A note to fans of Little Golden America: as of issue No. 22, Admit Two adopted a PDF format, which means you will have to access individual back issues to get to further chapters of Ilf and Petrov's American adventure.
THE AMERICAN WRITER, Ernest Hemingway, author of the recently
published Fiesta, which evoked much discussion in Soviet literary circles,
happened to be in New York while we were there.
And another American writer, John Dos Passos, who is even better
known among us and who provoked even more discussions in connection
with the polemics on formalism in art, came in to see us and introduced
us to Hemingway.
Incidentally, whenever mention was made some years ago of a soul-
les formalist, he was always understood to be some house manager by
the name of Nezabudkin who had insulted an old lady for no good
reason or who did not provide needed information on time. Nowadays
no one thinks of house managers, and the words “a soulless formalist”
do not fail to call forth in memory the figure of some writer or composer
or of some other hairy votary of the Muses.
The roundheaded, broad-nosed Dos Passos stutters a little. He begins
every sentence with a laugh, but he ends it seriously. He looked at us
benevolently and said:
“I am writing a new book. It is called Big Money. I wonder how it
will fare. Every one of my succeeding books has had a smaller circulation
than its predecessor” 42nd Parallel had a circulation of twenty thousand
copies; 1919, fifteen thousand; this one will probably have ten thousand.”
When we told Dos Passos that ten thousand copies of his 1919 dis-
appeared from Soviet book counters in several hours, he replied:
“In your country people have been taught to read books, but with us
here… Listen, we’ll have to get together some time and have dinner
in the Hollywood Restaurant on Broadway. There you will se what
occupies the average American while in your country people read books.
You will see the happiness of a New York counterjumper.”
Hemingway came to New York for a week. His permanent home is
at Key West, a small town at the extreme southern tip of Florida. He
proved to be a large man with mustaches and a peeling sunburnt nose.
He wore flannel trousers, a woolen vest which did not come together on
his mighty chest, and his bare feet were in house slippers.
We stood together, in the middle of one of the hotel rooms in which
Hemingway lived, engaged in the usual American occupation. In our
hands were high and wide glasses of highballs – whisky mixed with
water. So far as we have been able to observe, everything in America
begins with a drink. Even when we came on literary business to our
publishers, Farrar and Rinehart, the gay, redheaded Mr. Farrar, publisher
and poet, at once led us into their library. He had many books there,
but also a large icebox. From that box the publisher took various bottles
and cubes of ice, asked us whether we preferred Manhattan, Bacardi or
Martini cocktails, and at once began to mix with such skill, as if the had
never in his life published books, had never written verse, but had always
worked as a barman. Americans enjoy mixing cocktails.
We happened to talk of Florida, when Hemingway at once passed to
what seemed to be his favorite theme:
“During your automobile journey, don’t fail to visit me at Key West.
We’ll go fishing there.”
And with his arms he showed us the size of fish one can catch at Key
West. That is, like every fisherman he spread his arms as far apart as
he could. The fish must have been about the size of a sperm whale.
We looked at each other in alarm and promised, come what might, to
drop in on him at Key West so that we might go fishing and have a
really serious talk on literature. But we were unreasoning optimists. If
we were to carry out everything we had promised during our meetings
and interviews, we could not have returned to Moscow before 1940. We
wanted very much to go fishing with Hemingway. We were not even
embarrassed by the problem of managing spinning and other involved
tackle, especially since Dos Passos declared that by the time we arrived
in Florida he would also be living in Key West.
Then we talked of what we had seen in New York and what else
we wanted to see before going west. We happened to mention Sing Sing.
Sing Sing is the prison of the state of New York. We had heard of it
since childhood, having been then ardently interested in the adventures
of two famous detectives, Nat Pinkerton and Nick Carter. Suddenly
“Do you know, my father-in-law happens to be here with me. He is
acquainted with the warden of Sing Sing. Maybe he can arrange it for
you to visit the prison.”
He went to the adjoining room and returned with a neat little old man
whose thin neck was encased in a very high and old-fashioned starched
collar. Our wish was explained to the old man while he impatiently
chewed his lips and at last said vaguely that he would see what he
could do. Then we returned to our previous conversation about fishing,
journeys, and other excellent things. Hemingway and Dos Passos wanted
to go to the Soviet Union, to the Altai. While we tried to find out why
they had chose the Altai and praised also other parts of the Union, we
quite forgot the promise about Sing Sing. People are likely to say any-
thing in the course of a pleasant conversation, highballs in hand.
But a day later we learned that Americans are no idle talkers. We
received two letters. One of them was addressed to us. Hemingway’s
father-in-law informed us respectfully that he had discussed the matter
with the warden of the prison, Mr. Lewis E. Lawes, and that we might
examine Sing Sing any day we chose. In the second latter the old man
recommended us to Mr. Lewis E. Lawes.
We noted this American characteristic and more than once had con-
vincing confirmation that Americans never say anything they do not
mean. Not even once did we run across what we know as “idle chatter”
or more crudely as “talking through your hat.”
One of our New York friends once suggested to us that we might go
on a fruit company ship to Cuba, Jamaica, and Colombia. He said that
the trip would be free of charge, and besides, we would be seated at the
captain’s table. There is no greater honor at sea. Of course, we con-
“Very well,” said our friend. “You go on your automobile journey, and
when you return, telephone me. Everything will be arranged.”
On our return trip from California to New York we recalled this
promise almost every day. After all, even this promise was made during
cocktails. On that occasion it was not a highball, but some complex mix-
ture with large green leaves, sugar, and a cherry at the bottom of the
glass. Finally, from the city of San Antonio, Texas, we sent a telegram of reminder
and quickly received a reply. Its tone was even a little bit hurt:
Your tropical journey arranged long ago.
We did not take that tropical journey because we did not have the time
for it. But the mere recollection of American sincerity and the American
ability to keep a word comfort us to this day whenever we begin to
torment ourselves with the thought that we lost an opportunity to visit
We asked Mr. Adams to go with us to Sing Sing. After repeatedly
calling us “ Gentlemen,” he consented.
The next day we took our places in the Adams Chrysler; after a
wretched hour with New York traffic signals, we finally escaped from
the city. That which is called street movement in New York might just
as well be called street standing. At any rate, there is much more standing
After traveling thirty miles we discovered that Mr. Adams had forgot-
ten the name of the city where Sing Sing is located. We were obliged
to stop. At the edge of the road a workman was unloading some neat
little boxes from an automobile. We asked him the road to Sing Sing.
At once he stopped his work and walked up to us. Here is another ex-
cellent characteristic. The most preoccupied American will always find
the time to explain to a traveler, briefly, to the point, and patiently,
what road he should take, and while doing so he will not get things
mixed up and will tell no lies. If he tells you something, he knows
whereof he speaks.
Having finished his explanation, the workman smiled and said:
“Hurrying to the electric chair? Wish you luck!”
Twice again after that, more in order to clear our conscience, we
verified the road, and both times Mr. Adams did not fail to add that we
were hurrying to the electric chair. And in reply we heard laughter.
The prison is located on the edge of the little town of Ossining. Two
rows of automobiles stood at the prison gate. Our heart contracted at
once when we saw that out of the machine which had driven up
simultaneously with us came a stooped, pleasant old man with two large
paper bags in his hand. In those bags lay packages of food and oranges.
The old man went to the entrance carrying the “outside bundle.” What
kinsman of his could be sitting there? Probably a son, whom most likely
the old man had thought a well-behaved, splendid boy, yet he was a
bandit, or maybe even a murderer. Old men have a hard time of it.
The tremendous entrance fenced off by a grille was as large as a
lion’s cage. On either side of it wrought-iron lanterns were welded into
the walls. In the doorway stood three policemen. Each one of them
weighed no less than two hundred pounds, and these were pounds not
of fat but of muscle, pounds used for suppression, for subjugation.
We did not find Mr. Lewis E. Lawes in the prison. This happened
to be the day for electing representatives to the legislature of the state
of New York, so the warden was away. But that made no difference,
we were told. They knew where he was, and would telephone him in
New York. Five minutes later they received a reply from Mr. Lawes.
He was very sorry that circumstances did not permit his showing us
Sing Sing personally, but he gave instructions to his assistant to do
everything possible for us.
After that we were led into the anteroom, a white room with spit-
toons, polished and shining like samovars, and a grate was closed behind
us. We had never been in prison as inmates, yet even here, in the midst
of the shining cleanliness of a bank, the clang of a closing cage made us
The assistant warden of Sing Sing was a spare, strongly built man.
We turned at once to the inspection.
This was visitors’ day. Three visitors could call on every prisoner –
provided he had no infraction of discipline charged against him. Pol-
ished barriers divide the large room into squares. In each square, facing
each other, are two short benches – the kind you find in a streetcar, let
us say. On these benches sit the prisoner and his guests. The visit lasts
an hour. At the exit door stands a warden. The prisoners are supposed
to wear the gray prison uniform. They don’t have to wear all of it, but
some part of it must be government issue, either the trousers or the gray
The hubbub of conversation in the room was reminiscent of a similar
hubbub in the foyer of a motion-picture theater. Children who had come
to visit their fathers ran to faucets to drink water. The old man we had
previously seen did not take his eyes off his beloved son. A woman was
weeping softly, and her husband, the prisoner, was looking sadly at his
The conditions of the visits were such that most certainly visitors could
transmit forbidden objects to the prisoners. But that would be useless.
Every prisoner, when returning to his cell, is searched immediately the
door of the visiting hall is closed.
Because of the election, this was a prison holiday. Passing through the
yards, we saw small groups of prisoners who were taking a sun bath in
the autumn sun or playing a game of ball which was unfamiliar to us
(our guide said that it was an Italian game, that there are many Italians
in Sing Sing). However, here were few people. Most of the prisoners
were at the time in the prison motion-picture theater.
“At present there are 2,299 people in prison,” said Mr. Lawes’s assis-
tant. “Of these, eighty-five have life sentences and sixteen are to be
electrocuted. And all these sixteen will undoubtedly be electrocuted,
although they hope for a pardon.”
The new buildings of Sing Sing are very interesting. Undoubtedly, the
high general standard of American technique in building dwellings had
affected its construction, especially the level of American life – what in
America is called “the standard of living.”
A photograph would give the best idea of an American prison, but to
our regret we were not allowed to take photographs inside Sing Sing.
A prison building consists of six stories of narrow cabins, like those
aboard ship, standing side by side and provided with vertical lion-cage
grates. Through the length of every story stretch these metal galleries,
connected with each other by metal stairways. It resembles least of all a
place to live in, even a prison. The utilitarianism of the construction
invests it with the appearance of a factory. The resemblance to some kind
of mechanism is reinforced by the fact that all this is enclosed in a brick
box, the walls of which are almost entirely occupied with windows. It is
through these that daylight (and to a small extent sunlight) enters the
cells, because the cells themselves have no windows.
In every such cell there is a bed, a table, and a waste can topped with
a lacquered cover. On a nail hang radio earphones. There are two or
three books on the table. Several photographs are on the walls – beautiful
girls or baseball player or God’s angels, depending upon the inclina-
tions of the prisoner.
In the three new buildings each prisoners is lodged in a separate cell.
This is an improved prison, Americanized to the limit, and comfortable,
if one may apply such an honest, good word to a prison. It is light, and
the air is comparatively good.
“In the new buildings,” said our escort, “are lodged eighteen hundred
men. The remaining five hundred are in the old building, constructed
a hundred years ago. Let’s go there.”
That was indeed a real Constantinople prison of the era of the sultans.
It was impossible to stand to one’s full height in these cells. When you
sat down on the bed your knees touched the wall opposite. The two cots
were one above the other. It was dark, damp, and frightful. Here were
no shining waste cans, no soothing pictures of angels.
Something of our reaction was evidently reflected in our faces, for the
assistant warden hastened to distract us.
“When they send you to me,” he said, “I’ll place you in the new
buildings. I’ll even find you a cell with a view of the Hudson. We have
such cells for especially deserving prisoners.”
He added quite seriously:
“I hear that in your country the penitentiary system has as its object
the correction of the criminal and his return to the ranks of society.
Alas, we are occupied only with the punishment of criminals.”
We began to talk about life terms.
“I have a prisoner here,” said our guide, “who has been here for
twenty-two years. Every year he files a petition of clemency and each
time his case is considered his petitions is decisively turned down, so
beastly was the crime which he committed. I would let him out. He is
now quite a different man. As a matter of fact, I would liberate about
half the prisoners, for they no longer present any danger to society. But
I am only a jailer, and I can’t do anything about it.”
We were shown the hospital, the library, the dental office, in fact, all
the establishments of piety, culture, and enlightenment. We went up in
elevators, we walked down beautiful corridors. Punitive cells and similar
things we were not shown, of course, and out of quite comprehensible
politeness we did not inquire about them.
In one of the yards we went to a one-story brick building, and the
assistant warden himself opened the doors with a large key. In this
house executions in the electric chair are carried out by order of the
courts of the state of New York.
We noticed the chair at once.
It stands in a roomy chamber without windows, so the light comes
through a glass lantern in the ceiling. We took two steps on the white
marble floor and stopped. Behind the chair on the door opposite the one
we entered is traced in large black letters the word:
The condemned are admitted through that door.
The condemned is informed early in the morning that his petition for
clemency has been rejected and that the execution will take place that
day. Then he is prepared for the execution. A small circle is shaved on
his head to enable the electric current to pass without impediment.
Throughout the day the condemned sits in his cell. Now that the
circle had been shaved on his head, he has nothing to hope for.
The execution occurs at about eleven or twelve o’clock at night.
“The fact that throughout the entire day a man experiences the tor-
ments of expectant death is very sad indeed,” declared our guide, “but
we can do nothing about it. Such is the demand of the law. The law
regards this circumstance as and additional punishment. On this chair
two hundred men and three women have been executed.”
Nevertheless, the chair looks quite new.
This is a yellow wooden chair with a high back and arm rests. At
first glance it seems innocuous, and if it were not for the leather brace-
lets with which the hands and feet of the condemned are tied, it could
very well stand in some highly moral family home. A dealfish grand-
father might well be sitting in it to read his newspapers there.
But an instant later the chair was very repellent to us, and especially
depressing were its polished arm rests. Better not to think about those
who had polished them with their elbows.
A few yards from the chair stand four substantial railway station
benches. These are for the witnesses. Here is a small table. A washstand
is built into the wall. That is all there is to the furnishings in the midst
of which is accomplished the transition from a worse into a better world.
No doubt, young Thomas Alva Edison never dreamed that his electricity
would perform such depressing duties.
The door in the left corner leads to a compartment larger than a
telephone booth. On its wall is a marble switchboard, the most ordinary
kind of switchboard with a heavy old-fashioned knife switch, the kind
available at any mechanical shop or in the operating booth of a provin-
cial motion-picture theater. The knife switch is pushed in, and the cur-
rent beats with great force through the helmet into the head of the con-
demned. That is all. That is the entire technique.
“The man who turns on the current,” said our guide, ‘receives a hun-
dred and fifty dollars for each such performance. There are any number
of applicants for this job.”
Of course, all the talk we had heard about three men switching on
the current and that not one of them knows which of them actually is
responsible for the execution proved to be an invention. No, it is all
much simpler. The man switches on the current himself and knows all
that happens and fears only one thing – that competitors may take this
profitable work away from him.
From the room where the execution is carried out a door lead to the
morgue, and beyond that is a very quiet room filled to the ceiling with
simple wooden coffins.
“The coffins are made right here in prison by the prisoners them-
selves,” our guide informed us.
Well, we thought we had seen enough! It was time to go!
Suddenly Mr. Adams asked to be allowed to sit in the electric chair,
so that he might experience the sensation of a man condemned to death.
“No, no, gentlemen!” he muttered. “It will not take very long.”
He settled himself firmly on the spacious seat and looked at us tri-
umphantly. The usual procedure was being carried out on him. He was
strapped to the back of the chair with a wide leather belt, his legs were
pressed with bracelets against the oaken chair legs, his hands were tied
to the arm rests. Again these accursed arm rests! They did not put the
helmet on Mr. Adams, but he begged them so that they finally attached
the end of the electric connection to his shining pate. It all became very
frightful for a minute. Mr. Adams’s eyes shone with incredible curiosity.
It was evident at once that he was one of those people who want to do
everything, who want to touch everything with their hands, to see and
hear everything themselves.
Before departing from Sing Sing we went into the church where at
the time a motion-picture performance was going on. Fifteen hundred
prisoners were looking at a picture entitled Doctor Socrates. Here we
saw the laudable effort of the administration to provide the imprisoned
men with the very latest motion picture. As a matter of fact, outside the
prison Doctor Socrates was being exhibited that very day in the city of
Ossining. What utterly amazed us, however, was the fact that the pic-
ture portrayed the life of bandits, and to show it to the prisoners was
tantamount to teasing an alcoholic with a vision of a bottle of vodka.
But it was already late. We thanked the administration for a pleasant
visit, the lion’s cage opened, and we went away. After sitting in the
electric hair, Mr. Adams suddenly became melancholy; he was silent all
the way back.
Returning we saw a truck that had run off the road. Its rear part was
entirely off. A crowd was discussing the accident. Another crowd, much
larger, was listening to an orator who was talking about that day’s elec-
tion. Here all the automobiles were carrying election stickers on their
rear windows. Farther on, in the groves and forests flared the mad
In the evening we went with Dos Passos to look at the happiness of
a New York counterjumper. It was seven o’clock. A marquee the size
of half a house was alight over the entrance of the Hollywood Restau-
rant. Young men in semimilitary uniform, customary among hotel, res-
taurant, and theater servants, were skillfully pushing people in. In the
lobby hung photographs of naked girls pining with love for the populace.
As in all restaurants where it is customary to dance, the center of the
Hollywood was occupied by a longish platform, the floor of which was
no more polished than the arm rests of the electric chair. On the sides
of this platform and rising somewhat above it were the tables. Over all
rose the tumultuous jazz.
Jazz may be disliked, especially in America, where it is impossible to
hide from it. But generally speaking, American jazz is well played. The
jazz of Hollywood Restaurant presented an amazingly well-composed
eccentric musical intricacy altogether pleasant to the ear.
When plates of rather uninteresting and in no way inspiring American
soup stood before us, from behind the orchestra suddenly ran out girls
half naked, three-quarters naked, and nine-tenths naked. They began to
dance zealously on their floor space, their feathers dipping occasionally
into plates of soup or jars of mustard.
It must have been thus, no doubt, that the ruthless fighters of Moham-
med imagine their paradise – food on the table, a warm place, and
houris performing their ancient tasks.
Later the girls ran out again a number of times: in the interval be-
tween the first and the second course, before coffee, and during coffee.
The proprietor of the Hollywood would not let them be idle.
This joining of primate American cooking with the passion of service
somewhat upset us.
The restaurant was full of people. The dinner cost about two dollars
per person. That means that the average New Yorker can come here
about once a month or less frequently. But then his pleasure is complete.
He listens to jazz, he eats a cutlet, he looks at the houris, and he himself
The faces of some of the dancers were stupid, others were pathetic,
still others were cruel, but all were equally weary.
Three blocks away from the restaurant a black poodle with gay eyes
was watching Dos Passos’ old machine.
We parted. We had become saddened by New York’s happiness.
“Good-bye, until Moscow,’ said the nice Dos.
“Good-by, until Moscow,” we replied.