Why I Wrote Comedy
BELLA COHEN SPEWACK
Bella Cohen Spewack is best known for her collaboration with her hus¬
band, Sam Spewack, and with Cole Porter on Kiss Me, Kate. Bella
wrote her autobiography Streets in 1922 in Berlin during her first year
of marriage when she was twenty-three years old. Each chapter is beaded
by one of the many addresses at which she lived as a child growing up in
poverty on the Lower East Side of New York City. The following year,
"haunted by slum conditions," she was stirred to write a series of articles
for the Evening World. The series led to reform in the Rent Laws under
Governor Alfred E. Smith and to the first attempt at slum clearance. It
was only after four decades and success that she could look back on the
unpublished work and ironically rename it "Why I Wrote Comedy." The
two sections that appear below are from "Cannon Street," the first chapter
of her unedited manuscript.
Cannon Street was the first of the group on the lower East
Side that life scooped out for me. It stretches out of Grand
Street south past Broome, Delancey, Rivington and Stan¬
ton into Houston—a narrow gutter, flanked by narrower sidewalks.
On the other side of Grand Street where I used to go Saturday
nights to buy my hair ribbons, it ascends like a runway in a theater.
At the corner rose the sugary odors of a pie factory.
On the other side of Houston Street, a street of noble width,
Cannon Street narrows and narrows until it is but the wink of a
blind man's eye: Manhattan Street.
Thousands of people live on Cannon Street, occupying rear
houses and front houses from basement to top floor. The houses are
sour with the smell of so much crowded human flesh. So many
words were spoken that words meant little. Blows meant more.
On this street, I spent the first ten years of my life.
On this street, I learned to fear people.