Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World's Fair on the Brink of Warby James Mauro
The summer of 1939 was an epic turning point for America—a brief window between the Great Depression and World War II. It was the last season of unbridled hope for peace and prosperity; by Labor Day, the Nazis were in Poland. And nothing would come to symbolize this transformation from acute optimism to fear and dread more than the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
A glorious vision of the future, the Fair introduced television, the fax machine, nylon, and fluorescent lights. The “World of Tomorrow,” as it was called, was a dream city built upon a notorious garbage dump—The Great Gatsby’s infamous ash heaps. Yet these lofty dreams would come crashing down to earth in just two years. From the fair’s opening on a stormy spring day, everything that could go wrong did: not just freakish weather but power failures and bomb threats.
Amid the drama of the World’s Fair, four men would struggle against the coming global violence. Albert Einstein, a lifelong pacifist, would come to question his beliefs as never before. From his summer home on Long Island, he signed a series of letters to President Roosevelt urging the development of an atomic bomb—an act he would later recall as “the one great mistake in my life.”
Grover Whalen, the Fair’s president, struggled in vain to win over dictators Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin, believing that his utopian vision had the power to stop their madness. And two New York City police detectives, Joe Lynch and Freddy Socha, who had been assigned to investigate a series of bomb threats and explosions that had terrorized the city for months, would have a rendezvous with destiny at the Fair: During the summer of 1940, in a chilling preview of things to come, terrorism would arrive on American shores—and the grounds of the World’s Fair.
Yet behind this tragic tableau is a story as incredible as it is inspiring. With a colorful cast of supporting characters—including Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Robert Moses, and FDR—Twilight at the World of Tomorrow is narrative nonfiction at its finest, a gripping true-life drama that not only illuminates a forgotten episode of the nation’s past but shines a probing light upon its present and its future.
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Twilight at the World of TomorrowGenius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World's Fair on the Brink of War
By James Mauro
Ballantine BooksCopyright © 2010 James Mauro
All right reserved.
The DEVIL TO PAY
When a fair is over, there is frequently the devil topay. For often as not World's Fairs result in thumping deficits.-Time magazine, 1939
"Why Don't You Do It, Daddy?"
By all accounts, 1934 was a remarkable year: Flash Gordonmade his first appearance in the comic strips, and Frank Capra's It HappenedOne Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, would go on to win everymajor Academy Award. In May, one of the worst storms of the Dust Bowl sweptaway massive heaps of Great Plains topsoil; in August, Adolf Hitler becameGermany's new Führer. Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, andJohn Dillinger were all gunned down in spectacular, tabloid-titillatingfashion. On Broadway, Ethel Merman opened in Cole Porter's big new hit,Anything Goes; while farther uptown, in Harlem, seventeen-year-old EllaFitzgerald made her singing debut at the recently christened Apollo Theater.
But savvy New Yorkers, sophisticated or streetwise, hadsomething much more important on their minds. The repeal of Prohibition theprevious December had made it easier and cheaper, if somewhat less fun, tospend an evening socializing over a glass of beer or a highball. Almostovernight, some thirty thousand-plus speakeasies in the city closed their doorsfor good, to be replaced by everything from the neighborhood saloon to thetony, upscale supper club. In the late summer of that year, at a cocktail partyheld in an unremarkable tavern in Kew Gardens, Queens, that was neither saloonnor salon, a small group of would-be swells mingled and chatted amiably. Theywere by no means the cream of society (the Kew Gardens location could attest tothat), but some could claim proximity, or at least relation, to it.
One in particular was Edward Roosevelt, a stout, balding,bespectacled man whose round face and weak chin gave him the look of anelementary school principal or a henpecked husband. He was, however, a secondcousin of Eleanor Roosevelt and a sixth cousin of her husband, the president.The association wasn't doing him much good at the moment, though; like a lot ofother people in the country at that time, he was looking for work. He'd spentmost of his adult life in Europe as an executive at Ford and InternationalHarvester, but now that he was back in New York, he was living at a YMCA onWest Twentieth Street that catered mostly to the merchant marine. Despite hisportly physique, he paid for his room and board by working as a recreationalinstructor. Leading ancient, long-retired sailors in meaningless exercisesseemed like the depths of misery, and Roosevelt kept mostly to himself andwaited for something better to come along.
The party was in full swing when a friend tappedRoosevelt on the arm and introduced him to an energetic, sophisticated-lookingman who seemed particularly anxious to meet him. Edward squinted over hiswireless glasses and tried to decide exactly who would benefit whom over thisintroduction.
"Mr. Roosevelt, this is a Mr. Shadgen," hisfriend stated, adding, "Who has some distinct ideas about finewines."
Edward, having lived for quite some time in France, haddeveloped an interest in wines and decided to give this stranger his fullattention. At forty-three years old, Joseph Shadgen was broad-shouldered andstood six feet tall, a somewhat impressive figure compared with Roosevelt.Moreover, he was neatly dressed and impeccably well groomed. With the highsweep of his neatly combed, distinguished gray hair and the little swoosh of asilvering mustache that barely exceeded the width of his nose, he looked like amiddle-aged Charles Boyer. Before Shadgen opened his mouth to speak, Rooseveltprobably sensed he was European. The little bow he gave as they shook handsconfirmed it.
The two men, approximately the same age, shared aremarkable economic history, each having achieved an impressive degree ofsuccess early in life, only to find themselves thrust into financialuncertainty as a result of the Depression. The major difference between themwas that Roosevelt was an American who had sought his glory in Europe, whileShadgen was a European who had tried to seize the day in America.
As they spoke, casually at first, Roosevelt must havenoticed that Shadgen carried with him, in his manner and his carriage,something of an aristocrat, deserved or not. Although raised as a citizen ofBelgium, Shadgen had been born in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and when onehas had a grand duke as monarch, a little touch of nobility remains. In 1915,he had immigrated to America, and for the last ten years he'd worked as a civiland mechanical engineer for the firm of C. H. Smoot & Company. He liked todescribe himself as an "idea man" and often boasted that he had oncemade as much as $150,000 a year.
This, unfortunately, was not one of those years. WhenCharles Howard Smoot died in 1933, Shadgen abruptly left the company and movedhis wife and young daughter from their oceanfront home in Brooklyn to a modesthouse in Jackson Heights, Queens-a sparsely populated area hard hit by hardtimes. He drove an old Packard that he kept in cold storage because it hadrecently refused to run.
When the conversation finally got around to wine,Shadgen's Belgian accent added a distinctly continental air of sophisticationto his pitch. For the last few months, he said, he had been working as atechnical consultant for the Rockefeller Liquor Study, which had beenanticipating all sorts of calamities now that the public was allowed to drinkthemselves silly again. And with the repeal of Prohibition, the trading andpurchasing of fine wines would surely regain its popularity with the Manhattanelite. But since most of them lived in apartments, however large, where onearth were they going to store it?
His idea was to form a company; rent a large, undergroundspace somewhere on Manhattan's Upper East Side (around twenty-five thousandsquare feet, he reckoned); and divide the area into mini-wine cellars. Then allhe had to do was rent the units, make sure the proper temperature wasmaintained, etc., etc., and he could sit back and rake in the money. All heneeded, Shadgen said, was a partner who could help him rope in a few key investorsto get it off the ground.
Edward nodded and listened intently. The fundamentals ofShadgen's wine storage idea seemed sound. With sufficient start-up money, therewas indeed no limit to the number of subterranean wine lockers they couldsublease.
From the start, it was an unlikely partnership. Shadgenwas a good talker who needed a door opener; Roosevelt was a (currently, atleast) poor relation who needed a project to which he could attach himself andthe meager connections his name brought with it. Miraculously, when the effectof their drinking wore off the next morning, Roosevelt still thought it was agood idea, and one that required immediate action. Shadgen and his new partnerspent the better part of the next several weeks almost inseparable-scouringsuitable storage locations, sketching out plans, and hunting down investors tofund the whole thing. They even rented desks in a cramped real estate officefrom which they would run their little company until the profits startedflowing in. It was all going well except for one small detail: Nobody elsethought the idea had merit, and no one would invest.
After weeks of frustration, watching his savings dwindleand his hopes of turning his friendship with a bona fide Roosevelt into his much-deservedfortune, Shadgen decided to give the partnership one more try. Privately, hehad another idea in mind-one much larger in scope and scale than the winestorage concept. In fact, it was so huge that he'd been reluctant to share itwith anyone, let alone his new partner.
It had come to him earlier that year, on a warm springevening while he waited for dinner and made small talk with his twelve-year-olddaughter, Jacqueline, who had just returned home from school. As she enteredthe room, still wearing her uniform from the nearby Blessed Sacrament Convent,Shadgen pulled her up next to him and asked, "Well, what did you learn inschool today?"
Jacqueline was probably too old for the question, but sheanswered it anyway. "I learned that the United States is a hundred and fifty-eightyears old this year," she told him.
Her father simply stared at her in silence. "Becausethe Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776," she explained.
Shadgen thought this over. He had a surprising grasp ofAmerican history for a foreigner, or perhaps because of it. This didn't makesense to him. The Declaration of Independence was merely that, he told her adeclaration, the signing of a document that spelled out only what the FoundingFathers intended to do. The nation, he believed, wasn't really "born"until it elected its first president, George Washington, in 1789.
Jacqueline gave him a suspicious look, and the two beganto argue. It was the word of the sisters at Blessed Sacrament versus herfather, who hadn't even been born here and who still spoke with an accent. TheFourth of July 1776 had been drummed into her head for as long as she couldremember as the nation's birthday.
"Oh no," he answered firmly. "The UnitedStates would be only a hundred and fifty years old in 1939."
When Mrs. Shadgen called out that dinner was ready, thetwo of them dropped the discussion and headed quietly for the dining room.Still, something had clicked in that stubborn, persistent brain of his.
The idea to host a World's Fair in order to boost NewYork City's economy at the end of the 1930s should have come from the minds ofits great community leaders. It didn't. "Don't get the idea that I wasdoing any of this for civic good will," Shadgen would later remark."I was working for two things-money and reputation."
To date, there had been exactly fourteen officiallyrecognized World's Fairs, and all but four of them had lost money. The veryfirst, London's Crystal Palace in 1851, had been managed by Prince Alberthimself and advertised its global status as "the Great Exhibition of theWorks of Industry of All Nations." Punch magazine described it as"the only National Building that an Englishman is not ashamed of."More than six million people visited from all over the world, and the ideacaught on-in no small part due to the fact that it had also managed to turn aprofit of over $500,000.
The French tried to top it just four years later at theirExposition Universelle of 1855, which introduced the Singer sewing machine,then went hog wild with World's Fair fever, repeating the effort in 1867, 1878,and, most notably, 1889-the Fair most famous for its construction of the EiffelTower.
America had gotten into the act when New York copycattedLondon and held its own Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1853. Although it washoused in a single iron-and-glass building on a four-acre plot of land,* therewere four thousand exhibitors when it opened on July 14, and before it closed inNovember of the following year, more than one million people came to see it.Yet despite the mass influx of tourism into the city, the Fair was a financialflop, losing about $300,000 and leaving a visible legacy of failure when thestructure burned to the ground in 1858.
In 1876, Philadelphia (supporting young Jacqueline'sassertion) commemorated the nation's birth with its Centennial Exposition,erecting seven magnificent palaces and outspending New York by six times. ButAmerica's crown jewel was Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893 (named inhonor of Columbus's so-called discovery of America four hundred years earlier),more famously known as "the White City." Looking to "out-EiffelEiffel," this Fair presented George Ferris's magnificent wheel and becamefamous as a symbol of architectural classicism that influenced a generation ofbuilders and designers to come. It also had a profound effect on the country'sbreakfasting habits, introducing Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Shredded Wheat, andQuaker Oats, and on its snacking preferences with Cracker Jack and Juicy Fruitgum.
At over six hundred acres and featuring nearly twohundred buildings, the White City for a time served as a model for the 1939 NewYork World's Fair: Most of its buildings were temporary structures, there werespecially constructed canals and lagoons, and the entire enterprise served toshow the world that beauty could be built upon ashes, in this case those leftfrom Chicago's Great Fire, which had destroyed so much of the city some twodecades earlier. At a time when the country's total population was sixty-fivemillion, more than twenty-seven million visitors passed through its gates,netting the Fair a handy profit of more than $1 million.
The United States continued its elaborate celebrationswith the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. No longer content to have itsexposition be considered merely a World's Fair, the city of St. Louis decidedto up the ante by calling its Fair a "Universal Exposition." Althoughit was indeed huge-at twelve hundred acres, it was almost twice the size of theWhite City-and while sixty-two foreign nations and forty-three (out of forty-five)of the United States participated, there is no documentation to support thefact that any other representatives of the universe actually showed up.
The Fair also contributed to the world one of the most brain-stickingtunes of all time, "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis," and claimed to bethe birthplace of American staples such as the hamburger and hot dog, peanutbutter, and cotton candy. It wasn't, but it was nice to think so, and somehowthe myth stuck.
Yet the World's Fair that was on everyone's mind in the1930s was Chicago's second triumph-the Century of Progress exposition of 1933and 1934. Its signature attractions were the Sky Ride, built in part by theOtis Elevator Company, and a scandalous fan dancer named Sally Rand. Chicagoalso boasted to its brethren on the Hudson that its Fair had paid off all ofits investors and even turned a modest profit, and that a good many hotelsalong the city's famous Loop had been rescued from receivership by thereigniting of its Depression-starved economy.
Those numbers were key ingredients that lay behind theaudacious dreams of Joseph Shadgen. They would also spur the even more feverishvisions of the dreamers yet to come.
The next morning, Jacqueline and her father continued todebate the anniversary issue. Shadgen decided to end the debate once and forall by taking her to the one spot he thought would settle the matter. Afterbreakfast, they rode the Second Avenue elevated train down to Federal Hall onWall Street, to the very place where Washington had been inaugurated. Together,they read the inscription at the base of his statue, miraculously unharmed in theWall Street bombing fourteen years earlier:
On This Site in Federal Hall, April 30, 1789, GeorgeWashington Took the Oath as the First President of the United States ofAmerica.
Excerpted from Twilight at the World of Tomorrow by James Mauro Copyright © 2010 by James Mauro. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
James Mauro is a former editor of Spy magazine and executive editor of Cosmopolitan. Most recently he was editorial director for Moffly Media, publishers of the Connecticut periodicals Greenwich, Stamford, Westport, New Canaan Darien, and AtHome. His writing has been featured in Radar, Details, Spy, Psychology Today, and a host of other publications. He lives in Connecticut, where he is at work on his next book.
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