In 1928 pulp fiction author Vina Delmar burst onto the publishing scene with “Bad Girl,” a shocking and scandalous exploration of pre-marital sex and pregnancy. At the time of its publication “Bad Girl” was considered so racy it was banned in parts of the country. The petite 23-year-old with porcelain skin and lustrous black hair worn in a bob, seemed perplexed by the controversy surrounding her first novel. “I spent three years and a half working on the book. I wrote it about people I know because I lived among them and saw them daily,” she would tell one critic.
The controversy however, proved extremely profitable. Before the book hit the shelves the young author was given a $10,000 advance.
The following year, Delmar, born Alvina Croter in New York City in 1904, published two more lurid tales of modern women living in the big city. Both “Loose Ladies” and “Kept Woman” explored the sex lives of pent up New York women.
“Kept Woman,” for the most part, was set in Inwood, and its pages included descriptions of familiar streets including Dyckman, Vermilyea, 207th and Broadway. Avon Publishing described “Kept Woman” as “a great novel of the life of the ‘other’ woman.”
According to the book jacket, lead character Lillian Cory “was flattered when well-to-do, good-looking Hubert Scott fell in love with her, but she found herself faced with a painful decision when she learned he was married and could not be divorced. Should she suppress her emotions and turn away from him-or should she give in to their love and become his mistress?”
In one scene two cheating couples are making dinner plans when Lillian, the heroine of the story, suggests, “How about the Arras Inn?”
“Why the Arras Inn?” a member of the party asks.
“Because nobody else seems to have thought of a place and the Arras Inn is in my neighborhood and I can duck right home after I’m fed,” Lillian responded.
The book continues:
“The ride back to Inwood was the same as the one to the roadhouse…Hubert drove at twenty miles an hour and Lillian smoked and thought what she would order at the Arras Inn. Lobster for choice. But suppose they didn’t have lobster? A club sandwich, maybe. Or a chicken salad.
When the couples arrived at the Arras Inn, Delmar continued:
The Arras Inn was on Broadway, a few doors off 207th Street. It was a long, narrow place with latticed walls and colored lampshades. There was music, singing, and once or twice a fire to vary the monotony.
There was lobster. Everybody ordered lobster. Little talking was done as the party chewed small, thin claws and delved hopefully into large, fat claws. Hubert had mayonnaise all over his mouth. Lillian didn’t think it very becoming. She wanted to tell him to use his napkin, but she was afraid it would make him angry. She kept her eyes resolutely turned away from him.
The waiter came and carried away the shells. Lillian ventured a look at Hubert. There was still some mayonnaise down in the corner of his mouth. May came to the rescue.
“Big Boy,” she said, “wipe your mouth and if your nose needs blowing for God’s sake blow it before it starts to show.”
Hubert wiped his mouth.
Everybody lit cigarettes.”
And so ended an imaginary dinner in an imaginary restaurant on the corner of Two Hundred and Seventh and Broadway—as far a most readers unfamiliar with Inwood would assume.
But the Arras Inn was a very real place indeed. After all, Vina Delmar was an uptown girl and had likely dined at the Arras Inn on a number of occasions.
For several decades, beginning not long after the turn of the century, The Arras Inn was considered one of the finest dining establishments in northern Manhattan—and Delmar’s description of the restaurant, when compared to old advertisements, news clippings and vintage photographs, seems completely accurate.
Located at 4928 Broadway, a few doors south of 207th Street, currently a pawnshop, the Arras Inn provided city dwellers with not only fine food, but also music and entertainment. A 1913 advertisement in the New York Evening Telegraph boasted “dollar fish dinners” and a menu that included crab, steamed clams, chicken gumbo, planked sea bass, soft shell crabs, squab, chicken, corn on the cob, grilled sweet potatoes, Virginia ham, hot corn muffins and cantaloupe.
After the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 the management of the Arras Inn thumbed their noses at Prohibition and became one of the better-known speakeasies in the developing young neighborhood.
With a wink and a nod, stealthy bartenders would pour real beer into twelve ounce ceramic mugs emblazoned with the phrase “I’m on the water wagon now.” To the casual observer it would appear that these lawbreakers were sipping cups of coffee.
In late September 1922, according to the New York Times, a team of Federal and local agents known as “The Dry Squad” raided the Arras Inn where “they said they found 120 bottles of real beer.” Before the team departed they issued summonses to owner Paul Boehn and a waiter named John Cronan who resided at 537 East Thirteenth Street.
On February 11, 1928, after closing for the evening, a fire broke out in the kitchen of the Arras Inn. As smoke billowed from the building a man named Joseph Klein, his wife and two young children were in a deep slumber in their apartment on the second floor.
On Broadway, patrolman Louis Schwartz reacted without a thought for his own safety and sounded the alarm before running into the smoke filled building to rescue Klein and his family.
Firemen responding to the inferno raised ladders to the window and were able to lower Klein, his wife and two young daughters to safety before the flames engulfed the entire block. Seven other storefronts, including a vegetable store, a tailor and a grocery were completely destroyed in the blaze.
And while the file closed the book on the Arras Inn, Vina Delmar went on to a long and distinguished career as a Hollywood screenwriter.
While her books were banned in Boston, her work titillated Tinsletown producers. Even in the late 1920’s, the studios well knew that “sex sells” and treated Delmar like visiting royalty.
While Delmar would achieve critical acclaim in Hollywood, she was nominated for an Academy Award in 1937 for her screen adaptation of “The Awful Truth,” she found life on the west coast dull and tedious. ‘It’s not a fertile field for a novelist,’ she would once say of her work in California. Like a character in her romance novels, Delmar was a New Yorker through and through and longed for her former haunts in the Bronx and northern Manhattan.
Delmar would later explain that the real life inspirations for her characters were found on the streets, barstools and subways of the only place she had truly felt comfortable—the New York City of her youth.
“‘I came to know, first hand, the girls who go to Coney Island, who pack the medium-sized movie theaters and write fan mail, who chew gum, work for a living, put on lipstick in crowded subways, and try to live on $1.60 a day. Some of them are tough and some of them are not. I grew up with these people, and when I decided to write, I wrote about them. It seems to me that if you’re going to write, that’s what you have to do. Don’t wander into strange lands, but write.'”
While pockets of the nation were horrified by Delmar’s graphic depictions of the sexual proclivities of fictitious big city women, no offence was taken in Inwood where the raven-haired enchantress of urban pulp became an unlikely local hero.
In the fall of 1929 O.O. McIntyre wrote in his syndicated New York by Day:
“Inwood, which is the uptown Dyckman Street section glorified in Vina Delmar’s “Kept Woman,” evidently does not resent the chiffon chimera of the ladies in love with love which the novel created. A drug store heralds the Vina Delmar sundae and a little gown shop is to be called The Vina Delmar. Inwood, it might be added, is chiefly a community of self-respecting people with a neighborly flair, and is not hard boiled.”
Vina Del Mar passed away in Los Angeles on January 19, 1990. She was 86 years old.