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‘Supreme City’: How New York rose to the top

E.B. White, the affectionate chronicler of Manhattan life, believed that New York comprised three cities: one of people born there and a second of the commuter. “Third,” he added, “there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last – the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.”

That passage is the inspired theme of Donald L. Miller’s sparkling Supreme City, the history of dozens of astonishing newcomers who – largely in one tumultuous decade, the 1920s – made New York into what Duke Ellington called the capital of everything.

As Miller writes: “New York was in the vanguard of cultural, social, and technological transformations that would make the twentieth century the American Century: the rise of commercial radio and talking movies; the invention of television; the ascendancy of advertising; the beginnings of tabloid journalism; the spread, through radio and phonograph records, of a pulsating urban music called jazz; and the emergence of mass spectator sports – sold-out baseball and football stadiums and prize fights with million-dollar gates. The Manhattan skyline, the most tremendous in the world, symbolized the city’s cultural and financial hegemony. ‘We beheld them with stupefaction in the moving pictures,’ the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre recalled his and other Europeans’ fascination with Midtown’s new Art Deco skyscrapers, chief among them the Chrysler Building. ‘They were the architecture of the future, just as the movie was the art of the future and jazz the music of the future.’ ”

When the picaresque Jimmy Walker, whose name helped define the era, became mayor in 1926, New York was “the richest city in the richest country in all of history” and was displacing London “as the financial capital of the world, and the new center of world wealth.”

The city’s center of gravity shifted north from Wall Street to Midtown, at first drawn by the new Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street. With the eyesore of northward tracks covered over to create the modern Park Avenue, luxury apartments lured the rich out of their mansions on Fifth Avenue. In turn, daring entrepreneurs such as Herman Bergdorf, Horace Saks, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein made Fifth Avenue into the iconic shopping street the world has flocked to ever since. They also created new industries in ready-to-wear fashion, cosmetics and marketing. “When Rubinstein first arrived in the city (in 1914), women were spending an estimated $25 million a year on beauty products. By 1927 this had risen to nearly $2 billion, half a million more than Americans spent on electric power that year.”

These fashionable shops were just walking distance from Times Square. The new home of the New York Times soon became a mass entertainment center for millions reveling on New Year’s Eve, with the allure of its dazzling electric advertising and the most elaborate movie theaters in the world. One of them, the Roxy, billed as the “Cathedral of the Motion Picture,” attracted the largest cinema audiences ever assembled. While filmmakers left for better weather in California, New York taste shaped the marketing and determined the fate of their product.

This was the Broadway of Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies, featuring statuesque show girls and a galaxy of stars including George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Noel Coward, Jerome Kern, P.G. Wodehouse, Mae West, Bert Lahr, and Fred and Adele Astaire.

An inescapable accompaniment to this riot of creativity was liquor – illicitly home-brewed or shipped in by “rum-runners” – that flooded New York after Prohibition began in 1920. In foiling Prohibition, New York spawned the speakeasy and the nightclub, plus the organized crime that supplied the booze that lubricated their nights.

And featured in the clubs was the new music, forms of jazz and the other products of Tin Pan Alley in what many consider the greatest era in songwriting. The clubs launched stars such as Ellington who were also featured in the new recording industry, which in turn fed the new commercial radio networks, just created by now-legendary broadcasting pioneers David Sarnoff (NBC) and William Paley (CBS).

Feeding this uninhibited entertainment culture was America’s first mass-market tabloid, the Daily News. Miller writes: “ ‘This Jazz-age baby’ . . . was a mirror of its time and place: Gotham in the most dazzling decade in its history. . . . Like jazz, it was bold, brassy and experimental – and widely vilified as vulgar and prurient by churchmen and moralists.” When Ruth Snyder was executed for killing her husband, the Daily News front page showed her in the electric chair, secretly photographed just as the lethal current surged through her, under the headline “DEAD!”

More rich fodder for newspapers and radio came from the great sports superheroes of the era, especially Babe Ruth, and boxers Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Their promoters, and the press, turned boxing and baseball into mass spectator sports. Newspapers devoted so much coverage to sports that, Miller says, “they made New York the sportswriting capital of the world.”

At the other pole of sophistication was the New Yorker magazine, the wry voice of metropolitan urbanity. Famous for nurturing iconic talents such as James Thurber, the magazine also featured a 22-year-old Vassar graduate, Lois Long. Miller writes: “She smoked and drank prodigiously, told racy jokes, and threw all night parties at her Murray Hill apartment.” Named fashion editor, she began writing wickedly humorous criticism and, according to editor William Shawn, “invented fashion criticism.”

Fashion was now a major manufacturing industry, hugging the vital new Midtown on Seventh Avenue. Miller quotes Will Irwin in “Highlights of Manhattan”: “ ‘Seventh Avenue stands as important in the clothing industry as Wall Street in finance. . . . It is the accumulation and creation of a thousand expert and enterprising master tailors,’ refuges from Teutonic militarism and czarist oppression.”

Attracting buyers from across America, Seventh Avenue established a reputation “as a style center second only to Paris,” Miller says. Its profits generated a huge middle class and, because so many of these entrepreneurs were Jews, it was a middle class that hungered for culture and improvement, the most aggressive consumers of books, magazines, theater, movies and jazz recordings.

Miller skillfully weaves these different and colorful strands into a narrative both coherent and vivacious. It is a story that many New Yorkers probably know only in narrow patches defined by their own professional or social perspectives. The full story richly deserves his original synthesis and, for me, makes New York even more fascinating.

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