A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from July 05, 2004
Big Apple bet (1988, 2003) between mayors of New York City and Columbia, South Carolina
A simple "Big Apple Bet" is at the core of the modern discovery of the "Big Apple" and this very web site.

The "Big Apple" dance comes from Columbia, South Carolina. A building there served as the city's first synagogue (not church) from 1916 to 1933. A few years later, it became "Fat Sam's Big Apple" club. Students in the area brought the "Big Apple dance" to New York City in 1937, where it became a short-lived dance craze.

Fat Sam's Big Apple soon closed, but the building was renovated and re-opened in June 1988. Then Columbia, South Carolina Mayor T. Patton Adams wrote a letter to then-New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch that it was time that New York City acknowledge that Columbia originated "the Big Apple" (New York City's nickname) in the mid-1930s.

Mayor Adams bet ten pounds of South Carolina mustard-based barbecue to Mayor Koch's New York-style cheese pizza. The bet was discussed by David Letterman and the "Big Apple" question was asked in a "Dear Abby" column, which is where Gerald Cohen (professor at University of Missouri-Rolla and editor of Comments on Etymology) saw the debate and started to answer it. The New York Times did a multiple-column story about the issue on August 22, 1988.

Mayor Ed Koch couldn't prove the case, and originally sent Mayor Adams some apples.

New York support came later in 1988. Merwin Demblins, an Upper West Side medical editor, had found a December 1927 The Bookman article by Walter Winchell called "The Real Broadway." Winchell wrote: "Broadway is the Big Apple, the Main Stem, the goal of all ambition, the pot of gold at the end of a drab and somewhat colorless rainbow." Dembling sent the article to Mayor Koch, who awarded Dembling a Big Apple pin. "It's official—we're the real Big Apple" was a headline in the November 5, 1988 New York Post.

In 1991, Gerald Cohen published his monograph, Origin of New York City's Nickname "The Big Apple". "Big Apple" had been traced to a horseracing writer in the 1920s named John J. Fitz Gerald. In 1995, the Encyclopedia of New York City was published, with Cohen's "Big Apple" entry. In 1997, "Big Apple Corner" was signed into law by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

A January 30, 1997 New York Post article by Gersh Kuntzman was titled "Revealed: How we got to be the "Big Apple." Patton Adams was interviewed for the story. "'An obscure newspaper column had nothing to do with it,' former Mayor Adams told the Post. 'I'm sticking with the original story: New York stole The Big Apple dance from Fat Sam's.'"

Mayor Koch was contacted by me for the "Big Apple Corner" dedication in May 1997, but he said that he was busy.

In the summer of 2003, The State (Columbia, South Carolina) did a series of articles on the Big Apple dance. The August 27, 2003 article discussed the "Big Apple" origin itself. "When briefed Tuesday, Adams cheerfully conceded the bet," The State declared. "Koch, contacted at his law office, said he knew all along the term came from jazz, but couldn't prove it at the time." Adams sent Koch six peaches to satisfy the bet.

Curiously, neither Koch nor Adams was quoted as recalling "Big Apple Corner," dedicated seven years earlier. Both had personal knowledge of the 1920s "Big Apple" horseracing information. Didn't they remember it? Why was the bet paid off in 2003?

The August 2003 The State article continued: "Since the debate raged in 1988, The New York Times archives have been computerized. Research now is much easier. The first reference is in a glossary of Hollywood movie-making terms titled "Slang of Film Men," published in The New York Times on March 11, 1928. The dance was invented in 1936."

This was over-a-decade-old information. This 1928 article was found by Yale researcher Fred Shapiro and was posted in American Speech, Summer 1991. It had been added to the Oxford English Dictionary since 1989.

"(T)he exact source of the term — whether jazz, horse racing or filmmaking — is still a mystery," The State declared. John Rathe of the New York Public Library was interviewed for the story. (Neither Popik nor Cohen were contacted.) Rathe agreed that "we're never going to find out" the exact "Big Apple" source.

I approached John Rathe and said that this must never happen again. The New York Public Library's research branch must tell people about John J. Fitz Gerald and the stablehands. The NYPL's branch library must not have a link to the Big Apple whore hoax.

In the late spring of 2004, after many e-mails to many people over several weeks, the Big Apple whore hoax was finally removed from the NYPL's "Best of the Web." However, despite Rathe's year-long effort, the NYPL's research library's "Big Apple" web page still has not been changed to reflect the "new" horseracing information—now twelve years old.

The 1988 article on the "Big Apple bet" resulted in the solution to "the Big Apple."

The 2003 article on the "Big Apple bet" resulted in this web site.
Posted by Barry Popik
1980s-present: Big Apple work by Gerald Cohen, Barry Popik • (0) Comments • Monday, July 05, 2004 • Permalink