New York: Baghdad-on-the-Subway
"O Henry had another name for New York City - Baghdad on the Hudson," a reader who was born in New York, told us after reading last month's story Gotham: Paradise of Fools, in which we listed odd nicknames for American cities.
We've made a quick check, and have discovered that several current writers have seized on the now topical phrase Baghdad on the Hudson when they want to take a bite of The Big Apple.
But that's not the name O Henry bestowed on his beloved city. In A Madison Square Arabian Night, and in other stories, O Henry called New York Baghdad-on-the-Subway, claiming it resembled the marvellous city of Scheherazade's A Thousand and One Nights.
In a more critical mood, he once wrote "If ever there was an aviary overstocked with jays it is that Yaptown-on-the-Hudson called New York," which may explain the confusion. (More recently, another writer coined the phrase Yaptown on the Potomac to describe Washington DC).
Last August, New York, together with other cities in north-eastern U.S., suffered a disastrous power blackout. People immediately began comparing their conditions with Baghdad's plight. Baghdad on the Hudson was the heading of numerous stories. Jan Herman, writing in the Arts Journal, was one of the first (and best). He wrote:
The website About had this to say:
The political newsletter CounterPunch published an interesting article by Cathy Breen, who recently returned from Iraq after living there during the war and the first 10 days of occupation. So she was well qualified to compare the two Baghdads.
And on the U.S. west coast, Herb Caen, a former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, once called that city Baghdad by the Bay, a nickname that's still often used. It's even the name of a website.
O Henry's real name was William Sydney Porter. Born in Greenboro, North Carolina, in 1862, he left school when he was 15, to work in a drug store and on a sheep ranch in Texas. Moving to Austin, he launched a humorous weekly called (believe it or not) The Rolling Stone. Sadly, it went belly up, so he joined the Houston Post as a reporter and columnist.
In 1898 he was jailed for embezzling money, although there was doubt as to his guilt. He began writing short stories in prison to support his daughter. Freed in 1901, he changed his name to O Henry (supposedly from the way he called out to his cat: O Henry!), and headed for the city that he was to call Baghdad-on-the-Subway.
He wrote about the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, specialising in short stories with surprise endings. Troubled by alcoholism, ill health, and financial problems, he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1910. He was 48.