New York’s most salacious neighborhood? New book uncovers VERY colorful history of Riverside Park and its most infamous residents – from publishing baron William Randolph Hearst and his glamorous mistress to a homicidal dentist who poisoned his in-laws
- A new book, ‘Heaven on the Hudson: Mansions, Monuments, and Marvels of Riverside Park’ details the colorful history of an overlooked NYC neighborhood
- The Upper West Side neighborhood is known for 250-acre park that abuts the Hudson River and offers unparalleled views of the New Jersey Palisades
- From its earliest days as farmland, the area evolved from squalor to splendor as it was once home to maniacs at a local asylum and squatter settlements
- It eventually became home to new money barons, such as William Randolph Hearst, who purchased three homes for his wife, mistress and her father
- Among the other scandals told is that of a homicidal fake dentist who poisoned his in-laws with tuberculosis, typhoid and diphtheria
- It is also the location of a fountain dedicated to a descendant of Alexander Hamilton, who whose bigamist wife kidnapped a baby and stabbed its nanny
It’s hard to believe that in a city nicknamed ‘the Concrete Jungle,’ there is an unsung neighborhood that offers a 250-acre park with unparalleled views of the Hudson River, commanding vistas of the New Jersey Palisades, stunning western sunsets and cool breezes wafting off the water.
A new book spotlights the colorful history, headline-making scandals, and famous residents of New York City’s Riverside Park and Riverside Drive
But this is exactly what New York City’s Riverside Park and its adjacent thoroughfare, Riverside Drive has to offer. It is what longtime resident, Stephanie Azzarone calls a ‘paradise with a panorama.’
Riverside Drive, a six-mile road that ambles up the north-west section of Manhattan, links half a dozen historic districts with a parade of Gilded Age mansions, monuments, landmarks and playgrounds.
Though geographically close, the neighborhood feels far from the hustle and bustle of Midtown Manhattan. In Riverside, there are no commercial trucks, blaring horns, and crowds – which makes its obscurity in a city with eight million people all the more surprising.
Now the overlooked community finally gets its overdue place in the spotlight courtesy of Azzarone’s new book, Heaven on the Hudson: Mansions, Monuments, and Marvels of Riverside Park.
In her tome, Azzarone details the neighborhood’s oft-forgotten history of scintillating scandals – the and outsize personalities that once called it home, including Babe Ruth, the Gershwins, author Herman Wouk, and the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ J. Robert Oppenheimer.
It’s where Ben Stiller grew up with his comedian parents Ann Meara and Jerry Stiller, and where Edgar Allen Poe composed ‘The Raven’ in 1842. It is also where the publishing czar, William Randolph Hearst ensconced his paramour, Marion Davies, while simultaneously living up the street in a palatial five-story apartment with his wife and family.
The book traces the evolution of Riverside Park and its abutting avenue, Riverside Drive from the beginning when it was miles of farmland with grand ‘country seats’ to when it became a squatters settlement where nobody wanted to live near the ‘maniacs at the local asylum’. Then later still, when developers hoped it would eclipse Fifth Avenue as the city’s preeminent residential street for social elites.
Azzarone’s book is a love letter to New York City’s emerald coast. For the local and non-local alike, she beckons one to join her on a stroll where, ‘Nature, view, privacy, quiet,’ are just a few of the city’s ‘best kept secrets.’
Riverside Park was created in 1872 as part of a single city initiative that also created its adjacent Riverside Drive. Comprised of 250 acres and five miles long, Riverside Park meanders on the banks of the Hudson River, and remains one of New York City’s ‘best kept secrets’ says Azzarone, long-time resident and author of a ‘Heaven on the Hudson.’ Gilded Age real-estate developers hoped that the neighborhood would rival the ‘millionaire colony’ that encamped on Fifth Avenue, but instead of the Astors, Vanderbilts and Whitneys, Riverside became a haven for well-to-do new money families that made fortunes in banking and manufacturing
‘While its slightly older and much better-known neighbor, Central Park, calls attention to itself, Riverside Park keeps to the edge, a wallflower among the guests,’ writes Azzarone. ‘Central Park demands that all of Manhattan turn inward to look at it. Riverside Park looks outward, to the river and the cliffs along the far shore’
A photo taken from the early 1900s depicts the sweeping curves of Riverside Drive which abuts Riverside Park
Riverside Park exists in multiple tiers as it slopes down to the Hudson River among rocky outcroppings. The wide tree-lined promenade was once the site of open railroad tracks until the 1930s when it was placed in underground tunnels to not disturb the residents with the clattering sound of steam engines and putrid smell of coal, garbage dumps and cattle trains
Arthur Waite, the homicidal fake dentist who poisoned his in-laws with diphtheria
The elegant Colosseum building on Riverside Drive was once the four-bedroom home of Arthur Waite.
Waite had taken a few courses in dentistry and claimed the title of doctor, but was never a legal registered physician. Meanwhile he led friends and family to erroneously believe that he was performing oral surgery at various hospitals around town.
When he wasn’t pretending to earn an honest living, Waite carried out a torrid affair with a married cabaret singer named Margaret Horton in a suite at the Plaza Hotel.
Within the space of two months in early 1916, Waite poisoned his mother-in-law and then his father-in-law, Hannah and John Peck, to get quicker access to his wife Clara’s inheritance.
Arthur Waite was a grifter who posed as a fake dentist and moved into a palatial four bedroom apartment on Riverside Drive with his heiress wife, Clara Peck (right) in 1915. He reached notoriety a year later when he poisoned his in-laws with a deadly mix of influenza, typhoid, diphtheria and tuberculosis to get quicker access to his wife’s inheritance
Waite’s first victim was his mother-in-law Hannah Peck (left), whom he poisoned while she was visiting the newlyweds in their new apartment on Riverside Drive. Two months later, he attempted to murder his father-in-law, John Peck (right) with the same concoction of poisonous diseases. But when that tactic proved less than effective, Waite dosed Peck with arsenic. While the bacterial poisons he used could not be traced in autopsy, arsenic could. After a sensational trial, Waite was convicted of double murder, and electrocuted in 1917
The Waites occupied a four-bedroom apartment in ‘The Colosseum’ on Riverside Drive as newlyweds in 1915. It was there, that Arthur Waite murdered both of his in-laws in a span of two months in 1916. The Colosseum set a new standard of elegant living when it was completed in 1910 with just sixteen palatial-sized apartments, each with eight, ten, or twelve rooms, some taking up a full floor. It boasts mahogany dining rooms, wall safes, a chauffeur’s lounge, and an iconic curved façade designed to catch summer breezes off the Hudson River. Today the building is owned by Columbia University
‘His method was atypical at best,’ writes Azzarone. Waite added diphtheria and influenza germs to Hannah’s food. When the same tactic proved less than effective for John, Waite tossed helpings of tuberculosis and typhoid into the mix to move along what would appear to be a natural death.
Finally, impatient for his efforts to succeed, Waite dosed John Peck with arsenic. While the bacterial poisons he used could not be traced in autopsy, arsenic could. After a sensational trial, Waite was convicted of double murder, and electrocuted in 1917.
In his testimony, he told jurors: ‘I started poisoning her [Hannah] from the very first meal after she arrived. I gave her six assorted tubes of pneumonia, diphtheria and influenza germs in her food. When she finally became ill and took to her bed… I woke up in the small hours. My mother-in-law was dead. I went back to bed again so that it would be my wife who would discover the body.’
William Randolph Hearst, the philandering publishing czar
William Randolph Hearst owned not just one but three residences on Riverside Drive: one for his wife and children, another for his lover, and a third for his lover’s father.
Today the unassuming Clarendon apartment complex at 137 Riverside Drive is divided into 61 micro-sized living spaces — but upon completion in 1907, it was designed to contain two enormous-sized apartments per floor, with 12-rooms and four bathrooms each.
Nonetheless, the gargantuan spaces (by today’s standards) were still not big enough for William Randolph Hearst’s vast art and antiques collection, and thus he negotiated with the developer to combine the top three floors into a single, opulent, 30-room triplex. His annual rent in 1908 was $24,000 (roughly $772,000 in today’s money).
By 1913, the newspaper magnate had outgrown his lavish abode. He had purchased a particularly large medieval tapestry and wanted to raise the apartment’s ceiling height to accommodate his new acquisition, but when the developer refused his request, Hearst promptly bought the whole building for $950,000 (roughly $28million today).
Hearst proceeded to take over the eighth and ninth floors, transforming his already huge home into the first five-story apartment on Riverside Drive and the largest apartment in New York City.
Newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst owned three buildings on Riverside Drive in the early 1900s. One housed his vast art collection and his wife Millicent (right) and Children. The other two were for his mistress, the actress Marion Davies, and her elderly father
Down the street from his opulent five-story apartment at ‘The Clarendon,’ Hearst stashed his mistress, the actress Marion Davies (pictured) in her own mansion that contained 25 rooms, a large fountain in the sitting room and a library of books that were never read. He spent $1million renovating the love nest and then purchased the home next door for Davies’ father
He created a 100-foot long Tapestry Gallery with a 30-foot cathedral-like vaulted stone ceiling. Inside were themed rooms to showcase his vast collection including a Julius Caesar room, a Greek room, a Georgian dining room, and a French Empire bedroom.
It was there that Hearst played host to various dignitaries, society members, and celebrities, among them princes, politicians, movie stars, Belmonts, Goulds, Vanderbilts, Chryslers, Astors, Kahns, and even a German spy.
Barely a mile from his family home, he ensconced his mistress, the Broadway chorus girl and silent film actress Marion Davies, who was 34 years his junior. Hearst spent over $1million to remodel the 25-room Beaux Arts mansion at 331 Riverside Drive—installing a large fountain in the sitting room and an impressive library of books that apparently were never read.
Hearst also bought the home next door—number 332—creating an apartment there for Davies’ father.
The illicit lovers hosted popular figures of the day, including Anita Loos (author of Gentleman Prefer Blondes) who lunched with Hearst and Davies in the afternoon, and dined with Hearst and his long-suffering wife on the same evening.
According to Loos, Hearst turned to her and said: ‘Well, young lady, we seem to be sitting next to each other in rather diverse locations, don’t we?’
Hearst had outgrown his 30-room triplex at ‘the Clarendon’ with the purchase of a large Medieval tapestry, and had asked the developer for permission to heighten the ceilings in 1913. When he was denied, Hearst promptly bought the whole building for $950,000 (roughly $28million today) and proceeded to take over the eighth and ninth floors, transforming his already enormous home into the first five-story apartment (and the largest) in New York City. Today the Clarendon is divided into 61 micro-sized apartments
Hearst created a 100-foot long Tapestry Gallery with a 30-foot cathedral-like vaulted stone ceiling. Inside were themed rooms to showcase his vast collection including a Julius Caesar room, a Greek room, a Georgian dining room, and a French Empire bedroom. After he moved away, the five-floor apartment was converted back into a triplex and it most recently sold in 2016 for $20million
Although Hearst and Davies remained a couple until his death in 1951, their living arrangements changed after a Hearst enemy leaked news of the affair, resulting in broad coverage of the scandal in New York’s non-Hearst newspapers.
Hearst sold Davies’ home, and after 1925 the two lived in an even more imposing residence at his 115-room castle in San Simeon, California.
Hearst’s former apartment at the Clarendon was converted back to a 7,000-square-foot triplex that featured seventeen rooms, seven bedrooms, and seven-and-a-half bathrooms with 10,000-square-feet of private outdoor terraces. The apartment most recently sold in 2016 for $20million, what author Azzarone calls a ‘real steal.’
The sensational divorce of a baking powder baron who was made a virtual prisoner
A scandalous history lurks behind the stunning limestone façade of 330 Riverside Drive.
In 1908, the home’s first owner, Robert Benson Davis (founder of the Davis Baking Power Company) claimed that his wife, Jenny Weed Davis, had made him a virtual prisoner in his home.
At age thirty-eight, Davis married Jennie Weed when she was still a teenager, and the couple had one daughter named Lucretia. Over time, the May-December romance soured and Weed became less interested in her aging husband and more interested in his massive fortune.
When Davis filed for divorce, Jennie attempted to have him deemed legally incompetent and kept him locked in a bedroom under the care of health aides.
A scandalous history lurks behind the stunning limestone façade of 330 Riverside Drive. In 1908, the home’s first owner, Robert Benson Davis, the millionaire founder of the Davis Baking Power Company, claimed that his much younger wife had made him a virtual prisoner in his home. Today the building is owned by the Catholic organization, Opus Dei
Robert Benson Davis was a baking soda baron, who accused his much younger wife, Jennie Weed (right) of holding him hostage when he tried to sue her for divorce. He claimed to have escaped when a passerby found a note that he dropped out of his bedroom window pleading for help
The Davis Mansion remains completely intact, including the sumptuous interior. The home is currently owned and operated as a headquarters for Opus Dei
Weed attained legal representation from Delphin M. Delmas, the prominent lawyer who defended Harry K. Thaw in the shocking murder of celebrated architect Stanford White.
In the salacious trial that followed, Davis claimed that Weed had ‘usurped his business….and surrounded him with spies that made his home a prison.’
Further, he alleged that she intercepted his mail and kept him locked away in the bedroom.
‘Davis concocted an unusual escape plan,’ writes Azzarone. ‘He dropped a letter addressed to a friend from the bedroom window; astonishingly, it was found by a passerby and delivered.’
Years later, Davis’ only daughter, Lucretia (above) was a widow in her sixties when she married her much younger driver. Though the marriage was quickly annulled, 330 Riverside was sold to provide the chauffeur with a cash settlement
Disguised as a physician and accompanied by two nurses in uniform, Davis alluded his hired caretakers and escaped into a waiting car. To complicate matters further, it is alleged that he may have had a romantic relationship with his nurse
When Weed discovered that her husband had taken her out of his will, ‘she threatened him with allowing their only child, Lucretia, to become—gasp!—an actress if he did not change his plans.’ Stating that he will be ‘responsible if she falls into the many pitfalls of that career and becomes a low woman.’ Ironically, one of those ‘low women’ (Marion Davies) lived right next door.
Davis took off to California and left his wife behind in New York.
Years later, Lucretia, then widowed and in her sixties, married her chauffeur, a suspicious relationship in terms of the much younger man’s motivations. The marriage was quickly annulled and according to the family, 330 Riverside may have been sold to provide the chauffeur with a cash settlement.
Today their lavish abode is now the headquarters for the conservative Catholic organization, Opus Dei.
Charles Schwab, the ‘Lord of the Manor’ who lost his fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929
Charles Schwab, steel baron, was one of the richest men in the country in the late 1800s.
He acquired an entire city block for his own occupancy – something no one in Manhattan had ever done before — and constructed one of the grandest houses ever built in the city. The plot of land cost $800,000 (roughly $28million in today’s dollars) when he began building in 1900.
Charles Baron, an industrial tycoon, was one of the richest men in the country when he built a 75 room faux chateau on Riverside Drive
The former Schwab Mansion took over an entire city block on Riverside Drive and 74th Street. The steel baron, Charles Schwab as the first to do so, and purchased the plot of land in 1900 for $800,000 ($28million in today’s money)
Schwab’s former employer, Andrew Carnegie, whose own mansion on upper Fifth Avenue later became the Cooper Hewitt Museum, once remarked, ‘Have you seen that place of Charlie’s? It makes mine look like a shack’
The opulent interior reflected the styles of various dead French kings and was filled with fine furnishings, art, and antiques, including a $65,000 custom-made pipe organ. The total cost of the home, including construction, landscaping, and furnishings, was estimated to top $8million – about $270million today
Schwab went bankrupt in the Wall Street crash of 1929. His palace was demolished and turned into a simple red-brick, 18-story residential complex containing 600 apartments
The 75 room chateau boasted 50,000 square feet of space and featured a 166-foot tower with panoramic views, as well as a chapel, bowling alley, gymnasium, pool, music room, card room, an art gallery that filled the entire northeast wing, multiple elevators and a self-contained power plant.
The Schwab home required the talents of more than 100 artists, designers, modelers, architects, and engineers.
Schwab’s former employer, Andrew Carnegie, whose own mansion on upper Fifth Avenue later became the Cooper Hewitt Museum, once remarked, ‘Have you seen that place of Charlie’s? It makes mine look like a shack.’
The opulent interior reflected the styles of various dead French kings and was filled with fine furnishings, art, and antiques, including a $65,000 custom-made pipe organ.
The total cost of the home, including construction, landscaping, and furnishings, was estimated to top $8million – about $270million today.
Schwab went bankrupt in the Wall Street crash of 1929. He died ten years later, bequeathing Riverside to the city as a suitably ostentatious residence for New York’s mayors. Fiorello La Guardia, mayor at the time, turned it down as his official residence—supposedly responding, ‘What, me in that?’—and opted instead for Gracie Mansion.
It was demolished in 1948 to make room for a community garden during World War II.
In 1950, the site became home a simple red-brick, 18-story residential complex containing 600 apartments. It’s a ‘staggering contrast to its palatial predecessor,’ says Azzarone, but it remains one of the largest co-ops in Manhattan.
Andrew Haswell Green, the unlucky father of New York
Andrew Haswell Green introduced an act to the New York State Legislature for the development of Riverside Park and Drive. In 1903, one Cornelius M. Williams mistook the lifelong bachelor Green for a man of the same last name who was having an affair with Williams’s lover. Williams shot Green five times, killing him. At the time, Green was 83 years old
Andrew Haswell Green introduced an act to the New York State Legislature for the development of Riverside Park and Drive.
Green is considered the ‘Father of Greater New York’ for his leadership role in consolidating the city’s boroughs, making New York, at the time, the world’s second-largest city (after London).
Historian Kenneth T. Jackson called Green ‘arguably the most important leader in Gotham’s long history, more important than Peter Stuyvesant, Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Law Olmsted, Robert Moses and Fiorello La Guardia.’
In 1903, one Cornelius M. Williams mistook the lifelong bachelor Green for a man of the same last name who was having an affair with Williams’s lover. Williams shot Green five times, killing him. At the time, Green was 83 years old.
The disgraced descendant of Alexander Hamilton whose prostitute wife kidnapped a baby
While he didn’t live on Riverside Drive, Robert Ray Hamilton, a great grandson of Alexander Hamilton, donated a fountain there, to refresh the Drive’s hard-working carriage horses.
Hamilton was at the center a scandal that captivated America when he met his sex-worker wife, Evangeline Steele while visiting a Manhattan brothel. After four years of patronage, Steele hoped to make the relationship permanent and devised a ruse to tell Hamilton that she was pregnant with his child. (She failed to consider that she was already married to another man and committing bigamy).
Steele kidnapped another woman’s baby to palm off on Hamilton as his own. But when that infant died shortly after, she purchased a second child from a ‘baby farm’ Upstate that also died from neglect. The third baby was ‘too dark complexioned, and black eyed’ to be convincing, and thus Steele settled on a fourth child that she named Beatrice.
Robert Ray Hamilton was the hapless great- grandson of Alexander Hamilton who scandalized New York when he married a prostitute named Evangeline Steele. The marriage was part of a ruse Steele devised to trick him into marriage by stealing another woman’s baby and claiming she was pregnant. Today a fountain donated by Hamilton to refresh hard-working carriage horses remains on Riverside Drive
Hamilton made an honest woman out of Steele, and the couple got married despite many misgivings from Hamilton’s family and friends.
Toward the end of his life, he was in the midst of a divorce from his wife, Evangeline, known as Eva.
Later in a heated, alcohol-driven argument, Steele stabbed the baby’s nurse and was imprisoned for ‘atrocious assault’ and variously denounced as an ‘adventuress,’ a ‘morphine fiend,’ and a ‘false woman.’
To escape his troubles, Hamilton left for Wyoming, where at the age of thirty-nine, he drowned while attempting to ford the Snake River. His partner, John D. Sargent, was arrested for murder and sent to an insane asylum.
While Hamilton is long gone, the glorious fountain remains today.
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