Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser


Thanks to Dorothy for loaning me this 1997 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I was not conscious of either the book or author. We meet Martin as a young teenager working in his father’s cigar store in late 19th century New York. He is a bright fellow, focused on attracting customers, and begins by making a connection with a nearby hotel where at age 14 he begins work as a bellboy. Along with the description of Martin working diligently at the hotel and cigar shop, the author puts us into that world of New York with its horse-drawn omnibuses and elevated steam trains.

As Martin advances up the ladder in the world of the Vanderlyn Hotel, he spends his free time walking and riding public transport throughout the city. He connects with the hotel’s engineer to create a lunch room in a nearby building. The author makes the point that Martin recognizes his limitations and knows that his partner is invaluable. By the time he’s in his mid-20s he has a string of lunch cafes that are identical and closely managed by Martin (think McDonalds). We understand that his success comes from his astute choice of managers, his understanding of what customers want, and his focus on the work.

His ambition leads him to sell the lunch cafes and buy the Vanderlyn which has suffered under the lack of modernization by the manager. In 1897 after managing a complete renovation that includes basement shops called the Vanderlyn Bazaar, Martin has a gala celebration. He then rode uptown to 93rd Street on the Sixth Avenue El and mused on the changes in the city. “He felt clear and clean and calm. You dug into the ground and made a hole, and from that hole a building grew — or a wondrous bridge….All across the city steam shovels were digging, truck horses pulling, boom derricks swinging.”

Next comes The Hotel Dressler on Riverside Drive in 1899 that was was praised for its “boldness of vision, its structural ingenuity” and critiqued this way: “the facade was so heavily ornamented that it put him in mind of a gigantic wedding cake.” On the first two floors along with restaurants and smoking rooms “was a scattering of peculiar rooms.” These included a circular theatre, a room containing a wigwam, a wax squaw gathering sticks, one which contained a working scale model of an Otis elevator and one a steam crane lifting an I-beam. Next was the new Dressler with even more unusual features, and finally in 1905, a year after the first subway line opened, the Grand Cosmo. That building had so many strange features, it took pages and pages to list them (which I was not inclined to try to take in). It seems Martin tipped from being extravagant and unconventional in the service of pleasing customers to the grotesque. Because the customers were not coming, he gave actors free room and board in return for acting the part of customers in the shops. Finally an actor was identified to play the role of the ever-present Martin strolling throughout the Grand Cosmo, enabling the actual Martin to wander off into the world.

Perhaps Martin’s dream of creating an endlessly entertaining place for customers is a roadmap for how the city developed into a place with all its extravagances that will (or have) spiralled out of control that is beyond the level that humans can absorb. Thinking about how I have felt in the overwhelming lights of Times Square.

Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler, Crown, 1996, 294 pages. Available in the public library.

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