December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
To Set the World on Fire
Even more people that afternoon were listening to a CBS broadcast of the New York Philharmonic when the news came. The orchestra had begun with an already scheduled rendering of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the radio audience was awaiting a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 to be conducted by Artur Rodzinski at Carnegie Hall when the announcement was made. The live Carnegie Hall audience learned the news at the conclusion of the performance from the announcer Warren Sweeney, who then asked for the anthem to be played again. Arthur Rubinstein, that day’s scheduled piano soloist, joined in playing, and the audience, which had hummed and mumbled in observance the first time, now sang at the top of their voices.
The popular song of that week was a sweet little ballad called “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” Among the other chart hits of 1941 that might have been playing that Sunday were “Blues in the Night,” “Take the A Train,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and “Elmer’s Tune,” the work of a Chicago undertaker’s assistant named Elmer Albrecht.
The book trade seemed more geared for war. Of the year’s ten nonfiction best sellers lying around people’s living rooms that afternoon, seven dealt with war and preparation for it. William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary , a reporter’s sketch of Nazi Germany, sold 450,235 copies through bookstores and the Book-of-the-Month Club. The White Cliffs , Alice Duer Miller’s epic poem to England, was second among nonfiction titles. Lower down were the speeches of Winston Churchill and You Can’t Do Business With Hitler , by Douglas Miller. Irvin S. Cobb’s Exit Laughing was the single humorous entry on the nonfiction list.
Fifth on the year’s fiction sales list, behind The Sun Is My Undoing , by Marguerite Steen, was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls , his first great seller. His noble account of struggles in the recent civil war in Spain suited the reading public’s mood, which seemed less escapist even in its choice of novels.
On Broadway, Sons o’ Fun , displaying the vivid Carmen Miranda, had opened its run of 742 performances at the Winter Garden Theater December 1. Over at the Imperial, Danny Kaye and Eve Arden had been singing Cole Porter’s new songs in Let’s Face It since the end of October. This show, which also included Mr. Kaye’s manic patter explorations, would survive well into the new year.