Irish echo logo 750x550

1940 NYC directories aid family research

By Peter McDermott

Author J.D. Salinger was famously reclusive for most of his adult life. Back in 1940, though, you could easily contact him at his Manhattan home.

"He was living with his parents, but the phone was listed in his name," said Maira Liriano of the New York Public Library, which has put the city's telephone directories for that year up online as an aide to family researchers.

"I think it's pretty funny," she said. "It would be great if we could figure that out."

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

The relevant entry is like any other; it contains the name, address, telephone exchange code and number: "Salinger Jerome D 1133 Pk Av SAcrmnto 2-7544" (the capital letters, which in this case meant "72," and the first number denoted the exchange).

Literary ambition may explain his accessibility. The 21-year- old was doing writing classes at night at Columbia University and would soon begin submitting stories to the New Yorker. Most were rejected, but one whose hero was Holden Caulfield was accepted, although ultimately it was shelved until war's end. (He had yet to develop the fictional Glass family, whose roots reflected his own mixed Jewish and Irish-Catholic heritage.)

Salinger's active dating life may have been another reason for his being in the Manhattan directory. In 1941, the man who would write "Catcher in the Rye" began seeing Oona O'Neill, the teenage daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill. Before too long, to the horror of both writers, she'd married the 54-year-old film actor Charlie Chaplin.

Follow us on social media

Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo

If you could go back in a time machine, another cultural icon you might like to call is singer Billie Holiday (286W142 EDgecomb 4-4058), though not too early, as she was a night owl. And speaking of which, the man who would paint "Nighthawks" in 1942 is there ("Hopper Edw 3WashnSq SPring 7-0949"). It might have been hard to talk directly to Fiorella La Guardia, but he's listed ("Mayor's Office City Hall NY COrtland 7-1000”). The Manhattan directory also tells us that William Paley, who built CBS, lived in the most easterly reaches of Midtown before the U.N. set up shop there ("Paley WmS 29BeekmanPl PLaza 3-1442"). Meanwhile, Nathan Bader can be found in the Brooklyn directory ("Bader Nathan 1584 E9 DEwey 9-4418"). And who was he, exactly? Well, trace him to the census returns and you'll see he had a 7-year-old daughter named Ruth. Today, she is better known as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The New York Public Library digitized the directories to coincide with the release this past spring of the 1940 Census returns, which were not indexed. “There was no way to plug in a name," Liriano said. However, by pinpointing an address, a researcher can find the correct enumeration district (ED) to facilitate the search.

"We thought it would be a great service to have. We knew it would be very popular," she said of the web site Direct Me NYC.

Since then, fierce competition between Ancestry.com and a consortium associated with Family Search.org has led to the indexing of most of New York State. But the telephone directories remain an important backup, Liriano said. A search for one of Pittsburgh's most famous sons showed precisely how. She was asked if the Eugene C. Kelly listed in the Manhattan directory might be the same Gene Kelly (middle name Curran) who was making a name for himself on Broadway?

"Unfortunately, it's not our man," she reported. The "Eugene C. Kelly" at 435 W 23rd St. was a 58-year-old unemployed native of Washington. "Interestingly, when I searched the indexed 1940 Census in Ancestry I could not find this entry," she said. "I found it using the ED converter in the website and browsing the ED."

The problem, it turned out, was that Ancestry.com had transcribed the name as "Engenia Kelly." Added Liriano: "I saw other transcription errors on that page. This is the value of having an alternative way to look for people in the census."

So, chalk that one up to Direct Me NYC.

And here's another: "Considine Robt B 1W85 TRafalgar 7-0029." Is that Bob Considine, who was born in 1906 to a Washington DC family with County Clare roots? He became famous for his prodigious output in books (like "MacArthur the Magnificent" in 1942 and "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" in 1943) and in news media.

Yes, it is, confirmed Liriano. The census says that the Considine in the telephone directory is a 33-year-old newspaper columnist from the nation's capital. However, she said, if she had bypassed the directory and relied on the index, her task would have been rather more difficult: his surname there is missing its "e."

We can find, Edward J. Flynn, one of America's most influential political operatives at his office in Midtown (“60E42 MUrryhil 2-1411”). He preferred to continue to work as a lawyer rather that take up a position in the Roosevelt Administration. Said historian and Irish Echo columnist Terry Golway: "In 1940, Flynn was firmly ensconced as FDR's top political advisor. He became chair of the Democratic National Committee that year, succeeding James Farley, who split with FDR that year because he, Farley, thought he should be the party's presidential nominee. Flynn's major task was to persuade voters that it was okay for FDR to break the two-term tradition."

The census shows that the 48-year-old Flynn was living at 2728 Spuyten Duyvil Parkway in the Bronx, with his wife Helen and their three young children. The household also had an Irish-born cook, a Norwegian maid and an English governess.

Immigrants and working-class people appear in the census, of course, but many could not afford a home telephone. In any case, poorer people tended to be more transient, regularly moving from apartment to apartment.

The Census of 1940 revealed that 2 million of New York City's 7. 5 million people were born in another country. Of them, 182,000 were from Ireland. According to the Census also, 288,000 New Yorkers had an Irish-born father.

Another Democratic lawyer, County Mayo's Paul O'Dwyer, was in the former category. The Brooklyn directory shows that he had offices at 26 Court St. (TRiangle 5-3645). A few years later, his eldest sibling Bill succeeded Mayor La Guardia, and is still the last foreign-born occupant of the office; Paul O'Dwyer himself became president of the City Council in the 1970s.

The Manhattan directory has entries for the Irish Echo ("152E121 LEhigh 4-1560"), the American Irish Historical Society and the Irish Consulate - though none at its current location. Some institutions have stayed in the same place. Katz's Delicatessen, for instance, is still on the Lower East Side at the corner of Ludlow and Houston. In 1940, it could be reached by calling ALgonquin 4-2246. Seventy-two years on, you can contact Katz's by dialing the same seven digits (after the 212 area code).

Every page in the directories is packed full of information about the life and culture of New York on the eve of America's entry into World War II. This stepping back in time is made possible, Liriano stressed, by the latest digital technologies. The people at NYPL Labs work hard to make that institution’s online content attractive and user friendly. But staff members believe that much credit also goes to two leading American computer scientists, both originally from New York, who've made their services free in the area of family research. Together, Stephen P. Morse and Joel Weintraub developed the free One-Step Webpages and the 1940 Census ED Finder.

"The genealogy world has been blessed with their brilliance and generosity," Liriano said.

For the 1940 NYC telephone directories go to: http://directme.nypl.org.