Postwar New York: The Supreme Metropolis of the Present

Forty labor strikes on one day, French existentialists on the loose, and a 50-foot G.I. blowing enormous puffs of REAL smoke.

David Reid | The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia | Pantheon | March 2016 | 31 minutes (8,514 words)

 

The excerpt below is adapted from The Brazen Age, by David Reid, which examines the “extraordinarily rich culture and turbulent politics of New York City between the years 1945 and 1950.” This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

Probably I was in the war.

—NORMAN MAILER, Barbary Shore (1951)

*

A hideous, inhuman city. But I know that one changes one’s mind.

In march 1946 the young French novelist and journalist Albert Camus traveled by freighter from Le Havre to New York, arriving in the first week of spring. Le Havre, the old port city at the mouth of the Seine, had almost been destroyed in a battle between its German occupiers and a British warship during the Normandy invasion; huge ruins ringed the harbor. In his travel journal Camus writes: “My last image of France is of destroyed buildings at the very edge of a wounded earth.”

At the age of thirty-two this Algerian Frenchman, who had been supporting himself with odd jobs when the war began, was about to become very famous. By 1948, he would become an international culture hero: author of The Stranger and The Plague, two of the most famous novels to come out of France in the forties, and of the lofty and astringent essays collected in The Myth of Sisyphus.

Camus’s visit to the United States, sponsored by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs but involving no official duties, was timed to coincide with Alfred A. Knopf’s publication of The Stranger in a translation by Stuart Gilbert, the annotator of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the spring of 1946 France was exporting little to the United States except literature. Even most American readers with a particular interest in France knew of Camus, if at all, as a distant legend, editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat and an “existentialist.”

Reviewing The Stranger in the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson, usually omniscient, confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about existentialism except that it was enjoying a “furious vogue.” If there were rumored to be philosophical depths in this novel about the motiveless murder of an Arab on a North African beach, they frankly eluded him. For Wilson the book was nothing more than “a fairly clever feat”—the sort of thing that a skillful Hemingway imitator like James M. Cain had done as well or better in The Postman Always Rings Twice. America’s most admired literary critic also had his doubts about Franz Kafka, the writer of the moment, suspecting that the claims being made for the late Prague fabulist were exaggerated. But still, like almost everyone else, especially the young, in New York’s intellectual circles Wilson was intensely curious about what had been written and thought in occupied Europe, especially in France.

“Our generation had been brought up on the remembrance of the 1920s as the great golden age of the avant-garde, whose focal point had been Paris,” William Barrett writes in The Truants, his memoir of the New York intellectuals. “We expected history to repeat itself: as it had been after the First, so it would be after the Second World War.” The glamorous rumor of existentialism seemed to vindicate their expectations. Camus’s arrival was eagerly awaited not only by Partisan Review but also by the New Yorker, which put him in “The Talk of the Town,” and Vogue, which decided that his saturnine good looks resembled Humphrey Bogart’s.

Although a brilliant travel writer, Camus was not a lucky traveler. When he was young and unknown, he blamed poverty for cramping his journeys, and when he was older and could afford more, he was a martyr to celebrity, always dreading its exposures and demands right up to the day he went to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize. Travel made him anxious, which he concluded was the proper state for a traveler, and often physically sick. As he records in his diary, after a sociable crossing, he came down with the flu just in time to arrive in New York.

On March 27, around noon on a gray, windy day, as his ship entered the Narrows, his first glimpse of New York was of Coney Island, a dismal sight under a flat painted sky. In the distance, the skyscrapers of Manhattan rose out of the mist. “Deep down, I feel calm and indifferent, as I generally do in front of spectacles that don’t move me.” Anticlimactically, his ship rode at anchor for the night.

“Go to bed very late. Get up very early. We enter New York harbor. A terrific sight despite or because of the mist. The order, the strength, the economic power are there. The heart trembles in front of so much admirable inhumanity.”

“Order” manifested itself at once. At the dock, Camus found himself singled out for sustained scrutiny. “The immigration officer ends by excusing himself for having detained me for so long: ‘I was obliged to, but I can’t tell you why.’” The mystery was dispelled many years later. Alert to the left-wing politics of Combat, the FBI had opened a file on him, and passed on its suspicions to the Immigration Services.

Feeling weak from his flu, Camus was welcomed by two journalists from France and a man from the French consulate. The crowded streets alarmed him. His first impression of New York was of “a hideous, inhuman city. But I know that one changes one’s mind.” He did note the orderliness of things confirmed by how smoothly the traffic moved without policemen at intersections, and by the prim gloves worn by garbagemen. That night, crossing Broadway in a cab, his flu made worse by a bad hangover (he had stayed up drinking until four the night before), feeling “tired and feverish,” Camus was “stupefied by the circus of lights.”

* * *

What gods they are who fight endlessly and indecisively for New York is not for our knowledge.

Bright lights, big city had been the New York formula for a century. On his first visit, in 1842, Charles Dickens found the gaslights of lower Broadway as brilliant as those of London’s Piccadilly, but he also discovered New York could be a strangely dark and vacant place—catacombesque—and secretive, like the oysters that its citizens devoured in such prodigious quantities. The streets were often empty except for pigs that foraged at all hours. The slums, like the infamous Five Points, to whose low haunts the great man was escorted by two policemen, were as noisome as any in London.

In the 1870s and ’80s, gaslight began yielding to electricity. The Bowery, with its popular theaters, was the first district to be lit by Edison’s eerie new light, followed by the stretch of Broadway from Twenty-fourth Street to Twenty-sixth. A commercial visionary from Brooklyn named O. J. Gude seized on electricity for display advertising. In 1891 Madison Square was astonished by a giant sign advertising a Coney Island resort (“Manhattan Beach Swept by Ocean Breezes”). Verbally inventive too, Gude coined the phrase “Great White Way.” The most wondrous electric advertisement in New York was a fifty-foot pickle in green lightbulbs advertising Heinz’s “57 Varieties.” This “pioneer spectacle,” as Frederick Lewis Allen hails it in The Big Change, stood at the intersection of Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and Twenty-third Street, since 1902 the site of the Flatiron Building. In 1913, Rupert Brooke came to marvel at the gaudiness of Times Square. At street level, the effect was disconcerting. “The merciless lights throw a mask of unradiant glare on the human beings in the streets, making each face hard, set, wolfish, terribly blue.” Above, the street was filled with wonders. Brooke could not help noticing an advertisement starring two bodies electric, “a youth and a man-boy, flaming and immortal, clad in celestial underwear,” who boxed a round, vanished, reappeared, and fought again. “Night after night they wage this combat. What gods they are who fight endlessly and indecisively for New York is not for our knowledge.”

City lights were mostly white in the 1920s. “For anyone interested in period detail, there were almost no colored lights then,” Gore Vidal recalls in his essay “On Flying.” “So, on a hot, airless night in St. Louis, the city had a weird white arctic glow.” In the 1930s, the planners at the New Deal farm agencies expected an influx of urbanites to flee the stricken cities for a new life in the countryside: the prospective exurbanites were called “white-light refugees.” In time, of course, the refugees came, only the process was called suburbanization. Neon light, first imported from France before the First World War by a West Coast automobile dealer, Earle C. Anthony, remained unusual for a long time even in New York. Edwin Denby, the dance critic and poet, remembered “walking at night in Chelsea with Bill [de Kooning] during the depression, and his pointing out to me on the pavement the dispersed compositions—spots and cracks and bits of wrappers and reflections of neon-light—neon-signs were few then—and I remember the scale in the compositions was too big for me to see it.”

Throughout the Jazz Age and the Depression the white and manycolored lights of Broadway blazed, now concentrated in Times Square, where they advertised Four Roses whiskey, Camel cigarettes, Planters Peanuts (“A Bag a Day for More Pep”), Coca-Cola, the Astor Hotel. It took the blackouts during the war to dull the blaze, but by 1946 even the more prolonged dimout was becoming a distant memory. New York had resumed its old habits of brilliance.

“I am just coming out of five years of night,” says Camus in his journal, “and this orgy of violent lights gives me for the first time the impression of a new continent. An enormous, 50-foot-high Camel billboard: a G.I. with his mouth wide-open blows enormous puffs of real smoke. Everything is yellow and red.”

New_York,_New_York._Camel_cigarette_advertisement_at_Times_Square8d14368u_original

Times Square, 1943. Via Wikimedia Commons.

* * *

To err is Truman.

V-J day, August 14, 1945, in New York City quickly turned into parties all over town and a crowd of two million milling in the vortex of Times Square, strangers embracing, couples just met exchanging fervent kisses, conga lines, bottles being passed, the bright lights restored, flags on Park Avenue, and Mayor La Guardia pleading after a while for some decorum. In New York, as elsewhere as Eric F. Goldman points up in The Crucial Decade, “Americans had quite a celebration and, yet, in a way, the celebration never really rang true. People were so gay, so determinedly gay.” After a few hours in some places, but two days and two nights in Manhattan, the crowd dispersed, to mixed auguries and with great expectations.

Popular memory of the “good war” long ago erased the thousands of work stoppages, including hate strikes; racial strife in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia; labor leader John L. Lewis’s brutal duel with Roosevelt, which Truman inherited; the congressional attack on the New Deal; Dewey’s Red baiting in the 1944 presidential election. There was no great opposition to the war, but rather a grim determination to see it won, which is why the handful of dissenters were mostly treated indulgently—at least as compared to the long prison sentences, mass repression, and mass deportations of the First World War.

Japan formally surrendered on September 2, 1945. Within the month, notional home-front “solidarity” dissolved into the largest strike wave in American history, albeit less bitter and revolutionary in temper than that of 1919. A half-million unionized workers, no longer restrained by no-strike clauses, had walked out of automobile factories, oil refineries, meatpacking factories, and other industries. A futile labor-management conference called in November by President Truman, including representatives of the AFL, the CIO, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the national Chamber of Commerce, adjourned in early December without agreeing on a single recommendation. By January 1946, the number of workers on strike numbered almost 2.2 million autoworkers, a comparable number of electrical workers, and 750,000 steelworkers. Altogether, almost 5 million workers, a tenth of the labor force, would walk off the job in the course of the year. What the nineteenth-century historian George Bancroft had called the feud between capitalist and laborer, “the house of Have and the house of Want,” which could not be completely quieted—not even in wartime—had resumed with a vengeance.

The great industrial unions, led by Walter Reuther’s United Automobile Workers, were demanding a pay increase on the order of 30 percent in hourly wages; this would compensate for the loss of overtime pay, as the workweek reverted from the forty-eight hours of wartime to the previous forty. Union leaders, “the new men of power,” as the brilliant young Columbia University sociologist C. Wright Mills called them, maintained that having prospered so mightily during the war, big business could easily absorb the cost and still make a decent profit. Higher wages would mean increased spending, which would translate into a prosperous nation and a richly deserved increase in the standard of living for American workers. To the contrary, retorted those represented by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the Chamber of Commerce, and other business organizations, corporations would be ruined if they agreed to these exorbitant demands, but they could agree to more reasonable ones only if wartime price controls were lifted. As the picket lines lengthened, Truman pursued a wayward course. Publicly supportive of the Office of Price Administration (OPA), he blurted out at a press conference that price controls in time of peace smacked of “police state methods.” Facing an unprecedented housing shortage, he threw out controls on building materials in October and then reinstated them in December; with the public impatiently demanding beefsteaks, meat rationing was dropped, reimposed, dropped again. By the end of his first turbulent year, Truman would intervene in a half-dozen major labor disputes, threaten to seize whole industries—the mines, the railroads—and draft their workers. “To err is Truman,” said the wits.

* * *

The Disaster Control Board… combed other city departments for amateurs who could run the trains.

The strike wave reached New York City on September 24, 1945, when fifteen thousand elevator operators and building maintenance workers walked off the job, shutting down thousands of businesses, including all those financial enterprises housed in skyscrapers. A sympathy strike by garment workers shut down that industry: a million and a half workers were off the job, either unable or unwilling to work. At issue was whether landlords would abide by contract recommendations drafted by the War Labor Board in Washington, DC. After five days, Governor Dewey intervened, persuading both sides to accept arbitration, which eventually went in the strikers’ favor. On October 1, stevedores on the Chelsea docks began a wildcat strike, joined by longshoremen, who for two weeks disregarded orders from their International Longshoremen’s Association’s president-for-life, Joseph P. Ryan, to return to work.

In February 1946 the city faced a strike by the tugboat men who steered the ocean liners and other big ships into port, but whose more essential work was to keep moving the barges that supplied New Yorkers with coal, fuel oil, and food. (The owners refused to arbitrate.) Declaring it was “the worst threat ever made to the city,” Mayor William O’Dwyer waited a week, then began shutting the city down: first lowering thermostats and dimming outdoor advertising lights, then closing schools, stores, museums, amusements, and bars. Policemen stood at the entrances to subway stations, telling would-be passengers to go home. On February 12, the Disaster Control Board was put in charge: an eighteen-hour ban on most uses of electrical power was decreed, gradually bringing the city to a standstill. “Until the strike was settled,” said Time, “the city was dead.”

It was, at least, becalmed, something that neither nature nor war had ever achieved. Reflecting the vagaries of historical witness, the day that Time reported as a slow-motion apocalypse—“industrial paralysis”— was a larky urban idyll according to the New Yorker. Admitting to “a great deal of nervousness everywhere,” “The Talk of the Town” joined up with a smiling, idle crowd which, “armed with infants, cameras, and portable radios, seemed to fill every nook and dingle of Central Park.” The weather was fine: “More like May. More like a feast day,” a peanut vendor told the New Yorker’s omniscient correspondent, who agreed. “We are all equally children excused from our chores. It was indeed, as the vendor had said, a feast day, the feast day of Blessed William the Impatient, and we spent it as if we were under the equivalent not of Martial Law but of Mardi Gras.”

On February 14, the tugboat operators agreed to arbitration, but within a week New York was confronted by the prospect of another major strike. Michael J. Quill, disapprovingly described in Time as “belligerent, Communist-line boss of the disaffected 110,000 Transport Workers Union, C.I.O.,” was threatening a walkout that would shut down subways, elevated railways, streetcars, and bus lines if the city sold back to a private utility the three power plants that employed union workers. “Red Mike,” who also served the public as a councilman from the Bronx, had given the city his demand for a two-dollar-a-day raise and exclusive bargaining rights for the city’s thirty-two thousand transit workers, with a deadline of midnight the next Tuesday to comply. Once again, “industrial paralysis” seemed to impend. “In desperation, the Disaster Control Board alerted police, combed other city departments for amateurs who could run the trains if ruthless Mike Quill should say strike.”

This crisis, too, passed; but the dramatic succession of threatened strikes and real walkouts, of emergency measures and disrupted routines—the darkened marquees in Times Square, the deserted docks, the silent shop floors and inaccessible skyscrapers, the policemen warning people to stay away from the city—all contributed to the “enveloping anxiety felt by millionaires and straphangers, poets and tabloid journalists alike,” said Time. Like a gigantic seismograph New York registered the shock when miners climbed out of the pits in West Virginia, when a national railroad strike loomed, when telephone operators nationwide walked off the job and pilots on transatlantic flights left their controls. There was no general strike in New York, as there was in Oakland, California, no blackout like Pittsburgh’s when the strikers shut down the power stations. But New York was peculiarly vulnerable to labor disruptions, as Joshua B. Freeman points out in Working-Class New York. After a century of organizing, there was scarcely a niche in the life of the city that was not unionized. The roll call was “Whitmanesque” in its sweep: every occupational group from transport workers and machinists to barbers and beauty culturists, funeral chauffeurs, screen publicists, sightseeing guides, and seltzer-water workers being represented. “In New York, the breadth and complexity of the labor movement gave it access to multiple pressure points capable of crippling the city.”

During the war, blue-collar workers had been lionized in movies, murals, music, and poster art (Ben Shahn’s most notably) for providing the muscle essential to victory. Most of the lionizing, however, had been done by government propagandists, left-wing artists, sympathetic Hollywoodians, or the trade-union movement itself. Salaried white-collar workers suspected that the proletarians were indecently prospering at their expense, and as the polls attested, the middle classes remained deeply suspicious of the trade unions, which now numbered 14.5 million workers, and indignant when they began demanding what seemed huge wage increases, upwards of 25 percent; not only their leaders but the rank-and-file of particular unions were suspected, not always wrongly, of consorting with gangsters and sympathizing with Communists.

Poster_RegtoVote

Poster by Ben Shahn, 1946, for the Congress of Industrial Rights. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The wave rolled on, until one day in September there were forty strikes going on in New York, and it was impossible to cross Midtown without being interdicted by a picket line. Twelve thousand mutinous AFL truck drivers, joined in sympathy for another fifteen thousand drivers in New Jersey, threatened to deprive New Yorkers of cigarettes, candy, soap, razor blades, and anything else they ordinarily purchased over the counter; deliveries of food and drugs were promised by the union leaders, but the rank-and-file, which shouted down orders from their chief, Dan Tobin, to get back to work, would not supply chain stores, forcing A&P and Safeway to shut down. Newspapers shrank as the strike cut off supplies of newsprint: Hearst’s Daily Mirror dropped to eight pages, including two of essential comics. Even the Daily News, which had laid in a huge hoard of paper, was forced to drop department-store display advertising, along with the other eight dailies. But then, there was less on offer at Macy’s and Gimbels and Saks: a walkout by the United Parcel Service had interrupted deliveries. As Time summarized for the benefit of the hinterland: “New Yorkers had suffered since V-J Day from elevator tieups, two tugboat strikes that periled fuel and power supplies . . . a war of nerves over a subway standstill, and now this. They had learned two things: 1) how easily one union can put the brakes on the Big Town; 2) there was nothing they could do about it.”

The receding roar of the strike wave continued until 1949, but labor was deprived of some of its most potent weapons, including sympathy strikes and secondary boycotts, by the Taft-Hartley Act, which President Truman publicly denounced as the “slave labor act” but privately approved of. The feud between the houses of Want and Have was less embittered than in the nineteenth century and up to the thirties. The great strike wave of 1946 produced no Haymarket Affair, no Homestead, no Ludlow Massacre; no lynching, no plant occupations, no significant pitched battles with police. But in New York there was still power in a union.

All the more noticeable, then, was how conspicuous consumption and frank privilege were also making their comeback. Town cars (discreetly garaged during the war) and fancy dress reappeared. A season of “almost hysterical voracity,” vividly evoked in Frederic Prokosch’s novel The Idols of the Cave (1946), followed the peace: restaurants were thronged, theaters sold out weeks in advance, decent hotel rooms were objects of desire; the would-bes strained against the velvet ropes of El Morocco, the Stork Club, and “21.” “In other ways, too, the city’s atmosphere was changing. There was a growing stream of returning soldiers and sailors, with the flush of adventures still on them, and a rather ominous glint in their eyes.” In counterpart was the “wistful migration” of the wartime exiles and the officers and diplomats of Allied or occupied nations, whose presence had made wartime New York as cosmopolitan as it was ever to be. “An air of nostalgia, of coming disintegration pervaded the European cliques.”

As the months lengthened and people looked around, they wondered what had become of the new society, rebuilt on social-democratic lines, that so many had expected after the war, and that did seem to be materializing in England, where Labour ruled. “The Englishman who crosses the Atlantic today is no longer crossing from the Old World to the New,” the seasoned America watcher Beverley Nichols said a few years later in Uncle Samson, “he is crossing from the New World to the Old . . . Just as Park Avenue is now, in spirit, a million miles from Park Lane, so is Wall Street a million miles from Lombard Street.” In New York the people riding in the back of town cars were no longer saying, “Come the revolution . . .”

* * *

Why, after midnight, do so many Americans fight or weep?

Was New York ever more of a cynosure for brilliant foreign observers—continental, English, and even Asian—than during and after the war? Not since Tocqueville, Dickens, and Mrs. Trollope had visited in the 1830s and ’40s had so much alien intelligence been directed at New York’s buildings and manners and the physiognomy of its citizens. Here were the existentialists Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir; the English critics and novelists Cyril Connolly, V. S. Pritchett, Stephen Spender, and J. B. Priestley, who came to see and judge the postwar American scene and sometimes were taken around by such expatriate friends as Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, ex-Englishmen who were going native in, respectively, Los Angeles and New York. (Connolly compared the welcome he got from Auden to that of the town mouse condescending to the country mouse in the Disney cartoon.)

From Middle Europe, the future historian John Lukacs arrived as an unknown “displaced person” of twenty-two in 1946, having fled Budapest under the Soviets. A dockers’ strike on the East Coast diverted the Liberty Ship on which he had sailed from Bordeaux to Portland, Maine. Traveling down to the city, he experienced “the surprising and disconcerting impression that so many things in New York looked old.” The “shattering iron clangor” and catacomb depths of the subway were out of Kafka, not Piranesi; the “steely rows of windows” in office and industrial buildings recalled the “windrows” of Theodore Roosevelt’s teeth; the “Wurlitzer sounds and atmosphere” of the streets seemed from 1910 or 1920.

Places familiar from the movies or magazines—the Waldorf Astoria, Rockefeller Center, Fifth Avenue, Wall Street—looked exactly as he had expected, but he felt the people often looked older than their years. Americans clung to outmoded fashions like high-buttoned shoes and steel-rimmed spectacles (restored to fashion by John Lennon in the sixties, now superseded again by horn-rims) or were old-fashioned physical types, like the millionaires with “round Herbert Hoover faces” encountered in the expensive vicinity of the Waldorf. (Their archetype, the ex-president, who looked like Mr. Heinz Tomato of the advertisements, lived in the tower.) Bernard Baruch, the financial and political oracle (self-appointed), somehow resembled the Flatiron Building. Even in summertime American men kept on their hats and undershirts. American women typically wore longer skirts and primmer bathing suits than European women. “There were entire classes of American women who inclined to age more rapidly than their European contemporaries,” Lukacs recalls ungallantly. “This had nothing to do with cosmetics or even with their physical circumstances; it had probably much to do with their interior lives”—the failure, perhaps, of youthful dreams that turned fresh-faced girls into middle-aged women before they reached thirty.

Jean-Paul Sartre proposed that the salient fact about New York’s social geography was its tremendous linearity, “those endless ‘north– south’ highways,” the avenues, that demarcated the separate worlds of Park, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Avenues, and “the No Man’s Land of Tenth Avenue.” “The space, the great, empty space of the steppes and pampas, flows through New York’s arteries like a draught of cold air, separating one side from the other.” Beyond the Waldorf Astoria and the handsome facades of “smart” apartment buildings canopied in blue and white, he catches a glimpse of the Third Avenue Elevated, carrying from the Bowery a whiff of old-fashioned poverty. Unchanged in its tawdry essentials since Stephen Crane wrote An Experiment in Misery in 1898, the Bowery was a great magnet for philosophical Frenchmen like Sartre, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Albert Camus, who delighted in the “authenticity” of its flophouses and sleazy entertainments. “Nuit de Bowery,” Camus wrote in his travel journal. “Night on the Bowery, Poverty—and a European wants to say ‘Finally, reality.’ ” The elevated railroads and a place like the Bowery were “survivals,” “islands of resistance,” which the armies of progress had encircled and would overwhelm at leisure; though doomed to extinction, they were America’s true monuments. Let it be remembered that there were still horses drawing ice carts and milk wagons, tenements that Jacob Riis would have recognized with a shudder, and countless furnished rooms that might have housed Sister Carrie or Lily Bart on her way down. One of La Guardia’s last campaigns was banning pushcarts and putting grocery vendors into sanitary markets.

Cyril Connolly declared New York “the supreme metropolis of the present”—one of the most-quoted remarks ever about the city, but almost never in context. New York, as he said, would be the most beautiful city in the world if one never needed to descend below the fortieth floor; the light is southern, the vegetation and architecture northern, the sky the royal-blue velvet of Lisbon or Palermo. “A southern city, with a southern pullulation of life, yet with a northern winter imposing a control; the whole Nordic energy and sanity of living crisply enforcing its authority for three of the four seasons on the violet-airy babel of tongues and races; this tension gives New York its unique concentration and makes it the supreme metropolis of the present.” This ultramodern metropolis to which Connolly pays tribute is not as gone as the gaslight New York of O. Henry, but it is more than half-vanished:

[The] glitter of “21,” the old-world lethargy of the Lafayette, the hazy views of the East River or Central Park over tea in some apartment at the magic hour when the concrete icebergs suddenly flare up; the impressionist pictures in one house, the exotic trees or bamboo furniture in another, the chink of ‘old fashioneds’ with their little glass pestles, the divine glories—Egyptian, Etruscan, French—of the Metropolitan Museum, the felicitous contemporary assertion of the Museum of Modern Art, the snow, the sea-breezes, the late suppers, with the Partisans, the reelings-home down the black steam-spitting canyons, the Christmas trees lit up beside the liquorice ribbons of cars on Park Avenue, the Gotham Book Mart, the shabby coziness of the Village, all go to form an unforgettable picture of what a city ought to be: that is, continuously insolent and alive, a place where one can buy a book or meet a friend at any hour of the day or night . . .

Those secondhand-book stores that stayed open all night, like the one off Washington Square where Connolly bought a first edition of E. E. Cummings at two a.m., are as extinct as the particular fashionable Manhattan into which he was made welcome: a “concrete Capri” and “a noisily masculine society,” where wit and wisecracks flowered rather than art.

Another alert British observer, Cecil Beaton, found fashionable New York women to be “hard and awe-inspiring.” They had an “Indian elegance” that might be attributable to the rocky ground on which they flourished, displaying “legs, arms and hands of such attenuated grace; wrists and ankles so fine, that they are the most beautiful in the world.” In his view, it was the men who fell apart too young in America. “Few men over twenty-five are good-looking; often those most charming college boys with faces fit for a collar ‘ad,’ concave figures, heavy hands, fox-terrier behinds and disarming smiles, run to seed at a tragically early age, and become grey-haired, bloated and spoilt.” The generic American businessman, who was of course the generic American type, had a “foetus face.” The photographer suspected that the American’s bland features betrayed an empty soul: the man of letters more generously suggested that they masked a tragic sense of life. “Why, after midnight, do so many Americans fight or weep?” he asked. “Almost everyone hates his job. Psychiatrists of all schools are as common as monks in the Theibeid.”

Affluent New Yorkers seemed to lack a capacity for relaxation, from which followed the rigors of “leisure time” activities: golf, backgammon, bridge, plays, movies, sports, “culture,” not to mention the conspicuous consumption of whiskey and cocktails, which made the hangover one of the perils of the American scene. Cigarette smoke was another, but hardly anyone protested—certainly not Europeans, who smoked as much. From Voisin, the Colony, and Chambord (said to be the costliest restaurant on earth just after the war, with a typical dinner costing as much as twenty-five dollars) to Schrafft’s, to Woolworth’s and the humblest corner drugstore fountain, everybody smoked—big bankers, laborers, society women, Partisan Review intellectuals, movie stars, ribbon clerks—before, after, and often during meals, adding to the great pall hanging over New York in the forties; and every meal was drowned in ice water, which European visitors found extremely unhealthy.

Like its great singer Walt Whitman (“I am large, I contain multitudes”), New York contradicted itself: its multitude of observers contradicted one another. Was Manhattan remarkably clean, neat, and decorous, as Cecil Beaton maintained? Sartre was struck by the filth on the streets, the muddy, discarded newspapers blown by the wind and the “blackish snow” in winter: “this most modern of cities is also the dirtiest.” At least wherever the grid extended it was impossible to get lost (“One glance is enough for you to get your bearings; you are on the East Side, at the corner of 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue”). Beaton retorted it was all too easy to lose one’s way: street signs were few, entrances to the subway obscure, post offices unmarked, public lavatories invisible or nonexistent. Appurtenances like awnings, which in England actually signified something (a party, a wedding), in New York sheltered the entrances to grand hotels and flophouses alike.

Automat_by_Berenice_Abbott_in_1936

Automat, Berenice Abbott. Via Flickr.

Or consider the Automat: “a high point of civilization,” according to Connolly, who was known as a gourmand, extolled for offering an endless selection of food for nickels and dimes: “strawberries in January, leberwurst on rye bread, a cut off the roast, huge oysters, a shrimp cocktail, or marshmallow cup-cake.” Switching for a moment to an American observer, the same cuisine was remembered at a distance of a quarter-century by Elizabeth Hardwick (in the forties, recently arrived from Lexington, Kentucky) for “its woeful, watery macaroni, its bready meat loaf, the cubicles of drying sandwiches; mud, glue and leather, from these textures you made your choice. The miseries of the deformed diners and their revolting habits; they were necessary, like a sewer, like the Bowery, Klein’s, 14th Street.” Thus, we are reminded that the past is not only another country, where things are done differently, as the novelist L. P. Hartley instructs us—it is also a matter of taste.

* * *

The most prodigious monument man has ever erected to himself.

Literally and figuratively, the atmosphere was supercharged: the traffic lights, which even dogs were said to heed, went straight from red to green. Simone de Beauvoir wrote of “something in New York that makes sleep useless.” And Sartre: “There is the wailing of the wind, the electric shocks I get each time I touch a doorbell or shake a friend’s hand, the cockroaches that scoot across my kitchen, the elevators that make me nauseous and the inexhaustible thirst that rages in me from morning till night. New York is a colonial city, an outpost. All the hostility and cruelty of Nature are present in this city, the most prodigious monument man has ever erected to himself.”

And yet postwar New York was a quieter and less changeable place than before or since. New Yorkers experienced nothing in these years like the usual incessant building up and tearing down, “the new landmarks crushing the old quite as violent children stamp on snails and caterpillars,” as Henry James put it in The American Scene (1907). It was quieter after the demolition of the elevated subways, the Els, beginning in 1930 and completed in the fifties.

The United Nations complex (1947–52) and, appropriately for a collectivist age, two giant housing blocks—Metropolitan Insurance’s Stuyvesant Town, which Lewis Mumford denounced as “the architecture of the Police State,” and the publicly funded Peter Cooper Village—comprised the most important additions to the cityscape in these years. The pace of commercial construction did not become energetic until around 1952, when Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House began the march of glass-walled postwar skyscrapers up Park Avenue in the same year that the United Nations complex was completed. Neither Lever House nor the Seagram Building (1958) contained more than a small fraction of the floor space of the Empire State or the Chrysler Building. It was not until Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building in 1963 that a corporate monument imposed itself on the city like the Jazz Age behemoths or Rockefeller Center (1930–39) as an ensemble. Indeed, it is significant that rather than the Empire State or the Chrysler Building, it was the timeless-seeming, end-of-history architecture of Rockefeller Center—“Egyptian,” some said, although Cyril Connolly was reminded of Stonehenge—that seemed the high-rise most emblematic of the city. In the forties, New York was actually scaled down, as many old money-losing buildings of ten or twelve stories were pulled down and replaced with thrifty “taxpayers” of two or three, a sign of diminished expectations applauded by the New York Times and by Lewis Mumford in the New Yorker.

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Rockefeller Center postcard. Via Flickr.

It was in the forties that New York began defining itself ever more as a constellation of self-contained urban enclaves, “an island of islands.” The housing shortage during and after the war, along with rent regulation (imposed by the state in 1947 after the OPA controls lapsed), eventually turning much of the housing market into a lottery, discouraged the old nomadism. Increasingly New Yorkers were apt to hive into particular neighborhoods and stay there. One thinks of Mrs. H. T. Miller in Truman Capote’s career-making story “Miriam”: “For several years, Mrs. H. T. Miller had lived alone in a pleasant apartment (two rooms with a kitchenette) in a remodeled brownstone. She was a widow: Mr. H. T. Miller had left a reasonable amount of insurance. Her interests were narrow, she had no friends to speak of, and she rarely journeyed farther than the corner grocery store.”

New York was showing its age. What old-fashioned relics the skyscrapers of the twenties appeared to a French visitor like Sartre, who had so admired American movies and American jazz, which now seemed to him to have outlived their future! “Far away I see the Empire State or the Chrysler Building reaching vainly toward the sky, and suddenly I think that New York is about to acquire a History and that it already possessed its ruins.”

Beneath the aging skyscrapers, most of the built city was still Walt Whitman’s “Babylonish brick-kiln,” not high but deep, not futuristic but fraying, and grimy beneath the glitter.

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The heat closed in like a hand over a murder victim’s mouth, the city thrashed and twisted.

In Europe the winter of 1946–47 was the coldest in three hundred years, freezing and threatening to starve victors and vanquished alike; coal and foodstuffs were in shorter supply in London and Paris than during the worst of the war. There was snowfall in Saint-Tropez, and wolves were sighted on the road from Rome to Naples. The era of the Cold War began in a cold season.

New Yorkers were generally sheltered against the cold, but in summer, with home air-conditioning almost as rare as television before 1947, they sweltered in the most intense heat waves that anyone could remember. The eight million made their way to the Roxy, the Capitol, Radio City Music Hall, and the other giant movie palaces that had air-conditioning; or went to Coney Island, Brighton Beach, or Jones Beach, passing amid scenes unchanged since the turn of the century, but that would barely last out the decade: whole families spending the night on tenement roofs, small children wedged together on fire escapes, old people sitting up late on kitchen chairs by the stoop—the lost world that lives on vividly in Alfred Kazin’s memoirs and Helen Levitt’s photographs.

Truman Capote writes of a particular August day in 1946 when “the heat closed in like a hand over a murder victim’s mouth, the city thrashed and twisted.” Central Park was like a battlefield, whose “exhausted fatalities lay crumpled in the dead-still shade,” as documented by newspaper photographers. “At night, hot weather opens the skull of a city, exposing its brain and its central nerves, which sizzle like the inside of an electric-light bulb.”

“On some nights, New York is as hot as Bangkok.” The famous opening line of Saul Bellow’s The Victim (1947) might have been inspired by the heat wave of the preceding year; it is definite that Bellow had never spent a sultry night in Bangkok, but from the next sentence it is obvious that he had read Spengler. “The whole continent seems to have moved from its place and slid nearer the equator, the bitter gray Atlantic to have become green and tropical, and the people, thronging the streets, barbaric fellahin among the stupendous monuments of their mystery, the lights of which, a dazing profusion, climb upward endlessly into the heat of the sky.”

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We all drank too much that winter… some to forget the neuroses acquired in the war just ended, others in anticipation of those expected from the next.

No one spoke, as Scott Fitzgerald had done after the First World War, of a generation waking up “to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” As a group, the veterans of the Second World War had fought, or been prepared to fight, to preserve a way of life which Fascists and Nazis had put in jeopardy and the empire of Japan under direct assault. On V-J Day, the armed forces of the United States, which had numbered fewer than Belgium’s five years before, had grown to 11,913,639. How to reassimilate so many millions of soldiers into American society and the economy was a question being pondered by the thoughtful long before the war was over in Europe; it became abruptly more urgent when the war in Asia and the Pacific ended so much sooner than most people expected.

The soldier’s homecoming was an event eagerly awaited; repeated twelve million times, it threatened to throw society into a profound crisis. How could their vast numbers be absorbed into the workforce in an economy that was no longer racing to fill military orders—even if all the women in heavy industry quit or were laid off, as mostly they were? The addition of twelve million veterans to the labor force might entirely disrupt the economy, plunging it into uncertainty, perhaps the renewed depression that almost everyone apprehended, and certainly labor strife. Many leftists and liberal New Dealers hoped that veterans might be organized as a powerful progressive force; many conservative politicians were fearful that they would succeed. If times were hard, would the soldier’s mood turn resentful, even mutinous? Women’s magazines like McCall’s warned veterans’ wives to be prepared for moodiness, which might last for weeks.

Journalists like the New York Times political correspondent Anne O’Hare McCormick warned of the need for “psychic reconversion.” Writing from Rome in December 1944, McCormick had been struck by how shocked a group of visiting congressmen had been at the hardships of the Italian campaign, to which the GIs had become inured. “There is no getting away from the fact that millions of men in battle zones are leading abnormal lives in an abnormal world that comes in time to seem more normal than the one they have left,” she wrote. “War is a long exile in a strange world, and the future of America depends on the mood and spirit in which the exiles return.”

Thronged troopships steaming into New York Harbor punctuated that autumn. The Queen Mary, which along with Britain’s other great ocean liners, the Queen Elizabeth and the Aquitania, had been converted to American service during the war, delivered 14,526 uniformed Americans into New York Harbor, where they were met by a jubilant crowd of a quarter of a million. “Flags cracked and whipped in the jubilant wind everywhere, and ships’ whistles and horns brayed in the huge demented medley of war’s end—something furiously sad, angry, mute, and piteous was in the air, something pathetically happy too”: so Jack Kerouac recalls such occasions in The Town and the City. Later in the fall, as Truman was compelled to scale down the projected rate of discharges in line with available shipping, soldiers’ wives, along with their mothers and fathers, organized “Bring Back Daddy” clubs, which besieged the White House with baby booties and buried Congress in letters and telegrams of complaint. The soldiers gave vent to their impatience in massive demonstrations, from Berlin and Tokyo to London, Paris, and the Philippines—an ominous breakdown in discipline which Truman ordered Eisenhower to make his first order of business after his appointment as Army Chief of Staff. “The President worried aloud to his Cabinet that the ‘frenzied’ rate at which men were being discharged—he estimated about 650 an hour—was turning into a rout: it was ‘the disintegration of our armed forces.’” General Lewis B. Hershey, the head of Selective Service, indiscreetly ventured that if too many servicemen threatened to flood the job market, their enlistment could always be extended indefinitely, thus causing another furor.

The dead were coming home too. On October 25, 1946, Meyer Berger reported in The New York Times that the bodies of 6,248 Americans had arrived on USS Joseph V. Connolly. A single coffin was selected to represent them all in a service in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park after it was carried there in a procession escorted by six thousand past and present servicemen and attended by a crowd of four hundred thousand. In the Sheep Meadow, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy prayed over the coffin. A band from Fort Jay played “Taps.” “In a front row seat, a woman started up. She stretched out her arms and screamed the name ‘Johnny.’ ” Within a few days another death ship with its freight of several thousand coffins arrived at the Port of New York, but this time there was no procession, no service in the park.

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USS Franklin D. Roosevelt leaving the Brooklyn Navy Yard, October 1945. Via Wikipedia.

Wherever you went, recalls the narrator of Merle Miller’s novel That Winter (1948), you saw “some of the fourteen million comrades—the word is not yet illegal, is it?—buddies, pals, former brothers-in-arms, easily identifiable, most of them, and not many were any longer wearing discharge buttons.” Regardless of how grateful they were to be home, many of them did cling to some totemic vestiges of their former service: a navy sweater or peacoat, a pair of khakis, a webbed belt, making identification easy. “After all, we had—all of us—won the great imperial war, and thanks to us, the whole world was briefly American”: Gore Vidal picked up the story fifty years later in Palimpsest.

Because fiction was still bringing the news in the forties, novels and short stories about the returning war veteran received much attention. Decently, these could only be written by one of the brotherhood. In the twenties, Edith Wharton—not only old but a woman—scandalized Hemingway and the rest of the “Lost Generation” by presuming to write a novel, A Son at the Front (1923), about their war. After the Second World War, civilians ceded the territory to such variously promising veteran-writers as Vidal, Vance Bourjaily, Merle Miller, and J. D. Salinger. And Norman Mailer, as he revealed in Advertisements for Myself, questioned the idea of writing about a war he had not been part of: “Was I to do the book of the returning veteran when I had lived like a mole writing and rewriting seven hundred pages in those fifteen months?” In Barbary Shore, he sidestepped the issue by depriving Mike Lovett of his past: he was “probably in the war.” Admirers of The Naked and the Dead were deeply disappointed by what looked suspiciously like a Marxist allegory, or rather an allegory about Marxism, set in a Brooklyn boardinghouse.

Merle Miller’s That Winter, on the other hand, was the returning-veteran novel that most exactly satisfied standard expectations: it was published in 1948, and immediately, as the novelist Alice Adams remembered many years later, it was the book “we were all reading.”

“We all drank too much that winter,” says the narrator, “some to forget the neuroses acquired in the war just ended, others in anticipation of those expected from the next, but most of us simply because we liked to drink too much.” For a generation, bookish youths had attempted to drink and talk like the characters in Hemingway’s novels: Miller’s novel flattered them that they had succeeded. The great sodality of ex-soldiers was drifting back into civilian life on a tide of alcohol, all the while exchanging arch, tight-lipped dialogue lifted from Jake Barnes’s fishing trip with Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises. “ ‘I find I no longer give a damn what’s happening in or to the world,’ he said. ‘Any special reason?’ ‘Not much. I decided when I got out I’d spend the rest of my life leading the inner life. Hear that inner life is a fine thing.’ ”

The narrator, Peter Anthony, is a young man from the provinces (Iowa was Miller’s home state). He has published a novel, and works at “the news magazine”—i.e., Time, the great devourer of talent. To comfort himself, he drinks a lot and is regularly joined in his alcoholic haze by his friends, casual acquaintances, and especially his two housemates in an apartment in Murray Hill, both former enlisted men like himself: Ted Hamilton, a futile rich boy, was a hero in the war (Omaha Beach), but is now bitter, sodden, and missing an arm; and Lew Cole, a young Jewish radio writer who is unhappily aware that anti-Semitism has not merely lingered but flourished as a result of the war.

Life at Time: “On the sixth day of the week, most men play, and on the seventh they rest and recover from hangover. But those of us who worked in that Park Avenue model of cold glass, colder steel, and rect lighting and soundproof offices and two-inch carpets did not play on the sixth day, and we did not rest on the seventh.” In other words, Time magazine closed on Mondays, so the real work of writing was done on Saturdays and Sundays, tight against deadline: “Each sentence in each of the stories must be polished, terse, brittle, and smart, and perfect for publication in the news magazine but for no other purpose whatsoever.”

Referring to such deeply unimaginative and deeply revealing fiction, Paul Fussell asks in Wartime: “What did people want to believe in the forties? What struck them as important?” Right off, he notes the huge moral significance attached to the choice of career; this was so to an extent that now appears either laughably naive or priggish—the idea of a calling or “true” vocation now seeming an ancient luxury, like traveling through life with a steamer trunk. That Winter was one of a number of popular novels—Fussell names Frederic Wakeman’s The Hucksters, Helen Haberman’s How About Tomorrow Morning?, and Herman Wouk’s Aurora Dawn—that “explore[d] the degree of dishonor attaching to ‘the parasitical professions’”: advertising, the vending of cosmetics, radio, low journalism, making a living by working for Henry Luce, even selling. (Death of a Salesman was the Broadway hit of 1949.)

Nowhere in That Winter appear the stoic, purposeful veterans, bursting with the optimism of “the greatest generation” mythologizing, whom memory welcomed home with parades and brass bands. His veterans are at loose ends even when they are fully employed; as a generation they have been maimed by the successive blows of the Depression and the war; many have made marriages they regret and fathered children they did not want. The wife of a sold-out novelist, Martha Westing, the lone sympathetic member of the older generation, remarks to Peter that the enraged, suicidal Ted was “like the rest of you, only more so.” What was it about his generation? “I tried to explain, but I’m not sure I succeeded,” Peter replies. “I talked about all the thousands, the tens of thousands, the millions of us who had been away for a while and had returned. Without any bands, without any committees of welcome, without banners. We hadn’t wanted these, we tried to think we hadn’t wanted anything; yet we had, and the difficulty was that we didn’t know what we wanted, and neither did anybody else. That was the difficulty.”

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From the Book: The Brazen Age by David Reid
Copyright © 2016 by David Reid
Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC