This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator & Head of the Manuscript Department
Shoemaker John Azzimonti (1865-1946) was a “poet of the sole.” At least that’s how an article in the March 24, 1909 issue of Boot and Shoe Recorder (reprinted from the New York Herald) described him. Azzimonti was, by all accounts, a much sought-after craftsman, and it was his unusual desire to switch from “theatrical shoemaker” to bookseller that triggered the article.
According to the 1900 census, Azzimonti emigrated to New York from his native Italy in 1883 before marrying Caroline Silver, herself an English immigrant, in 1892. He conducted his trade from a shop at 40 Union Square, principally as a shoemaker to actors and dancers before his reputation attracted the business of New York’s figuratively “well-heeled.”
The New-York Historical Society holds Azzimonti’s 32 order books documenting much of his career. Some brittle with acidic paper, some without, the books are still almost uniformly long and narrow. Paging through them it is apparent why he chose such specific dimensions; in most Azzimonti would trace the outline of his customer’s foot and then add any necessary notes. There is sometimes a rough sketch of the desired shoe, or a swatch of fabric fastened as a reference. In the rarest case, there is even a color drawing.
While his usual customers are rarely spoken of today, their names mingle with the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Madame Modjeska and Tyrone Power of the stage, and Beekman, Westinghouse, Vanderbilt and Pulitzer of the influential and well-to-do.
His customers were apparently devoted as well. Along with the order books came nearly 350 photographs of actors and actresses, many of them inscribed to Azzimonti. Bernhardt herself described his shop as “the atelier of the greatest artist of all his confreres.” It’s hardly surprising then that news of his plans sparked something of a panic. Bernhardt herself allegedly ordered 244 pairs and Norman Bream, a Chicago financier, another 200 of his own.
The question, of course is “what happened?” Without digging too deeply, it doesn’t appear that Azzimonti ever became a bookseller. Yet classified ads from around that period, and after court a “large capitalist” with “undoubted honesty” to eventually “take over,” suggesting that he fully intended to do so. According to a 1932 article he did ultimately retire in 1925 which explains a 1926 ad with his “present address” being a hotel in Bermuda. Contemporary passenger lists confirm that he traveled there more than once around that time.
The article describes his capacities in intellect and as an artisan, perhaps explaining something of his popularity and attraction to the book trade. In the article’s words, Azzimonti was “an artist, an archaeologist and a poet” who could “make any footgear ever worn by the human race in any age and any clime.” Hyperbolic, of course, but telling.
Azzimonti seems to have exercised this knowledge as a collector of art. In 1919, he advertises in the New-York Tribune the sale of a “collection of oil paintings, pen and ink drawings and one hand carving of ‘The Last Supper’… at a Great Sacrifice” from his shop. In September 1924, a short article from the New York Times records his donation of a painting he valued at $15,000 to Putnam County (where he seems to have had a residence later in his career).
Though he and his wife pop up in Hollywood in 1932, the 1940 census finds them listed as residents of New York as of April 1, 1935. Regardless, it’s clear that by 1940 Azzimonti resettled to Los Angeles where his wife would pass away three years later. He died three years later in Rotterdam, New York, having seemingly returned eastward.
While it’s not always apparent from the textual record what a historical figure was like, sources indicate that he was something of a gifted curmudgeon, but who treated all equally, regardless of station. In 1932, a newspaper quotes him as saying “I was asked once to come to Washington to make a pair of shoes or President Taft. I sent word to the president that if he wanted Azzimonti shoes he must come to Azzimonti. He came.”