Books logo

Pocketful of Yesterdays

It Was And Is "Nevertheless"

New York in the 1930's

by Samuel Fuller

Pocket Archives, Editions Hazan, Paris, 1997, available through D.A.P/Distributed Art Publishers - 155 Sixth Avenue, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10013, 212-627-1999, pp. 199, $12.95.

By Carter B. Horsley

This marvelous, small pocket-sized book offers a wealth of great black-and-white photographs of New York City during the peak of its skyline eminence and the depths of the Depression.

All of the photographs with the exception of the two photographs in the author's essay are from the collection of Archive Photos in Manhattan and bear an Archive Photos trademark. They are, generally, unfamiliar views of very familiar New York sights and significantly add to the popularly available imageography, a word that might describe the recorded visual heritage of a place, or person, or thing. As such it is a valuable adjunct to the excellent series on New York published by Dover Publications in a larger and less expensive format, and both series blow most of the very large and very expensive coffee-table picture books on New York out of the proverbial harbor.

The book contains more than 130 photographs, a few of which are spread over two facing pages. The vast majority are architectural views, but the small number of celebrity and street-scene pictures are of very high quality and interest.

The photographs have wonderful historic value and return us to the pristine days of pre-Pan Am Park Avenue, pre-Chase Manhattan Plaza and World Trade Center Downtown, of pre-politically correct Times Square with the Cotton Club on 48th Street and its large 1938 sign advertising "50 Sepia Stars," of a midtown whose glory was the phalanx of tall towers on 42nd Street, of a two-way Fifth Avenue, an automobile-traffic bisected Washington Square Park, of a shoulder-bagged postman, an ocean-liner strewn Hudson River and a light-ray-filled concourse at the great Penn Station.

Ah, the days of yesteryear, indeed!

These superb pictures tragically document how the city has gone awry though a lack of vision and planning in the eras since their creation. Not that the city should have been frozen as it was in 1939, of course, but that the great romance and majestic of its skyline has been cluttered, smeared, dominated, crushed, mangled and generally abused by both developers' bad taste, insensitivity and occasional greed, irresponsible lack of attention by the media, a harried, hurried and disorganized populace, and timid, shallow, stupid and perhaps incompetent political leaders, with rare exceptions, of course.

The documentation for such an indictment is here.

New York truly emerged as a world capital with the City Beautiful/Beaux Arts era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it ascended to its heights as the world capital only in the Art Deco period, the one that is the subject of this delightful little tome.

The city was not perfect then and, of course, is not perfect now. It is actually better now, a more colossal and more concentrated chaos of energy than ever despite the rampant barbarism and philistinism that has crowded the skyscraper ramparts. Indeed, what is wonderful in the vistas here is the empty space around and behind many of the city's greatest towers, most of which have since been superceded, or squeezed into shadows. One photo from Central Park, for example, shows the eclectic mix of towers on Central Park South in strong silhouette whereas today they are merely huddled against the rest of the since built midtown skyline. On the other hand, another photo shows the dismantling of the Sixth Avenue elevated line at 35th Street and one wonders at how close the 34th Street station structure was to Macy's Building and how dense the traffic at Herald Square must have been.

The cover photograph of Fifth Avenue at 59th Street from Central Park is very similar, and better, than the one that graces the cover of "New York 1930, Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars" the prodigious volume by Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins, published in 1987 by Rizzoli. Both show the splendid Savoy Plaza Hotel, since replaced by the General Motors Building, whose exploded chateau design really tied together the ensemble of buildings there to make the Plaza "district" the city's most elegant.

There are good people pix here: Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Caloway, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Lucky Luciano, men with strike placards and in sandwich boards, immigrants at Ellis Island, shown below with Manhattan in the background, workers at the Fulton Fish Market and the Chick Webb Band.

Ellis Island from the air with Manhattan in background


There are only three flaws in the pictures: one wants more, one picture, of a open-top, double-decker bus on Fifth Avenue is reversed, and one wishes that individual photo credits had been included.

The 40-page essay by Sam Fuller, who died in late 1997, is a charming introduction that sets a non-academic and personal perspective that is on target in its associations and examples and emotions. This is not an architectural text. Fuller is a filmmaker, whose films include "Park Row," "The Steel Helmet," "Underworld USA," "The Naked Kiss" and "Shock Corridor," who grew up in Manhattan and was a newspaper illustrator and reporter in the city in the 1930's. After his father died when he was 11, his mother raised seven children "while pursuing a friendship with the surrealist poet Max Bodenheim and his eccentric friends" or inviting a Bolshevik Russian poet home for a glass of wine after arguing with him at a Union Square soap-box debate.

Fuller starts his essay with a quote from Gene Fowler's novel, "Skyline": "It was a world of nevertheless, a rosy time, the complexion of which now has faded like a clown's face in the rain."

"When the Twenties had finally roared themselves out, America found itself in the hard years of the Depression, during which Manhattan seemed like an island of fabricated artifice with a paradoxical predilection for the natural and the primitive," Fuller writes. After copyboy days, Fuller got a job as a police reporter for The Graphic, whose work force included Walter Winchel, Ed Sullivan, Mark Hellinger, Jerry Wald and John Huston.

"Manhattan may have had bread lines during the Depression years, but it rivaled Paris when it came to restaurants, good times and entertainment in general. Above all, there were the nightclubs on Upper Broadway, where you could hear groups like the Chick Webb Band, Benny Goodman and his musicians, and a skinny newcomer named Frank Sinatra. There was The Big Apple, a Harlem nightclub on Seventh Avenue where Billie Holiday sang in 1936, and of course the famous Cotton Club," Fuller recalls. Sinatra, of course, would later headline at the great, luxurious Paramount Theater in the base of the Paramount Building on Times Square at 43rd Street, one block south of the great Astor Hotel, both shown at the left in the picture below.  The theater was later demolished for office spaces and the hotel was demolished for a new office tower.


Looking North in Times Square

"Black Harlem created a whole new industry out of entertainment that catered mainly to the white population of Manhattan. The atmosphere of Harlem was like ancient Rome; it was a neighborhood that lived by night, and was reputed to have over one hundred nightclubs….It was no longer a question of white entertainers in blackface: we now had the real thing. Blacks were setting the trend for a new and more authentic form of entertainment, even as they tried to overcome racial barriers through rhythm, music and dance….part of the Manhattan Zeitgeist of this period was the desire for a more truthful understanding of black and white relationships….Benny Goodman was instrumental in making a star out of Billie Holiday, yet in the Waldorf-Astoria she still had to use the service elevator!" Fuller continued. The Waldorf-Astoria's spectacular twin-towers are seen to best advantage as well as the pre-office development of Park Avenue in the picture below from the book.

Twin towers of Waldorf-Astoria

Apparently, Fuller and his cronies managed a pretty complete tour of the clubs and he cites the pitch-black interior of Connie's Inn where the great Fletcher Henderson Band played to generally white audiences, the Catagonia Club where Bill Robinson tap-danced and Ethel Waters sang to a "basically black" crowd, the Kentucky Club where Duke Ellington and his band performed, The Clam House, "whose mainly white clientele had the reputation of being among the most promiscuous of Jungle Alley" on 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, The Lenox Club that claimed the loudest band, Tillie's Inn, which offered swells from downtown great food, The Saratoga Club that had a rule that "one could only dance with one's escort!", The Nest Club that had "a very coy, warm atmosphere," The Spider Web that "had mostly a black crowd," The Smoke Shack that had singing waiters, and Small's Paradise with its huge dance floor.

In midtown, Fuller extols the merits of such long-gone French restaurants as The Marigny, Longchamps, The Mirlton, The Meadowbrook, The Beau Rivage and The Madisson and "the most popular and famous of all was La Rue's on 480 Park Avenue." In 1935, Fuller notes, Mori's Restaurant on 144 Bleecker Street, founded in 1884 by Placido Mori and decorated by Raymond Hood, closed. Other culinary highlights for Fuller were Beef-Steak Charlie's at 216 West 50th Street, Luchow's on 14th Street and Dinty Moore's at 216 West 46th Street.

"Manhattan is and was a city of taxis, and cabs were always available to take you to the vaudeville and movie houses, billiard halls, dance palaces and the numerous speak-easies, ranging from the sleazy to the deluxe," Fuller maintains, adding that he entered his first speak-easy at the age of 15 accompanied by three older reporters: Ring Lardner, Gene Fowler and Bill Farnsworth. The joint was owned by Lew Walters, "whose daughter was Barbara Walters," and "there were tall mirrors and paintings of nude women on the walls, and a dollar changed hands faster than the eye could see!"

Fuller met Dorothy Park and Robert Benchley in the Pergola Room of the Alquonquin Hotel once and remembers her being "a tiny woman who asked me for my name and address" and then "wrote them on the hem of her dress." Fuller recounts the days of Parker's famous "round table" at the Alquonquin and notes that "the little money that remained in her estate after the sale of a Picasso was left to Martin Luther King."

Interesting observations are made by Fuller about H. L. Mencken's anti-Semitism, Dr. Joseph B. Rhine's burst of fame in 1937 with a book about extra-sensory perception, the fears of newspapers that radio was stealing away advertisers, black-shirted America Nazis marching in Manhattan in 1934, the support of many American Catholics for a fascist victory in Spain, and pretty Woolworth girls having a sit-down strike on 14th Street.

He ends his comments with a quote from his friend Gene Fowler's book, "Skyline":

"Manhattan seldom wants you, but you'll always want Manhattan!"

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Home Page of The City Review