A City of Ids

Harry Kendall Thaw, murderer of architect Stanford White, confronts the tabloid glare. Photo: Brown Brothers

New York City attracts the very people most likely to be ruined by scandal: men and women who rise in society by virtue of their smarts, ambition, and labor. By their physical charms, vigorous egos, and appetite for conquest. Mostly strivers, but sometimes born into high position, they make money, become powerful or famous or both, and induce yet more opportunity for themselves. In time the rules appear to become different for them: Judgments are reserved, corners sliced, doors opened. The slingshot effect of wealth and power lifts their life arcs higher than they might otherwise go. An individual enjoying these altered societal physics may even feel an intriguing vertigo. It’s human nature to push one’s luck, to see what might happen …

Let us thus recall the afternoon of Monday, March 10, 2008. A morsel of intrigue buzzed through the city. Something big was going down. The New York Times was about to reveal the name of a major politician caught using a high-priced call-girl service. Who? Speculation was feverish: Bill Clinton? A Bush-administration official? The miscreant was, of course, Governor Eliot Spitzer, the hard-driven former prosecutor once mentioned as a possible future presidential candidate, and suddenly, two days later, after his brief, grim-faced resignation, merely a broken political doll tossed on the scrap heap of city history. (Or at least for the time being, until his rehabilitation is complete.)

Shocking as the moment was then, how long ago it now seems. But that should be no surprise. After all, the very essence of such a major New York scandal is that it suddenly achieves a supernova of excitement that is soon supplanted by the next one. Each subsequent outrage, each new version of our indigenous circus-opera, demands we pay attention, and we do, because we love scandals, assuming their flames of destruction don’t touch us or those whom we care about. They make us feel momentarily safer (his fate was not mine) and a bit more alive (could his fate have been mine?). Scandals are agreeably toothsome, with potentially fascinating complexities, and unfold dramatically. Like sporting events—unscripted, the ending in doubt—they nonetheless conform to certain rules; they have beginnings, middles, and definite ends. They remind us that New York City is, among other things, a machine of fate. The high do sometimes fall, and the guilty are, in fact, sometimes punished. Even the shameless can be shamed, if only temporarily, and the ­power-besotted can be reminded of the costly, eternal laws of human gravity.

But what is a scandal? The etymology is suggestive: The French scandale, from Old French, means “cause of sin”; the Latin scandalum means “trap, stumbling block, temptation.” Perhaps a basic definition is in order: A scandal involves unseemly conduct that results in the destruction of a ­reputation. Someone’s position in society changes for the worse. The fall must appear ­irreversible. Suffering is necessary. As is humiliation.

Not all shocking events are scandals. Sordid tragedies, gruesome murders, baroque malfeasance—there are thousands of juicy New York tales that do not feature a character of good standing succumbing to his id and therefore do not qualify. And to rise to a classic New York scandal, the episode generally requires at least two of four crucial elements: power (of an institution, celebrity, or social position), money (the more of it the better, especially if it is cleverly stolen or deployed to hide crimes and misdemeanors), sex (preferably involving the pairing of a physically loathsome, goatish old man with a young woman of unquestionable allure and highly questionable judgment), and violence (especially anything weird, ritualistic, or psychoish). These factors can be combined any which way, so long as there are at least two. The biggest scandals deliver three elements, and ones that deliver all four are exceedingly rare. One such was the 1980 murder of Dr. Herman Tarnower, author of the best-selling book The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, by his lover Jean Harris, headmistress of the Madeira School for girls in Virginia. Finding another lover’s lingerie in Tarnower’s bedroom, Harris shot the well-known cardiologist four times with a pistol she claimed she’d meant to use on herself instead. Her seemingly endless trial lasted fourteen weeks. While out on bail, she was seen to visit his grave.

But has the definition of scandal—and most particularly, of the New York scandal—morphed over time? Determined scrutiny suggests not: The parade of murdered lovers, wealthy debauched husbands, smiling con artists, and piggish city officials has marched more or less without interruption. What has evolved is how most New Yorkers have learned about their scandals. The early-nineteenth-century city was just waiting for a paper to traffic in such behavior, and eventually it got plenty. Unlike most American towns of the era, the New York of the 1800s had not only the expected mix of European descendants of various Protestant stripes but a multihued hodgepodge of seekers, drifters, dreamers, and the dispossessed from all over the world. The city already represented a psychic zone where one could disappear, shake off the strictures of one’s upbringing elsewhere, or, indeed, destroy oneself privately or in public.

One of the more colorful subpopulations of the 1840s was the so-called sporting men, foppish young New Yorkers of enthusiastically degenerate habits: sex, gambling, theater, whoring. Their comings and goings were chronicled by weekly papers like the New York Sporting Whip, The Flash, and The Weekly Rake, proto-lads’ mags that “served up steaming platters of scandal,” as Mark Caldwell describes in his 2005 history New York Night. Their pages were laden with lurid intrigue and suggestive tidbits that seemed placed by would-be blackmailers. One such story, which if not quite scandalous by today’s standards, suggests a newfound willingness to expose and humiliate the famous. The Whip and Satirist of New-York and Brooklyn sent along a reporter on the night of March 4, 1842, as none other than Charles Dickens, then one of the most famous people in the Western world, was toured through Manhattan’s low life. They visited a roughhouse tavern owned by Frank McCabe. As Caldwell reports, “Once inside, Dickens,” according to the Whip, “shrank back in horror when he came upon five blacks, male and female, all stark naked and sweatily entangled in mid-gangbang … Dickens,” the Whip said, “nearly fell into a swoon and fled the place.”

Newspaper titles and circulation exploded as technology evolved and the old rags required to manufacture newspapers were replaced by cheaper wood pulp (hence both terms of contempt). With the advent of the telegraph came the wire service (the Associated Press was formed in 1848), which proved essential to report the Civil War as well as useful for updating courtroom developments in long-running local scandals. As New Yorkers became connected to the world by telephone, train, and faster transatlantic shipping, scandal also became a dependable commodity, capable of being monetized within hours in afternoon newspaper editions. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World battled William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal for this audience, with one-cent editions that featured one sensationalistic story after the next.

And so perhaps it’s not surprising that “the Crime of the Century,” the murder of architect Stanford White by the enraged husband of his onetime lover Evelyn Nesbit, came in 1906: The early years of the twentieth century delivered what we today recognize as the electric burst of scandal, which depended on the automobile for rapid movement of reporters and newspapers, and the timely printing of black-and-white photographs. Enter the tabloids—memorably, in the case of the Daily News, which made its name in 1928 by publishing a disturbing photo of Ruth Snyder, a saucy bottle-blonde Long Island housewife convicted of murder, taken the moment she was fried by the electric chair at Sing Sing.

Then, another world war later, television changed everything again. The rise of the local news broadcast, with its tease-ins and live reporting spots, had by the sixties perfected a form of breathless instant TV tabloidism. At the same time the arrival of the New Journalism elevated writing about scandals (or, depending on your taste, lowered journalistic standards). In this first-person, metaconscious world of journalism, it didn’t hurt that one of its chief practitioners, Norman Mailer, was a bit scandalous himself, especially after he stabbed his wife, Adele, at a party one night.

New York hit the skids in the seventies, becoming dirtier, poorer, and more dangerous. The city also saw the delivery of scandal taken down-market, when Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post and imported the screaming sensationalism of his British and Australian papers. And there was plenty to get excited about, such as Sid Vicious’s alleged murder of his girlfriend in the Hotel Chelsea in 1978, and Claus von Bülow’s 1985 acquittal for the attempted murder, by insulin injection, of his heiress wife, Sunny. In 1986, the strangulation of an 18-year-old student in Central Park rose to the level of scandal thanks to the tabloid tag “The Preppie Murder.” It didn’t hurt that the murderer, Robert Chambers, was handsome, blue-eyed, and six-foot-four. Chambers, it may be remembered, had the bad judgment while out on bail to be videotaped twisting the head of a Barbie doll and saying, in a falsetto voice, “Oops! I think I killed it,” while looking into the camera with leering, satanic delight.

Scandals may not have changed much, but their context has shifted enormously. Dare we admit that in a time of total information bombardment we find juicy new scandals strangely reassuring, a welcome dramatic relief? They distract us not only from the plainly bad news (war, economic troubles, disasters), but also from our irresolvable, ever more relativistic postmodernity with their clear moral structures, their simple (or simplified, anyway) story lines, and the Schadenfreude that comes from seeing that the very bad thing happened to someone else, not us: While I was watching television and eating ice cream one night, Governor Spitzer was destroying his political career.

At the same time, as science has encroached relentlessly on what we still call “personality” and “behavior”—explaining human action as the inevitable outcome of genes or bad parenting or too much corn syrup—scandals reassert the mysterious insanity of human beings. As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has reasons that reason will never know.” Just what did Bernie Madoff think he was doing? How many times a day, an hour, a minute, did he privately instant-message himself with some defense against what he knew would ultimately result? It could be a hundred years before someone—an artist—really answers that.

We can imagine that in the future, an increasing number of scandals will be witnessed, recorded, and uploaded simultaneously, making the sensation explode in real time and stunning the principals, whose reaction to others’ reaction may also be captured visually. We saw a hint of this in Anthony Weiner’s penile farce as a storm of texts, tweets, and posts accelerated the story faster than Weiner could spin it. The speed of these events will no doubt be matched by the media’s fiendish ability to convert them into commodities that draw page-views, mobile downloads, or whatever else computers will be doing (to us) in the future, like projecting high-definition, 3-D versions before us or maybe even directly feeding them into our brains.

For this reason, as well as the relentless trampling of what was once considered outrageous, the truly shocking scandal will be, by definition, rare. Given that sexual images are already omnipresent, the bar of titillation will probably get higher, although one shudders to think what will be necessary to spur outrage: children, animals, coma victims? The dollar figures will get higher, too, in the way that the Madoff scandal reset the parameters of epic fraud. Marriage, that tattered convention, may come to matter less as a lever of scandal. (Were that great moralist, Rudy Giuliani, to throw off yet another wife tomorrow, most New Yorkers would no more than shrug.) In any case, we may be confident that the past will dazzlingly invent itself anew. New Yorkers, relentlessly organizing themselves into hierarchies, seeking advantage and wealth and lubricious gratification, will continue to fall prey to themselves, to rise and fall scandalously. As we have for centuries, as we do today, the rest of us will gape and gasp, and wait for the next one.

Download the Complete History of Scandals [PDF]

A City of Ids