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
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
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
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.
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.
"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.
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
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!"