ON the north side of Broome Street, between the
Bowery and Elizabeth Street, you can stand where a dead guy once lay. Of
course in New York City you can stand on lots of spots where dead
people once lay. There are, after all, "eight million stories in the
naked city," as the narrator of "The Naked City," the 1948 film noir
classic, intoned. But as Andrew Izzo sprawled on this sidewalk on the
Lower East Side in 1942, Arthur Fellig, one of the city's most famous
photographers, took his picture.
Late on the night of Feb. 2, 1942, Izzo and
accomplices tried to hold up the Spring Arrow Social & Athletic
Club, near the Bowery. Shot by an off-duty cop, Izzo staggered toward
Elizabeth Street and fell dead on his face, his gun skittering across
The first photographer on the scene was Fellig, better known as Weegee.
He was almost always the first photographer on the scene.
Born Usher Fellig in 1899, in an eastern province of Austria, he came
with his family through Ellis Island (where his name was Americanized to
Arthur) to the Lower East Side in 1910. He left home as a teenager and
began working as an assistant to a street photographer who shot tintypes
of children on a pony. Through the 1920s he worked as a darkroom
assistant at The New York Times and Acme Newspictures, which was later
absorbed by U.P.I. Photos.
Weegee's peak period as a freelance crime and street photographer was a
whirl of perpetual motion running from the mid-1930s into the postwar
years. Ceaselessly prowling the streets during the graveyard shift, he
took thousands of photographs that defined Manhattan as a film noir
nightscape of hoodlums and gangsters, Bowery bums and slumming swells,
tenement dwellers and victims of domestic brawls, fires and car crashes.
He gave it its enduring nickname, the Naked City.
"Weegee captured night in New York back when it was lonely and desolate
and scary," said Tim McLoughlin, editor of the "Brooklyn Noir" anthology
series, the third volume of which has just been published by Akashic
Books. "He once said he wanted to show that in New York millions of
people lived together in a state of total loneliness."
Manhattan has changed a lot since Weegee's heyday. Now the Naked City is
probably best preserved in the archives of the International Center of
Photography, which houses some 20,000 of Weegee's photographs, along
with hundreds of his filmstrips, the newspapers and magazines where his
work originally appeared, and two of his hats.
Christopher George, an archivist at the center, has created online maps
of many Manhattan sites associated with Weegee. He led me to Centre
Market Place, between Broome and Grand Streets. It's now a quiet row of
renovated town houses in the shadow of the former Police Headquarters
building, itself converted to luxury apartments.
But when Weegee lived in a single room at 5 Centre Market Place from the
mid-1930s to 1947, the street was a drab block of tenements inhabited
by reporters and photographers who worked the crime beat. No. 4, known
as "the shack," was their main hangout. Frank Lava's gunsmith shop, with
its wooden revolver sign, was at No. 6. Weegee lived over the John
Jovino Gun Shop at 5. (It has since moved, with its own revolver sign,
around the corner to Grand Street.) You can still see over the door at
No. 7 the gold-lettered sign for Sile Inc., purveyor of "Humane Police
Every morning the narrow block was crowded with paddy wagons (Weegee
called them "pie wagons"), bringing in the night's arrests from various
precincts for booking and processing. The newshounds crowded the
sidewalk for the morning "perp walk," when cops paraded their handcuffed
"The perp walk is a combination of courtesy and hubris on the part of
the police department," said Mr. McLoughlin, a former court officer who
bought his first service revolver at Jovino's shop in 1983. "The press
wants the photos, and the police want the credit. So the perp walk could
be rather elaborately planned."
Weegee sometimes bribed the police to bring a perp in a different
entrance, "so he'd be the only guy standing there with his camera, while
everybody else was waiting around the corner," Mr. McLoughlin said. One
of his most striking perp-walk shots was of Norma Parker, a pretty
young woman who in 1936 held up a number of restaurants on lower
Broadway using a cap pistol, for which The Daily Mirror nicknamed her
the Broadway Gun Girl.
"Crime was my oyster," Weegee wrote in his 1961 memoir, "Weegee by
Weegee." "I was friend and confidant to them all. The bookies, madams,
gamblers, call girls, pimps, con men, burglars and jewel fencers." For
his behind-bars portraits of famous gangsters like Dutch Schultz, Legs
Diamond, Waxey Gordon and Mad Dog Coll, colleagues called him "the
official photographer for Murder, Inc."
An enthusiastic promoter of his own legend (he billed himself as "Weegee
the Famous" and "the World's Greatest Photographer"), Weegee claimed
that his elbow itched when news was about to happen. "Somehow, the word
spread that I was psychic because I always managed to have my pictures
in the hands of the paper before any news of the event was generally
known," he wrote in "Weegee by Weegee." Co-workers gave him his nickname
after the rage of the time, the Ouija board, and he phoneticized it as
His prescience was aided by the police and fire department short-wave
radios he installed near his bed (though he had no telephone, claiming
he was "allergic" to it) and in his '38 Chevy. In the car's trunk he
carried photo equipment, a typewriter for photo captions, clothes,
salamis and cigars.
From Centre Market Place, Weegee often strolled over to the Bowery for
both work and relaxation. Walking the Bowery today, you encounter
striking juxtapositions, like homeless men from the Bowery Residents'
Committee shelter cadging smokes outside the former CBGB next door, now a
John Varvatos store selling $500 sweaters. In Weegee's day similar
culture clashes happened at Sammy's Bowery Follies (267 Bowery, between
East Houston and Stanton Streets), which from 1934 to 1970 attracted
what The New York Times once described as a mixed crowd of "drunks and
swells, drifters and celebrities, the rich and the forgotten."
Weegee (who disparaged The Times as a paper for the "well-off Manhattan
establishment") called Sammy's "the poor man's Stork Club" and wrote in
the newspaper PM in 1944: "There's no cigaret girl — a vending machine
puts out cigarets for a penny apiece. There's no hatcheck girl — patrons
prefer to dance with their hats and coats on. But there is a lulu of a
Among the regulars, he wrote in his 1945 book, "Naked City," was a woman
they called Pruneface and a midget who walked the streets dressed as a
penguin to promote cigarettes. When the midget got drunk, Weegee wrote,
he "offered to fight any man his size in the house."
Weegee held two book parties there. At the photography center Mr. George
showed me silent-film footage taken in 1946 at the party for Weegee's
second book, "Weegee's People." Pretty uptown blondes and dowagers in
pearls mingle with toothless crones and panhandlers, as models parade in
their foundation garments, and a man with a flea circus puts his tiny
performers through their paces.
Next door in front of No. 269 (now the Bowery & Vine liquor store),
Weegee performed one of his "psychic" feats. Late on Christmas Eve 1942,
he snapped a shot of a local inebriate collapsed on the sidewalk. As
Weegee continued on he heard a commotion behind him. The man had
stumbled into the street and been struck down by a taxi. Weegee labeled
his photographs of the incident "Before and After."
Around the corner, the proprietor of a cafe at 10 Prince Street, where a
coffee shop is today, was smoking a cigarette outside on the evening of
Nov. 16, 1939, when an unknown gunman shot him dead. When Weegee
arrived moments later, the body was still lying in the doorway, and the
fire escapes of all the tenements on the block, which remain largely
unchanged today, were crowded with gawkers. He captioned the photograph
"Balcony Seats at a Murder."
Sixty years later history sadly repeated itself at this address when
robbers shot and killed the owner and the manager of the Connecticut
By the end of the war, Weegee was in fact "Weegee the Famous." Short and
pug-ugly, with a boxy Speed Graphic camera always in hand and a cigar
permanently in his teeth, he was recognized throughout the city and,
increasingly, the country.
His book inspired "The Naked City," a film in which Weegee makes a
fleeting, Hitchcock-like appearance. That prompted a move to Hollywood,
where Weegee hobnobbed with stars and got tiny acting parts in a few
more films. But he never really fit into what he called "the Land of the
Zombies" and moved back to Manhattan in 1951.
His crime photography days were over. Until his death in 1968 he
experimented with film and trick photography and toured the United
States and Europe, giving lectures and enjoying his fame. In his travels
he met Peter Sellers on the "Dr. Strangelove" movie set; an excerpt
from an audiotaped conversation is on YouTube.
In 1968 the theater and film director Syeus Mottel, who was
experimenting with still photography, was walking in Washington Square
Park with a girlfriend. "I see Weegee sitting on a bench looking very
forlorn, with an old camera, really a piece of junk, hanging from his
neck," Mr. Mottel recently recalled. "When I asked if he had any advice
for a young photographer, he said, 'Yeah, sharp elbows.' " While the
young woman charmed Weegee, Mr. Mottel took photographs. When it came
time for dinner, Weegee suggested Bernstein-on-Essex, a kosher Chinese
In 1957, suffering from diabetes, Weegee took a small apartment at 451
West 47th Street in Hell's Kitchen, a town house owned by his friend
Wilma Wilcox, an amateur photographer. When he died he left the place
crowded with equipment "and stacks and stacks of thousands of photos and
negatives strewn about," Mr. George said. "His philosophy of archiving
was to keep everything in a barrel, so if anyone wanted anything, they'd
come over and fish." Much of that material came in the early 1990s to
the International Center of Photography, which has mounted several
"Along with everything else there was a cardboard box labeled 'Weegee,' "
Mr. George said. "It was opened several months after it arrived. Weegee
was really in there." It was his cremated remains. "Apparently some
staffers got the heebie-jeebies from having the ashes around," he said,
"so I.C.P. arranged to have them dispersed at sea."
By John Strausbaugh
For The New York Times