–By Robert Heide and John Gilman
The saga of My Sister Eileen began at 14 Gay Street which is possibly the shortest block in the city and is a narrow crescent connecting Christopher Street to Waverly Place. Here in 1935 a young woman named Ruth McKenney rented a basement apartment with her sister Eileen, an aspiring actress. Ruth’s stories about their adventures at 14 Gay Street – constructed in 1827 with two sister buildings on Gay and three on Christopher Street which were completed in 1828 with a courtyard between, all for working class tenants – were first published at regular intervals in the influential New Yorker Magazine. These were so popular that by 1938 a wonderful book was published and a comedy, adapted by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov opened on Broadway in December, 1940 with Shirley Booth as Ruth and JoAnn Sayers as Eileen. A movie version of the play was made in 1942 starring Rosalind Russell as older sister Ruth and Janet Blair as the pretty Eileen. Brian Aherne played the romantic male lead. A remake of the movie in Technicolor in 1955 starred Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh with Jack Lemmon. In February, 1953 Rosalind Russell repeated her movie role as Ruth in a musical version of the play on Broadway, this time renamed Wonderful Town (Edith Adams played Eileen), with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and directed by George Abbott. It was then that all hell broke loose. The opening night of this brilliant show at the Winter Garden Theater roused the audience and critics alike to a fever pitch of excitement and thunderous applause that had not occurred on the Great White Way since the original Guys and Dolls blew into town. It won Tony awards for best musical and best star Rosalind Russell, who also won every other performance award that year.
Bernstein and Comden and Green had worked together for the first time in 1944 on the musical On The Town about three sailors searching for love on a 24 hour leave. The songs included New York New York, Miss Turnstiles, and I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet. This Broadway musical was made into a movie musical in 1949 with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin as the dancing-singing sailors. The creative team followed up with Wonderful Town in 1953 with it’s rousing signature song Christopher Street, Ohio, Conga!, My Darlin’ Eileen and Ballet at the Village Vortex, the latter a nightclub stand-in for the Village Vanguard where Eileen got her first job singing. The story of two sisters from Ohio living in a dank New York basement apartment where mold hung from the ceilings, where the walls shook from blasts in the construction of the PATH tunnel to New Jersey, and their zany adventures with landlords, neighbors, crazy people, artists, and a group of Brazilian naval cadets will always be an image of life in the Village for as long as there is a Greenwich Village. The opening song extols “such interesting people live on Christopher Street”– the poets, actors, writers, artists, all “searching for self-expression” in the cradle of Bohemia.
There were many hardships and disappointments — at one point, sitting on the steps at 14 Gay Street the girls sadly sang the duet “Why oh- why oh-why-oh, why did we ever leave Ohio?” Eileen McKenna later went to Hollywood and was hired by Walt Disney as his private secretary; the pretty Eileen was also married to Nathaniel West, the famed author of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust.
” Here we live — here we love
This is the place for self expression
Life is keen — life is sweet
Interesting people on
Christopher Street “
From Wonderful Town
After a honeymoon in Mexico, Eileen and Nathaniel were tragically both killed in a car crash returning to Hollywood. She had never even seen her sister’s play on Broadway nor any of its incarnations. Ruth became a successful writer, and then eventually a New York State Appellate Court judge.
In 1995 we authors received a call from the folks at the 6 o’clock News — they wanted to do a feature on us and our new book Greenwich Village just published by St. Martin’s Press. We took the camera crew around to Gay Street and sat on the steps at 14 as we had countless times before with friends and relatives from out of town. As we commenced singing “why-oh, why, oh-why-oh” William Kunstler came out from his house across the street at number13 and joined us in the sing-a-long. Afterwards he invited us and the camera crew in and through the house and out again to his lush backyard which featured a koi pool.
After a short and jovial time with the lawyer, who had famously defended the Chicago Seven and many other liberal and leftist causes, said we should come back the following week for drinks — or drugs — whatever turned us on. That night our impromptu performance was aired on the 6 o’clock news with the three of us singing the Ohio song, and happily for us, giving our new book a great publicity plug. The following week we were shocked when the same 6 o’clock news announced that Mr. Kunstler had suddenly died.
Many years later, in 2003, Wonderful Town had a sensational revival, performing over 500 times on Broadway, first with Donna Murphy, and then starring Brooke Shields as Ruth. In conjunction with the revival the New York Times did a big picture spread on the then current occupant of the famous basement apartment at 14 Gay Street, a young man named David Ryan. A week later, on Christmas Eve, that apartment was destroyed in a fire that tragically also took the life of Mr. Ryan. The following week The Times featured the apartment once again, conjecturing that the cause of the fire could have been the photographers extension cords strung around and under untidy piles of newspapers and magazines. Celeste Martin, the owner of the six sister buildings, three on Gay and three on Christopher, with a courtyard between, constructed in 1827 and 1828 for working class tenants, never rented the famed apartment again. She died intestate in 2018 and the City of New York took over her real estate, flipping the six buildings to a developer who did not use caution in his renovations, apparently destabilizing the foundation at 14 Gay Street. At this writing, with 16 Gay also in danger of possibly collapsing, the New York home of the two sisters from Ohio is being carefully demolished by hand and Gay Street will never be the same again.
Why, oh-why, oh-why-o, why did we ever leave Ohio?
Why did we wander to see what lies yonder
When life was so cozy at home?
Wondering as we wander, why did we leave, why did we roam,
Oh-why, oh-why-o, did we leave Ohio?
Maybe we’d better go O — H — I — O, maybe we’d better go home.
Robert Heide and John Gilman both live on Christopher Street among the interesting people and have been regular contributors to the one and only original —Westview News—since its inception in 2003