May 23, 2016
By Arthur H. Gunther III
A shiny new hotel has opened in Nyack, N.Y., a Hudson River village that for decades was the work home of newspaper stiffs like me. I hope The Time Nyack enjoys success, but I wish today’s media had added color to press reports of its opening.
Though Nyack now has three hotels/motels — The Time, the West Gate Inn and Super 8 Nyack — it once boasted the St. George on Burd Street, up just a bit from the docks and the ferry to Tarrytown. The longtime hotel, one of a number in what was once a summer resort town, was next to one of the homes of the Nyack Evening Journal, precursor of the original Journal-News in Rockland County, N.Y., for which I toiled 1964-2006, and catacorner to The Nyack Star, an early 1900s competitor. Therein lie many of the stories born of the old St. George.
Once there was a ritual in newspapers that brought scribes, compositors, printers, editors, photogs, even the lowly copy boys who often later proved the genius of the profession to the brass rail for a drink or two or maybe too much. Long before the Hi-Ho tavern offered “high mass” after deadline for we stiffs, often at no or little cost, there was the St. George. You didn’t have far to go from the office.
Competing newspapermen and women shared war stories (there are tales like that even in the sticks). These ink-stained wretches also likely explained the plots of the novels most of them were meaning to write but never would.
An assortment of Damon Runyonesque characters, not unlike those at Dorothy Parker’s famed Algonquin Round Table in 1920s New York City, would hit the bar at the St. George over its many decades, especially in the 1900s until about 1940. Two such people were Charlie MacArthur, Helen Hayes’ husband, who lived up on Broadway, and Ben Hecht, his fellow Chicago newspaper pal from Upper Nyack. These two had already written the bible play of the profession — “The Front Page” (1928) — and staged the Broadway production (later there were famous movie versions) at the old Nyack Women’s Institute, now part of Nyack College. Pals forged in the brotherhood of the street beat, they bought houses not far from one another in MacArthur’s hometown and now lie for eternity at Oak Hill Cemetery. One can only guess at their many conversations off the St. George rail.
At least one president slept at the St. George, and it was the stepping-off point for local Suffragettes lobbying Albany. During World War I, before American entry, part of the St. George hosted a passport factory and spy ring for the Germans, according to a piece by John Patrick Schutz in the January 2, 2011, online Nyack News&Views.
Reported Schutz: “The German high command realized it needed spies in the USA. They also needed to find a way to get thousands of experienced sailors and officers back from Hoboken and onto German naval vessels. German and Austrian nationals and ex-pats formed a spy ring with offices in Chelsea using the engine rooms of the impounded liners in Hoboken to make fire bombs and germ-warfare canisters of tetanus, meningitis and hoof-and-mouth disease. The communications branch of the spy ring and a faked U.S. passport factory were located in the St. George Hotel in Nyack. And who was the head of this very sophisticated ring? Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff, no less than the German Ambassador to the United States.”
Wonder if any of my fellow ink-stained wretches picked up on that story, or were the drinks too many?
When I walk in Nyack these days, I am always pulled to Burd Street, to the echoes of the St. George, as much as I am to 53 Hudson Ave, where the great presses churned at deadline in the birth of another daily edition. Lucky stiffs, we.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. This essay may be reproduced.