Many of the most important characters in The Inquisitor’s Apprentice were inspired by my own extended family. You’d think it would be easy to write about people I know so well — and indeed, it was easy to write about them in The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, when I was borrowing their lives and stories and foibles in order to create characters like the dashing Yiddish theater matinee idol Uncle Mordechai, or Edison’s glamorous Italian-American Assistant Inventor Rosie DiMaggio, or IWW organizer Moishe Schlossky who thinks the subway is a capitalist plot to lure workers to Brooklyn and turn them into bourgeois reactionaries.
There are a few things I can say about the not-so-famous real life inspirations for Sacha’s friends and family. Sacha himself was inspired my husband’s grandfather, who emigrated from Latvia and went to work in the garment district when he was twelve years old to feed his younger brothers and sisters. And Sacha’s flamboyant Uncle Mordechai is partly based on my grandfather, a professional Jazz musician who ran away from home at fourteen to join a Vaudeville Troupe. And the gorgeous Rosie DiMaggio has a lot in common with my opera-singing great-aunt, who was famous all over Greenwich Village for falling through a skylight and landing on the lap of a handsome millionaire … who took one look at her, shook the broken glass off his dinner jacket, and asked her out on a date! That Sacha’s sister Bekah is a loving tribute to my grandmother’s best friend, who spent the whole trip in steerage from Russia hearing her parents talk about how the streets of America were paved with gold, and actually believed it. Fanya got off the boat, took one look at the real Lower East Side — and promptly ran away to Coney Island, where she lives on in many New Yorker’s memories as the tiny little girl who flew through the air aaaaaallll the way up to the tippy top of the huge pyramid in the best Coney Island acrobatics act ever.
Still … when it comes to writing down the really important things about the people you love? That’s not so easy in real life. And the only place I’ve ever really managed to do it is in an imaginary New York City where magic works and little girls really can fly if they just know the right spell to use.
On the other hand, even though they’re not as quite as interesting as my family, some of the famous New Yorkers who appear in the pages of The Inquisitor’s Apprentice do have fascinating stories of their own. So here’s some information about a few of them that I hope will whet your appetite for learning about the real New York and real New Yorkers….
Harry Houdini. Harry Houdini is just about my favorite historic character in the whole book. I have long been fascinated by Houdini, an intensely private man who somehow managed to be a buttoned-down and scholarly rabbi’s son in his private life while doing more than anyone in his day to create the modern American cult of celebrity.
There are many, many great books about Houdini, including Brian Selznick’s wonderful illustrated book, The Houdini Box, so I won’t try to tell his life story here. But I will say this: When I first started writing the NYPD Inquisitor books, I only planned to have Houdini appear in book one. But to be honest, I’ve enjoyed writing about him so much that I’m having a hard time saying good bye to him. So no promises, but I think he might be back sometime….
Oh, and one more thing about Harry Houdini that might interest Sacha Kessler fans. Houdini looked a lot like my husband’s grandfather, Poppy — the person who inspired Sacha’s story. Poppy worked in the garment district as a “schlepper” — one of the men who threw heavy bales of cloth from wagons in the street up into the second-story windows to be cut and sewn into clothing. He was a short, dark, handsome man with black curly hair. And even at eighty he still had such huge muscles that when my husband was a little boy, he thought Poppy must be the strongest man in the whole world. There aren’t many photos of him, however — and there are none at all of him as a young boy. So when the illustrator of The Inquisitor’s Apprentice asked me what Sacha should look like, I said: “Like the young Harry Houdini.” So if you are wondering what Sacha looks like, here’s a picture that looks a lot like his real-world inspiration….
Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison was the Bill Gates of his age. He was a brilliant inventor who made genuinely important contributions to science. But he was also a shrewd businessman who used every trick in the book to steal a march on his competition. Some people have also claimed that he was much more impressario than inventor — a little like Sacha’s Uncle Mordechai — and that his inventions weren’t really all he hyped them up to be. Edison never actually had a lab on Coney Island, and his real nickname was The Wizard of Menlo Park, not the Wizard of Luna Park. But he really did do PR events at Coney Island. In fact, he actually electrocuted a rogue elephant in Luna Park in a joint publicity stunt so bizarre that I decided not to use it in The Inquisitor’s Apprentice because no one could possibly believe it really happened.
Unfortunately, Edison’s anti-semitism was also real, and not just something I made up for my book. This made him a very difficult character to write about. On the one hand, I didn’t want to make him seem worse than he really was. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to ignore the awful things he actually did say about Jewish people. I think I struck a reasonable balance. But if you want to find out more about this issue for yourself, then reading Edison’s own writings on the subject — especially the letters between him and Henry Ford — is an object lesson in how really smart people can believe incredibly stupid things when they let racism do their thinking for them.
It’s easy to judge Edison harshly when you read some of things he said, but I also tried to show his redeeming features. And one thing is certain: like a lot of the characters in The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, he he grew up very poor and went to work to support his family at a very young age. I don’t think any of that excuses him from getting called on his anti-semitism, but reading about how hard his childhood was definitely made me more sympathetic toward him.
Philip Payton. The character Philip Payton was originally inspired by the real-world African-American real estate entrepreneur Philip Payton. Technically I guess my character would be Philip Payton, Jr, since his father (who will appear later in the series) is the one actually based on the real historical figure. In very early drafts I had Philip Payton the grownup appear — but then I realized that I really wanted to have a teenage character who was connected to him so that I could give a kid’s eye view of the history of the Afro-American Real Estate Company and the birth of Harlem. That story isn’t coming until book three of the NYPD Inquisitor series, but I can tell you just a little bit about it here…
Philip Payton was a fascinating man, who lived in the Pepper Hill neighborhood at the north end of Hell’s Kitchen at the turn of the century. After a violent race riot broke out between Irish and African-American residents of Hell’s Kitchen, Payton decided it was time for black New Yorkers to finally have a neighborhood of their own in Harlem. Payton’s plan met with a lot of resistance — in fact the phrase ‘blockbusting’ was initially coined to describe the dirty tricks competing real estate developers played to put Payton out of business. But in the end, his dream became reality. And few people now remember that the Harlem Renaissance and many other defining moments in African-American history might never have happened without a gutsy and idealistic businessman whose life is one of the great unwritten stories of Gilded Age New York.
Teddy Roosevelt. A lot of people ask me about Teddy Roosevelt in the book, and where The Inquisitor’s Apprentice fits into the real-life chronology of his life. The short answer is that it doesn’t exactly fit, because the history of Sacha’s New York is different from ours in several ways. In Magical New York, Sacha’s story begins around 1905, when TR has already resigned from being Commissioner of Police and gone to be the Secretary of the Navy in Washington. Rumors of magical scandal swirl around TR’s resignation, and J. P. Morgaunt toasts his departure on an extended African safari with the words: “may the fist lion Teddy meets do its duty!” J. P. Morgan really did say those words in our world. But he said them a few years later after Teddy’s failed run for President as head of the Bull Moose Party. As for how TR’s life will continue to unfold in the parallel universe of the NYPD Inquisitor books and whether he’ll be back in future installments … well, keep reading!
Belle Da Costa Greene. J. P. Morgaunt’s Magical Librarian, Bella Da Serpa, is loosely based on one of the most intriguing women in the history of New York. Belle Marion Greener was born in 1883, the daughter of the distinguished African-American lawyer Richard T. Greener. Belle was a beautiful and brilliant young woman with great academic abilities and a passion for art and books. But in the late 19th century there were few opportunities for women to pursue careers in art history — and even fewer for an African-American woman.
So at some point in her teenage years, Belle began telling people that she was Portuguese and passing as white. By 1905, she was working at the Princeton University Library, where she met J. P. Morgan. He soon hired her to curate his already formidable library of rare manuscripts — and Belle went on to have one of the most astounding careers of any art historian in her generation. She became the friend, colleague, and confidante of the world’s most famous art experts and collectors. And she became the curator of the Morgan Library, where she singlehandedly masterminded the development of one of the greatest collections of rare manuscripts on the planet. In fact, Belle became Morgan’s lifelong friend as well as his librarian — and one of the great unsolved mysteries of the real J. P. Morgan’s life is whether he ever learned her secret. As for what Belle Greene saw and thought and felt as she split her life between hobnobbing with royalty in Venice and Florence and secret visits to her mother’s walkup apartment in Harlem …. that’s an even greater mystery. And if I could sit down and talk to one historical person out of all the people I researched for these books, I think it would be Belle Da Costa Greene. She was a brave and amazing and in some ways tragic figure. I would really love to hear her own version of the story of her life … a story she could never share during her lifetime because telling it would have destroyed everything she worked so hard to accomplish.
Oh, and have I mentioned she had an internationally famous sense of humor and was one of the best-dressed women in New York back in the day when that really meant something?
J. P. Morgan. I took a lot of liberties with J. P. Morgan — and I changed his name to J. P. Morgaunt partly to acknowledge that fact. The real-life Wizard of Wall Street was a man who defied labels. He was a privileged aristocrat from one of New York’s great banking dynasties, but he was also (in some ways) a self-made man who transformed a staid family business into a kind of financial empire the world hadn’t ever seen before. He was a great enemy of Teddy Roosevelt and his progressive political ideas, and he brutally suppressed plenty of strikes in the Pennsylvania coal fields and steel mills. But he still fought fair compared to less scrupulous Robber Barons like Andrew Carnegie. And when Wall Street suffered a devastating financial crash on Morgan’s watch, he did something that none of today’s Wall Street Wizards have ever done: he pitched in huge piles of his own money, strong-armed his fellow investment bankers to do the same, and finally locked them into the Morgan Library all night until they agreed to put the country back on its financial feet without saddling regular Americans with a crippling debt load. Food for thought there….
And here’s some more food for thought. When I first wrote The Inquisitor’s Apprentice my villain was named Andrew Carbuncle. That changed as the book went through editing. Inquisitor Wolf’s magical foe was renamed J. P. Morgaunt, and he was altered to be less resminiscent of Steel Baron Andrew Carnegie and more reminiscent of Wall Street Wizard J. P. Morgan. Why? Because no one could bring themselves to see Andrew Carnegie as an evil wizard. I argued about it until I was blue in the face. I told them that Carnegie made his first million on insider trading and then stole, strong-armed, and intimidated his way to a steel monopoly. I told them about the Homestead Strike, where he shot down steelworkers in cold blood when they asked for a living wage and safe working conditions. I told them that Carnegie was a lifelong racist who originally founded the now-famous Carnegie Foundation to promote his seriously creepy ideas about eugenics. But no matter how hard I tried to explain that Andrew Carnegie wasn’t the nice guy everyone remembers today, no one thought he’d make a believable Black Mage. And why not? Well, just look at all those beautiful libraries he built! How could anyone who spent so much money on public libraries possibly be evil?
So here’s my advice to all future captains of industry: If you want to go down in history as a good guy — be nice to librarians!