November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
All through the 1920s eager young emigrants left the towns and farms of America and headed for New York City. One of them recalls the magnetism of the life that pulled him there.
And still they come.
From west of the Appalachians, from the prairies of the middle border, from the shortgrass country, and from the South, young Americans troop to New York in search of fullfillment—or perhaps to get away from something.
Garrison Keillor left Minnesota for New York because, among other reasons, he wanted to be a New Yorker writer and because in his hometown, Anoka, everybody knew everything about one another. Alfred Uhry, the recent Pulitzer Prize winner as author of the current Off-Broadway hit Driving Miss Daisy, knew from the time he was a little boy that for him the action was not in Atlanta but in New York. For some the great objective is to be a buyer at Macy’s. M.B.A.s head for the corporate life. Brenda Spencer graduated from Purdue and now directs Spencer Realty on Madison Avenue in New York. But she has a box of keepsakes to remind her of her old Indiana home.
Back in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Betsie Howie dreamed of an acting career when she was only twelve years old. At age sixteen she made it to Manhattan. There at last report she was tending bar at Phebe’s Place on the Lower East Side while waiting for the big break.
I cannot claim to have been so precocious. But it may have been as early as my high school years, just before the 1920s, that I foreclosed all options except one: In God’s good time I would go to New York. Sitting in the public library on the southeast corner of the “Square” in Carrollton, Illinois, I would open up the latest issue of Life, the illustrated magazine of humor. Passing rapidly by the advertisements for Cliquot Club ginger ale and Egyptian Deities cigarettes, I turned eagerly to the department devoted to the Broadway theater. There I felt myself truly in New York. I could almost smell it and taste it.
Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew were appearing at the Astor in a diverting comedy of business life. Al Jolson was at the Century in Sinbad, which had recently moved from the Winter Garden, where the Passing Show of 1918 now offered “solace for the t.b.m.” (tired businessman) in the customary form of girls, music, and scenery.
I tried to imagine what a Winter Garden was—something like a greenhouse? Was the subway a real train like the Chicago & Alton trains that connected Carrollton with the larger world? Was Staten Island covered with skyscrapers like the pictures I had seen of the Flatiron Building? And how, I wondered, did one pronounce Staten? At any rate, I wanted to go to the nation’s greatest city and compete. Just how this was to be accomplished was not clear. The first order of business was to get there.
This much is certain. By the time I was an upperclassman at the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois, New York had become an idée fixe. As Floyd Dell, the editor and novelist of the 1920s (born in Barry, Illinois), expressed it, New York “was, I vaguely felt, my world.” And when Neysa McMein (born in Quincy, Illinois, not far from Barry), cover-girl artist and queen of the Algonquin Round Table, stepped into the great hall of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, she was sure, according to her recent biographer Brian Gallagher, “that her significant life had already begun.” Exactly.
Perhaps in no other period of its history, not even the Civil War era, did New York experience so many disturbances, tensions, and social and economic bouleversements as in the 1920s. The war effort of 1917-18, called the Great War in the belief that there would never be another like it, had profound and lasting effects upon the life of the city. Through New York poured the men to fight and the money to finance the war. Nearly four and a half million tons of cargo in support of the American Expeditionary Force passed through the port. Transports filled with 1,600,000 men with full equipment loaded at the North River piers or in Brooklyn and moved down the Upper Bay, heading for the open sea, to be picked up by their escort of gray, rake-line destroyers. Hundreds of thousands of visitors saw the departures. They were there again to greet the soldiers returning home, keyed up with victory, feeling a new sense of power, filling the hotels, restaurants, and theaters. So they touched and were touched by the energy and excitements of New York as a part of their experience with war.
After nineteen months of supreme effort and of acceptance of such governmental controls as Americans had never known before, there was a deep yearning for a return to normalcy, in President Harding’s well-remembered phrase. Then the mood changed to anxiety and disillusionment as old values collided with sweeping social changes. A whole generation of young Americans was shaken up by contact with European manners, morals, and social attitudes, as suggested in the Army’s rollicking folk song “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” or in the question raised by “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm after They’ve Seen Paree?” Other influences were breaking up old patterns of thought and behavior: the emergence of the economically independent woman, the liberation accomplished by the automobile, the frankness of tabloid journalism, the radio, which E. B. White called “a pervading and somewhat godlike presence,” and the popularization of the Freudian revolution. The flapper in the illustrations of John Held, Jr., and her escort, caught the new mood and postures so perfectly that life seemed to be imitating art. Associated phenomena included the Charleston dance craze, the stubborn resistance to the Volstead Act, and the rise of organized crime—in short, the hedonism of the Jazz Age.
It was in New York that the new challenges reached their highest visibility. New York, always a city of contradictions: a union town with socialistic leanings, yet the world capital of capitalism; politically chaotic, yet the nation’s busiest workshop, with a symbolical beaver on its municipal seal. A place where—it was said during the years of Prohibition—the quickest way for the thirsty stranger to get a drink was to ask a police officer. Withal a fabulous metropolis of 5,839,738 people and a cultural scene of enormous richness and vitality. If the decade shaped the city, the city in turn shaped the country. As urban manners and disturbing urban ideas reached out farther and faster than ever before, New York received the credit or the blame, according to one’s point of view. Hard-shell preachers might denounce the city as a new Sodom or Gomorrah, farm journals insist that the pastoral myth of the Garden was no illusion, but both the arguments of fundamentalist religion and philosophical primitivism pointed to New York as the ultimate expression of ferment and an alarming tendency in American life.
Political folklore, too, nourished an abiding faith in the virtue of the country boy and the milieu that produced him. Then, in 1920, came a spate of books portraying the rural Arcadia as a delusion. The reality was perceived as dull conformity, the herd mentality—a pinched and sterile outlook.
This phenomenon was given a name, “the revolt of the village,” by Carl Van Doren (born at Hope, Illinois), who early on made the move to a major career in New York as a Columbia University professor, literary critic, historian, and biographer and who won a permanent place in the national letters. The coming writers attacked small-town values, the lace-curtain proprieties, Prohibition, book censorship, repression of sex and the inner life, fundamentalist religion, and political conservatism. Through these new novelistic voices the Roaring Twenties made itself heard: Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Of all this we knew something at least—we” meaning me and kindred spirits who were English majors. The prose that had the most electrifying effect for all the young protesters against the cultural norms of the Middle West came from the incandescent typewriter of H. L. Mencken.
What particularly engaged the attention of the student liberal on the Urbana campus was the literary shoot-out between HLM and our own Urbana celebrity, Professor Stuart Pratt Sherman, chairman of the English department. Sherman was my mentor and model despite the titillation of reading Mencken. Sherman did the heavy lifting for the forces known as the new humanists, who valued tradition, discipline, and the Puritan inheritance. Much of what Mencken wrote, said Sherman, “is not criticism at all but mere scurrility and blackguardism.” In riposte HLM always referred to his critic as being from Iowa. This was his generic term for dismissing all of the Midwest. “The Iowa hayseed remains in his hair…he can’t get rid of the smell of the chautauqua.” Actually, Sherman was by birth from Iowa, Iowa followed by Williams College and Harvard.
By 1924 Sherman’s views had shifted toward a more liberal position and he had discarded his earlier notion, as Van Wyck Brooks phrased it, “that the twentieth century was wholly the work of the devil.” In that year Sherman moved to New York to reach a wide, general audience as editor of the New York Herald Tribune’s book review. Irita Van Doren was by his request the assistant editor and eventually his successor. These were developments of great importance to me, since both Sherman and Irita encouraged me to think I had potential as a writer, for by that time I too was in New York.
In July 1922, on the day after my twenty-second birthday, I arrived at Pennsylvania Station carrying a suitcase stamped with my initials in gold letters and giving the further information “N.Y.C.” One of my early employers remarked dryly, “I see that Gerald has come to stay.” My qualifications for the great adventure can be itemized as follows:
Beyond boy work such as mowing lawns and shocking wheat, I had had one summer’s experience in the adult world as a reporter on the Illinois State Journal in Springfield.
I knew the dates for the major literary events in seventeenth-century England.
I had written some stories for the college newspaper, the Daily Illini.
Some mildly satirical sketches of faculty personalities had been accepted by the undergraduate literary magazine. This presented no difficulty since I was the editor.
I had completed a year of graduate school.
I had five hundred dollars.
I pause here to define New York. Under a charter adopted in 1897 that became effective the following year, the five counties that constituted the city were consolidated into boroughs under a new governmental structure known as Greater New York. But Greater New York as a name never caught on.
The “New York” I first saw in 1922 was Manhattan Island—that is, the old County of New York, the borough with the largest population, 2,271,892. It was the port city, a beehive of world trade and finance, the home of the very rich and the very poor, a cultural capital pulsating with life and energy. It was this ever-changing island whose skyline was known the world over.
From New Jersey, from Brooklyn Heights, or from the promenade deck of an ocean liner on the Hudson River, one could pick out notable buildings reaching for the sky: the Flatiron, that twenty-story engineering marvel of 1902; the Singer Tower of forty-one stories, finished in 1908 and the tallest building in the world until the Metropolitan Life Tower of fifty stories was completed the next year. After 1913 the sixty-story Woolworth Tower, designed by Cass Gilbert (born in Zanesville, Ohio), was for years the world’s tallest skyscraper.
By the late twenties the midtown area was catching up with lower New York with such soaring structures as the fifty-six-story Art Deco Chanin Building on Forty-second Street at Lexington Avenue, which summed up, according to Paul Goldberger, the present architecture critic of The New York Times, “the energetic, confident spirit of the Jazz Age in New York,” and the seventy-seven-story Chrysler Building, whose Art Moderne spire was the first to surpass the Eiffel Tower.
The decade brought a new kind of excitement and elegance to the city, and the new architecture expressed its spirit. This was true not only in the prominent towers that have been named but in hotel construction, in such new additions to the theater district as Town Hall and the Ambassador and Henry Miller theaters, and in the new conceptions of high-rise living represented in such apartment towers as the Savoy-Plaza and the Sherry-Netherland.
But these prodigies were not for me. As though a paper trail led to Greenwich Village, I found a place to stay in quiet, secluded Bank Street on a block where Willa Cather once lived. Some of the most publicized and highly colored reasons why young people were drawn to the Village did not apply to me. I was not a political radical like Max Eastman, a friend who later regretted his youthful association with The Masses and found safe harbor with Reader’s Digest. Many of my new contacts and acquaintances were old-fashioned socialists, and I believe I collected one or two certified anarchists. The emancipated young women who wore Dutchboy bobs, batik scarves, smocks in chartreuse or puce, and open-toed sandals were often, I knew, sexually active, and for heavy philosophic reasons as well as the usual ones. Their reputation was set forth by a Village poet:
They did not seduce me, or I them. I was seriously and devotedly in love with an Illinois coed in the class behind mine. Lettie Gay, the daughter of a stock and grain farmer, was born in Rockport, which is different from Rockford, Illinois. She was charming of person and independent of mind. She knew what farm life held in store for women. Her career goal was to become a hospital dietitian, for she had made the shrewd observation that hospitals were located in urban centers. So we had an understanding that perhaps in a year, when I had become a famous author, she would be coming to New York too.
What I did find appealing about the Village was the low houses, their human scale, the fanlights and elegant fronts in the Federal style, often enhanced with wisteria vines; the cheap rents; the narrow, crooked streets that discouraged through traffic. There was, too, the human scene, the mixture of peoples, the artists and writers in flannel shirts and corduroys, the impact of foreign culture upon a small-town Protestant youth, especially when our Italian neighbors celebrated the Feast of San Gennaro, honoring with floats, much noise, and happiness the principal patron of Naples. Blue-collar wage earners, old families, and distinguished professors lived amicably among the long-established Irish, who still thought of the area as the Ninth Ward.
For local color there were the organ grinders and their monkeys, the pushcarts, and the street cries of the “old clothes” man. And the smells. Along Bleecker Street near Tenth Street there was the trailing aroma of fresh-ground Colombian coffee. Farther east I encountered cheeses I had never heard of: scamorza, ricotta, mozzarella, provola affumicata. Strings of garlic hung from the doorways of the Italian grocery stores. For a special Sunday breakfast there was French-style coffee and lovely brioches to be found at the Rochambeau restaurant, Sixth Avenue and Eleventh Street.
Through these adventures I felt the first stirrings of a new interest in the American experience that was ultimately to become a dominant theme in my life, especially that branch of the historical discipline having to do with the lives of ordinary people. Certainly New York offered abundant material for observation of the city’s outsize economic life. It possessed the most important harbor on the American continent and held the position of the largest manufacturing center in the United States. The total number of employed persons in the city in 1920 was 2,531,412, a figure that included more factory workers than those of Chicago and Philadelphia combined. This supremacy was due not to great complexes of heavy industry but to an immense volume of light manufacturing and subcontracting carried on in small plants, a vast reservoir of skilled and unskilled labor, and superior marketing, transportation, banking facilities, and organizing talents.
The largest employer was the apparel industry, which produced more than half the clothing worn in the entire country. Clothing ranked first in value of product. Other important industries were printing and publishing, food products and tobacco, millinery and lace goods, furs, bread and bakery products, drugs, chemicals, leather goods, and jewelry. By 1930 Brooklyn had passed Manhattan in population, and the other boroughs were rapidly closing the gap; but Manhattan was far ahead in the number of employed workers.
Since I had the leisure, being jobless, I began to do some research on the beginnings of Greenwich Village, its antecedents, its development into New York’s equivalent to Paris’s Latin Quarter. As I roamed the streets, I checked out where Henry James was born, where Mark Twain once lived, little Patchin Place with its ailanthus trees, its old gas lamp, its literary associations.
I regret to say that I have no memory of ever being in Barney Gallant’s celebrated Village Club, probably because it was too expensive for my purse. Barney’s nightspot was run on these sound principles: Don’t tip when entering, don’t call the waiter George, don’t pinch the cigarette girl, and do not ask to play the drums. This restaurateur was an ornament to the Village and a tolerant man. “Every man,” he said, “should be his own Jesus.”
All of this brought joy and a sense of the life of the city, at least a picturesque part of it. But I had missed so much. This was a standard sentiment. Floyd Dell recorded how Sinclair Lewis (born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota) and Vachel Lindsay (born in Springfield, Illinois) spoke of “the days of the ‘real’ Village.” I asked Lewis Gannett, the newspaperman, author, and for years daily book reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune, about this. He explained: “The great days of the Village were just before you got here.”
But I could not linger and cultivate nostalgia. I had to be up and about. Only a few steps from Bank Street the city struck a palpable blow to the senses. There was the roar of the West Side subway under Seventh Avenue, the rumble of the elevated trains with their creaky old wooden cars above Sixth Avenue, grinding for the stop at Eighth Street. There, I recall, I once heard an El conductor shout as he swung open the little iron gate at the end of the car, “Let the nuts off,” as the train slowed down for the stop at the green-gabled station house that linked the Village with uptown and downtown. On every important street there was still the insistent clang of the trolley bell, the clatter and bang when the trolley cars crossed major intersections. Adding to the confusion, many light trucks, express wagons, and drays were still horsedrawn, slowing down the taxis and provoking the honking and gunning of private automobiles.
The triumph of the automobile was clearly in sight. Motorized double-decker buses had appeared on Fifth Avenue in 1907, and between 1910 and 1920 the number of horses in New York City dropped from 128,000 to 56,000. The Bronx River Parkway—the first limited-access highway in the world—was opened for automobile traffic in the fall of 1925, and it became feasible and pleasant to take a spin up to Valhalla for a look at the famous Kensico Dam. The vehicular tunnel between New York and Jersey City—today’s Holland Tunnel—was begun in 1920 and opened in 1927, giving further evidence that the automobile suburbs had arrived and so signaling a decline in New York’s population, human and horse. The Borden Company and Sheffield Farms still ran milk routes in New York in the twenties, delivering the familiar heavy glass bottles house to house and apartment to apartment. For this start-and-stop distribution system the milk wagon was still drawn by a horse. I have a vivid personal reason for remembering this. One day on West Eleventh Street I approached a Borden horse with trust and affection, where-upon the ungrateful beast took a bite out of my overcoat. It never occurred to me that I had a legitimate claim against Borden. This lapse clearly shows that I was not yet a fully assimilated New Yorker.
Pedestrians filled the walkways, jaywalking if necessary, streaking diagonally toward whatever urgent business or pleasure they were pursuing. I, who had no kind of rendezvous, no appointment, was soon going at the same frenetic pace. And that is the way it was. Action. Movement. The electricity of the city. There was noise, inconvenience, even danger. But there was also a countervailing sense of drama, of ebullience, of coping, of being at the center of civilization in the United States.
I sold a few small pieces. Rollo Ogden at The New York Times paid me five dollars each for paragraphs used on the editorial page for the feature “Topics of the Times.” How I ever gained access to the editor of the Times I cannot now imagine. The metropolitan editor of the New York World bought some light features based upon my observations of street scenes. The Globe printed a story about a statue of Gen. James Wolfe that once stood where Greenwich Avenue joins Eighth Avenue.
A good deal of book reviewing came my way. Amy Loveman at the Saturday Review of Literature took an interest in my work. Carl Van Doren, his wife Irita, and his brother Mark, who were successively literary editor of The Nation during the twenties, called upon me from time to time when something that was nonfiction and nonpolitical came in. What I liked doing best and I think I did best was biography. Perhaps without knowing it, I was responding to Thomas Carlyle’s dictum “History is the essence of innumerable Biographies.”
Meanwhile, I had landed a job.
The cultural diversity New York offered to its citizens and the world is strikingly illustrated in the remarkable number of newspapers that then flourished, or at least existed, in this town. There were seventeen English-language daily newspapers in general circulation in 1923, priced at two or three cents, each with a distinct personality, each with its own constituency, many publishing Sunday editions. There was also a vigorous foreign-language press, publishing in German, French, Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish. The Herald hired me at a salary of thirty dollars a week. At long last, I was at work on a metropolitan newspaper with a desk of my very own in the city room.
I was given soft news stories to cover, public dinners with advance handouts available so what I got were free meals and boring evenings. I did some rewrite on the Hall-Mills case, one of the most sensational murder trials in American history, in which a socially prominent Episcopal rector and his choir leader were found shot to death under a crabappletree on an abandoned farm near New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Also in line of duty I received the first bottles of wine I ever owned. They were given to me by a Prohibition agent. The gift was two bottles of New York State wine, the donor the spectacular Izzy Einstein, who adopted more than a hundred disguises to trap violators of the Volstead Act. Izzy loved publicity and so looked with a kindly eye upon newspaper reporters. Once on assignment I traveled to Tottenville, Staten Island, on the dinky cars that connected the far side of the island with the ferry at St. George. I was beginning to know my way around the city.
Looking up and down Fifth Avenue in the early 1920s from a midtown site, one still saw it as the street of fashionable stores. Below Forty-second Street, in addition to Altman’s and the then-new Lord & Taylor store, were Best & Co., the Gorham Building, Gunther’s (New York’s best-known furrier), and Tiffany & Co. at Thirty-seventh Street. Franklin Simon and Bonwit Teller were also below Forty-second Street. Elegant china and glassware were featured at Ovington’s at Thirty-ninth Street. A block north on the east side stood the new home of Arnold, Constable & Co. Woolworth’s five-and-ten on the northeast corner was a hint of commercial things to come, for north of Forty-second Street Fifth Avenue was already being taken over by banks and trust companies.
Facing north and looking beyond the banks, one saw the big vertical sign of Thorley, the “House of Flowers,” a landmark at Forty-sixth Street, and the Scribner Building on the east side between Forty-eighth and Forty-ninth streets, where I came to have both friends and business to attend to. Saks & Co., from Herald Square, was a new arrival on the avenue. Black, Starr & Frost at Forty-eighth Street later became familiar when I wrote its advertisements, though its merchandise was not for the likes of me. On special occasions I enjoyed what was surely one of the world’s best ice-cream sodas at H. Hicks & Son at 675 on the avenue.
Not all the nineteenth-century capitalists or their heirs had yet been driven off the avenue by the advance of trade. Mrs. F. J. Shepard (Helen Gould) was still at No. 579. Robert W. Goelet lived just across from Black, Starr & Frost, and Mrs. Ogden Goelet occupied No. 608. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s great château filled a whole block from Fifty-seventh to Fifty-eighth streets on the west side. Little remains today of the street of the twenties. Looking in both directions along the avenue, one saw the new system of traffic control, six quite ornamental bronze towers twenty-five feet high with an illuminated clock on the north and south faces. The towers were centered in the street at Fourteenth, Twenty-sixth, Thirty-fourth, Forty-second, Fiftieth, and Fifty-seventh streets. They replaced temporary wooden structures of similar style and purpose put up in 1920 that I only dimly remember. At the top of the new towers there was space for a policeman, enclosed in glass, who directed traffic manually. Public transportation was provided by the Fifth Avenue Coach Company, which cost a dime to the other routes’ nickel and whose new motor buses provided an amenity that is still fondly remembered—open-air seats on the upper deck.
After work I often waited for the Herald to come up from the press room before going home. Turning the pages on November 1, 1922, I would have seen these headlines among others:
BRIBES OF $100,000 OFFERED DRY AGENTS
MUSSOLINI CONFIDENT OF AMERICAN SUPPORT
MRS. HALL REVEALS NOTHING BUT SHARP WITS IN INTERVIEW
Feodor Chaliapin, the great Russian basso, arrived the evening before on the White Star liner Olympic and gave a guarded account of his views on the Russian situation. Arrow detachable collars were twenty cents, and William Musgrave Calder, U.S. senator from New York, had spent $5,835 on his campaign. (He was not reelected.) And here on November 5 was a sports item that sounds all too familiar: CORNELL SMOTHERS COLUMBIANS 56 TO 0.
On November 12 it was reported that fake rabbis were selling sacramental wine and two days later that Barron Collier (born in Memphis, Tennessee), the deputy police commissioner, had introduced the novel idea of painting lines on the pavement at street intersections and areas with known traffic problems. Pedestrians would have to learn to follow the little runways “or tell it to the judge.”
When my future wife, Lettie Gay, got her degree in the Department of Home Economics at Illinois, she joined the numerous others cited in this chronicle by telling her faculty adviser, Professor Harriet Barto, “I want to go to New York.” In April 1923 Lettie made it to Manhattan as a dietitian with a live-in job at New York Hospital. This venerable institution, whose charter goes back to the time of George III, was then located just west of Fifth Avenue in the block between Fifteenth and Sixteenth streets. Now, with forty-five dollars a week in my pay envelope and Lettie’s eighty-five dollars a month, marriage seemed possible. So we were united on November 28, 1923, in a civil ceremony at the Municipal Building on Chambers Street by a clerk who graciously removed a big cigar from his mouth as a gesture to the importance we attached to the occasion.
Our wedding trip consisted of walking across Brooklyn Bridge. Past the gold-domed home of the New York World we went, past the clatter and clang of the trolley-car sheds. As the bridge walkway curved upward and we reached the crest, we paused and took in the 360-degree panorama of New York. There was a lift of the heart. We were a thousand miles from home. We were frightened and confident all at the same time, hungry but healthy. Champagne could not have added to the sparkle of the moment as we savored O. Henry’s Bagdad-on-the-Subway. Our address in the Brooklyn Heights section was 50 Garden Place, a semiapartment in a rooming house, bathroom one flight up, refrigerator one flight down.
We continued to explore New York. The ferry ride to Staten Island at five cents was generally regarded as the greatest tourist bargain the city afforded, and we knew it well. On another occasion we subwayed out to Coney Island and feasted Midwestern eyes on the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. We rode uptown on the open-top Fifth Avenue bus to Riverside Drive, past the Charles M. Schwab mansion filling an entire block north of 73rd Street with trees and lawns and a forbidding iron fence. At West 122nd Street we stopped to visit Grant’s Tomb, a formal Roman-style mausoleum, which, I proudly noted, contained a regimental flag deposited there by my great-uncle Samuel Hewes of Quincy, Illinois, and then on to hear the New York Philharmonic orchestra at Lewisohn Stadium. Or we went downtown past Newspaper Row, turning left on Fulton Street for a dinner at Sweet’s restaurant on Schermerhorn Row near the fish market, or to buy some candlesticks on Alien Street east of the Bowery, which we knew as Brasstown.
A stroll on the Lower East Side, home of the huddled masses, made vivid the concept of the melting pot to a young immigrant of colonial descent whose European antecedents were so remote as to be practically nonexistent. Here, in crowded tenements and fetid alleys, waves of newcomers with their ethnic baggage and little else had arrived and settled together in supportive groupings. First they came from the countries Of northern Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century, then in successive waves from Russia, southeastern Europe, and Italy. The influx crested in 1907, when 1,285,349 persons with their cardboard cartons, battered suitcases, or knotted pillowcases were admitted through the receiving station on Ellis Island to experience the trials and triumphs that were to be theirs in our society. To see the teeming streets, to hear the strange accents, to sense the energy and dynamism of this mingling of peoples, was a lesson in humility—and history.
Although my adventurous companion and I had little background in either art or music, we shared an eagerness to receive what the city could give us, and so we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and heard Mme. Frances Aida in Faust at the Metropolitan Opera. When the Boston Symphony Orchestra came to Carnegie Hall, we were there, high up near the roof with the serious music students absorbed in their scores and gesturing with the conductor.
Turning to the Broadway theater, we saw Jane Cowl in Romeo and Juliet, Jeanne Eagels in Rain, and The Old Soak, by Don Marquis.
I have no idea now where we found the money to nourish these cultural experiences. We were certainly not a part of the evening-wrap trade. However, tickets in the top gallery could be had for fifty cents or a dollar, and I beat a path to Gray’s drugstore in Times Square, home of Joe Lebang’s cut-rate ticket agency.
Sometimes we went dancing at the Astor Hotel Grill when “Meet me at the Astor” was part of the New York social vocabulary. My diary shows that we dined and danced in the Village at the Pepper Pot, 148 West Fourth Street, where the candlelight flickered eerily and a sculptor created threedimensional forms from the candle drippings. Here we encountered the very essence of Bohemia in the person of Bobby Edwards, the Village troubadour, who crooned topical rhymes while strumming on a ukulele that he had made from a cigar box. Occasionally he was accompanied on his rounds of Village night spots by his cat, Dirty Joe. And he sang of the contemporary scene:
The “Square” meant Sheridan Square, which was the epicenter of Greenwich Village. Regularly on Tuesday nights Bobby Edwards performed at Enrico and Paglierri’s restaurant, where he called his circle of admirers the Crazy Cat Club, or, in deference to the national origins of the hosts, the Circolo Gatti Metti degli Stati Uniti. We did not go to many movies. One did not come to New York to see movies.
In time I accepted it as a settled matter that I was just another frustrated writer, and I decided that if the dream that had brought me to New York was a fantasy without substance, there might be substantial consolation in the field of advertising.
So I applied for and landed a place as junior copywriter in a well-regarded advertising office at 247 Park Avenue. In the surrealist world of advertising I learned many things, perhaps more than I realized at the time. I had renounced, I thought, all ideas of being anything more than a hired pen. But there were indications that the renunciation was not absolute. I was able to place some miscellaneous articles in Scribner’s Magazine, and I began to read history seriously and build a reference library without articulating just why.
For twenty-eight long years I stayed on in advertising, but in the end I discovered what was right for me. I had been a slow learner. I had made many detours. Yet at long last I found my subject, American social and cultural history.
I tried again. Bruce Catton (born in Petoskey, Michigan) took an article entitled “Holiday Time at the Old Country Store,” and so I was represented in the first issue of American Heritage. Oxford University Press brought out a book, The Old Country Store, which won the John H. Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association. A flow of ideas for books and articles followed, either generated through my own efforts or in the form of congenial suggestions from editors and publishers, more, in fact, than I could ever hope to carry out.
Improving prospects made possible a return to Greenwich Village as the 1920s drew to a close. We bought a house in Bleecker Gardens, an enclosed and gardened enclave on the west side of the Village.
We stayed eighteen years, rearing two daughters in the heart of the city. After the years in advertising I wrote ten books of social history or biography and countless reviews and magazine articles. Now when I return from my Pennsylvania home to the New York of the late 1980s with its topless towers, its furious pace, its splendors and miseries, my mind turns back to the city as I first knew it.
But I am uplifted by continuing evidence that the allure that once drew my generation has not lost its magic.
And still they come.
They come from rural America, from hometowns and midland cities, from the mountain states and the Great Plains: fresh-faced literary hopefuls, struggling artists, jazz musicians, and drama majors, all with strange stirrings in their breasts, all tumbling into Gotham to measure themselves against the brightest and the best. More than can be shown in its statistics, New York was and is a Beulah land of the imagination. Blessed are those who are able to say with Walt Whitman:
“I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island.”