In the building boom of the early '60s, the ugly apartment-house clones of off white brick that crowded block after block of prime Manhattan real estate were christened with names intended to convey grandeur or a sense of history: the Van Gogh, the Carlton no impression on the public or the post office. But there are a few New York Apartment houses which really do own their names and, with them, more than normal personalities.
Chief among these is the grimy sprawling castle at 1 West 72nd St., completed in 1884 by the heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. Singer intended his apartment building to house the very rich, but the location he chose was so far north of the city's bustling center, so far west of the already nobby East Side, so completely out of the ordinary way, that the wits of the time said that one might as well be living in the wilds of the Dakota territory. With a good deal more elan than today's builders exhibit, Singer accepted the gibe as a tribute; his massive edifice comprising 65 dwelling-places, ranging from four to 20 rooms (now, of course, there are many more apartments, fewer rooms in each), was promptly dubbed the Dakota.
Built as a bastion for the bourgeoisie, the Dakota has, over its 95-year history, gradually become a home to many people who made their money in show business (for whom the West Side, presumably, holds fewer fears) and has acquired a veneer of lovable, though entirely reputable, eccentricity. John and Yoko Ono Lennon live there. So do Roberta Flack (the only black tenant), Lauren Becall, Leonard Bernstein, theatrical producer Arthur Cantor, movie directors Peter Yates and Albert Maysles, actors Patrick O'Neal and Ruth Ford, showbiz columnist Rex Reed, showbizzy restaurateur Warner LeRoy, and a cast of dozens. In the past there have been others (Boris Karloff, Judy Holliday, Rosemary Clooney, Robert Ryan, Jo Mielziner, Judy Garland) as well as some notable oddballs.
Many of the more illustrious tenants of the building (now a cooperative) apparently refused to talk to Stephen Birmingham or to let him into their apartments (one of the chief charms of such a book, of course, is its appeal to our voyeuristic yearnings). The padding is egregious: an early chapter called "Spooks" (there are none), an idiotic chapter on Central Park ("Tall weeds of lethargy and indifference seem to have grown in the Park . . . ."), an endless interview with the building's housekeeper (needless to say, "indespensable").
Birmingham's prose is like an artifact from the heyday of the pulp magazines: "One did not live at the Dakota long before it could be sensed that here was not an ordinary apartment house but a living, breathing Presence, a wild lover whose behavior could neither be explained not predicted but whose embrace one craved regardless."
Moreover, the structure of the book is so sloppy as to be bewildering, hopping back and forth in time, subject and concentration.
When Mr. Birmingham is concentrating, the book has its moments. The beginning, when he attempts a short description of the New York social and building scene of the 1880s, linking it to the development of the West Side and the growth of the moneyed Jewish community is excellent. One anecdote that has been much quoted concerns Tchaikovsky's visit, in the '90s, to his music publisher, Gustav Schirmer. After dinner, the two gentlemen went up to the roof, where his host pointed out the view of the park to his non-English-speaking friend. Tchaikovsky was overwhelmed. "No wonder we are so poor," he wrote in his diary. "The American publisher, Mr. Schirmer, is rich beyond dreams. He lives in a palace bigger than the Czar's! In front of it is his own private park!"
When Birmingham has something other than meringue to chew on, the book does come to life. For example, when he discusses the events of 1960-61 when the building, which had been losing its owners an appalling amount of money (for decades they had not given much of a damn) began to go co-op. Detailing the labyrinthine procedures, which of necessity had to involve a great number of highly temperamental people (one scene supposedly involved "shouting, yelling, jeering, stamping, chair-banging, with motions being made, seconded and withdrawn) who were used to coddling by the staff, Birmingham is in good form.
Far too much, however, consists of Birmingham repeating, as well as originating, self-parody: From one tenant, " 'The East Side is a cliche . . . I used to live on the East Side. I went to all the right places -- P. J. Clarke's and Michael's Pub. But here I see people who look like me every day. It's healthy . . . I'm interested in the Theater of Cruelty -- neorealism takes energy, you know. As a single woman I don't feel bad going out alone. In Spain they would call you a puta if you went out alone. I said to a woman the other day that I lived on the West Side. Her eyebrows went up. I said, 'I won't be a cliche.' "
This lady, says the author "seems the epitome of New York chic and glamor." So it goes.