The Other Fair

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A newspaper article the other day informed me that the late 1930s are back in fashion. Historical societies are girding to protect Art Deco. The clarinet of Benny Goodman is heard on compact discs. Designers are filching illustrations and typefaces from The Saturday Evening Post. If the trend continues, we may shortly be revisited by dotted swiss housedresses, junket rennet custard, the wimple, and the Studebaker sedan.

Followers of these and other modes would be appalled to know that among such stubbornly retentive human barnacles as me, the year 1939 never has gone out of fashion. We continue to regard it with a sort of speechless awe: a year that was both terrible and wonderful, threatening and reassuring, germinal and terminal. In my own life 1939 was a fulcrum year, a portal, and, perhaps because of that, I think of 1939 as the pivot of the century. It was the year in which Billy Rose brought synchronized swimming to the New York World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows. Mickey Rooney played the title role in a movie about Huckleberry Finn. Pabst beer had a real blue ribbon attached to the neck of every bottle. For me, it also was a year of glandular crisis, marked by the onslaught of acne, orthodontia, and dreams that I did not wish to disclose to my parents.

 

It is not for the minor occurrences, of course, that 1939 is remembered, but for its perplexing web of failure and fulfillment: the outbreak of World War II in Europe and the opening of two simultaneous world’s fairs on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America.

The conventional explanation of this strange concurrence of elation and despair is that Europe was trigger-happy and America was asleep. I do not remember its being that way at all. To the contrary, I, for one, was nervously wakeful, and I think there were innumerable other twelveyear-old American boys, as well as Americans of much riper age, who were alert to the likelihood that there would soon be gunfire all over the earth and that our country would be compelled to take part in it. Aloof, perhaps, we hoped to stay, but not asleep. Since the beginning of the century, empires had been falling around us like rotten trees. The Osmanli, Hapsburg, Romanov, and Manchu dynasties were gone. Although the British had not yet joined Nineveh and Tyre, and the French, the Dutch, the Belgians, and the Portuguese were hanging on to their dominions over palm and pine, people everywhere were rearranging the palace furniture and cleaning out the drawers. Just as the year began—and in the aftermath of Neville Chamberlain’s compact with the Germans at Munich—Key Pittman, the Nevada Democrat who then headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, handed out an oddly naive statement summing up his own and many Americans’ view of the world:

 
 
 

“1. The people of the United States [Senator Pittman declared] do not like the Government of Japan.”

“2. The people of the United States do not like the Government of Germany.”

“3. The people of the United States … are against any form of dictatorial government, Communistic or Fascistic.”

“4. The people of the United States have the right and power to enforce morality and justice in accordance with peace treaties with us. And they will. Our government does not have to use military force and will not unless necessary.”

It is hard to imagine anyone in public office nowadays making such an arrogant and unguarded pronouncement, but that, too, was characteristic of America in 1939. We still believed that it was possible to uphold great ideas, moral rectitude, and institutional superiority without being forced to do anything about them. Our two world’s fairs were redolent of idealism, an almost blind faith in the goodness, truth, and beauty of our national ethos, which had survived the demoralizing social changes of the 1920s and the unnerving economic reverses of the 1930s. The West Coast fair, which opened in San Francisco in February, styled itself “A Pageant of the Pacific” in tribute to an imaginary fusion of cultures, a nonexistent American-dominated brotherhood of nations around the rim of the Pacific. The East Coast fair, opening two months later in New York, unveiled a vision of an equally illusory “World of Tomorrow,” shaped by then-prevalent American notions of benevolent capitalism, streamlined product design, and visionary city planning.

To kids like me in northern California, the West Coast fair—officially called the Golden Gate International Exposition—was the third and most exciting in a trio of magnificent projects that seemed to cap our most ambitious dreams. For five years we had been watching the building of an impossible span across the Golden Gate and of the longest suspension bridge in the world across San Francisco Bay; and now, in celebration of those attainments (and, somewhat confusingly, in recognition of our national hegemony over the Pacific, our city fathers, with substantial help from the federal government, had built a four-hundred-acre paddy of Sierra boulders and tidal mud called Treasure Island, smack in the middle of San Francisco Bay, and had invited the world to gather and make merry.