By Burton Bernstein HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008 Burton Bernstein
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780061537868
Helluva Town: My New York 1943 to 1976
By Alan Rich
In lieu of a formal history of the city, Rich was asked to recount his personal version of the New York experience. The music critic's tales of daily life, work, and play mirror the city's moods, from a heady optimism in the post-war boom to the chaos of the 1960s to the dispiriting financial crisis of 1976.
I remember it well: arriving at Grand Central Terminal from Boston some time around noon, grabbing a hot dog and an orange drink at Nedick's, making my way uptown on the IRT to Seventy-second Street and Broadway. Nearby, there was a ratty old tenement called The Nevada—it exists no more-and a landlady with a room to rent: no outside window, just an airshaft. Rent was agreed to: twenty dollars a month, if I would walk her seedy, lumbering German shepherd. I unpacked, and strode out to claim my New York.
It was early May 1945. Germany had just surrendered; Japan would soon feel the heat of the atom bomb and would follow suit. I had lined up a filing job at CBS (485 Madison Avenue! Magic Address!!), and had a sheaf of my writings (as a stringer music-critic at the Boston Herald) that would, I hoped, eventually better my lot, but that could wait. Twenty blocks further uptown, the Thalia on that day wasshowing a film I had always dreamed of seeing some day: Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream. This, after all, was why people came to New York. I had other reasons, as well. One of them was definitely not a useless Harvard premed B.A. To my parents' infinite sorrow, I had no intention of following it up; if it hadn't been for a few straight-A music courses I probably wouldn't have graduated at all.
Twice in the previous year my friend Dave Barton and I hitchhiked to New York from Cambridge to see the Metropolitan Opera's Die Meistersinger from standing room; before season's end I would see it (always "on foot") four more times, and the next season, six. I had stumbled into the job with the Boston Herald on the strength of a bratty letter to the chief critic, Rudolph Elie, picking him apart on a tiny Mozart point. Those were my signature pieces: the Sinfonia Concertante (K. 364) and Die Meistersinger. Elie and I got into a Correspondence (capital C) on Mozart, and this led me to a life-changing job. I knew I had to come to New York someday to depose the chief critic of, at very least, the Herald-Tribune. Eighteen years later, that would actually take place.
Life on Thirty Bucks a Week
Life on a weekly thirty bucks in wartime New York was not quite as bad as it sounds. On my first day in CBS Network Operations my desk-mate invited me to lunch at the nearby Howard Johnson's and the $1.65 price terrified me; how could people afford such luxury? There were alternatives, however: counter joints (Rudley's, Rikers) with a stuffed-pepper plate for forty cents; or Child's, where you could save on the dinner price by leaving off the veggie; and, of course, the Automats, where the mighty nickel reigned. Once a week I allowed myself a visit to a personal discovery, the darling little English Tea Room on Forty-eighth Street, where a large gray cat lounged across the front table, where Josie knew to save me a tipsy pudding for dessert, and where steak-and-kidney pie seemed as close to heaven as $1.80 could vouchsafe.
Better yet, almost everything in the best of the entertainment world was available to the stable of stance at a proper price. Standing room at the Met went for two dollars, with the outlay of an extra buck to an usher for one of the empty seats, which were numerous, but it meant lining up outside the old building at Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street, in whatever weather, for as long as six hours on, say, a Lily Pons night. (The current system of pre-sold standing-room tickets is somewhat more merciful.) Most Broadway theaters sold their standing room for $1.20; for that pittance I could pad my memory book, in my first few weeks in New York, with the lively end-of-war musical Call Me Mister, the then-baby-faced Marlon Brando in I Remember Mama, London's Old Vic, with Olivier's howl of self-recognition in Oedipus Rex that I can hear today, and—most memorable of all—the indomitable Laurette Taylor leading the original cast of The Glass Menagerie. On the afternoon of Japan's surrender I pushed my way through the jubilation in Times Square and decided on a Leonard Bernstein moment as proper celebration, in the form of a standingroom ticket to a matinee of On the Town. I had once walked past Bernstein in the Harvard Yard. I knew him then as the winner of the Boston Herald-sponsored Musiquiz in 1940, in which I had garnered honorable mention and a record album. Three years later I knew him a lot better and so did everyone else. He and Fiorello LaGuardia were New York's brightest stars in my first New York days.
LaGuardia had been New York's mayor since 1934, and showed no signs of wear and tear. He was an inescapable presence, not as a potentate, more like some slightly belligerent, watchful, apron-clad Mamma. "Did You Make New York Dirty Today?" shrilled a sign on the subway cars, and you could sense that invisible finger waggling behind the sign. "Ah, shame on ya, Macy's!!!" I remember him screaming on one of his Sunday broadcasts after Macy's had advertised a line of doggiesweaters when wool was still under ration.
Earthquake on Fifty-fifth Street
In 1943, LaGuardia had the city take over the aging Mecca Temple on West Fifty-Rehearsing the New York fifth Street and convert it into the New York City Center of Music and Drama, City Symphony, 1947 with tickets priced for . . . Continues...
Excerpted from Leonard Bernstein by Burton Bernstein
Copyright © 2008 by Burton Bernstein. Excerpted by permission.
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