Where Did Bay Ridge’s Best Novelist Live?

Gilbert Sorrentino's Childhood Home
Photo by Hey Ridge

Gilbert Sorrentino wrote often about the Bay Ridge of his childhood: in several of his novels, such as Steelwork, Crystal Vision, Red the Fiend, and Little Casino, as well as some poetry and short stories. He was not only raised here, he also retired here at the turn of the millennium after almost 20 years teaching at Stanford. He’s the greatest writer the neighborhood ever produced, one not only from here but of here, who captured its landscapes and the voices of its residents so well. But no one has yet correctly answered: where did he live growing up?

Editor Gerald Howard and writer Brian Berger tried in a 2011 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction. “The amazing Brain Berger had discovered, through an actual 1940 census record, that Gil had lived with his father and mother at 466 Senator Street before their separation,” Howard wrote. “To my mild surprise, it turned out not to be the expected apartment building but a free-standing two-story (and possibly two-family) home.”

They weren’t wrong: Brian is amazing, and the census record (actually from 1930) indicates the address as No. 466. But Howard’s surprise isn’t wrong, either, because, beyond a reasonable doubt, the census record included the analog, handwritten version of a typo—the Sorrentinos didn’t live at 466 Senator Street. A look at the previous pages shows the census taker, Herbert Ricketts, went in numerical order from house-to-house and building-to-building; when he got to No. 446, a large apartment building, he noted a family, then noted several families living at No. 466, then back to No. 448 and up sequentially, eventually finding a few more residents living at No. 466.

Is it possible the census taker left the apartment building at 446 Senator Street, ran up the block to record several families, then back down the block to continue in order? Finding more than half a dozen families living in the one-family house at 466 Senator Street and only one family in the enormous building at 446 Senator Street? Or is it more likely that the census taker simply made a mistake, writing “466” instead of “446” one time, and then repeating that mistake each time he looked up at the last address he recorded? Until he left the building and started with a fresh address?

(The 1930 census record also includes lots of fun facts: the Sorrentinos’ apartment rented for $60/month, or $854.39, adjusted for inflation. They owned a radio; both parents could read and write; Gil’s father, August, who was born in Italy, obviously spoke Italian when he came to the US in 1901. His occupation was “Marine Cont.,” whatever that means, and his industry was “Emp.” He was a wage worker, and he was not a veteran.)

Sorrentino family in the 1930 census
The Sorrentino family on the 1930 census.

446 Senator Street, named Lucille, is the sort of large, many-unit apartment building in which you would have expected Sorrentino to have been raised, judging from the descriptions of apartment life he offers in Red the Fiend (though that book is set around the corner on 68th Street, underscoring that it has a biographical basis yet shouldn’t be read as nonfiction). In fact, Sorrentino’s maternal grandparents, Alexander B. and Agnes Davis, then 45- and 44-years-old, also lived in the building in 1930. Both were born in New York, him from Northern Irish stock, her from plain Irish.

Five years earlier, according to a state census, they’d lived next door in the St. James, an almost identical building at 440 Senator Street. In 1900, Alexander and Agnes were living with Sorrentino’s mother, then just a year-old, in Brooklyn at 750 Third Avenue, near 25th Street. Also in the household was a niece, Catherine Carney (the “Cousin Katy” so oft-referenced in Red the Fiend!), as well as James McGrath, Agnes’s father, a 60-year-old day laborer from Ireland with a name very similar to the grandfather figure in Aberration of Starlight, John McGrath. Five years later, a state census finds the same living situation, except McGrath has presumably died, replaced by a lodger named Alex H. Thompson, a 65-year-old marine carpenter, who still lived with the family in 1910.

Alexander Davis phone book
Alexander Davis in the 1945 White Pages

The 1940 census has no reference to Gilbert Sorrentino that I could find, but his mother appears, as Ann Sorrentino, living with her father, Alex B. Davis, in the same building, now paying $45 in rent, likely reduced after the Depression. (Two-bedroom apartments in the building now go for $1,600-$1,800, or what would have been $94-$105 in 1940, more than twice what they paid.) Presumably Agnes had died. But surely Gil, a minor, would have still been living here; it’s possible mother and grandfather lied to the census taker out of shame, because the father, August, was no longer living with his wife and child. August also doesn’t appear in the census; mysteriously, Ann’s most recent previous address is Yonkers.

The census isn’t the only place you find references to 446 Senator Street. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle also mentions it twice: in “News of Brooklyn G.I.s,” from August 8, 1951, it’s written that “Pvt. Gilbert R. Sorrentino, son of Mrs. Ann Sorrentino, 446 Senator St., is training at Fort Meade, Md.” Earlier, in a column called “TRAVELERS” from February 22, 1949, it’s written that “Mrs. Ann Sorrentino of 446 Senator St. with her cousin, Mrs. Katherine Shutes of Jersey City, N.J., are vacationing at the Hotel Raleigh, Washington, D.C.” There’s Cousin Katy again! And also a reminder that newspapers peculiarly used to print items about where local people went on holiday, not to mention home addresses.

Gilbert Sorrentino in Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Via Brooklyn Eagle archives