New York’s Forty-Second Street — they called it “the Deuce.” It starts at the United Nations, and goes west past Chrysler Building, Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, Times Square, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and, as the Lincoln Highway, continues west all the way to San Francisco. One city block of that famous street, just south of Times Square between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, was filled with “grindhouse theaters” — cheap movie houses of questionable character. And if questionable characters weren’t in the movie houses, they were in the arcades, peep shows, diners and bars that lined the street. Or they were plying their trade on the corners and dark alleys.
The block had defied clean-up campaigns since the Great Depression. On March 14, 1960, The New York Times studied its decay and agreed that it might be the worst block in town. True, there were probably worse neighborhoods, but they were much less visible, especially to tourists. New York City was getting ready to host a World’s Fair in 1964. Tourists were coming to Times Square, which itself had seen better days. Any unsuspecting tourist walking just a block south from there would see a New York City that wasn’t mentioned in any of the travel brochures.
The New York Times investigated all of those problems: crime, grime, con jobs, prostitution, menacing-looking toughs roaming the streets. The Times also singled out homosexuals as “an obvious problem”:
Homosexual males converge in the area and are most prevalent at the Eight Avenue end of the block. The clergy, the police, merchants and business organizations generally agree that homosexuality has increased in the area for a period of several years. …
It becomes swiftly apparent to an inquirer that even the neighborhood “experts” are not of one mind as to who is a homosexual. In the beatnik era — and an era of relaxed standards of dress at many levels of the population — it is impossible to equate the way a man dresses and speaks with a behavior pattern that is against the law.
One high police official held that although homosexuality appeared to have increased, the “flagrant” deviates — those who wear make-up, a feminine hair-do, and walk with a “swish” — had decreased.
Lieut. Co. Jack Eaken, who commands the Armed Services Police that patrol the area, disagreed. He was sure that whether or not homosexuality in general had increased, its “flagrant” nature was more apparent.
In two weeks of studying the area, at virtually all hours, this reporter encountered several fo the most extreme types. One was a Negro who wore fluffed-up hair and heavy black make-up on his brows and lashes. He was surrounded, almost protectively, by group of other Negro youths who were more or less normally dressed.
Another obvious deviate was a white youth with thick blond hair and handsome features who wore make-up on his eyebrows. This youth wore a black windbreaker (sometimes called a “tanker jacket”) and tapered black trousers of the style known as “continentals.” His wavy hair was combed straight back and he spoke effeminately and shifted his hips and legs as he spoke.
The interesting and puzzling thing was that his companions were three girls and two youths all of whom seemed like any other youngsters on a double or tripple date. They seemed to take the blond boy’s appearance and manner for granted. At one point he went into a corner cigar shore while one of the girls made a phone call. The other two girls waited at the door. Something the blond said amused them and one said cheerfully: “He’s such a bird — he really is.”
Denizens of the Deuce from 1960 wouldn’t recognize it today. The theaters that remain are renovated and showing more family fare. Before catching the latest Disney show at the New Amsterdam Theater, they can swing through the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and stop for a bite to eat at McDonalds, Applebees or Dave & Buster’s.
On the Timeline:
March 14, 1960: The New York Times investigates homosexuals and decay on West 42nd Street.
Headlines for March 14, 1960: British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is in Paris for talks with De Gaulle on the eve of Khrushchev visit. Southern Senators continue their filibuster of an already watered-down civil rights bill. West German Chancellor Adenauer is in Washington, pledges a Democratic West Germany. Moscow insists a unified Germany can only happen under Communism. The U.S. Air Force’s Pioneer V satellite begins sending radio signals to earth from its solar orbit between Earth and Venus. Tallahassee police use tear gas to break up a peaceful civil rights march through downtown.
On the radio: “The Theme from ‘A Summer Place'” by Percy Faith and His Orchestra, “He’ll Have To Go” by Jim Reeves, “Handy Man” by Jimmy Jones, “Wild One” by Bobby Rydell, “What In the World’s Come Over You” by Jack Scott, “Teen Angel” by Mark Dinning, “Beyond the Sea” by Bobby Darin, “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” by Dinah Washington and Brook Benton, “Let It Be Me” by the Everly Brothers, “Running Bear” by Johnny Preston.”
On television: Gunsmoke(CBS), Wagon Train (NBC), Have Gun, Will Travel (CBS), The Andy Griffith Show(CBS), The Real McCoys(ABC), Rawhide (CBS), Candid Camera (CBS), The Price is Right (NBC), The Untouchables (ABC), The Jack Benny Show (CBS), Bonanza (NBC), Dennis the Menace (CBS), The Danny Thomas Show (CBS) The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS), My Three Sons (ABC), Perry Mason (CBS) The Flintstones (ABC), 77 Sunset Strip (ABC).
New York Times best sellers: Fiction: Hawaii by James Michener, Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (Pulitzer Prize winner). The Constant Image by Marcia Davenport. Non-fiction: May This House Be Safe from Tigers, by Alexander King, Folk Medicine: A Vermont Doctor’s Guide to Good Health by D.C. Jarvis, Act One: An Autobiography by Moss Hart.
Milton Bracker. “Life on W. 42d St. A Study in Decay.” The New YorkTimes (March 14, 1960): 1, 26.