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Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II

Overview

In the stirring signature number from the 1944 Broadway musical On the Town, three sailors on a 24-hour search for love in wartime Manhattan sing, "New York, New York, a helluva town."

The Navy boys’ race against time mirrored the very real frenzy in the city that played host to 3 million servicemen, then shipped them out from its magnificent port to an uncertain destiny. This was a time when soldiers and sailors on their final flings jammed the Times Square movie houses ...

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Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II

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Overview

In the stirring signature number from the 1944 Broadway musical On the Town, three sailors on a 24-hour search for love in wartime Manhattan sing, "New York, New York, a helluva town."

The Navy boys’ race against time mirrored the very real frenzy in the city that played host to 3 million servicemen, then shipped them out from its magnificent port to an uncertain destiny. This was a time when soldiers and sailors on their final flings jammed the Times Square movie houses featuring lavish stage shows as well as the nightclubs like the Latin Quarter and the Copacabana; a time when bobby-soxers swooned at the Paramount over Frank Sinatra, a sexy, skinny substitute for the boys who had gone to war.

Richard Goldstein’s Helluva Town is a kaleidoscopic and compelling social history that captures the youthful electricity of wartime and recounts the important role New York played in the national war effort. This is a book that will prove irresistible to anyone who loves New York and its relentlessly fascinating saga.

Wartime Broadway lives again in these pages through the plays of Lillian Hellman, Robert Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson, and John Steinbeck championing the democratic cause; Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army and Moss Hart’s Winged Victory with their all-servicemen casts; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! hailing American optimism; the Leonard Bernstein–Jerome Robbins production of On the Town; and the Stage Door Canteen.

And these were the days when the Brooklyn Navy Yard turned out battleships and aircraft carriers, when troopships bound for Europe departed from the great Manhattan piers where glamorous ocean liners once docked, where the most beautiful liner of them all, the Normandie, caught fire and capsized during its conversion to a troopship. Here, too, is an unseen New York: physicists who fled Hitler’s Europe spawning the atomic bomb, the FBI chasing after Nazi spies, the Navy enlisting the Mafia to safeguard the port against sabotage, British agents mounting a vast intelligence operation. This is the city that served as a magnet for European artists and intellectuals, whose creative presence contributed mightily to New York’s boisterous cosmopolitanism.

Long before 9/11, New York felt vulnerable to a foreign foe. Helluva Town recalls how 400,000 New Yorkers served as air-raid wardens while antiaircraft guns ringed the city in anticipation of a German bombing raid.

Finally, this is the story of New York’s emergence as the power and glory of the world stage in the wake of V-J Day, underlined when the newly created United Nations arose beside the East River, climaxing a storied chapter in the history of the world’s greatest city.

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Editorial Reviews

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While many small towns seemed to empty because of World War II enlistments, New York City's population seemed to swell. In fact, during the global conflict, the metropolis played host to more than three million servicemen on their way to more dangerous destinations. Richard Goldstein borrows his title from a famous line from the 1944 Broadway musical On the Town and then takes off with an entertainment-packed social history of the Big Apple during WWII. A zestful reprise of an unforgettable era. (Hand-selling tip: One reviewer captured Helluva Town's spirit thusly: "In these engaging vignettes, New York—lively, brave, humane—conquers not just the Axis but war itself.")

From the Publisher
"Mr Goldstein...is an outstanding and thorough researcher...Reading his book is like opening a huge trunk stuffed full of tiny forgotten treasures." —The Economist

“The iconic image of a sailor and nurse embracing in Times Square has always stood for New York City during World War II, but Richard Goldstein's Helluva Town gives us innumerable others to better understand, and to round out, that era: U-boats off the Long Island coast; Bundists in Yorkville; “dimouts” in the Polo Grounds; the bittersweet merriment at the Stage Door Canteen and the bizarre frivolity of the Copacabana; a city filled with troops - and troupes; rioting in Harlem; the Normandie aflame; European refugees and Fiorello La Guardia just about everywhere. As so many eyewitnesses to this fascinating but largely forgotten chapter in New York's history leave the scene, Goldstein has brought it all back in pulsating neon.”

— David Margolick is the author of Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink (2005) and is a contributor to Newsweek.

"Richard Goldstein’s Helluva Town, like the hit show tune from the ‘40s that gave him the phrase, is brimful with affection for his native New York City. Through a series of fascinating vignettes in this tale of World War II New York, he introduces titans like La Guardia, Morgenthau, and Rockefeller, but also Sono Osato, a Japanese-American dancer whose father was among those swept into the internment camps, and Seymour Wittek, a Bronx Coastguarder who became eyewitness to a major threat to the port of New York. Sailors, dockhands, artists, canteen workers, intellectuals, actors, army men, and a myriad of others move through these pages, along with Ethel Merman, Moss Hart, Lillian Hellman, and Irving Berlin. As a fellow New Yorker, I reveled in the vistas into our shared history, and in an era of extraordinary human accomplishment."

—Philip B. Kunhardt III, co-author Looking for Lincoln, 2008 and Lincoln, LifeSize, 2009.

“Richard Goldstein has produced a rollicking, finely reported tale of the coming-of-age of the "capital of the world." All of the actors in the greatest drama of the 20th Century—Nazi spies, movie stars, talented immigrants, and the American soldiers who save democracy—come together on history's center stage—New York. Helluva Town is one helluva ride.”

–Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

"New York is big, and much of this swaggering, nostalgic history recounts the sheer size of the city's contribution to the Allied victory: the prodigies of shipbuilding and repair at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; the 81,000 WAVES churned out at Hunter College; the millions of soldiers sent overseas from New York's harbor after consoling themselves with America's glitziest nightlife. But the story's New Yorkness doesn't resonate from the grand logistics or the war stories—wan spy capers, the accidental shelling of Wall Street, the bomber that crashed into the Empire State Building—with which Times-man Goldstein (America at D-Day) bombards us. More evocative are his accounts of how the upheaval became fodder for the city's efflorescent culture. Insouciant Manhattanites partied in the streets during civil defense drills instead of taking cover; Broadway tunefully repurposed patriotic and martial themes in Oklahoma! and On the Town; and at the Stage Door canteen, a nightclub for servicemen staffed by celebrities, a GI could score a dance with Lauren Bacall. In these engaging vignettes, New York—lively, brave, humane—conquers not just the Axis but war itself."

Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"Thanks to exemplary use of many firsthand accounts, Goldstein captures the spirit of the wartime city, offering enormous appeal to fans of New York City, as well as to students of World War II history." —Library Journal

"Helluva Town is a helluva read...a fascinating look at a remarkable time and a remarkable town." —Associated Press

"Goldstein's well-researched Helluva Town is a rich, wonderful wartime whirl through a great city." —Philadelphia Inquirer

"[Goldstein] recalls patriots as well as spies; heroism as well as rising anti-Semitism and racism. A complex look at New York during WWII." —Booklist

"...a splendid study of the stay-at-homes during those hectic years... Goldstein creates a vivid picture of everyday life at home in New York City during [World War II]." —Maury Allen, The Columnist

Publishers Weekly
New York is big, and much of this swaggering, nostalgic history recounts the sheer size of the city's contribution to the Allied victory: the prodigies of shipbuilding and repair at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; the 81,000 WAVES churned out at Hunter College; the millions of soldiers sent overseas from New York's harbor after consoling themselves with America's glitziest nightlife. But the story's New Yorkness doesn't resonate from the grand logistics or the war stories—wan spy capers, the accidental shelling of Wall Street, the bomber that crashed into the Empire State Building—with which Times-man Goldstein (America at D-Day) bombards us. More evocative are his accounts of how the upheaval became fodder for the city's efflorescent culture. Insouciant Manhattanites partied in the streets during civil defense drills instead of taking cover; Broadway tunefully repurposed patriotic and martial themes in Oklahoma! and On the Town; and at the Stage Door canteen, a nightclub for servicemen staffed by celebrities, a GI could score a dance with Lauren Bacall. In these engaging vignettes, New York—lively, brave, humane—conquers not just the Axis but war itself. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
A vivid but scattershot exploration of the pivotal role New York City played in mobilizing America's World War II effort, both logistically and culturally. If there's one point that this series of vignettes drives home more than any other, it's how dramatically the perception of, and support for, war has changed on the home front since the 1940s. New York Times writer Goldstein (Desperate Hours: The Epic Rescue of the Andrea Doria, 2001, etc.) weaves a patchwork quilt of communal camaraderie that demonstrates how the can-do spirit of metropolitan New York helped define the country's attitude toward the war-a stark contrast to today's fractured perspectives on conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author's many stories include: dockside workers' Herculean attempts to ramp up ship-building capabilities in New York Harbor; the Mafia's cooperation with law-enforcement officials to provide intelligence on German dispositions; Irving Berlin and a host of other Broadway performers banding together to entertain troops and a worried American public; and the combined efforts of pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Squibb and Merck to mass-produce the newly discovered "miracle" drug penicillin to aid soldiers' recovery from battlefield infections. The author loosely organizes each series of anecdotes into themes including "The Harbor," "The Uniforms" and "The Tensions," but the material is as eclectic as the city itself. This is a beneficial attribute when the stories are lively-as in the case of a small plane crashing into the Empire State Building in the midst of a city terrified of the possibility of air raids-but the jarring transition to less-riveting tales creates a sense of disconnect and givesthe book the feel of a rough-cut documentary filled with fascinating information but in need of judicious editing. A concluding essay contextualizing New York's role vis-a-vis other parts of the country would have been welcome, but Goldstein produces a worthwhile book for WWII buffs and lifelong New Yorkers. Agent: Paul Bresnick/Paul Bresnick Literary Agency
Library Journal
Goldstein (New York Times; America at D-Day) offers an account of World War II New York, where supporting troop as well as civilian morale was always a day-to-day issue, whether by entertaining servicemen at the Stage Door Canteen or providing them with entertainment in "blacked out" Times Square. The wisdom of the time deemed it necessary to have fun when one could, for nobody knew what the next day might bring. The much-feared danger of enemy invasion became a reality in the case of the hapless German saboteurs who snuck ashore on Long Island in June 1942, only to be rounded up in Manhattan within days. Goldstein's book is both broader and more in-depth than Lorraine B. Diehl's Over Here! (reviewed at left), highlighting the watershed invention and widespread introduction of penicillin during the war, which, thanks to improvements made by locally based Pfizer, helped save countless lives. While numerous famous people are cited, the most important individual for New York's war effort was surely the indefatigable Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who loved New York and spared no effort to insure its mobilization at every level. VERDICT Thanks to exemplary use of many firsthand accounts, Goldstein captures the spirit of the wartime city, offering enormous appeal to fans of New York City, as well as to students of World War II history.—Richard Drezen, Brooklyn, NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439196687
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 5/4/2013
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 787,705
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Goldstein writes for The New York Times, where he also worked as an editor. His previous books include America at D-Day; Desperate Hours: The Epic Rescue of the Andrea Doria; Spartan Seasons: How Baseball Survived the Second World War; and Mine Eyes Have Seen: A First-Person History of the Events That Shaped America.

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Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In the south of England, soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied forces massed for the long-awaited invasion of northern France. On the American homefront in this first week of June 1944, tensions rose as D-Day neared. But in Times Square, the Broadway theaters, the movie palaces and the nightclubs played on. Mary Martin starred at the 46th Street Theatre as a statue come to life in One Touch of Venus. Harry James brought his orchestra to the Astor Roof. Imogene Coca drew the laughs at the supper club Le Ruban Bleu. Servicemen were everywhere, looking for girls, and war-plant workers flush with cash were looking for night spots to empty their wallets.

Carlos Romulo, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Filipino journalist who fled Corregidor with General Douglas MacArthur’s staff in the early months of the war, had arrived in Manhattan soon afterward to find “a city living apparently in a state of fiesta.”

“I came from the battlefield into the Starlight Room of the Waldorf where men and women in evening clothes were dancing to Cugat’s music,” Romulo would recall. “Everyone was out having fun, and only the paper hats and horns were lacking to make every night a perpetual New Year’s Eve.”

As a native New Yorker intrigued by the city’s history, as someone who had written on World War II combat, I had wondered: Was there really a war on so far as Brooklyn and the Bronx could tell?

Indeed there was. In seeking to answer this question, I came upon a story of scientific brilliance, artistic genius, a generous spirit, and the courage of ordinary men and women.

Times Square hosted a nightly frenzy, but why not? The more than three million servicemen who passed through it between Pearl Harbor Sunday and V-J Day were racing against time. Like the three sailors of Broadway’s On the Town looking for love on a twenty-four-hour pass, they were on their final flings before facing an uncertain fate.

In recalling the show’s signature number “New York, New York,” Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the book and lyrics and became one of its three couples, were convinced that “New York was a helluva town.”

There were nine daily newspapers, you could buy a hot dog for a nickel, adventure in the streets may have been raffish but not necessarily fatal, and you could see a Broadway movie for 40 cents before 1 p.m., and it might have been Betty Grable or Hutton corn, but not porn.

New York was going to show the men and women headed overseas a good time before shipping them out. And it dispatched their armaments from its magnificent harbor while the Brooklyn Navy Yard built the battleships and aircraft carriers to avenge Pearl Harbor.

The city’s popular culture became an arsenal of democracy of another sort. On the Broadway stage, Lillian Hellman, Robert Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson, and John Steinbeck championed the democratic cause, Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army and Moss Hart’s Winged Victory paid tribute to the armed forces with their all-servicemen casts, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! buoyed American optimism at a time of national testing. Broadway’s leading actors and actresses performed at the Stage Door Canteen in Midtown and at bases and military hospitals around the world.

And New York became a haven for the scientists, artists, journalists, and playwrights fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe.

Laura Fermi, the wife of the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Enrico Fermi, remembered the morning of January 2, 1939, when she arrived with her husband and two children in New York from Southampton, England, aboard the steamship Franconia on the final leg of their journey from fascist Italy:

The New York skyline appeared in the gray sky, dim at first, then sharply jagged, and the Statue of Liberty moved toward us, a cold, huge woman of metal, who had no message yet to give me. But Enrico said, as a smile lit his face tanned by the sea: “We have founded the American branch of the Fermi family.”

Enrico Fermi became part of an unseen New York.

Fermi joined with his fellow émigré Leo Szilard to conduct pioneering experiments in nuclear fission at Columbia University leading to creation of the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project having been named for the place where it all began. The FBI, meanwhile, chased after Nazi spies in the city, Navy intelligence enlisted the Mafia to avert sabotage at the mob-run docks, and the British mounted a vast intelligence operation from obscure offices in Rockefeller Center.

Long before 9/11, New Yorkers felt vulnerable to a foreign foe. The city was assumed to be “Target Number One” if the Germans could send bombers into America’s skies or shell the coastline from U-boats. Some 400,000 New Yorkers served as air-raid wardens while antiaircraft guns ringed the city. New Yorkers bought war bonds, donated blood, planted Victory Gardens, and collected metal scrap for conversion to armaments. Lest nostalgia get the best of us, this was also a time of racial and ethnic tensions. Racism and poverty spawned a riot in Harlem. A national rise in anti-Semitism brought attacks upon Jewish youngsters on New York streets.

Finally, this is a story of New York’s transformation at war’s end. The more than 800,000 New Yorkers who served in the armed forces came home to a city that was emerging as the world capital. New York surpassed Paris in art and fashion, London in financial prowess—its international clout underscored when the newly created United Nations voted to establish its permanent headquarters along the East River.

After ten years’ absence from New York, the British writer J. B. Priestley passed through the city in 1947 on his trip to Mexico for a meeting of the United Nations Economic and Social Conference.

Speaking on the BBC when he came home, Priestley took notice of New York the world city.

Its huge cosmopolitanism—it has more Jews than Palestine and more Italians than Naples—is untouched in the history of man. And this gives its little shops and restaurants and odd corners a unique charm. The ends of the earth are gathered together down one New York side street. You can dine, drink and amuse yourself in three continents. The New York that O. Henry described forty years ago was an American city, but today’s glittering cosmopolis belongs to the world, if the world does not belong to it.

© 2010 Richard Goldstein

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Table of Contents

Pt. I The Threat 1

1 Worlds of Tomorrow 3

2 Pearl Harbor Sunday 11

3 December Jitters 19

4 In the Event of an Air Raid ... 26

5 Nazis in New York 35

6 The British, the Russians, and the Doll-Lady Spy 45

Pt. II The Harbor 53

7 Shipping Out 55

8 The Great Navy Yard 64

9 The Normandie Ablaze 72

10 The Port Imperiled 81

11 From Europe's Shores 91

Pt. III The Uniforms 103

12 Campus Navies 105

13 The Coast Guard in Brooklyn 115

14 Army Cameras in Queens 121

Pt. IV The Stage 127

15 Voices of Democracy 129

16 Hearts at the Stage Door Canteen 139

17 Lunchtime Follies 145

18 Irving Berlin's Army 151

19 Moss Hart's Airmen 161

20 Beautiful Mornin' and Sailors on the Town 171

Pt. V The Night 181

21 Times Square in Shadow 183

22 The Latin Beat 192

23 Cafe Society 198

Pt. VI The Tensions 205

24 The Fuehrer of Yorkville 207

25 The Catholics and the Jews 213

26 Harlem Seethes 219

27 The Riot of '43 226

Pt. VII The Homecoming 235

28 The Miracle Drug 237

29 "Don't Stare and Don't Ask Questions" 243

30 Colonel Smith's Last Mission 250

31 "For a Worthy Cause" 258

32 Finale for La Guardia 268

Epilogue: World Capital 274

Acknowledgments 283

Notes 285

Sources 299

Index 307

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