Shortly before 9 a.m. on Saturday, November 22, 1980, Kenneth Swyers jumped out of a Cessna at 20,000 feet and screamed toward the Mississippi River. He popped his chute, and in an instant he was floating toward his target. Oh, to be the first parachutist to land atop the Gateway Arch.
Swyers drifted, moving ever closer to his target, and soon he landed. But glory was fleeting. Witnesses say he stumbled and grabbed at the big red warning light. Swirling gusts captured the daredevil's chute, and he lost his balance. With no traction, he slid headfirst down the stainless steel structure. At the halfway point, the frantic 33-year-old pulled his backup chute, but it withered and failed. Swyers landed with a thud and died on the spot.
But what a view he surely had for one brief and shining moment, 630 feet above St. Louis. At his back was East St. Louis, where citizens changed the course of American music. And below him, the glowing red-brick of downtown, this birthplace of potions and legends, home to blues and booze, ragtime and rock. Here, writers honored the river, architects built sturdy and high, and the westward masses paused to make a quick buck.
St. Louis may no longer be on the best-seller list of American cities, but there was a golden time in the previous century when the Lou hosted some of the nation's greatest minds. They've scattered like dandelion seeds, but if you dig, you can still see their traces. Let us begin our journey to some of the city's lesser-known historic sites.
For example, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was inspired by a St. Louis man named William Prufrock, whose furniture store once stood two blocks south of the Old Post Office. Published in 1915, the famous poem analogized the city as "like a patient etherised upon a table," with "streets that follow like a tedious argument/Of insidious intent."
Today the spot at 1104 Locust is a parking lot. Welcome to St. Louis.
Ike and Tina Turner, on Broadway in East St. Louis.
Washington Avenue is lined for blocks with century-old warehouses and runs through the former garment district, meandering past the club district where in 1944 Miles Davis first played professionally. Just before Washington intersects with the Mississippi, it morphs into the Eads Bridge which Walt Whitman admired in Specimen Days. The bridge ends in East St. Louis, due north of the Casino Queen, which Wilco honored on its debut album. There it turns into Broadway and skitters past the hotels where stayed the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Funkadelic.
Downtown East St. Louis in the '30s, '40s and '50s was a veritable Havana of the Midwest, replete with roaring clubs, indiscreet speakeasies, and yes, even a thriving economy. Then seemingly everyone left, and it became a symbol of an America in decay.
Broadway winds east from downtown, and within a few blocks the vibe is considerably more country than city. Many of the theaters, clubs and restaurants, long neglected, have crumbled and died.
But the Four Aces lives on, a brick single-story at 1312 Broadway that still houses a liquor store in the front and a bar in the back. The other half of the building is devoted to a stage, a dance floor and rows of tables and chairs. The Disco Riders, a 32-member motorcycle club, own and operate the club, and on Saturday nights host dance parties.
Perched on a stool in the dimly lit bar, Dorsey Patterson, a member, says, "We got an old trunk in the basement, don't we?"
"Yeah, it's still down there," answers fellow Disco Rider Herschel Davis, clad in black leather from head to toe.
"It says 'Ike Turner' on it. We should get that out and clean that up," adds Patterson.
In the mid-1950s, the Four Aces was called the Manhattan Club. It was here the teenaged Annie Mae Bullock met Ike Turner, then in his early twenties. Turner used to tool around in a Buick Dynaflow crammed with young girls and musical instruments, recalls East St. Louis poet laureate Eugene Redmond. Turner would inevitably land at the Manhattan, where he'd practice and perform.
Annie Mae would someday become Tina Turner. "She was a teeny-bopper and a groupie," Redmond remembers. The future superstar used to hang around the Manhattan while her future husband was practicing. "Ike was known to run through women," he laughs. "Leon Thomas [who later gained fame as the yodeler on Pharoah Sanders' glorious "The Creator Has a Master Plan"] gave him the name, 'Ike Turner, the Woman Burner.'
"We watched Ike," adds Redmond. "He was fast."
Later, the couple had a much publicized dissolution amid a storm of drug abuse and violence. Redmond says he never saw Ike punch Tina at the Manhattan, but they sure argued a lot.
"There was always tension because there were always women in Ike's face -- or Ike in women's faces. I never saw him hit her, but I saw him shake her a couple times and bark at her a lot of times."
Listerine's birthplace, on Locust Street.
Make a U-turn and come back across the Eads into downtown. On a clear day, a view of the Arch and its grounds from the bridge is dazzling. Before making the colossal -- and some say catastrophic -- decision to bulldoze the central riverfront's buildings and replace them with the monument and park, the area housed a tenement and warehouse district that spread goods throughout the country. Globe Pickle neighbored Columbia Incandescent Lamp, which was down the street from Mound City Wood Novelties, Trask Fish Company and St. Louis Candy. There were few empty lots.
Nestled at the west end of this neighborhood, at 307 Locust Street, an antiseptic was born in 1881 in the rear end of an old cigar factory. Dr. Joseph Lawrence, publisher of a medical journal, concocted what became known as Listerine. He sold the recipe to Lambert Pharmaceuticals, and a mint was made. Now the lab is home to a parking lot.
Fun fact: Listerine wasn't initially conceived to combat bad breath. According to a 1908 medical study called "The Inhibitory Action of Listerine," the antiseptic was used to kill germs in many different orifices, "especially as a purifying and healing agent in inflammations and ulcerations about the genitals." Ouch!
Stagger Lee shot Billy Lyons, Eleventh Street and Convention Center Plaza.
On Christmas night 110 years ago at Bill Curtis' saloon, a pimp named "Stack" Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons. The fight began when Lee and Lyons, both drunk, started arguing over politics. Shelton grabbed Billy's derby and smashed it. Lyons then snatched Shelton's hat and demanded restitution. Shelton pulled out his .44. "Give me my hat, nigger!" he screamed before gunning down Billy Lyons. He picked up his hat and walked out.
Within ten years, the crime evolved into one of the most recorded songs in history. "Stack" had morphed into "Stagger," and the song became "Stagger Lee." Over the course of the next century, the murder became an archetypal legend. Mississippi John Hurt sang about Stagger. The Clash's "Wrong 'Em Boyo" is based on the song. Lloyd Price made it a hit in 1959. The Grateful Dead sang it, along with Nick Cave, Duke Ellington and Neil Diamond. One Web site identifies 217 different versions of the song.
The saloon and its building have long since vanished, but the spot, a block west of the Edward Jones Dome, still endures its share of turmoil; the St. Louis School Board owns the building. In fact, the sidewalk near the mark where Stagger is said to have pulled the trigger is stained with a splotch of red paint -- or is it blood?
Stagger Lee lived just down the street, at 911 Tucker. Noted photographer Drew Wojchik now owns the building, and he has transformed the former brothel into an art gallery. Wojchik says he doesn't see any ghost-whores or Stagger spirits in the building, "but I'm not receptive to that sort of thing. Maybe if I was more into this kind of music, or knew more about it, I'd see the ghosts. But I don't see anything."
Superman debuts, 420 De Soto Avenue.
Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1. It was printed in north St. Louis, down from the Grand Avenue water tower that was designed by Walt Whitman's brother. What has taken the inkshop's place is a prefab garage, seemingly unoccupied. But with a healthy imagination, perhaps you can conjure pallet upon pallet of comics rolling off the presses.
This was World Color Printing, born in St. Louis in 1904 as the official printer for the World's Fair. In the first half of the twentieth century, World Color printed the majority of comic books sold in America; debut issues of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and many others first landed on paper here. The landmark has been demolished.
Other cities are better about preserving their heritage, says Lorin Cuoco, who along with writer William Gass compiled and edited Literary St. Louis. The publication is a fountain of fanciful information, identifying such sites of interest as the homes of William S. Burroughs, Howard Nemerov, Stanley Elkin, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Pulitzer, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin and Irma Rombauer of The Joy of Cooking fame.
"Other cities in other older countries are much better about noting not only their literary history, but their cultural history," says Cuoco. "In France, they put plaques at spots of interest." St. Louis can't seem to demolish these sites fast enough.
The Exorcist at Alexian Brothers Hospital, 4624 Lansdowne Avenue.
In 1949, Satan visited and took possession of the body of a fourteen-year-old boy at Alexian Brothers Hospital in south St. Louis. Once inside, the Dark Master forced the kid to spit across a room with pinpoint accuracy. He wrote expletives in his skin, which rose in bloody welts. The boy convulsed and contorted, moved bookcases across rooms, and propelled vases with his eyes. Satan made the boy howl like a wolf.
The Exorcist was modeled after this young demon. Many doctors and priests -- the last of whom, the Reverend Walter A. Halloran, recently died -- witnessed the possession, and all recounted a similar saga.
The Maryland youth was sent here to be with relatives after he started behaving strangely. After a brief stint holed up at a Saint Louis University rectory, the demonic boy was sent to the since-demolished psychiatric wing of Alexian Brothers hospital. Here, Satan wreaked havoc. On Easter Sunday, priests started talking Catholicism to the boy -- a sure-fire way to send anyone running. Satan left the body and, presumably, St. Louis.
Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, 3033 Locust Avenue.
Just east of the Fox Theatre in the midtown industrial district is the former Premier Studios. The space is now vacant, a sad, sorry shell. In the mid-1960s, though, chimps, hawks and eagles ran wild in the studio, the place where Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom was filmed for five years.
The late Marlon Perkins and Jim Fowler recorded their between-safari banter at Premier. By phone from his home in New Canaan, Connecticut, Fowler recalls Mr. Moke, a famous chimpanzee living at the Saint Louis Zoo. "He was the first chimp that could say his name, and he said 'mama' very clearly."
But Mr. Moke was prone to tantrums. One time Mr. Moke punched Fowler in the nose. "It made me see stars. It was the day that Liston beat Patterson for the title. That's why I remember it."
Another time, the chimp went completely berserk. "He puffed himself up like a pin cushion, grabbed a big light on rollers and rolled it across the studio. His trainer tried to subdue him, and Moke hit him. The trainer took off."
Running wild, Moke chased everyone out of the studio except for Fowler and an assistant trainer. "Moke hit him just like a slugger in the stomach," laughs Fowler. "All of a sudden I was the only one left. I began to try and get him. Moke ran downstairs, ran through the editing room where these editors were meticulously going through film. As I was chasing him, he pulled a chair behind him just like a kid trying to run away from somebody."
Moke trashed the editing room, then raced back upstairs. "All of a sudden this chimp runs toward the front door. He actually had his hand on the doorknob to go out on Locust, but when I got to him -- I knew I could act dominant, I'm a tall guy -- he reverted back. He was very subdued, and took me by the hand.
"Later people said the only reason he didn't run out onto the street was that he didn't have cab money."
Miles Davis debuts with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others.
It was 1944. Singer Billy Eckstine was in town. His band that night consisted of a stunning group of players, among them Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughn, Gene Ammons and Art Blakey.
Miles Davis was eighteen, obsessed with jazz but not yet famous. He had grown up across the river in East St. Louis, where his father was a dentist just down the street from the Manhattan Club. Word leaked that the big band had arrived at the Riviera Club at 4460 Delmar. Miles and a friend made a beeline.
"I just picked up my trumpet," writes Davis in his 1989 autobiography, Miles, "and went on over to see if I could catch something, maybe sit in with the band..... The first thing I see when I got inside was this man running up to me, asking if I was a trumpet player. I said, 'Yeah, I'm a trumpet player.'" The guy who ran up was Dizzy Gillespie. One of their trumpet players was sick, and they needed a replacement. Davis filled in. It was the first time he played with Parker.
Three years later, Davis would join Parker's band. Together the two would transform jazz; Parker would teach the kid about bebop, and Davis would mold it into post-bop and go on to revolutionize jazz and popular music.
"So I heard all that shit back in 1944 all at once," continues Davis. "Goddamn, them motherfuckers was terrible. Talk about cooking! And you know how they were playing for them black folks at the Riviera. Because black people in St. Louis love their music, but they want their music right."
The Riviera was torched in December of 1970, but it didn't burn down. The arsonist was successful a month later. What remains is an empty, albeit sacred, dirt lot where the Bethlehem M.B. Church now parks its bus.
The Glass Menagerie, on Enright Avenue.
When playwright Tennessee Williams was growing up in the late 1920s and early '30s, he lived with his family at 6254 Enright. He modeled his landmark play The Glass Menagerie on this tenement.
"The apartment faces an alley," he explains in the long-winded introductory instructions for the play, "and is entered by a fire escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with slow and implacable fires of human desperation."
The Glass Menagerie is rife with St. Louis references: from Tom's job at Continental Shoemakers, modeled after Williams' own job at the International Shoe Factory (now the City Museum); to Tom visiting the movie houses on Grand; to Laura's playing hooky in Forest Park.
"St. Louis is special," says Lorin Cuoco of the city's role in American letters. "Outside of New York and other New England towns like Boston, I don't know where there's been a greater concentration of important writers. At a certain point at the Academy of Arts and Letters, the greatest number of members from any locale were from St. Louis."
Stanley Elkin's "The Guest," on Leland Avenue.
If you don't know the work of Stanley Elkin, arguably St. Louis' greatest twentieth-century novelist, make a beeline for The Franchiser, his tale of a man who travels America buying and selling franchises. Or grab Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers and read Elkin's much-anthologized story, "The Guest," in which a freeloading traveling salesman named Bertie talks his way into house-sitting in a University City apartment while a married couple is away. It was originally published in a 1965 issue of the Paris Review.
The author describes the third-floor apartment in great detail. Bertie roams around listening to Charlie Parker at full volume, masturbating and eating pizza. He quickly breaks his vow to stay off drugs. All hell breaks loose when he takes mescaline. Soon enough, Bertie's hallucinating. "Camel shit," he says after searching for the source of a stench. "My god, how did that get in here?" He cleans up the hallucinated dung.
Elkin taught literature and creative writing at Washington University for 30 years. He penned ten novels, including The Dick Gibson Show, The Magic Kingdom and Van Gogh's Room at Arles. His 1982 book George Mills won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
"We moved into the apartment in 1960," says Joan Elkin, the writer's widow, of the apartment the story was modeled after at 469 Leland -- just north of the University City Loop. "When we lived there, it was still a lot of the Jewish population that lived in University City, before they left and moved to west county."
The odor of camel shit has vanished, according to David Rothschild, who now lives in the apartment. Touring his digs, Rothschild identifies the spot in the bedroom where the dung must have been, then moves to a cluttered sun room which housed paintings in "The Guest." Rothchild identifies the hallway where Bertie drags a record player across the floor. "I was like, 'Wait, he's scratching up my hardwood!'"
But, adds Rothschild, "I have not done any hallucinogenics here. I've never seen a Chinaman with his tongue coming out with encrusted jewels here."
History's first celebrity-sex video, Berry Park in Wentzville, Missouri.
Berry Park has been Chuck Berry's country compound since he bought the land in 1957, at the height of his fame. Today, the original rock & roller, born and bred in St. Louis, still owns the property -- though it's in a state of disrepair these days, more country farm than celebrity estate.
Chuck Berry filmed some home movies here that somehow made their way into underground trading circles, resulting in perhaps the first unauthorized celebrity-sex video. 1989 was a bad year for Berry. He was busted for videotaping customers in the bathroom of his Wentzville club. His home was raided. Pot was found, and so was, apparently, a home movie.
In the video, Berry aims his camera at a naked woman in a bathtub while he zooms in on her private parts. Berry sets the camera down and soon we see him in front of the camera, naked. She starts fiddling with his ding-a-ling and proceeds to place it in her mouth. Then, he steps back, grabs his penis and starts urinating on her. She's caressing his thigh. He tells her to open her mouth. He pees into it.
Berry leans over her, as if to kiss her, but hesitates. "I can't kiss you," he confesses, "You smell like piss."
Phyllis Diller's home in Webster Groves, 30 Mason Avenue.
Webster Groves, a tree-strewn suburb southwest of downtown, is the home of Webster University. Just north of the campus lies the former home of groundbreaking comedienne Phyllis Diller. She lived in the house in the early and mid-'60s, when her career was at full-tilt. She now lives outside of Los Angeles. By phone recently, we spent a little time catching up.
Thanks for taking time, Miss Diller.
Let's get this over with. I'm not that well.
Your home in Webster Groves. Apparently you painted it pink?
No. I'd love to let you know the truth. If anyone reads my book [the just-published memoir, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse], they'll know I had great difficulties with my first husband. He was out of his mind. He painted it pink. But of course I would be the one who everyone would think would have a pink house. I was so embarrassed. If it were up to me, it would have been gray with green shutters.
Can you describe the house?
Yes, it's colonial. Lovely house, eleven rooms, nice big rooms. He built the pool, and he did a good job on that. Anything he could do without leaving the house. He had agoraphobia. He was a very sick man.
This would be Fang?
No. Fang was part of the act. Sherwood Diller was reality.
A couple stories are floating around from your time here. One of them had to do with some nuns who lived behind you who were offended at some nude sunbathing.
Oh, forget it. Jesus Christ. Number one, there was no kind of protection around the pool. You could see it from the street. There's no way that anyone in their right mind would take their clothes off in that pool. I never heard of any nuns around there, even. Somebody's floating stories. Give me the other story. I can't wait.
Apparently you performed at Webster High School; your material got a little bit blue, and there was a big outcry. Something about a Playtex bra and "My cup runneth over"?
Oh my God. If they objected to that -- no. Here's the joke: "My living bra died of starvation." I didn't use the word "Playtex." That's not a funny word. They've got two jokes running together there -- everything's all mixed up. At the end of my act, after doing all of these chest jokes, which were all perfectly clean, I said, "If just once I could throw up my arms and say, My cup runneth over!" Now if that's a dirty joke, I'm Greta Garbo.
Did you perform in Gaslight Square in St. Louis?
Three times at the Crystal Palace, and it was one of the most fun things I ever did in my life. Sold out every night, plus, at one of my appearances my opening act was the guy who wrote Hair. He was a jazz harpist. I remember vividly I was playing one of my three gigs there when Kennedy was shot.
How did you end up in Webster Groves?
It's all in the book. My children had been taken care of by an aunt and grandmother in St. Louis for five years while I was trying to get enough money to buy that house. I bought the house because it didn't make any sense to move the children away from their only relatives. It was a good place for me because all I was doing was traveling, and it was a central point. I could get back to see them oftener than if they'd been anywhere else.
Thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Well, I'm not in good shape. I was in the hospital yesterday. I'm still in rotten shape.
Pneumonia, right? And you recently had hip replacement surgery?
No, no. Pneumonia's enough. I was spitting up blood. So now, stupid me, I planned another thing that I have to do, so I have to go do it. It's nice talking to you. And I'll tell you the truth: What a joy to be able to quash all three rumors. Please help me with that.
The day I go swimming in the nude. That'll be the day.