Memories of Monk
Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance: In your December issue, a reader inquired about the "monkey man" she would often see walking down Poplar. I was in college here in the early 1960s, and I assume many people remember "Monk." He was a diminutive man, who carried several canes through his belt like swords, and was a member of a well-known Memphis family. They let him do his thing, as he was quite independent. We all noticed him and talked about him. -- R.D.., Memphis.
Dear R.D.: Despite the many visits I paid to the finest colleges in Europe (well, I didn't actually attend any classes at them, but I did stroll through their campuses and purchased some very nice t-shirts), sometimes my brain just fails me. My team of psychiatrists has come up with a name for my all-too-common condition, which I think they have termed "stupidity."
Yes, I admit it. How stupid of me not to make the connection between the "monkey man" and "Monk" -- one of our city's most colorful characters for 30 years, and maybe longer. Our own magazine actually published a profile of this fellow back in 1979, written by my pal Susan Turley, and it was one heckuva interview since Tony Cassatta -- yep, that was his real name -- had plenty to say, all right, but not many things that actually made sense. In fact, the story was rather cryptically titled "Who Is This Man?: The Secret Life of Memphis' Most Visible Eccentric."
That was before I came along, you see.
His attire was as distinctive, in its own way, as my own. "You can find him bundled in four or five wool shirts on days when the blacktop is hot as a skillet," wrote Turley. "And you can find him bent over his walking stick, an oversized baseball cap cocked on his head, a stub of a cigar protruding from his small, furrowed face, tapping on car windows." Monk, whom Turley said stood less than four feet tall, claimed to walk 50 miles a day, selling pencils, magnolia blossoms plucked from neighbors' trees, whatever he felt like doing. One reader recalled first seeing him in the late 1950s: "We called him 'Monk' because he looked like a monkey." The name stuck.
Turley determined that Cassatta was born in Italy in 1905. Despite rumors that he lived on the streets, every night he walked home to a neat bungalow in Midtown, where he lived with his brother and sister, who didn't want their names mentioned in the magazine article. When Cassatta was growing up, he "always seemed a little bit different," they told Turley. "He's slow, but he's not dumb," said his sister. "He speaks two languages, English and Italian, so he can't be that slow." Her explanation for her brother's layers and layers of old clothing? "He gets cold."
Cassatta's own reason? "Low blood."
Turley followed Monk around for an afternoon, but the man who would spend his days standing in the middle of Poplar shouting at cars clammed up around the reporter. He supposedly was an expert on baseball, but at the end of the day, she admitted, "We really know little more about Monk than we did three hours before."
That's a shame. The fellow she called "an eccentric constant in a faddish universe" passed away some time in the early 1980s. Or so I heard. I couldn't find an exact date, and something tells me Monk wouldn't have cared, anyway.
Dear Vance: When I was a teenager, my grandmother would reminisce about her childhood in Olive Branch and the trips she made to Memphis. She often spoke of a street called the Speedway. Where was this street, and why would it have been important? -- P.U., Memphis
Dear P.U.: The Speedway was never the real name of a street. Instead, in the early 1900s, it was a mile-long stretch of North Parkway, beginning just west of present-day University. And it was called the Speedway because that perfectly straight section of the road became an informal racetrack for anyone and everyone who thought they had the fastest horse in town. Much like certain streets (I won't mention any names) are used today as drag strips for youngsters with hopped-up cars and motorcycles. Many a night I've had to hide the keys from the Lauderdale chauffeur to keep him from racing our vintage Hispano-Suiza. Such a showoff. Why, he's older than the car!
The Speedway was a popular hangout in its day, especially on weekend afternoons, so I can see why your grandmother would have remembered it. But as the newfangled automobiles began to take over the city streets, the old racecourse was shut down, though the name still lives on, since that general section of North Parkway has signs proclaiming it the Speedway Terrace Historic District. And for many years, a pharmacy in the area carried the name Speedway Drugs, which never failed to amuse certain friends who -- how to say this? -- enjoyed the benefits of many, many medications without troubling with prescriptions for them.
What's interesting -- to me, and probably only to me -- is that the postcard manufacturers of the day (many of them out-of-town firms) often confused North Parkway with East Parkway. As a result, quite a few postcards supposedly showing "The Speedway" actually depict East Parkway, not North. I'm certainly glad I never, ever make mistakes like that.
Where Was the White House?
Dear Vance: When I was growing up in Memphis in the 1950s, I vaguely recall a big motel on Summer called the White House. Where was this establishment? -- T.L., Memphis.
Dear T.L.: At first I thought you were surely mistaken. I have written about Summer Avenue -- certainly one of our city's most colorful boulevards -- many, many times in this column and have never encountered a single mention of any establishment called the White House Motel. But the Lauderdales and others who journeyed up and down that busy street in the 1950s must have turned to look at the glitzy new establishment developer Kemmons Wilson was building on the south side of Summer, just east of Mendenhall -- a little venture he happened to called Holiday Inn -- and never glanced back across the street. For if they did, they would have noticed a large, two-story house, and a group of half a dozen tourist cottages neatly arranged along a semi-circular drive. And they would have seen a pair of big signs out front proclaiming this the White House Motel. From the name, we can presume the big house was, indeed, painted white.
Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of information on this place, though I did manage to turn up a blurry old postcard in the basement archives of the Lauderdale Library. I believe it opened in the mid-1940s, and back then, when the city limits stopped at Graham, that was considered pretty far outside of town. The owner, Allen B. Robertson, lived there with his wife, Mary. It was actually a good location, luring visitors as they first drove into Memphis along Highways 64 and 70, and nearby were other attractions, such as the Bon Air Nightclub, Gamel's Drive-in, and the Biagi Restaurant. And according to the back of the postcard, the White House offered "quiet comfort and moderate rates." Who could ask for more?
But Allen and Mary Robertson must have looked across the street at the workers erecting the gleaming new Holiday Inn and realized their days were numbered. By 1966, the city directories no longer have a listing for the White House Motel, and the following year Robertson himself was listed as "retired." Not many places could compete, it seems, with "America's Innkeeper."
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