by Jan Morris; Oxford University Press; 273 pages; $17.95.
The English historian Jan Morris says she chose the title of this book because “it sounded partly like a kind of gun, and partly like champagne, and thus matched the victorious and celebratory theme of my book.” The theme, of course, is New York City on the sunny cusp of its existence, the year 1945. “Ask almost anyone who remembers Manhattan then,” says Morris, “and they recall it with proud nostalgia, even if they were poor and lonely. … Few cities in the history of the world can have stood so consciously at a moment of fulfillment, looking into a future that seemed so full of reward.”
Morris takes us on a tour through this ardent, satisfied town, and we find it at once familiar and remote, almost as great a spiritual distance from its modern counterpart as it was from the gray, broken capitals of Europe. The tour is fond, lively, exuberant, and full of detail—the menus in hotel dining rooms, the skyscraper mail chutes refrigerated to keep the letters from burning as they plunged earthward, the big American La France V-12 hook-and-ladders—but as Morris roams up and down the avenues and into side streets, we see that this city is, as always, a frenetic metaphor for the whole nation.
If one can find a larger meaning in the busy, provincial, hopeful citizenry of 1945 New York, there is also much here to stir the pride of locals even in today’s sadder and wiser city. The very first scene in the book, for instance, has a contingent of jubilant GIs aboard the Queen Mary , steaming home from the wars, up through the narrows, past the Statue of Liberty with a fireboat pluming water alongside, heading for the mid-town docks. As the ship approaches the pier, one soldier yells out to a waiting reporter, “Hey, what town is this?”
There’s still not another city on earth where that joke would make sense.