough, so that you are never quite sure if you’re envisioning the characters in the right street or landmark. This seems to be intentional, to encourage the reader to imagine that these stories are taking place in their own backyard. Or at least, that’s definitely how I felt reading Jenny’s Birthday Book, which was gifted to me for my 6th birthday, over and over again. As a young girl living in a brick building facing a garden, it was easy for me to daydream about the cats that could be frolicking there in the moonlight. But I always wondered where, specifically, these stories were actually meant to take place -– and now I am equipped with the tools to find out.
The most obvious real location is Washington Square Park, which is variously referenced in illustrations throughout the Cat Club series. One story states that the cats were to hold their “…annual Spring Picnic on Saturday night in Washington Park, three blocks north of [their] garden,” with an accompanying image of the Washington Square Arch, which is referred to as the “Arch of Victory.” While the actual name is “Washington Square Park,” and the arch is officially called “Washington Arch” (“Arch of Victory,” though, is a translation of Arc de Triomphe, a nod to the arch’s inspiration and model in Paris, and Averill’s connection to the city), the parallels are clear.
From there, the references become a bit more ambiguous. Jenny and the Captain live in a “house by the big garden” with “rows of pink brick houses” on three sides. There are many enclosed gardens scattered throughout Greenwich Village. However, according to the US Census, in 1940 Averill was living at 90 MacDougal Street, a row house that was built in the Greek Revival style in 1844 and is part of MacDougal Sullivan Gardens. In the forward of the 1973 anniversary edition of her collection of stories, Averill recounts that they are based on her neighbor and his real black cat that she observed through her garden window, so it is likely that the garden setting she describes is none other than MacDougal Sullivan Gardens. This also tracks with the indication that “Washington Park” is located “three blocks north of [the] garden.”
One snag, though, is that Jenny is frequently described as climbing over the fence at the end of the garden and coming out on South Street – but there is no South Street anywhere nearby. The only other street that is called out by name in the books is “Mulligan Street,” which also does not exist. Perhaps, though, “Mulligan” is a portmanteau of “MacDougal” and “Sullivan” Streets, or it could be a reference to Milligan Place, which is located several blocks away. I imagine that “South Street” is really “Houston Street,” though that is definitely open to interpretation.
Another context clue comes in the form of a firehouse, where Jenny’s friend Pickles, the spotted yellow cat, is based. In the books, Pickles lives at “Hook and Ladder Company 7X of the New York City Fire Department.” There were a number of firehouses near Averill’s real-life home at 90 MacDougal Street. One of the closest was the New York Board of Fire Underwriters Fire Patrol House #2 at 84 West 3rd Street. Though it was actually independent of the New York Fire Department, the building could have been a reference point.
Other local sites referenced include Castle Hamburger (a play on “White Tower Hamburgers”?) and a clock tower that appears recurrently. The tower could be Jefferson Market Courthouse (now Library), as the pyramidic finial and clock faces match the real library’s tower, though the rest of the building is conspicuously absent. If you can think of another clock tower in the vicinity, please leave a comment to let us know!
Finally, Florio was a “young, golden-haired cat who was as handsome as a prince” and lived in a larger apartment building also in proximity to Washington Square Park, which, with its grand presence, prominent sidewalk canopy, and towering setbacks looks suspiciously like One Fifth Avenue.
Part of the charm of these stories is in their ambiguity and the general feeling of wandering around Greenwich Village that they imply. Another delightful aspect of the books is the childlike wonder with which Jenny perceives the world, and the oft-repeated refrain that the other cats recite to her: “Although you’re small and shy, you always do the best you can.”
Upon re-reading the stories as an adult, I have a new favorite line: “Time is nothing to a cat when he is dancing.”
*All illustrations throughout this post are by Esther Averill.