The first thing I encountered about the imposing house at number 7 West 46th Street (see previous post) was the following clip in the New York Times of 30 March 1952: “An old brownstone house at 7 West Forty-Sixth Street, once the home of ‘Diamond Jim’ Brady…is now occupied by the perfume firm of Michel Pasquier, who has a shop and offices in the building.”
If true, the Times account was a marvelous discovery. James Buchanan “Diamond Jim” Brady was one of the most fascinating characters of late 19th century New York. Born into humble circumstances on the far lower West Side of Manhattan, the son of a saloon owner, Brady grew (both literally and figuratively, as shall be seen) to prominence as a crack salesman for railroad supply companies.
By the late 1880s Brady was rich enough to indulge liberally in his twin passions: diamonds and food. Of the former, his possessions came to include such extravagances as his famed “Transportation Set,” a collection of 2,637 diamonds set into bicycle-shaped shirt studs, train-car cuff links, Wright Brothers flying machine lapel buttons, and the like. It is upon the latter, however, that Diamond Jim’s modern-day reputation has largely been staked. In researching this post I came across a biography, Parker Morell’s The Life and Times of James Buchanan Brady (1934), that offers detailed accounts of his gustatory indulgences:
“Jim started things off in the morning with a light breakfast of beefsteak, a few chops, eggs, flapjacks, fried potatoes, hominy, corn-bread, a few muffins, and a huge beaker of milk…Luncheon was apt to be a bit heavier than breakfast. It generally consisted of more oysters and clams, a deviled crab or two, or three, perhaps a pair of broiled lobsters, then a joint of beef or another steak, a salad, and several kinds of fruit pie. Jim also liked to finish off this meal with the better part of a box of chocolate candies. It made the food set better, he figured.”
I began to suspect that Morell came from the Herbert Asbury school of writing; that is, he sought to entertain first and foremost. Factual accuracy was secondary. As a result, the biography is a fun, breezy read, but its assertions perhaps need to be taken with (forgive the cliche, however apt) a grain of salt.
Diamond Jim Brady is known, as it turns out, for one other aspect of his personal life: for decades he was rumored to be the lover of the reigning sex symbol of the 1880s and 90s, actress and singer Lillian Russell. Here and there online I’ve found other references to 7 West 46th Street in connection with Brady and Russell. In his bio Thom Lafferty, a San Francisco-based artist, recalls how he once lived in the house, and that at the time it was reputed as having been built by Brady for Russell. Also, there was evidently once a brass plaque on the building’s exterior, placed just below the first-floor window, bearing an inscription to the effect of “Diamond Jim Brady lived here.” So far, it’s pretty conclusive, right?
Maybe not. Lillian Russell, it should be noted, was definitely her own woman, and it is unlikely that, with her fame and salary, she would have needed to be (in the terminology of the day) “kept” by anyone. Her friendship with Brady, in fact, seems based more upon a shared enthusiasm for food and the high life, than it does for any romantic or sexual aspect. This realization suggested the first hole in the story that Diamond Jim Brady and Russell were once associated with the residence at 7 West 46th Street.
The second came from the Morell biography itself. The author described an opulent residence Brady constructed on West 86th Street, near Central Park, but nothing about a house on 46th Street. Knowing that Morell may not be the most reliable source, I consulted a more recent biography, H. Paul Jeffers’ Diamond Jim Brady: Prince of the Gilded Age (2001). No reference to 46th Street there either. Going to the 1900 census, available on www.ancestry.com, I found an entry for Lillian Russell listing her residence as a site on Broadway. Again, there was nothing to indicate that either she or Brady ever lived at 7 West 46th Street. Instead, I discovered that the 46th Street house was occupied for years by one Robert Jaffray, a longtime employee of Bank of America who died there in 1902.
And then it hit me. Reviewing Diamond Jim Brady’s obituary in the Times (he died of a heart attack in 1917), I read that friends came to visit him as he lay in state at “his late residence, 7 West Eighty-sixth Street.” This was the first time I had seen the actual house number. Lining it up with “7 West Forty-sixth Street,” it became clear that somewhere along the line (perhaps in the 1952 Times notice, but maybe earlier) a writer made a typo, and the error stuck. Diamond Jim Brady’s actual house, at 7 West 86th Street, was demolished for the 1930s apartment building that now sits at the address. The structure at 7 West 46th Street, meanwhile, remains (provided it does not become altered beyond recognition) a testament to Manhattan’s 19th century residential elegance.