When They Really Loved New York

PrintPrintEmailEmail

It was the best time and place to be alive in since the world began, and everybody knew it. “I remember,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.”

Fitzgerald’s Arcadia was New York in the 1920s, a city so raucous and dazzling and spiky with new buildings that one awed British visitor described it simply as “supreme.”

The decade began and ended a little early for the city: it started with the victorious soldiers marching up Fifth Avenue all through the spring and summer of 1919, and it died spectacularly in October 1929. In between, New York was the world’s stockbroker, and a powerful manufacturing center. Half a million of its six million residents actually produced things, to the tune of six billion dollars a year.

A great deal of the money made in the town was spent there—prodigiously. Prohibition forced revelers out of the cafés and roof gardens of the turn of the century into speakeasies and flossy nightclubs where the tabs were startling even by today’s standards. One customer dropped thirteen hundred dollars for his party of four at Larry Fay’s. “It was worth it,” he explained. “I had a hell of a good time.”

Even in that privileged decade not everyone could live like that, but the consensus remains strong after sixty years that, for the most part, New York in the 1920s was a hell of a good time.

“Supreme City,” the special section in this issue, will take the reader on a tour of that singular town through the memoir of one of the thousands who made the pilgrimage there from the sticks and found what he was looking for, through a guide to the city’s everyday pleasures assembled from the magazines and newspapers of the time, and through a look at some hardy survivors of the era’s architectural explosion.

The editors hope this record of a lost city will remind those who were there how good it was, and suggest to those who have come after what it was like to be part of that hectic, crowded decade when the blazing towers of the Manhattan skyline were a beacon signaling the world that America had come of age.

Richard F. Snow