Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern Americaby Donald L. Miller
“Supreme City captures a vanished Gotham in all its bustle, gristle, and glory” (Vanity Fair). In the 1920s midtown Manhattan became the center of New York City, and the cultural and commercial capital of America. This is the story of the people who made it happen.
In just four words—“the capital of/i>/i>
“Supreme City captures a vanished Gotham in all its bustle, gristle, and glory” (Vanity Fair). In the 1920s midtown Manhattan became the center of New York City, and the cultural and commercial capital of America. This is the story of the people who made it happen.
In just four words—“the capital of everything”—Duke Ellington captured Manhattan during one of the most exciting and celebrated eras in our history: the Jazz Age. Supreme City is the story of Manhattan’s growth and transformation in the 1920s and the brilliant people behind it. Nearly all of the makers of modern Manhattan came from elsewhere: Walter Chrysler from the Kansas prairie; entertainment entrepreneur Florenz Ziegfeld from Chicago. William Paley, founder of the CBS radio network, was from Philadelphia, while his rival David Sarnoff, founder of NBC, was a Russian immigrant. Cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden was Canadian and her rival, Helena Rubenstein, Polish. All of them had in common vaulting ambition and a desire to fulfill their dreams in New York. As mass communication emerged, the city moved from downtown to midtown through a series of engineering triumphs—Grand Central Terminal and the new and newly chic Park Avenue it created, the Holland Tunnel, and the modern skyscraper. In less than ten years Manhattan became the social, cultural, and commercial hub of the country. The 1920s was the Age of Jazz—and the Age of Ambition.
Transporting, deeply researched, and utterly fascinating, Supreme City “elegantly introduces one vivid character after another to re-create a vital and archetypical era…A triumph” (The New York Times).
Lafayette College history professor Miller (Masters of the Air) captures the heady excitement and enduring creativity of 1920s Manhattan. Focusing on development of Midtown Manhattan, Miller vividly reimagines the city to describe the lives of his characters—those responsible for the skyscrapers, hotels, department stores, co-ops, night clubs, theaters, and businesses that flocked to Midtown after the completion of Grand Central Station in 1913. His cast includes the famous (Charles Lindbergh, Duke Ellington); the infamous (mobster Owney Madden); the ingenious (George Washington bridge engineer Othmar Ammann); and the entrepreneurial (cosmetics empress Helen Rubenstein, NBC founder David Sarnoff). Others—longshoremen, garment workers, ironworkers—labored behind the scenes. Miller covers topics as diverse as the crime syndicates and bootleggers of the Prohibition era; changes in the housing market; the evolution of the publishing industry; the construction of chic, art deco office buildings, such as the Chrysler, that transformed Midtown into a mercantile center with distinctive boundaries; and far more. Conveying the panoramic sweep of the era with wit, illuminating details, humor, and style, Miller illustrates how Midtown Manhattan became the nation’s communications, entertainment, and commercial epicenter. 50 b&w images in a 24-page insert. Agent: Gina Maccoby, Gina Maccoby Literary Agency. (May)
An award-winning historian surveys the astonishing cast of characters who helped turn Manhattan into the world capital of commerce, communication and entertainment. Except for occasional geographic detours to Harlem for the Cotton Club or the Bronx for Yankee Stadium, and a couple of temporal departures that highlight, for example, the completion of Grand Central Terminal or the opening of the George Washington Bridge, Miller (History/Lafayette Coll.; Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, 2006, etc.) confines his story to Midtown Manhattan and the 1920s. Even with these self-imposed boundaries, the narrative bursts with a dizzying succession of tales about the politicos, impresarios, merchants, sportsmen, performers, gangsters and hustlers who accounted for an unprecedented burst of creativity and achievement. Readers with even a passing acquaintance with Jazz Age New York will recognize many of Miller's characters—Mayor Jimmy Walker, Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, Duke Ellington, Jack Dempsey, Walter Chrysler, David Sarnoff, Florenz Ziegfeld—but how many know the story of Othmar Ammann, perhaps history's greatest designer of steel bridges? Or bootlegger Owney Madden, model for his friend George Raft's silver-screen gangster? Or Lois Long, hard-living fashion editor for Harold Ross' New Yorker? Or boxing promoter Tex Rickard, first to recognize that each fight required an intriguing narrative to build box office sales? Or the charismatic Horace Liveright, who thought of each book he published as an event? How the speak-easies hummed and how Prohibition democratized drinking, how cosmetics queens (and mortal enemies) Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden blazed new paths for women, how Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue became fashion meccas, how "mansions in the sky" blossomed all over the city—all this and much more cram Miller's sprightly narrative about a city so convinced of its centrality as to employ an "official greeter." A scholarly enough social history but one with plenty of sex appeal.
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Read an Excerpt
STREET OF DREAMS
Park Avenue on the island of Manhattan is the end of the American ladder of success. Higher one cannot go.
STUART CHASE, 1927
The Building Boom
It was the most spectacular decade of building in the city’s history. During World War I both commercial and housing construction declined sharply nationwide, with workers and building materials directed toward military mobilization. But after a severe postwar recession, the economy rebounded robustly in late 1921 and for the next eight years a new building went up in New York City every fifty-one minutes, on average. Older buildings were demolished at an equally rapid rate.
The Grand Central Terminal Zone was the eye of this hurricane of construction activity. In the years between the opening of Grand Central and the Lindbergh parade, the assessed value of land in Terminal City shot up nearly 250 percent. “The city is being rebuilt,” wrote The New York Times in late 1926. “In not more than half a dozen years the skyline of midtown Manhattan . . . [and] Park Avenue has been lifted a hundred feet.”
The speculative fever was abetted by an acute postwar shortage of housing and office space, and by new sources of investment capital available to real estate developers. “The building orgy outlasted and outdid all others in New York real estate history,” explained historian Arthur Pound, “because ways and means were found for getting the little fellow’s money into big deals.” The commercial real estate business was no longer governed by transactions between one buyer and one seller. Large landholding companies emerged and sold stock on the open market, making it easier to become a real estate investor “than buying sugar.” Small investors were also enticed into purchasing mortgage bonds. These were created by splitting up large mortgages into smaller, affordable parcels, a practice introduced years earlier by the New York Central and other big railroad companies. Mortgage companies pledged to safeguard the bond holdings of small investors, promising them that their money was more secure than it would be in the vaults of their neighborhood banks. “So assured, a public, ignorant of risk, was drawn into the risky game of real estate speculation,” wrote Pound.
When the supply of housing and office space finally began to overtake demand in 1927, New York architects and real estate developers remained serenely confident that blue skies were in the financial forecast for years, perhaps decades, to come. After the speculative bubble burst in October 1929, the solemn guarantees of the bond hucksters proved worthless, and investors, small and large, were ruined. But in the buoyant 1920s, such a bleak scenario was beyond imagining for most New Yorkers.
The building boom fed on itself. Spiraling land values drove up taxes on older rental properties, providing incentive for owners of prime Manhattan real estate to build taller buildings, with more rental space, on their heavily taxed sites. City government poured oil on the fire. In 1921, in response to the housing shortage, it exempted new residential construction from real estate taxes for a period of ten years. No single piece of legislation in New York history gave a greater boost to the city’s construction industry. In the 1920s, New York City would account for fully 20 percent of all new residential construction in the country. Builders of large apartment houses were the pacesetters. In 1926, 77 percent of all new residential construction was given over to apartment dwellings.
The following year only five new single-family houses were built in all of Manhattan; and for half of that year, the city’s Building Department failed to receive a single application for a permit to put up a private house. Almost none of the new money available for housing went to the construction of apartments for the needy. The returns were vastly greater on high-end construction on Park Avenue than they would have been on modest apartments on the Lower East Side. Here, as in nearly every other sector of the city’s commercial culture, profit ruled.
Development along Park Avenue was accelerated and given a distinctive cast by circumstances peculiar to its real estate market. In any large, thickly settled city, it is exceedingly difficult for a developer to acquire separate, but contiguous, parcels of real estate in order to assemble a building lot of sufficient size to put up a big revenue-generating building. This was the attraction of land leased from the New York Central’s real estate company. The sole owner of a million square feet of prime Midtown land, the Central leased this land and the air rights over it in large, sometimes block-size, parcels. Urban land offered in this way—already assembled into big lots ready for development—was deeply attractive to speculative builders. But only to those with the means and incentive to construct the kind of housing that yielded the highest return on investment: apartments for the hugely rich.
By leasing rather than selling its air rights, the company was able to “exercise a strict supervision over the architectural features of the buildings.” This was important to sharp-eyed capitalists like J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Stockholders in the New York Central’s real estate company, they also lived in the vicinity of the terminal and were interested in upgrading the area. Though unimaginatively similar in style, the buildings constructed on Grand Central property were among the most substantial and richly appointed in the city, establishing Park Avenue’s reputation as the world’s most fashionable apartment thoroughfare. “Windows and prim greenery and tall, graceful, white facades rise up from either side of the asphalt stream,” wrote Zelda Fitzgerald, “while in the center floats . . . a thin series of watercolor squares of grass—suggesting the Queen’s Croquet Ground in Alice in Wonderland.”
Mansions in the Sky
By 1927, the commanding apartment buildings along Park Avenue were not just tall; they were immensely tall, true towers, the first skyscrapers built for permanent living. The tallest of them was the Ritz Tower, shooting up from the pavement at the corner of Fifty-seventh Street and Park Avenue. Built for bluebloods and tycoons by Emery Roth, an immigrant Jew from Eastern Europe, it opened in October 1926 and was one of the first residential buildings in New York constructed in sympathy with the city’s landmark zoning law of 1916.
Concerned about diminishing sunlight and fresh air in the canyonlike streets created by the closely massed skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, the city placed a limit on the maximum height and bulk of tall buildings. Height limits were based upon the width of the street a building faced; if a developer proposed to exceed the legal limit, the stories above it had to be set back, roughly one foot for each four feet of additional height. Skyscrapers could be of any height, provided they occupied no more than a quarter of their lot.
Forced to work within the confines of the so-called zoning envelope, architects began constructing “set-back” skyscrapers, with sections of the buildings set back further and further as they rose from their bases into the island’s sky. “Wedding cake” architecture, some New Yorkers called it; others compared the new-style skyscrapers to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon with their ascending terraces. Great parts of Midtown were being transformed from “brownstone into Babylon,” said The New York Times.
Unlike apartment houses built only five years earlier on Park and upper Fifth Avenues, most of them twelve to fifteen stories. The Ritz Tower, however, was forty-one stories high. The tallest inhabited building in the world, it dominated the skyline of Midtown Manhattan as the Woolworth Building did that of lower Manhattan. Residents of its upper stories had unobstructed views in all directions for a distance of twenty-five miles on clear days, “panorama[s] unexcelled in all New York,” Emery Roth boasted.
It was a new way of living for the rich. They became sky dwellers, their “mansions in the clouds” higher than anyone had ever lived. In its architectural aspirations alone, the Ritz Tower expressed the shoot-for-the-moon spirit of the Jazz Age. Sculpted in rusticated limestone, it rose from its base “like a telescope,” up through its set-back terraces to a square tower crowned by a glistening copper roof.
Arthur Brisbane, the internationally known newspaper mogul, had commissioned the building. He wanted to live in it and make money from it. The former editor of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal, flagship of the Hearst newspaper chain, Brisbane authored a column, “Today,” that was syndicated in two hundred Hearst papers, and lately had become editor of Hearst’s racy tabloid, the New York Daily Mirror. Both he and his boss, close friends who had flirted with socialism in their youth, were aggressive investors in Manhattan real estate, partners in Hearst-Brisbane Properties and developers of the Ziegfeld Theatre and the Warwick Hotel on the West Side.
The Ritz Tower was a residential hotel: a type of urban living that had arisen in America in the late nineteenth century and become increasingly popular in 1920s Manhattan. Property taxes, keyed to skyrocketing real estate values, made the urban palaces along Fifth Avenue, north of Forty-second Street, prohibitively expensive to maintain, even for the Vanderbilts. One by one, owners of these ponderous mansions, many of them widows, sold them to real estate speculators and moved to residence hotels along Park Avenue. But the very rich lived in their sky houses only part of the year. Wives, children, and grandchildren spent entire summers abroad or at waterfront “cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island, and newly fashionable Palm Beach, Florida. Working fathers and sons stayed in Manhattan and joined their families at their summer retreats for weekends and extended vacations. In September, families reunited on Park Avenue for the city’s obligatory social season, either in residence hotels or in their elegant cousins that took in both resident and transient guests: the Barclay, the Park Lane, and the Drake, names associated with exclusivity and extravagance. “In town it is no longer quite in taste to build marble palaces, however much money one may have. Instead one lives in a hotel,” said a Manhattan social arbiter. It was the height of convenience for those who could afford it. Families could close down their summer homes and arrive at their Park Avenue hotel an hour behind their moving truck and baggage. They could then dress for dinner “with a full complement of maids and valets—members of the house staff—and thereafter continue their accustomed mode of life without the slightest break in the calm course of their living. A pen and a check book,” said one writer, “are the sole requisites of housekeeping or home making.”
But the outstanding attraction of the luxury apartment was the merging of mansion and flat. As the editors of Interior Architecture explained, “The city dweller finds combined in the apartment hotel the quiet, the permanence, and, to a certain extent, at least, the personality, of his own house with the conveniences and freedom from responsibility supplied by hotel service, brought to its present perfection.”
“This is the age of the apartment,” declared Elsie de Wolfe, the city’s foremost interior designer. “Modern women demand simplified living, and the apartment reduces the mechanical business of living to its lowest terms.” Nowhere more than at the Ritz Tower. Arthur Brisbane hired the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, owners of Manhattan’s ultra-exclusive Ritz-Carlton Hotel, to manage it. The company ran it like a luxury hostelry, providing residents with full hotel amenities, including maid service, barber and beauty shops, three first-class restaurants, and an Italian tea garden entered through a Florentine gateway. The suites ranged in size from one to eighteen rooms and had serving pantries rather than kitchens. Meals were prepared in a basement kitchen and sent up to the floors on swift, electrically heated dumbwaiters. Servants delivered them to the apartments. When residents desired a different dining experience, they had their chauffeurs drive them down the avenue to the Crillon Restaurant, in the McKim, Mead & White–designed Hecksher Apartments, or to the fashionable Marguery, just across the street.
The Ritz Tower commission was a career breakthrough for Emery Roth, a Hungarian Jew relatively unknown in Manhattan in 1925. Roth was entirely self-trained. In 1884, he arrived in America at age thirteen with only seven dollars in his pocket, a dreamy romantic who loved to paint and draw. His father had died suddenly that year, and his mother, burdened with seven other children, could no longer afford to support him at a Budapest gymnasium on the paltry salary she earned as a village innkeeper. He settled first in Chicago, where he supported himself as a shoeshine boy, and later as a barber’s apprentice. Eventually, he found steady work as a draftsman in the office of the firm of Daniel H. Burnham and John Wellborn Root, principal designers of the White City for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. “No technical or art school could have afforded me greater opportunities for advancement in design than the two years I spent on that job,” Roth wrote in his unpublished memoirs. He called the Chicago fair his “Alma Mater.” The austere classicism of its exposition buildings had a lasting influence on him.
When the fair closed in the fall of 1893, Roth moved to New York and secured a minor position in the firm of Richard Morris Hunt, architect of one of the White City’s exposition buildings. After Hunt died in 1895, Roth formed his own architectural firm. In 1900, after designing the ten-story Belleclaire apartments on upper Broadway—a jewel of a building—he began receiving commissions from the Bing brothers, Leo and Alexander, whose real estate firm, Bing & Bing, specialized in the construction of apartment buildings in New York’s outer boroughs. When the building recession ended, Roth was one of the chief beneficiaries. “The construction boom is on,” he wrote excitedly at the time. “God only knows when it will stop.”
An aggressive self-promoter, Roth found himself awash in commissions—from Bing & Bing as well as other Jewish developers, many of them fellow émigrés from Eastern Europe. In 1924, he was actively seeking work in new territory—Midtown Manhattan—when he landed the Ritz commission. Two years later he collaborated with Bing & Bing on three impressive apartment hotels: the Dorset, at 30 West Fifty-fourth Street; the twenty-story Hotel Drake, a block south of the Ritz Tower; and the Hotel Alden on Central Park West. All bear the mark of Roth’s reverence for the Italian Renaissance.
The Drake and the Dorset exemplify what Roth is best known for—not soaring originality but what has been called the “ensemble” effect. Along with J. E. R. Carpenter, Rosario Candela, and the firm of Schultz and Gross, Roth’s chief competitors for luxury apartment house commissions, Roth insisted that a building fit in with its neighboring structures, complementing them rather than competing with them for attention. His still standing apartment hotels in central Manhattan “have a style, an aura to them,” writes architectural historian Paul Goldberger, “a sense that a city is made well when the whole is greater than the parts.”
The exception is the Ritz Tower, an exuberantly styled building that clashed with the subdued limestone blocks of Warren and Wetmore, the style setters on the avenue. “Monolithic packing cases,” social critic Stuart Chase pilloried them in 1927, “structures almost as gaunt as factories,” and with dark interior rooms without windows. But “monoliths” like the Marguery, contra Chase, were built around gardenlike interior courtyards, guarantees “made by realty barons that people under their protection will always have enough air—and always morning air,” wrote Zelda Fitzgerald. The main rooms of the most expensive apartments were located on the outside walls, either facing the avenue or the courtyard, and had therefore plenty of light and air. And the rooms themselves had “individuality and warmth,” observed reporter Will Irwin. Staggering budgets were set aside for interior decoration, money that supported an entire colony of craftsmen and decorators along Madison and Lexington Avenues. A number of apartments had walnut and brass bars imported from London; and one lord of the avenue had a steel safe seven feet high. When he turned the combination and swung open the heavy door there appeared “row upon row . . . a collection of rare old vintages and liqueurs, as dazzling as it [was] priceless.”
But no one on the street outdid Arthur Brisbane. He supervised the design of his own aerie, an eighteen-room duplex on the nineteenth and twentieth floors of the Ritz Tower. Here he entertained guests in the princely splendor of his twenty-foot-high living room, modeled after the banquet halls of Florentine palazzos. Brisbane had enough reserves to sustain his lavish lifestyle, but not enough, it turned out, to keep up with the ruinously high mortgage payments on the building. Two years after the Ritz Tower was completed, he sold it, along with his apartment, to Hearst, who moved in with his mistress, actress Marion Davies.
The apartment hotels Roth designed in 1927 placed him in the front ranks of the city’s architects and led to hundreds of prestigious commissions. Most of them were on upper Fifth Avenue and Central Park West. The best of them is the still elegant San Remo, completed in 1930, a high, two-towered beauty with captivating views of Central Park. Roth’s sons and later partners, Julian and Richard, who wrote their own signatures on the skyline of post–World War II Manhattan, claim that their sensationally prolific father designed more than five hundred apartment buildings in New York. He remains the “unquestioned master of the luxury residential skyscraper,” writes Goldberger.
The Ritz Tower, a precedent-shattering building, became the model for dozens of apartment houses and residential hotels suddenly favored by “sky-conscious” New Yorkers in the late 1920s. But even before it was on the drafting board, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe took a top-floor apartment at the thirty-four-story Shelton Hotel at Lexington Avenue and Forty-ninth Street. They spent hours gazing at the city’s skyline from their windows. O’Keeffe painted skyscrapers that looked like treeless mountains, while Stieglitz photographed them just as they were.
In the more aristocratic parts of Park Avenue, a new type of masonry cliff, the cooperative apartment, became “the order of the day.” The residents were the ostensible owners, although unlike the currently popular condominium model, they did not own the walls and floors of their apartments. They held stock in a corporation that owned the building, their number of shares keyed to the size and amenities of their apartments. Shareholders were assessed monthly maintenance fees and expected to behave according to “a set of commandments” set down in their “proprietary lease,” strictures enforced by an elected board of directors. Some of the rules were outrageous: prohibitions against eating in the building’s elevators or sitting on the furniture in the lobby while waiting for guests. Committees composed of powerful residents intrusively scrutinized the personal lives and bank accounts of prospective buyers. The tyrannical board of one super-exclusive cooperative had applicants write an essay on why they aspired to live at that august address. While money remained the key consideration for entering the gilded gates of a Manhattan cooperative, some boards excluded successful actors and musicians, Jews and African Americans. Occasionally, newly rich Italians and Irish were denied without explanation. Upward-striving New Yorkers seeking what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the consoling proximity of millionaires” had to surrender their self-esteem for the privilege.
By the end of the 1920s, the cliff dwellers of Manhattan were beginning to appropriate for their own pleasure the once forlorn roofs of apartment buildings. The “Cinderella” of New York architecture, the “penthouse,” or roof apartment, had for decades been considered the least attractive part of a high building, a boxlike residence for the servant class, set among soot-scarred chimneys and wooden water tanks. In the late 1920s, these cramped dormitories for the laboring class were torn down and replaced by new luxury quarters, some of them fronted by floral gardens “as impressive as the formal terraces of a Newport mansion,” said reporter Virginia Pope.
Pope saw “a new chapter of New York’s social history . . . being written above the roof line. Balls and dinners are given in the luminous apartments during the winter season. When warm weather comes ‘garden parties’ take place on the balustraded terraces and there are ‘al fresco’ lunches, teas and after-theatre suppers.” In their roof houses, New Yorkers achieved “a detachment impossible to any dwelling set on earth,” said Will Irwin. There were no neighbors in sight; “only the tainted air above Manhattan.”
Up this high, “the noises of the city are but a gentle hum,” observed a writer from The New Yorker. This gave pointed emphasis to the avenue’s envious geographic advantage—a garden street close to the swirling center of Midtown, its corporate towers, theaters, stores, and restaurants. And if one wanted to go slumming, it was a quick taxi or limousine ride to Texas Guinan’s 300 Club, or to Jack and Charlie’s Puncheon, where Park Avenue bigwigs were treated like royalty.
Everything the rich needed to sustain their urban lifestyle was close at hand. After the completion of Grand Central Terminal, some of the most privileged social clubs of the city began migrating to Park Avenue. The impossibly restrictive Union Club, the oldest social club in the country, purchased a Park Avenue building site in 1927, nine years after the Racquet & Tennis Club’s new McKim, Mead & White building was completed a few blocks north of Grand Central. Close by, on West Forty-fourth Street, was the clubhouse of the New York Yacht Club, the most exclusive sporting club in the world. Founded in 1844, it was the preserve of the Morgans, the Astors, and the Vanderbilts.
Melting Pot of the Rich
In 1927, the street of “stone canyons” made fair claim “to the most stupendous aggregation of multimillionaires which the world has ever seen.” Compared with Park Avenue, “the Faubourg St. Germain is a beggar and Mayfair a barmaid,” said Will Irwin. Unlike late-nineteenth-century Fifth Avenue, it was a melting pot of the rich, where new money mingled with old. Fortunes on Park Avenue were accumulated in countless ways: in the solid enterprises Gilded Age tycoons built and controlled—oil and steel, banking and railroads, tobacco and cotton—and in the adventurous enterprises of an emerging mass consumption economy—motion pictures, motor cars, radio, and the marketing of everything from toothpaste to toilet tissue. There were also “butter-and-egg” men on Park Avenue, as well as ravishing young women with no visible means of support, visited in the night, or around the lunch hour, by silver-haired gentlemen in limousines.
In a new departure, the “long arrived” and the “newly arrived” lived side by side, even if they didn’t communicate with one another. Mixed in with them were “gold-seekers from across the ocean . . . dispossessed German princes, grand-dukes, Magi, outlandish diplomats, fashionable psycho-analysts, and mendicant ladies from the Old World masking their snares beneath their smiles,” wrote visiting French novelist Paul Morand.
In 1927, there were approximately fifteen thousand millionaires in America. Of these, over three thousand resided in New York City, and more than half of them lived on Park Avenue. At least fifty certified millionaires lived in one apartment building on the avenue. Not even Fifth Avenue in its most opulent era could “boast such serried phalanxes of millionaires. More fashion it may have had, more individuality, more resplendent names bursting above the rooftops of an adolescent nation—Vanderbilts, Goulds, Astors . . . but never such solid, crushing and cascading wealth.” If money was the sole measure of the good life, America truly had a heaven, said Stuart Chase, and Park Avenue was it.
The purchasing power of this privileged class was breathtaking, concentrated purchasing power that exceeded, in all probability, that of any large group of people living in any city, in any age. With only one-third of one percent of New York City’s population, Park Avenue spent nearly three and a half times more for personal living expenses than the city allotted for education, and one-fifth of what the forty-eight states combined allocated for elementary and secondary public schools. “The man who earns only $50,000 a year is a poor man if he lives on Park Avenue,” said H. Gordon Duval, president of the Park Avenue Association and the unofficial “paladin” of the avenue. This was in 1927, when a New York City industrial worker with a wife and four children was statistically living above the poverty line if he made $1,880 a year, or $36 a week.
Many members of the new money crowd, among them theater mogul Harry Frazee, were conspicuous in the nightlife of the city. The transplanted Fifth Avenue set, on the other hand, lived discreet and interior lives, their social circles confined to like-thinking families with “aged-in-the wood money”: fortunes accumulated before the Great War and the bull market. This “distinguishes them,” wrote family renegade Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., “from the [somewhat younger] Park Avenue set that acquired its pearls, chinchilla wraps and yachts only after Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke.” The old-money families “salted away the bulk of their inherited fortunes in government bonds and cash . . . they never gambled on margin,” wrote Vanderbilt in his hilarious exposé, Farewell to Fifth Avenue. The general public saw the women—but only rarely—being helped into their limousines by uniformed doormen, and the men ascending the steps of the all-male Racquet & Tennis Club, with top hats and canes, and “the mustaches of British officers.” More conspicuous were the residents’ small and exotic dogs, out for a walk twice a day on the leashes of white-gloved “housemen.”
On Park Avenue in the 1920s there could still be found “relics of the sow’s ear age”—small brick grocery stores, butcher shops, real estate offices, a commercial garage, and even a tire shop. But heavy industrial traffic was prohibited and residents fought resolutely to keep their street free of “ribald commercialism.” Several private bus lines applied unsuccessfully for franchises to operate on the avenue, but their bids were discouraged by, of all people, Mayor Walker, who promised its predominantly Republican residents he would do all in his power to preserve their street as “the last really residential avenue in the city.” Even the Metropolitan Opera House, searching for a site for its new and more magnificent home, was unwelcome. “In season, there would be disturbing noises and undue commotion,” protested the Park Avenue Association.
Summer at Sea
“I love New York on summer afternoons when everyone’s away,” says Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby. Come June, the residents of Park Avenue headed either for the cooling breezes of seaside resorts or for the grand hotels of the continent. “Park Avenue virtually commutes across the Atlantic,” wrote social observer Maurice Mermey.
The transatlantic journey began the night before sailing, when the bags were sent ahead, mountains of them, delivered straight to ships’ cabins by a special teamster service. A bon voyage dinner was held the next evening at a friend’s apartment or at a chic Midtown speakeasy. Then the travelers would head off by taxi or limousine to the Chelsea Piers, accompanied by relatives and friends. Many of the major lines sailed at midnight, and approaching one of the long finger piers in a crowded car, the ship looked “incredibly romantic, floodlit and overrun with people in evening dress.”
The great liners sailed for Europe from the Hudson River waterfront between Twenty-third and Twenty-ninth Streets, where in 1927 as many as a dozen ocean liners tied up or cast off every day. These floating communities, the largest moving objects built up to then, were virtually part of the city. Their bows hugged the shore so tightly they became “fragment[s] of Manhattan,” wrote Paul Morand. In no other place in the world did ocean liners berth so near the pulsing life of the town.
In this city of the sea, with more deep-water frontage than any other harbor on earth, it was the custom to escort one’s friends all the way to their cabins. Some well-wishers went to the piers so often they were on speaking terms with captains and pursers. While the crew of one of these monarchs of the sea made final preparations to sail there might be as many as five thousand visitors onboard, more of them than there were passengers. When the warning whistle blew, announcing that the ship was about to put out to sea, there were shouted conversations between the crowds on the pier and their departing friends, hanging on the ship’s rails. After a final blast from the ship’s whistle, the great ocean vessel stirred and moved with a silence that was “phantomlike.” The well-wishers then scrambled for places at the river end of the pier, waving handkerchiefs and scarves. Out on the Hudson, the ship was swung around by a dozen furiously working tugs. Moving down the harbor, her broadside to the pier, the gleaming portholes resembled a giant necklace.
Returning to New York by sea was as impressive, if not as uplifting, as leaving it. Incoming passengers, gazing at the city’s serrated skyline, the mountains of Manhattan, could almost feel the beat of the city while still at steam in the harbor. In his lighthearted 1927 book, The Frantic Atlantic, Basil Woon wrote that Americans went to Europe in search of “drinks, divorces and dresses.” But many privileged Americans found a kind of serenity abroad, even those who had endured forced marches through Europe’s fabled resorts. “The leisurely pace they learned to savor over the summer was disrupted somewhere just south of the Battery,” writes historian John Maxtone-Graham. “Like some infectious plague over the water came a compelling urge for haste. The familiar tempo was there, the race of traffic that swarmed and buzzed through fissures in Manhattan’s concrete bluffs. Assembled aimlessly in shore suits and faces, none could resist that frenetic call.”
When the docking hour was announced, passengers heading for points west would send a wireless to the maître d’ of the Waldorf-Astoria at Thirty-third Street, asking him to secure space on “the only thinkable train,” the Grand Central’s 20th Century Limited.
The patricians of Park Avenue had their chauffeurs waiting for them at the pier to carry them crosstown as fast as traffic would allow, up grimy West Street, on the waterfront, through a “surging mass of back-firing, horn-blowing, gear-grinding trucks and taxies,” insistent reminders of the call of commerce. Commerce—the force that had shaped their city, their destinies, and the curiously provincial precinct they called home.
Meet the Author
Donald L. Miller is the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College and author of nine books, including City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, and Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America. He has hosted, coproduced, or served as historical consultant for more than thirty television documentaries and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. Visit DonaldMillerBooks.com.
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