In 1945, New York City stood at the pinnacle of its cultural and economic power. Never again would the city possess the unique mixture of innocence and sophistication, romance and formality, generosity and confidence which characterized it in this moment of triumph. In Manhattan '45, acclaimed travel writer and historian Jan Morris evokes the city in all its romantic grandeur. From its beguilingly idiosyncratic architectural style to its unmistakable slang, post-War New York springs to life through Morris's brisk, affectionate prose. Morris visits Wall Street, Harlem, Greenwich Village, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side. She rides the trollies, the El, the Hudson River ferries, and the Twentieth Century Limited. She dines at Schrafft's and Le Pavillon, drinks ale at McSorley's Saloon, sips Manhattans at the Manhattan Club, and spots celebrities at El Morocco. She meets Fiorello La Guardia, Robert Moses, Leo Durocher, I. B. Singer, and Dizzy Gillespie. And she tours the tenements of Hell's Kitchen and the Gashouse district, as well as the Foundling Hospital where the crushing realities of poverty belie the unchallenged exuberance of the age. Taking into account both Social Register and slum, Manhattan '45 celebrates New York's Golden Age as a place where, for one unrepeatable moment in history, anything seemed possible.
This book is filled with details of life and how it was lived in 1945 mostly from books, letters, photographs and interviews. Everything's discussed in categories and in a gossipy tone that covers people, places, race, class, shopping, transportation, music, technology, slums, mansions, art, parties, and schools. I kind of wish I'd taken better notes on this book since it's full of fun little tidbits, but no great memorable themes. I'd like to read it again, perhaps while in Manhattan, the book tucked under my arm as I visit what's there and what once was.
Written in 1987, it is a recreation of what Manhattan was like in 1945, but with the benefit of writing in the 1970’s, so that Morris is able to note how unusual Manhattan was at that moment, after three plus years of war.
As you would expect from Morris, her writing is a delight, but she chooses to describe her subject by looking at different aspects of the city in turn, so we get:
• On style, about the physical city and its skyscrapers
• On system, about the mayoralty, cops, fire workers, and briefly the criminal underworld
• On race, about the neighbourhoods for the blacks (Harlem), the Jews (Lower East side), the Chinese (China Town!) and other smaller groups
• On class, much about the rich and celebrities, with little about the Village and the poor
• On movement, detailing the various forms of transport, including trolley cars, the elevated train (El) and train ferries which were all to disappear by 1987.
• On pleasure, describing the restaurants, bars, tourist boats and Central Park, ending with a wonderfully imagined day of leisure in New York
• On purposes, listing the range of businesses and markets, with their particular neighbourhoods, including reference to the New Yorker and Life magazines. Radio, Art (with Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism), Wall Street briefly described and finally the port itself, the reason for the creation of the city.
Although Morris visited Manhattan in 1953 and subsequently, so that some of the atmosphere described is from personal experience, Morris credits much of the story to her wide ranging reading of other books. It therefore largely lacks the personal interest which enlivens many of Morris’ better books, with few anecdotes.