If the hot dog is still penetrating international boundaries, it is probably thanks, in part, to the industry with which Nathan works to promote his delicacy. Let any well-known celebrity of international renown set foot on American soil and he will surely receive, within a day or so of his arrival, a sample box containing hot dogs, with a message welcoming him to America. One of the last such to receive a box of Red Hots was Stalin's daughter, who took time out, amid the political furor attending her arrival, to write Nathan a gracious note thanking him for his gesture.
Said Premier Kosygin severely, when questioned about Svetlana Alliluyeva at a press conference after the Glassboro affair, "She is morally unstable. We consider her a sick person." My own feeling, as I munched one of Coney Island's specialties, was that anyone who likes Nathan's hot dogs can't be all bad, for the Coney Island hot dog tastes as different from the run-of-the-mill frankfurter as lobster tastes from canned tuna.
"It's in the spices that go into it," the counterman told me. "But the ingredients are secret."
"Don't you believe it," whispered a man who stood beside me, chewing furiously. "The secret of Nathan's hot dog is that the grill hasn't been wiped off since the place opened back in 1916. All that great taste is thus preserved as each dog is simmered."
Everyone has a theory. I would subscribe to the secret-ingredient theory, for Coney Island itself defies analysis, harboring whatever secret ingredients it takes to survive against all odds: political intrigue, social change and fiery holocaust.
It is fitting, perhaps, that Coney Island, which has devoted itself to amusing others, should have started as a joke perpetrated by the Indians on the white man. It was in 1649 that the sachem of the Canarsie tribe, no doubt laughing behind his peace pipe, sold Konijn Eiland to a gullible Dutchman named Van Salee. What made the transaction funny was that the Canarsie didn't even own it; it belonged to the neighboring Nyacks, who sold it again, five years later, to another Dutchman for three pounds of gunpowder, two guns and 15 fathoms of sewan (a sort of wampum much in demand by the Indians).
By 1671 the British had taken over New York, and an area known as Gravesend, which included Konijn Eiland (named for the rabbits that inhabited it), was parceled out to farmers who had settled there. No one paid much attention to the five-mile area of sand, scrub and water that lay beyond the farms, except that the settlers occasionally went out with guns to snipe at the rabbits or to dig up clams, and duck hunters made frequent forays into the marshes. It was not until 1734 that the first road, constructed of shells, was built, encouraging tourists to make the trip to Coney. A lot of them did. In 1823 the Gravesend and Coney Island Road & Bridge Co. was incorporated. Coney Island was now on its way to becoming a resort.
By the mid-1870s Coney Island was swinging—being swung, in fact, by a corrupt political boss named John Y. McKane. He was to give Coney Island her first black eye, an injury from which she never fully recovered. Mr. McKane's main business was politics; his sidelines were graft and land-grabbing. By 1881 he had managed to have himself appointed Chief of Police, which in the present day would be tantamount to appointing Willie Sutton president of the First National City Bank. On McKane's police force were men wanted by the police in other areas. Dilapidated buildings in an area known as the Gut housed thieves, con men, refugees from justice, pickpockets, touts, prostitutes; decent people stayed away. McKane was willing to lease "his" land to anyone who could pay him a fee. Horse racing, someone told him, could be profitable, and in 1879 Brighton Beach opened a track. A year later, an even more fashionable track opened at Sheepshead Bay. In 1886 the Brooklyn Jockey Club got into the act at Gravesend. Coney Island became the racing capital of the nation.
Prizefighting, someone told McKane, could also be profitable. McKane promptly issued a license permitting the use of a cavernous wooden building, with a seating capacity of 10,000, which came to be known as the Coney Island Athletic Club. But McKane had already overreached himself. For years Brooklyn's ministers had labeled Coney a Sodom-by-the-Sea, and when McKane flagrantly violated election laws—he even hired a goon squad to rough up investigators—he was brought to trial, convicted and sent to Sing Sing. But sport on the island was in full swing. While Tod Sloan amazed horse buffs with his peculiar monkey-on-a-stick style of riding, Promoter Billy Brady wowed fight fans by presenting Tom Sharkey vs. Jim Jeffries (a bout that lasted a grueling 25 rounds, with Jeffries retaining his title). The last big fight, between Jeffries and "Gentleman Jim" Corbett (the latter was defeated) was fought in 1900. Then reform—that killjoy of fun and games—took over. Horse racing on Coney Island was finished. The Horton Act, which had legalized boxing by calling it a "theatrical entertainment," was repealed, and boxing in New York state came to a standstill. It looked as if Coney Island was finished, too.
But not for long, for a man named George Tilyou had his own ideas about Coney Island. It could be, he thought, a great amusement center. In 1897 he built Steeplechase Park, named for a mechanical racecourse consisting of an undulant metal track over which large wooden horses ran on wheels, coasting by gravity and climbing by momentum. It did not carry, perhaps, the same thrill as watching Snapper Garrison ride to the finish on a sweating, live horse, but the public loved it. Tilyou promptly added the Ferris wheel, a Grand Canal, a Trip to the Moon and other rides. Steeplechase became a full-fledged amusement center. But in 1907 a lighted cigarette thrown into a wastepaper basket in an attraction known as the Cave of the Winds ignited a fire, and Steeplechase burned to the ground. The following morning, the enterprising Mr. Tilyou put up a notice: