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Checkout Time at the Asylum


The traffic to Bellevue provided readers with morality plays, parables of the fallen mighty, and gossip that reassured them that dreadful things could happen even to the famous. There was the story of former world chess champion William Steinitz, who in 1900 succumbed to the delusion that he was immensely wealthy and could become more so by inventing a wireless telephone (good idea) that would be operated entirely by willpower (time to call Bellevue). He started giving away the little money he had to street urchins and later became violent. Taken to Bellevue, he died a few months later. “Defeat Broke His Spirit,” announced the Times, which felt free to make the diagnosis that Steinitz’s madness had been caused by losing his chess title to a younger man.

A dose of barely concealed glee was intermingled with a tone of faux concern—still a very familiar journalistic combination—in the Times’ account of the woes of Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer, “a member of one of the oldest and most respected families in New York and Philadelphia.” One day in 1908, she received a nasty letter from her estranged son in which he called her “a selfish peacock, whose name in these times amounts to nothing,” demanded $5,000, and added, “Did it ever occur to you that … by blowing your head off my wife would have an income sufficient to support her? I will take that course if necessary … I am now in no humor to be trifled with.” Neither was Mrs. Van Rensselaer, who had the police take him to Bellevue, declining to interrupt her Catskills vacation to deal with it in person. (This being society, the matter was wrapped up tidily; Mrs. Van R. eventually forgave her son, after he had promised not to misbehave again and said he would “take a farm in the country.”)

Every generation has seen its bleakest self-image reflected in stories of Bellevue.

But for everything that reads like a proto–Dominick Dunne amusement, there are more haunting stories that evoke unmoored, lonely lives. Violet Whittemore was a young lawyer with an active practice in 1914 when she suddenly closed her office in the Metropolitan Life Building. A year later, she was found wandering around Ninth Avenue, waving her hands over the heads of passersby and imagining that she could control their actions. Zelda Crosby was a young woman who changed her name from Shuster and moved from the Bronx to Manhattan after World War I, hoping to make it in the movie business. She lived alone in an apartment on East 55th Street, where she made a living as a silent-film writer for the Lasky-Famous Players Company. Jilted by a producer, she overdosed on Veronal, one of the first widely marketed barbiturates, was taken to Bellevue, and never recovered. The names and details may seem quaint, but they also serve as harrowing reminders that New York has always been a city in which it is frighteningly possible to slip off the tracks, to find oneself adrift. To get lost.

“This was indeed the corridor, the place for walking. It was yellow and green and brown and black; it was neither very long nor very wide, but it was immensely crowded with men of all ages … He felt warm grit under his feet until he stepped on something slick; then he saw that the black floor ahead was scattered with gobs of phlegm. A few of the walking men wore dirty paper slippers, and he envied them; a few were smoking, with packs of cigarettes in their pajama-top pockets … Then he saw that some weren’t wearing pajama tops but straitjackets, and he wanted to whimper like a child. … The light outside was drab—either an early gray morning or a late gray afternoon—and there was nothing to see but air shafts and windowless walls.”

—Richard Yates, describing a Bellevue men’s ward in Disturbing the Peace

By the time Bellevue’s new psychiatric hospital opened, in 1931, the city was in the maw of the Depression; as Sandra Opdycke notes in her history of the city’s public hospitals, No One Was Turned Away, private hospitals had begun to decline to accept charity cases, and almost half of the city’s residents were poor enough to qualify for care in public facilities. Bellevue was the place you went when nobody else would take you in. To those who worked there, though, Meyers’s building represented a vast improvement; before, the hospital had housed its mentally ill in grim basement dorms where the beds were so close together that one could walk on them from one end of the long room to the other without ever touching the floor. Treatments were joltingly primitive; on the new building’s opening night, the old facility’s patients were given enemas containing tranquilizers, then, when they were soiled but unconscious, whisked a couple of blocks north to their new home three at a time.


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