By Sally Koslow
Time and Again by Jack Finney is a novel I reread…time and again. The book, which takes place on the Upper West Side, features time travel and has shaped the way I see our city. Passing a curious old edifice, I find it hard not to wonder what stories live within its walls. 924 West End Avenue, for instance.
Today you see a thirteen-story building with a carriage entrance under a porte-cochere on the northwest corner of Broadway and 105th Street, stretching across the entire block. But in 1866, when the neighborhood was still somewhat rural, you’d have found a vine-covered clapboard house and stable built in 1866 by Matthew Brennan, a Boss Tweed crony.
Eager to enjoy river views and breezes, health-conscious New Yorkers summered here. Among them were Isidor and Ida Straus, owners of Macy’s and the Abraham and Straus department store in Brooklyn. The couple purchased Brennan’s house in 1884.
If you were lucky enough to see the Tony award-winning play The Lehman Trilogy, Isidor’s background will sound familiar. He was born in Bavaria to a Jewish family who moved in 1851 to tiny Talbotton, Georgia, where his father, Lazarus, owned a dry goods store. When Union forces blocked Southern ports during the Civil War, Isidor moved to England and traded Confederate bonds. By the end of the war he was $10,000 richer, roughly $186,000 in today’s dollars. He used the money, in part, to move his parents to Manhattan and build a house on West 49th Street. Partnering with his brother Nathan, who lived near Central Park on West 72nd — the UWS’s poshest street — Isidor’s fortunes grew along with his family. He became a member of Congress and was devoted to his wife, Ida Blun, whom he married in 1871. Like Isidor, she was born on February 6th, with similar German-Jewish roots. The couple had seven children, including a son, Clarence, who died at two. They were considered to be particularly close, faithfully corresponding, for example, whenever Isidor traveled for business.
Typically, they vacationed in Southern California, visiting Isidor’s business partner, Abraham Abraham. His sudden death in 1912, however, led to a change of plans: a European vacation. The Straus’s were scheduled to return to New York with their newly-hired English maid, Ellen Bird, on a ship that ultimately couldn’t sail because of a coal strike. A last-minute switch found them on the new “unsinkable” luxury liner called Titanic.
When the ship hit an iceberg, Ida was offered a spot in Lifeboat 8, as was Isidor, on account of his age — 67 — and social position. He declined, pointing out that many women and children had yet to secure spots. Ida then relinquished her space and reportedly said to her husband of 40 years, “Where you go, I go.” Survivors observed that Ida insisted Ellen Bird take not only the space she gave up in the lifeboat, but her full-length mink coat, saying, “You will need this more than I do.”
The Straus’s were last seen holding hands before a wave swept them into the sea. Ida’s body was never found. Isidor’s was returned to New York, where more than 40,000 people attended his funeral at Carnegie Hall and a memorial at the Educational Alliance, originally a settlement house for Eastern European Jews immigrating to New York City that he helped to establish, along with Montefiore Hospital.
Ten days later, the Straus children sold the family home, one of the last to survive in an area rapidly filling with massive apartment buildings. (Ten days? Think about that. Sorry. I digress.) The developer, Harry Schiff, hired the architectural team of Schwartz and Gross to design the building now known as The Clebourne. In 1913 Schiff’s asbestos-enhanced, high-ceiling’d, mahogany-paneled “absolutely fireproof 6 to 10 room very modern apartments with a splendid roof garden” began to rent.
The Clebourne has remained the grand dame of the ‘hood ever since. Its 65 apartments have never been divided, with some living rooms spacious enough to accommodate two grand pianos. Historically, its residents have leaned toward the arts, media and politics, including author Madeleine L’Engle; composer Charlie Small; editors and writers Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter and their son, Commentary’s John Podhoretz; photographer Sheila Metzner, artist Robert Natkin and peace activists Philip and Daniel Berrigan along with plenty of professors, lawyers and shrinks.
The Clebourne has weathered neighborhood upheaval, heightened by the 1950’s stampede to the suburbs and a gradual increase in crime. “While no one in my family was ever a victim, we did not do a whole lot of walking on Amsterdam or Columbus,” recalls John Moscow, 74, who inherited his parents’ apartment and has lived in the building since he was less than a year old. In 1973, embracing gentrification, the Clebourne was converted to a co-op–with eat-your-heart-out prices. A classic 6 on the fifth floor sold for $6,329; a nine-room on the ninth floor for $21,472.
To honor Isidor and Ida Straus, in 1915 a pocket park was erected on 106th Street at the triangle of land where West End Avenue meets Broadway. Here you will find one of the city’s most charming sculptures, designed by Augustus Lukeman, of a reclining female figure contemplating a reflecting pool. Nearby is a Biblical inscription:
Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives.
And in their death, they were not divided.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Ida and Isidor. You were not divided–nor are you forgotten.
Sally Koslow is a novelist. Her most recent books are The Real Mrs. Tobias and Another Side of Paradise.
Lovely and interesting article! The history of NYC is so interesting and I can recommend a wonderful book called “Manhattan Moves Uptpwn” by Charles Lockwood. It is out of print but readily available on ABEBooks. That book, too, is one that will have you looking at the city with fresh eyes.
P.S. 199 on W. 70th Street was named in honor of their eldest son, Jesse Isidor Straus, who became president of Macy’s in 1919 and served as the American ambassador to France from 1933 to 1936.
I did not know that story. nor did I know about the stature. Thank you. Love endures..
Thank you for telling the story of the Straus family. I never knew about them and never knew how Straus Park got its name.
Well written Sally! Thanks for keeping their memory alive.
What an interesting story! Thanks for posting.
Being a native of Manhattan , I am very familiar with the story of Ida & Isadore, and Strauss Park created in their memory.
For anyone who is never been there,.it’s a must see treasure in Manhattan of a couple, so in love & so selfless. May their story live on. Two beautiful souls.
There is another memorial to Isidor and Ida Straus inside the entrance of Macy’s on 34th Street.
There is a large memorial to Ida and Isador Strauss in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Woodlawn Cemetery is a beautiful place to visit, full of trees and containing a pond with a resident bird population. Many famous families have graves and mausoleums there. My favorite is hard to find, Mayor Fiorello Laguardia, nicknamed The Little Flower, has a tombstone with a small flower engraved on it. If you want to make an expedition to visit there, take the number 4 train to the last stop. You will be at the main gate to the cemetery. You can pick up a map at the building just inside the gate.
Woodlawn Cemetery is a wonderful place. You can visit Herman Melville’s grave and those of many other notable New Yorkers there.
During Open House New York weekend in October, tour guides open a selection of the beautifully designed mausoleums for visitors (some decorated with Tiffany glass).
This article is so informative and fascinating. If you enjoy NYC building histories, I also recommend the blog, Datonian In Manhattan.
A lovely Valentine’s story. It should be noted that the Stras’ descendent were quite remarkable as well: R. Peter Straus
Born February 15, 1923
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
Died August 6, 2012 (aged 89)
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
Education Lincoln School
Riverdale Country School
Loomis Chaffee School
Alma mater Yale University
Occupation Media proprietor
Spouse(s) Ellen Louise Sulzberger
Children 1 son 3 daughters (including Diane Straus)
Parent(s) Nathan Straus Jr.
Relatives Nathan Straus (paternal grandfather)
Bernard Sachs (maternal grandfather)
Isidor Straus (paternal great-uncle)
Oscar Straus (paternal great-uncle)
Monica Lewinsky (stepdaughter)
Hi Sally! Nice to see your name! Great story and a timeless one too!
Another interesting factoid: the model for the Straus Park figure was Audrey Munson, who also appears at the top of the Municipal Building across from City Hall, in the Mariners monument at the entrance to Central Park and at the Brooklyn entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. She lived a pretty remarkable life; the Times obit is here: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/15/obituaries/audrey-munson-overlooked.html
A minor correction — the Cleburne is on the northwest corner of Broadway and 105.
Oops. I have a terrible sense of direction. SK
Wonderful story, thank you so much! And thanks too for mentioning TIME AND AGAIN, one of my all-time favorite books, also re-read many times, and astonishingly so often omitted from lists of the greatest NYC novels
The first time I saw the statue in the Straus Park I was so fascinated. Today I am hearing this story of these two wonderful persons., The Straus. Very interesting read. Their legacy lives on!
Thank you so much for this fascinating story, Sally. We lived only ten blocks away for many years, but didn’t know anything about the Straus family. However, an older friend of ours would often refer to that neighborhood as “going to the country” and now we know why! Great article!
Lovely story, Sally
This is one of the best WSR posts ever. I saw the Titanic in theaters yesterday (again!) and that shot is just gorgeous.
Love this. What a great family. What a great building. Congratulations for writing. Such a wonderful article.
I love Straus Park and go there often. I have long been familiar with the story of Mr. and Mrs. Straus and every time I look at the beautiful reclining figure I imagine it to be Ida but I know that Audrey Munson was the model for that exquisite piece of art.
Reading this I was so engaged. Then I see the author and was delighted even more.
What a wonderful story!! Thank you for sharing their amazing love story.
A great read. So well researched and meaningful to the UWS. The West Side Rag must be commended for the richness of its interesting articles and news.
The sculpture is strangely moving. The figure is lost in thought, almost dreaming. Somehow it produces the same effect in the viewer.
“Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives.
And in their death, they were not divided.”
From the Hebrew Bible
This is about the Hebrew Bible story of David and Jonathan. It is normally considered to have been a gay relationship, although there are those who object to this. Whatever. On Valentine’s Day, as on other days, ALL relationships are hoped to be Lovely and pleasant.
Thank you Sally. Your article is so informative, and offers a pocket history of the Strauss family which only makes this little park more invaluable. I will undoubtedly use the park tomorrow, on such a warm day. And from the comments, Manhattan Moves Uptown is on my list! Thank you!
Thank you for this touching story.
I went to Straus Park in April of 2012 for the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
There was a small ceremony with music.
I lived on West 106th Street when I first came to NYC in 1959. At that time we never went into Straus Park — it was considered dangerous even in daytime. I now live on 95th, but I occasionally go there to sit in the garden — a beautiful change.
A little more history from a long-time resident of the UWS.
I haven’t yet read the entire article, but I am a resident on the upper upper west side. The fact that Time and Again was mentioned n the first lines of th earticle drew me to it. It is my favorite book and for years I wanted someone to make a movi e of it. I had heard that severa actors and directors had purhased he rights, but it never happened. I am still holding out hopel.
It was actually made into a musical in 2001 and performed briefly and without success off-Broadway with Laura Benanti, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club.
I have often wondered about the beautiful statue refenced in this wonderfully informative article. New York City has such historic value and beauty. Thank you to the author for igniting my interest to read further.