Steve Brodie (bridge jumper)

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Steve Brodie in undated photograph

Steve Brodie (December 25, 1861 – January 31, 1901) was an American from New York City who claimed to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived on July 23, 1886. The resulting publicity from the supposed jump, whose veracity was disputed, gave Brodie publicity, a thriving saloon and a career as an actor.

Brodie's fame persisted long past his death, with Brodie portrayed in films and with the slang terms "taking a Brodie" and "Brodie" entering the language for "taking a chance" and "suicidal leap."[1]

The alleged bridge jump[edit]

Odlum's fatal jump

The bridge, then known as the East River Bridge, had opened just three years before Brodie's claimed jump. A swimming instructor from Washington, D.C. named Robert Emmet Odlum, the brother of women's rights activist Charlotte Odlum Smith, was killed while attempting the same stunt in May 1885.[2]

The jump supposedly made by Brodie was from a height of 135 feet (41 m), the same as a 14-story building.[3] The contemporary New York Times account said the jump was from a height of about 120 feet (37 m).[2]

The New York Times backed his account of the jump and said that Brodie practiced for the leap by making shorter jumps from other bridges and ships' masts, and that it was witnessed by two reporters. He leaped into the East River, feet first, and emerged uninjured, though with pain on his right side. He was jailed after the jump. The Times described Brodie as a "newsboy and long distance pedestrian" who jumped from the bridge to win a $200 bet, equal to $5,249.66 today. In other accounts he is described as a bookmaker and gambler.[2][3] A Bowery storekeeper named Isaac Meyers claimed that he encouraged Brodie to jump off the Brooklyn bridge after Brodie said that he wanted to be famous.[4] Another account holds that Moritz Herzber, a liquor dealer, offered to back a saloon for Brodie if he made the jump and lived.[3]

Steve Brodie's bar on the Bowery

If true, he would have been one of only four people to have jumped off the bridge and survived, but his claim was disputed.[3] It was subsequently claimed that a dummy was thrown from the bridge and that Brodie fell out of a row boat.[5]

After the jump, Brodie opened a saloon at 114 Bowery near Grand Street, which also became a museum for his bridge-jumping stunt. Among the decorations was an affidavit from the boat captain who claimed to have pulled him from the water.[3]

He became an actor capitalizing on his reputation, appearing in the vaudeville musicals Mad Money and On the Bowery, and opened a saloon in Buffalo, New York.[3]

Brodie died in San Antonio, Texas in 1901. The cause of death has been variously described as diabetes and tuberculosis.[3][6]

Controversy over jump[edit]

In the years since Brodie claimed to have made the jump, controversy has swirled over whether he really did it. In his book The Great Bridge, historian David McCullough said that he probably did not make the jump. McCullough said that it was commonly believed by skeptics that a dummy was dropped from the bridge, and that Brodie merely swam out from shore and surfaced beside a passing barge.[7]

Brodie, who was unemployed and aware of the publicity generated by Odlum's fatal jump, bragged to his pals on the Bowery that he would take the jump. Wagers were made for and against, but Brodie never announced when he would make the attempt.[7]

The Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1930 that a retired police sergeant and friend of Brodie, Thomas K. Hastings, said that Brodie had told him that he didn't make the leap and never said he did.[7]

New York City police said in 1986, the 100th anniversary of the supposed jump, that two or three people jump from the bridge every year and some live.[7]

In popular culture[edit]

Lithograph promoting On the Bowery

Brodie became a popular symbol of the Bowery, appeared personally in musical shows, and his character was used many times in film depictions of old New York.

Brodie starred in a three-act play titled On the Bowery by Robert Neilson Stephens, which opened in 1894. A facsimile of Brodie's saloon was the setting for the second act, and Brodie sang a song "My Poil is a Bowery Goil." Valerie Bergere played Blanche Livingstone, the girl he rescues and then falls in love with. The play culminated with Brodie jumping off the bridge.[8][9]

In 1933, Brodie was portrayed by George Raft in Raoul Walsh's film The Bowery. In the film, Brodie can't find the dummy at the last minute and, perplexed and confused, has to make the jump.

Brodie appears as a character (with the name respelled as "Brody") in the 1949 Warner Bros. cartoon short Bowery Bugs, with Bugs Bunny making "Brody" jump off the bridge.

In Samuel Fuller's film on early New York newspapers, Park Row (1952), the character Steve Brodie is a character in the film, actually does jump from the bridge, and is the primary focus for the first edition of The Globe newspaper.

Brodie was the inspiration for Kelly, a 1965 musical that closed after one performance on Broadway, making it one of the worst flops in Broadway history. It was successfully revived in 1998 by the York Theatre Company.

Years later, an actor named John Stevenson used Brodie's name for his movie stage name.[10]

Poster for Raoul Walsh's The Bowery (1933)

In P.G. Wodehouse's novel, Damsel in Distress, visitors to Belpher Castle hear the story of Lord Leonard Forth's leap from an upper-story window to avoid a confrontation with the father of the lady whose boudoir it was. "A murmur of admiration greeted the recital of the ready tact of this eighteenth-century Steve Brodie." Wodehouse also references Brodie in The Little Nugget when a character falls through the roof of a stable.

In the Warner Brothers/Looney Tunes short "Bowery Bugs" a "Steve Brody" is depicted as a down-on-his-luck Bowery gambler who goes to Brooklyn to find a lucky rabbit's foot. He finds Bugs Bunny, who in a series of guises torments Brody until he jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge. This is told with a framing device in which Bugs recounts the story to a modern day hick tourist—as a sales pitch for selling the Bridge.

The phrase "taken a Brody" is used in Thomas Pynchon's 1963 novel V.—"And next day she would read in the paper where Esther Harvitz, twenty-two, honors graduate of CCNY, had taken a Brody off some bridge, overpass or high building"[11]

The term "do a Brody" is used in Robert B. Parker's 1999 novel Hush Money in reference to a person that committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.

David Foster Wallace reported that "a sixteen-year-old male did a Brody off the upper deck of a Megaship" in his "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" essay.

The "spinning knobs" once commonly bolted to the steering wheels of farm implements and trucks prior to the advent of power steering were referred to as "suicide knobs" and, by association, "Brodie knobs," as their misuse could lead to loss of control of the vehicle.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Freeman, Morton S. (1997-05-01). A new dictionary of eponyms. Oxford University Press US. pp. 33–. ISBN 978-0-19-509354-4. Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c "A Leap From the Bridge". The New York Times. July 24, 1886. Retrieved 29 October 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Williams, Jasmin K. (Nov 5, 2007). "STEVE BRODIE—DAREDEVIL OR HOAXTER?". New York Post. Retrieved 24 April 2011. 
  4. ^ Associated Press (June 20, 1948). "Isaac Meyers Dies; Says He Told Brodie to Jump". Youngstown Vindicator. Retrieved 24 April 2011. 
  5. ^ "Steve Brodie's Career Ended". Baltimore American. Feb 1, 1901. Retrieved 29 October 2010. 
  6. ^ ""Steve" Brodie's Funeral". The New York Times. Feb 7, 1901. Retrieved 29 October 2010. 
  7. ^ a b c d McShane, Larry. "Did Saloon Owner Actually 'Pull a Brodie'?". Associated Press. Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  8. ^ Batterberry, Michael; Batterberry, Ariane Ruskin (1999). On the town in New York: the landmark history of eating, drinking, and entertainments from the American Revolution to the food revolution. Psychology Press. pp. 150–. ISBN 978-0-415-92020-9. Retrieved 24 April 2011. 
  9. ^ On the Bowery, Internet Broadway Database Retrieved December 27, 2013
  10. ^ Soden, Garrett (2005). Defying Gravity: Land Divers, Roller Coasters, Gravity Bums, and the Human Obsession With Falling, New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-32656-X
  11. ^ Pynchon, Thomas. V. Harper, New York, 2005, p. 135

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