A Who’s Who of Hell’s Kitchen
Because of its proximity to Broadway and other theaters, Hell’s Kitchen became a popular neighborhood for actors to call home. During the 19th and through at least the first half of the 20th centuries, though, its residents were far less salubrious. (The neighborhood was dubbed “Hell’s Kitchen” for a reason.) Proximity to the docks, slaughterhouses, soap factories, and manure yards made the neighborhood an olfactory nightmare. People did not live here unless they could not afford to live elsewhere. Henry McCarty, born in Hell’s Kitchen in 1859 and later known as Billy the Kid, was one such resident, though his family moved to Kansas by the time he was 11. In the early 1900 another notorious figure periodically made Hell’s Kitchen her home, when she was not working as a cook and locked up in quarantine: Mary Mallon. Better known as Typhoid Mary, she unknowingly infected the families she cooked for with typhoid fever despite never contracting the disease herself.
As the city’s theater scene migrated to Midtown from Lower Manhattan during the first few decades of the 20th century—and as some of the more-fetid industries moved from the neighborhood—actors and wannabes settled in. They were attracted not only to being within walking distance of auditions but also to the still-low rents. George Raft, who was born in Hell’s Kitchen in 1901, moved from the neighborhood to Hollywood just as more performers were moving in. A dancer—Fred Astaire wrote that he performed “the fastest Charleston I ever saw”—before becoming known for his portrayals of gangsters in films such as the original “Scarface” and “Some Like It Hot,” Raft consorted with Owen “Owney” Madden and other gangster while growing up on 10th Avenue. Raft also frequented the Landmark Tavern at 11th Avenue and West 46th Street, a popular hangout of the Westies gang, and his ghost is said to still haunt the bar.
Among the not-yet-famous actors who moved to Hell’s Kitchen were Charlton Heston, who supported his family here after World War II by working as an artists’ model in the years before becoming known as Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” winning an Oscar as the title character in “Ben-Hur,” and starring in such box-office hits as “Planet of the Apes,” “Soylent Green,” and “Earthquake.” Jerry Orbach, who originated the roles of El Gallo in the decades-running off-Broadway musical “The Fantasticks” and Billy Flynn in Broadway’s “Chicago,” remained a Hell’s Kitchen resident long after becoming known as Baby’s father in “Dirty Dancing” and Lennie Briscoe in “Law & Order.” He lived in his final apartment, on Eighth Avenue, between West 53rd and 54th Streets, for 25 years. Several years after his death in 2004, the city named a portion of 53rd Street near Eighth Avenue after him.
The founding of the Actors Studio in 1947 gave thespians additional incentive to move to Hell’s Kitchen. Originally located on West 39th Street, it moved into its current location, a former church on West 44th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, in 1955. One of the earliest and most famed alumni of the Actors Studio, Marlon Brando, lived for a while in Hell’s Kitchen with his roommate Wally Cox, a fellow actor best remembered today as the voice of character Underdog in the 1960s animated series. Another alum, Harvey Keitel, was still living in the neighborhood when he was cast as the pimp Scout in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”
When Manhattan Plaza, two high-rises at West 43rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, was built in 1977, 70% of its 1,689 apartments were set aside as subsidized housing for those working in the performing arts. (Public pressure prevented the building from housing performers exclusively, so the remaining units were set aside as subsidized housing for the elderly, the disabled, and existing Hell’s Kitchen residents who fell below an income threshold.) It was here that a struggling comedian named Larry David endured unannounced visits from his neighbor Kenny Kramer, who would be immortalized on the series “Seinfeld,” which David created with Jerry Seinfeld. Playwright Tennessee Williams lived here, though his rent was not subsidized; according to lore, his agent moved him here so that he would be less likely to pick up street hustlers, and doormen were told to turn away any men fitting that description who came calling for him. Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/pianist Alicia Keys grew up here, as did Timothée Chalamet, best known for “Call Me By Your Name.” Giancarlo Esposito, Charles Mingus, and Al Pacino are just a few other former residents. Although Samuel L. Jackson did not live here, he did work as a security guard for the complex. Because Manhattan Plaza continues to rent the majority of its apartments to those in the performing arts, chances are good that while you are in the neighborhood you might spot, if not a current celebrity, someone who will soon become one.