Thursday, September 01, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/01/05)


Who first called it "The Big Apple"? For the record, the first appearance of this term in print was in 1909 by Edward S. Martin, a prolific poet and writer. In an introduction to an anthology titled The Wayfarer in New York, Martin wrote: "Kansas is apt to see in New York a greedy city. . . . New York is merely one of the fruits of that great tree whose roots go down in the Mississippi Valley and whose branches spread from one ocean to the other. . . . It [Kansas] inclines to think that the big apple [New York] gets a disproportionate share of the national sap."

Martin, founder in 1883 of the satirical magazine Life and its first editor, was no stuffy literary bluenose. Casting a disapproving eye on the prohibition of alcohol after the First World War, he remarked nostalgically about spiritus frumenti: "Wisely used, it makes dinner parties livelier, public dinners more tolerable, wedding guests more blithe and life in general pleasanter."

Whether Martin's bookish and metaphorical use of 'big apple' reflected its usage in vernacular speech is unknown. It next appeared in 1921 in the pages of the New York Morning Telegraph, then the preeminent newspaper reporting on sports and entertainment. On May 3, 1921, turf writer John J. Fitz Gerald, employing the parlance of followers of the "sport of kings," wrote: "J.P. Smith, with Tippety Witchet and others of the L.T. Bauer string, is scheduled to start for 'the big apple' tomorrow after a most prosperous Spring campaign at Bowie and Havre de Grace." By then, the phrase obviously had wide enough currency among racing fans to be understood by his readers.

In his Morning Telegraph column dated Feb. 18, 1924, and headed "Around the Big Apple," Fitz Gerald told this story: "The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There's only one Big Apple. That's New York.

"Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the 'cooling rings' of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation. 'Where y'all goin' from here?' queried one. 'From here we're headed for the Big Apple,' proudly replied the other.

"'Well, you'd better fatten up them skinners or all you'll get from the apple is the core,' was the quick rejoinder."

John J. Fitz Gerald became the turf editor of the Morning Telegraph in 1925, at 32 the youngest in that job. The following year, he felt obliged to explain the origin of the term again. In the Morning Telegraph, Dec. 1, 1926, he told essentially the same story: "So many people have asked the writer about the derivation of his phrase 'the big apple' that he is forced to make another explanation. A number of years back, when racing a few horses at the Fair Grounds with Jake Byer, he was watching a couple of stable hands cool out a pair of 'hots' in a circle outside the stable.

"A boy from the adjoining barn called over, 'Where you shipping after the meeting?' To this one of the lads replied. 'Why, we ain't no bull-ring stable, we's goin' to 'the big apple.'

"The reply was bright and snappy. 'Boy, I don't know what you're goin' to that apple with those hides for. All you'll get is the rind.'"

By 1927, the expression was picked up and used by Walter Winchell, an unabashed borrower of words and expressions. A year later O.O. McIntyre used it in his column, "New York Day by Day." In 1935, the Big Apple night club opened in Harlem. The expression was now common among Negro musicians. By 1937 a song and a dance style called the Big Apple were briefly popular.

Born in Saratoga Springs, John J. Fitz Gerald never finished high school and joined the Morning Telegraph in 1912. He left in 1918 to buy horses, but was drafted shortly afterwards. Fitz Gerald rejoined the staff in 1919 following his discharge. In 1940, he quit the paper in 1940 to do public relations for various racetracks. John Joseph Fitz Gerald died in the seedy midtown Hotel Bryant on March 17, 1963, shortly after his 70th birthday. Ironically, it was during the crippling 114-day New York City newspaper strike. The Morning Telegraph, which was not hit by the strike, printed his obituary the next day.

In 1971, "The Big Apple" was officially promoted as a nickname for New York City by Charles Gillett, 55, president of the City's Convention and Visitors Bureau. It was intended to replace the short-lived appellation Fun City, conferred at the start of a transit strike.

On May 3, 1993, the 70th anniversary of the expression's first use in print by Fitz Gerald, a sign was added to a lamppost at the southwest corner of 54th Street and Broadway. The rain came down so heavily during the ceremony that the only person to witness the unveiling was a Fitz Gerald enthusiast named Barry Popik, a New York City parking violations judge. Popik had been the driving force in a long campaign to get the city to recognize Fitz Gerald as the first to record use of this colorful idiom by a pair of stable hands in New Orleans.


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