Philip Hone’s New York

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I predicted before we went that it would be no halfway affair. She would make the most decided hit we have ever witnessed, or would fail entirely. I have never witnessed an audience so moved, astonished and delighted.

The world was a stage to Philip Hone, the proscenium his house across the street from City Hall; for all the world came there. Frequently public figures presented their lesser-known sides to him. Former President John Quincy Adams, on a visit to the city, came to dinner; old Mr. Adams was active in the House of Representatives, but his long and remarkable career was not marked by any widespread reputation for devotion to the lively arts. Hone knew better.

Mr. Adams was, as usual, the fiddle of the party. He talked a great deal; was gay, witty, instructive and entertaining…the fire of his eye beaming from under his bald brow.

Adams talked of Hamlet and James H. Hackett, the actor, to whom Hone repeated the old boy’s remarks the next day; Hackett wrote off at once for a written version. Getting it, he had it lithographed and circulated among his friends of the profession, at the same time soliciting comment on other works of Shakespeare from the same source. “This extension of my fame,” wrote John Quincy Adams in his own celebrated diary, “is more tickling to my vanity than it was to be elected President of the United States.”

When Washington Irving came home after seventeen years abroad, he was given a public dinner at which Hone was official greeter. They became friends and constant mutual visitors. So did Hone and Henry Clay, perhaps the greatest public hero of the age; for Hone was active in politics throughout. He was also civic-minded, doing much for the physical and cultural improvement of his city and his state. Like his contemporary James Fenimore Cooper, he loved old Indian place names, recoiling at the “-villes” and “-burgs” that had begun to replace them. Some he helped to save. He was on every useful committee, donated to every worthy cause, and was able, moreover, to raise money for good purposes from friends everywhere. He was honored wherever he went, from Washington to Massachusetts. He was extremely interested in Columbia College, standing right behind his house, and in clubs, societies, and newspapers. He knew all the great editors of his time and the ins and outs of their sometimes violent rivalry.

While I was shaving this morning [he wrote in 1831] I witnessed from the front window an encounter in the street nearly opposite between William Cullen Bryant and William Leete Stone, the former one of the editors of the Evening Post and the latter editor of the Commercial Advertiser . The former commenced the attack by striking Stone over the head with a cowskin [whip]. After a few blows the men closed, and the whip was wrested from Bryant by Stone. A crowd soon gathered and separated the combatants.

It was a busy corner. At Barnum’s Museum hung the Lilliputian laundry of General Tom Thumb out on a clothesline across the front of the building as a publicity stunt. The infinitesimal “General” himself spied the popular ex-mayor inside the museum one day. Hone describes him: His hand is about the size of a half dollar, and his foot three inches in length, and in walking alongside of him, the top of his head did not reach above my knee. When I entered the room he came up to me, offered his hand, and said, “How d’ye do, Mr. Hone?”

Everyone knew Hone.

He backed the first opera house in New York City and the first summer hotel at Rockaway, a wild place then that he adored. Both ventures failed, but not his enthusiasm for music and sea air.

Along Broadway the strollers going down to the pleasure ground and resplendent Castle Garden concert hall at the Battery made a shifting, colorful kaleidoscope. In the background a forest of masts fringed the island. Steamboats plying the Hudson were the latest fad. When Hone’s diary began, he still had only the sailing packets for European travel and for his coastal voyages. The first portion of the journal embraces the closing days of sail as the sole means of going far to sea; it also deals with the predominance of stagecoaches, which he used for his political trips. He was a very active Whig, given credit for bestowing the name on the anti-Administration party which arose during the great financial crisis of the 1830’s when President Jackson killed the Bank of the United States by withdrawing government funds, affecting banks and stocks and business everywhere. Like almost everyone, Hone lost considerably, having gone on numerous notes when starting two of his sons in trade. A devastating New York City fire ensued, totally destroying their stock and premises and further crippling him; but he had enough left, and he had a great wealth of friends.