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Up in the Old Hotel had its beginnings in the nineteen-thirties, in the hopelessness of the early days of the Great Depression, when Joseph Mitchell, at that time a young newspaper reporter in New York City, gradually became aware that the people be respected the most and got the most pleasure out of interviewing were really pretty strange. "Among them, " he once wrote, were visionaries, obsessives, imposters, fanatics, lost souls, the-end-is-near street preachers, old Gypsy kings and old Gypsy queens, and out-and-out freak-show freaks." One of the street preachers was a gloomily eloquent old Southerner named the Reverend Mr. James Jefferson Davis Hall, who carried a WHERE WILL YOU SPEND ETERNITY? sign up and down the sidewalks of the theatrical district, which he called "the belly and the black heart of that Great Whore of Babylon, the city of New York, " for a generation; one of the Gypsy kings was King Cockeye Johnny Nikanov, who liked to say that the difference between Gypsies and gajos, or non-Gypsies, is that a Gypsy will steal gasoline out of the tanks of parked automobiles but that a high-class United States politician gajo will steal a whole damned oil well; one of the freak-show freaks was Jane Barnell, billed as Lady Olga, who was the Bearded Lady in Hubert's Museum and Flea Circus on Forty-second Street and who was a legend in the freak-show world because of her imaginatively sarcastic and sometimes imaginatively obscene and sometimes imaginatively brutal remarks about people in freak-show audiences delivered deadpan and sotto voce to her fellow freaks gathered about her on the platform. These people were extraordinarily dissimilar, but all of them, each and every one of them protected themselves and kept themselves going by the use of a kind of humor that Mitchell thought of as graveyard humor, and he admired them for this. Even the Reverend Hall depended on this kind of humor to get his points across, and some of his gloomiest sermons were at the s
Joseph Mitchell was born near Iona, North Carolina, in 1908, and came to New York City in 1929, when he was twenty-one years old. He eventually found a job as an apprentice crime reporter for The World. He also worked as a reporter and features writer at The Herald Tribune and The World-Telegram before landing at The New Yorker in 1938, where he remained until his death in 1996.
"A legendary figure. . . . Mitchell's reportage is so vivid, so real, that it comes out like fiction of the highest order." --Chicago Sun-Times"A poetry of the actual, a song of the streets that casts a wide net and fearslessly embraces everything human. . . . This is reporting transformed into literature, news that stays news. . . . His work is so rich and generous and funny that it ought to stay in print forever." --San Francisco Examiner"Mitchell's darkly comic articles are models of big-city journalism. . . . His accounts are like what Joyce might have written had he gone into journalism." --Newsweek