- Historic Sites
The Other Fair
New Yorkers recall 1939 as the year of the great World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow. But that’s just more Eastern provincialism. Take a look at what was going on in San Francisco.
May/June 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 4
In the smug little city of Oakland, where I lived, battening on Fleer’s Double-Bubble gum, Fleischmann’s yeast, Hornby’s oats, and Upjohn cod-liver oil, there was widespread indignation that New York had tried to steal our thunder. (Even in those days, Oakland was paranoid: our Chamber of Commerce called us “Treasure Island’s Mainland.”) I developed a strong dislike for a man named Grover A. Whalen, an Eastern dandy with a fussy little mustache and a white carnation in his buttonhole, who was pictured frequently in Liberty and Collier’s and Life, raving about how large and beautiful and modern the New York World’s Fair, of which he was the president, was going to be. We Westerners knew that the New York fair would actually be “modernistic” and “futuristic,” terms that were vaguely disparaging even in 1939.
To me it was self-evident that our fair, so ingeniously constructed, so stylishly designed by the very team of San Francisco architects who had created the much-admired Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915, would be nothing less than the climax of American civilization. Through the efforts of innumerable press agents, we knew a great deal about the fair even before it opened. We knew, for example, that the sands of Treasure Island harbored precious metals: Clyde Vandeburg, the publicist who had named the island, invited the former President Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer, to check the soil, and Mr. Hoover, who was not known for overstatement, found flecks of gold that he reckoned had washed into the bay from inland dredging. We knew, as well, that the fair would have a unique architecture, borrowed from Mayan, Incan, Malayan, and Cambodian archeology. Its inventors called the style Pacific Basin. That this style turned out to be simply a form of decoration, laid over the slats and plaster of temporary exhibit halls, never troubled us. There was a certain dignity about the Beaux-Arts ground plan of courtyards and vistas that stirred wistful memories of the 1915 fair, and our Tower of the Sun, although it was as spindly as a gutted herring and certainly was not Cambodian, at least was not obscene, like New York’s Trylon and Perisphere.
Our fair would offer puppet shows, plane rides, and model gold mines. On an outdoor stage twothirds as long as a football field, there would be a pageant called “Cavalcade of the Golden West,” with conquistadors, stagecoaches, steam engines, and Indians on horseback. The curtain would consist of twenty-five hundred jets of water, sparkling with colored lights.
Months before the muds of Treasure Island had jelled beneath the pilings of a single building, our neighborhood drugstore began selling colored postcards that showed an enormous island, floating like Venice in a milky blue lagoon, surmounted by towers that dwarfed the downtown office buildings of San Francisco. Inflamed by this vision, Skip Johnson and I constructed an island in Trestle Glen Creek and laid out an international exposition. It had an illuminated theme building of coffee cans and candle stubs and an amusement zone devoted to rope swinging, stepping-stone leaps, and upstream wading.
Many of my memories of 1939 are of this childish stuff. My literary tastes in those days ran to S. S. Van Dine, E. Nesbit, and Arthur Ransome, and everyone I knew was following Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, week after week, in The Saturday Evening Post. My world was peopled by celebrities I read about in Life. Shirley Temple, who was a year younger than I, had led the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. Jane Withers threw a slam-bang thirteenth-birthday party in Hollywood. Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck got married. The Selznick studio, after an extravagantly publicized search that went on for two years, chose an English actress named Vivien Leigh to play the role of Scarlett O’Hara in the movie Gone with the Wind. The Grand Lake Theater was showing Gunga Din.
Research, not recollection, allows me to embellish this glamorous picture with a few statistics. The population of the forty-eight United States was 131 million, and the birthrate was falling. The U.S. Census Bureau predicted that by 1980 our nation would have topped out at 150 million and begun to shrink. The Depression of the thirties was still with us; 10 million were unemployed. Ice-cream cups sold for five cents. One could buy a new Hudson sedan, f.o.b. Detroit, for $695, and eat dinner en route on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s all-coach Trail Blazer, New York to Chicago, for seventy-five cents. In Baldwin Manor, a suburb of Pittsburgh, developers opened a twelve-room, three-story, whitewashed-brick house designed by the architect Royal Barry Wills to meet the budget limitations of a family with a yearly income of $5,000. A federal relief check, typically, was $29 a month.