The Czar of the Tenderloin

When I was little, my mother used to sing bits and snatches of songs to me  that she remembered from her own childhood. One that always stuck in my mind was “The Czar of the Tenderloin,” which she told me she often heard sung by her uncle, Leo Marshall.

Frances, Lucille, Bill & Vic Rogers with Leo Marshall

Leo Marshall, center in rear, with his wife Lucile Rogers Marshall (right front) and her siblings Frances, William, and Victor, December 1970

Years later, at the 80th birthday party of my grandmother Frances, (Leo’s sister-in-law), he sang it for the assembled family one last time. It was two years before his death, and the rendition was hesitant and shaky, but all the more lovely for his still being able to remember as much as he did.

As I grew older, I often wondered about the origins of the song, and if there were any more of it than the little bits Mother sang.

And then came the Internet, the modern-day Areopagus (Acts 17:21). As the body of the world’s knowledge is slowly but surely gathered and preserved online, not everything happens at once. For years I searched and scraped the web, but always came up poor… until today.

Czar1

Notice the nightstick on the cover.

Czar2 Czar3 Czar4 Czar5

The Lyrics

America has a President and England has a Queen,
While Germany’s great Emperor sits ruling all serene,
The Indians have their medicine man, Bavaria a king,
But none of these high diplomats are quite the proper thing.

For in gay New York where the gay Bohemians dwell,
There’s a Colony called the Tenderloin, though why I cannot tell,
A certain man controls the place with no regard for coin,
The Czar, the Czar, the Czar of the Tenderloin.

Chorus:

The Czar of the Tenderloin,
With great propriety, seeks notoriety,
But the girls all shun the society
Of the Czar of the Tenderloin.

Each evening through the Tenderloin the Czar will gayly prance,
With whiskers well divided just to give the wind a chance,
His bodyguard behind him scouting for a finish fight,
Arresting everything that’s left because it isn’t right.

Piano legs must now be clothed with care,
And he’s ordered all the trees cut down because their limbs were bare,
He’s going to build a little church which everyone must join,
The Czar, the Czar, the Czar of the Tenderloin.

Chorus

His hobby is arresting shoes whenever they are tight,
He also nabs electric lights when when they go out at night,
The sun came out one morning and he ordered its arrest,
The moon was full, he pulled it in and claimed it was a pest.

One day on the Tenderloin, a maiden changed her mind,
Now the Czar thought that was naughty so the girl was quickly “fined.”
He arrested a cook for beating an egg, now don’t that take the coin,
The Czar, the Czar, the Czar of the Tenderloin.

Chorus

This 1897 song by Bob Cole and Billy Johnson is based on the life and times of Alexander S. “Clubber” Williams, a notoriously corrupt but effective police inspector who ruled over New York’s Tenderloin district with an iron fist and a wooden club. At the end of his career he was reputed to have said that he never clubbed anyone who didn’t deserve it. The name of that part of town, the northwest corner of which is now Times Square, came from William’s statement that “I’ve been having chuck steak ever since I’ve been on the force, and now I’m going to have a bit of tenderloin,” said because of the lucrative business of protection payments from legitimate and illegitimate businesses alike. Prior to Williams’ reign, the district was known as “Satan’s Circus.” San Francisco also has a Tenderloin district, and the term has come to be synonymous with a seedy, ill-reputed or red-light district of town.

Tenderloin

Manhattan’s historical districts, the Tenderloin indicated by a star.

220556155046

Emile Berliner’s Gramophone 78 rpm record. “The Czar of the Tenderloin,” sung by Will F. Denny. Recorded July 14, 1897

With thanks to Tim Gracyk, you can hear Will F. Denny singing an abridged version of the song at YouTube, but I can still hear Uncle Leo singing it as clearly as though it were yesterday.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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2 responses to “The Czar of the Tenderloin

  1. I look forward to hearing it! It sounds very cool!

    My dad very occasionally used to play and sing “The Wearing of the Green” and a couple of other songs from a battered songbook we had. He wasn’t all that great at either the piano or singing, but it was fun to see another side of him.

  2. Pingback: Alexander ‘Clubber’ Williams | Policing New York

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