Although much remains unclear about the origins of Cockney rhyming slang, there is a consensus that it stems from London’s East End, dates back to the 1840s, and is alive and thriving. One slang expression reads “on one’s tod,” meaning: on one’s own; all alone. The phrase is a shortened version of the original “on one’s Tod Sloan.”
In full, these four words offer a multi-colored mosaic of socio-cultural events involving Manhattan, London, and Paris.
Brought up in extreme poverty, undersized jockey James Forman Sloan, better known as Tod Sloan, started his sporting career in America’s Midwest winning his first race at the age of fourteen. Having disproportionately short legs, he adjusted his stirrups while riding high up in the saddle near the horse’s neck. His style of racing known as “monkey crouch” was initially derided, but later copied by most jockeys.
After enjoying considerable success, he moved to New York City in 1896. Employed by stable owner and gambler George Elsworth Smith, otherwise known as Pittsburgh Phil, he quickly became a dominant rider in the profitable thoroughbred racing circuit on the east coast. A self-assertive character and flamboyant womanizer, he was a sporting celebrity.
His ability was noted in racing-mad Britain and in 1897 he crossed the Channel to compete in England. In 1899 Vanity Fair magazine included him in a series of caricatures representing celebrities of the day. The lithograph portrays the jockey in his trademark stance.
In 1900 Edward [Bertie], Prince of Wales and “Godfather of Gambling,” invited Tod to join his stable, but shortly after the English Jockey Club denied him a riding license because of unspecified conduct “prejudicial to the best interests of the sport” (most likely: gambling on races in which he himself participated). By 1906 he was barred from the sport altogether. He never raced in the colors of the Prince of Wales again. His career on the turf was over.
Such was the legacy that his story became (loosely) the theme of the musical Little Johnny Jones by George M. Cohan which premiered in 1904 in New York. Cohan’s theatrical and flag-waving play featured the songs “The Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.” The patriotic chorus of the last song acquired new relevance during World War II:
Give my regards to Broadway, remember me to Herald Square,
Tell all the gang at Forty-Second Street, that I will soon be there;
Whisper of how I’m yearning to mingle with the old time throng;
Give my regards to old Broadway and say that I’ll be there ere long.
Harry’s New York Bar
Having returned to the United States, Oscar Hammerstein arranged for Tod to star in a one-man vaudeville show, but it flopped. Sloan then bought a bar in New York, dismantled the establishment, and shipped it to Paris. There he converted a small bistro into a Yankee saloon.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1911, Tod opened the New York Bar at 5 Rue Daunou, between the Avenue de l’Opéra and Rue de la Paix. Ruined by his lavish lifestyle, he was forced to sell in 1923 and return to the United States. Attempts to find a role in motion pictures failed. Tom Sloan died in December 1933 in Los Angeles, penniless and reportedly alone.
When Sloan started his adventure in Paris he employed Harry MacElhone, a Scottish bartender from Dundee, to run the business. The latter eventually acquired the bar from Sloan and added his first name to it.
The timing was perfect. Aspiring white American writers and artists imprisoned in a bourgeois Prohibition milieu, and black musicians and performers locked in racial segregation, were desperate to break loose. A treble X-factor pulled them to France: exchange rates, creative excitement, and an excess of alcohol. As they began to flock to Paris, Harry’s New York Bar became a hub on their boozing circuit. The address Cinque Rue Daunou was its calling card. Parisian cab drivers understood the request to head for “Sank Roo Doe Noo.”
Those who frequented Harry’s included F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Hemingway arrived in Paris in December 1921. Staying at a Left Bank hotel he met up with playwright Thornton Wilder who had arrived from Rome before returning to the States. Together they enjoyed the ambience of Harry’s house. When, in Ian Fleming’s short story A View to a Kill, James Bond arrived in Paris he wasted no time to make his way to Harry’s Bar knowing that he would be served a “solid drink.”
Others traveled to the City of Light for more “traditional” reasons, having gained a place at the newly opened American Conservatoire at Fontainebleau in 1921 (a corresponding School of Art was founded two years later). The formidable Nadia Boulanger acted as Professor of Harmony at the school. Aaron Copland was one of her students.
When Boulanger made a tour of the United States which was arranged by the New York Symphony Society in 1924, she premiered Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra which he had dedicated to her.
In 1927, Nadia Boulanger received a request from a young American musician who had recently arrived in Paris asking for lessons in composition. Born in Brooklyn, his name was Jacob Bruskin Gershowitz – better known as George Gershwin, composer of “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924. George and Nadia spoke for half an hour, before she paid him the compliment of refusal as there was nothing she could teach him.
Gershwin wanted to shake off the reputation of being a “mere” Tin Pan Alley tunesmith. He was determined to win the respect of “serious” composers. A persistent trier, the composer met up with Igor Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, seeking support. They declined. Maurice Ravel did not want to interfere either with the natural development of George’s genius.
Disappointed but determined to pursue his career in music, Gershwin soaked up the atmosphere of the city and spent time at Harry’s dark mahogany “Ivories” Piano Bar. There he composed a fragment of music which he labelled “Very Parisienne.”
Inspired by the haunting sound of taxi horns along the boulevards, it formed the basis for An American in Paris which premiered on December 13th, 1928 at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Walter Damrosch. The music thrilled American audiences.
Gershwin and Ravel
In 1928, Ravel made his first and only tour of the United States introducing new audiences to the unique style of his work. Celebrating his fifty-third birthday on March 7th in New York, he once more met up with Gershwin. The latter impressed him by an impromptu performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Ravel then was invited to attend a performance of Gershwin’s musical comedy Funny Face on Broadway. The vibrancy of jazz excited him.
Gershwin introduced Ravel to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, where dancers performed the Lindy Hop to hot jazz; together they visited the Cotton Club, where Ravel enjoyed the music of Duke Ellington and his orchestra. He also attended the Liederkranz Hall, 58th Street, famous for its acoustics, to hear Paul Whiteman and his orchestra in a recording session with trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke.
In the bond between two composers, the admiration was mutual. Some critics have compared Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (1929/31) to Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F (1925), suggesting that the former’s composition is a homage to Gershwin. His first movement is filled with the sound of the blues and the final movements of both works share a similar drive.
This personal affinity represents an intriguing moment in the history of Euro-American cultural relations. Gershwin and others continued to come to Paris to be instructed in the grand tradition of Continental music, seeking personal guidance from master performers; whilst European musicians were reluctant to tutor them out of fear of ruining their natural talent. The Age of Awe had finished; an era of mixing and blending between established and emerging creative modes and techniques was opening up.
Master of Cocktails
Apart from being a cultural focal point, Harry MacElhone proudly claimed to be to be Europe’s first cocktail bar and the home of legendary drinks. In 1919, he published Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails.
Frenchman Fernand Petiot, whilst serving two clients from Chicago at Harry’s (he would later become head bartender at Manhattan’s St Regis Hotel), invented the Bloody Mary in 1921. Other cocktails associated with the establishment are French 75, Side Car, White Lady, Monkey Gland, and Blue Lagoon.
Today, the outlet is still run by members of the MacElhone clan. The interior has remained virtually unchanged. Its original mahogany bar and wall panels decorated with shields and pennants of American colleges are still fixtures.
Bar staff are serving up the same cocktails that once made Harry’s a second home to Hemingway’s generation of expats. It was meant to be and still is a piece of Manhattan in the heart of Paris.
Photos, from above: An American Jockey (Tod Sloan) in Vanity Fair, 1899 by Godfrey Douglas Giles (National Portrait
Gallery); George M. Cohan’s Give My Regards to Broadway; Harry’s New York Bar; ‘King of Jazz’ Paul Whiteman (standing) and Maurice Ravel in 1928; Ravel’s birthday party in New York City – Ravel at the piano and Gershwin on the right; and Harry MacElhone (left), master of cocktails.