Manhattan at Mid-Century, page 1
An Oral History
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer
TAYLOR TRADE PUBLISHING
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Copyright © 2001, 2003, and 2013 by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer
First Taylor Trade edition 2013, with new introduction
All photographs are courtesy of the Library of Congress
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
It happened in Manhattan.
Manhattan at mid-century : an oral history / [compiled by] Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer. — First Taylor trade edition.
Originally published under title: It happened in Manhattan. New York : Berkley Books, 2001. With new introduction.
ISBN 978-1-58979-905-9 (pbk. : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-58979-906-6 (electronic) 1. Manhattan (New York, N.Y.)—Social life and customs— 20th century. 2. New York (N.Y.)—Social life and customs—20th century. 3. Manhattan (New York, N.Y.)—Biography. 4. New York (N.Y.)—Biography. 5. Oral history. I. Frommer, Myrna, compiler. II. Frommer, Harvey, compiler. III. Title.
™ The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992.
Printed in the United States of America
For our family:
Jennifer and Jeff, Freddy, Michele, Alex and Ethan; Ian, Laura, Arielle, Gaby, Rafi and Sammy; Caroline and Marshall
Introduction to the New Edition
Cast of Characters
Chapter 1: On the Sidewalks of New York
Chapter 2: I Want to Be a Part of It
Chapter 3: If I Can Make It Here . . .
Chapter 4: Puttin’ on the Ritz
Chapter 5: Sanctuaries in the City
Chapter 6: High Culture or “Who the Hell Is de Kooning?”
Chapter 7: Making Music
Chapter 8: East Side, West Side
Chapter 9: All around the Town
Chapter 10: Politics as Usual
Chapter 11: Looking at New York through Its Buildings
Manhattan skyline from City Hospital, 1950.
Introduction to the New Edition
Apartment hunting in New York City this second decade of the twenty-first century invariably leads to consideration of whether a building is “prewar” or “postwar,” and there’s no need to ask “Which war?” The Second World War may have concluded nearly seventy years ago, yet it remains, even to generations who were born long after it ended, “the war,” the dividing line between the then and now.
During the largely peaceful and prosperous time that followed “the war,” New York was still a manufacturing town, the garment center was flourishing, the financial sector was taking off, ports along the Hudson and East River were active, and rising real estate values were leading to a building boom. There were eight daily newspapers, four in the morning, four in the afternoon, Tin Pan Alley songwriters peddled their words and music in the Brill Building, the Beatles made their New York debut in Carnegie Hall, and from across the country, young people with stars in their eyes kept arriving, hoping to make it on Broadway or Wall Street or Madison Avenue or . . .
With the war’s end and Europe’s great cities in ruins, the power and glory of Western Civilization had devolved onto New York City. Now there was haute couture and haute cuisine, abstract expressionism and Bauhaus architecture, and a cultural and intellectual scene immeasurably enriched by the host of talented immigrants lucky enough to have escaped the clutches of fascism. New York had taken on the mantle of Cultural Capital of the World.
This book is an account of what happened in Manhattan during those postwar years. It is a pastiche, an impressionistic collection of the memories of some sixty-four people woven into a narrative of time and place. Some of these people are well-known public figures, others private citizens. Some we sought out, others came to us in the manner in which way leads on to way. Each encounter was a story in and of itself. Each has found a lasting place in the memory box of our own.
Images linger: Alvin Reed slipping into the free and easy manner of his youth when he would look into the eyes of his dance partner as he swept her across a Harlem nightclub floor, Saul Zabar recalling his visits to the old coffee district south of the Fulton Fish Market to watch the boats dock in the harbor and the longshoremen unload the sacks of coffee beans, Sirio Maccioni remembering the dilemma posed when Frank Sinatra and the Duke of Windsor both claimed to have reserved the same table his first day as headwaiter at the Colony, Margot Gayle reviewing the battles she and her fellow community activists fought to save the cast iron buildings in the neighborhood that was to become SoHo, Polly Bernstein emerging from a fog of forgetfulness only months before she died to describe the underside of working in New York’s fur industry.
The period evoked in these pages lasted from the end of the war through close to the end of the century. And although it was overall a time of growth and optimism, there were also downturns. Manhattan, after all, is part of New York City, and the problems confronted in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island were its problems as well. A mass exodus to the suburbs had dramatically reduced the tax base, once solid neighborhoods had turned dangerous, the dramatic increase in crime—reflected in blaring car alarms that day and night rattled the regular cacophony of city life—was witness to the lack of stability and security. At one point New York City hovered so close to bankruptcy that aid was sought from Washington. When it was refused, the irrepressible Daily News responded with the still-remembered front page headline: “Ford to New York: Drop Dead!”
The spirit and defiance embedded in those words defined and continues to define Manhattan as well as all of New York. In the wake of the attack and destruction of the World Trade Center so early in the new century, they proved an attitude, a means of coping with shock and despondency, a spur to providing the will that would begin the process of healing.
Postwar Manhattan was marked by that attitude as well. Coming into its own in the wake of a terrible war, it exhaled in a pleasure promised by peace. It stands in a special niche of New York City history, one that promised a new age, a world with promise as bright as the United Nations complex that opened in 1952 . . . and in many ways the promise has been fulfilled. These stories are part of what it was all about.
Cast of Characters
This book was originally published as It Happened in Manhattan in 2001. N
RABBI DAN ALDER: Rabbi of the Brotherhood Synagogue in Gramercy Park.
MICKEY ALPERT: Longtime press agent for theater, movies, and nightlife.
KEN ARETSKY: Restaurateur, owner of Patroon and Butterfield 81. Previously he owned Oren & Aretsky and Arcadia and ran the 21 Club.
HERMAN BADILLO: Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York. He was formerly a U.S. Congressman and Borough President of the Bronx.
ANDY BALDUCCI: Founded and owned Balducci’s, the produce and gourmet emporium.
NINA BALDUCCI: Wife of Andy Balducci, was an owner of Balducci’s.
ANNE BERG: Expatriate New Yorker living near Boston.
RUSSELL BERG: College administrator living near Boston.
POLLY BERNSTEIN: Saleswoman in a New York department store, died in September 2000.
SAM BERNSTEIN: Retired furrier.
SID BERNSTEIN: Music promoter who arranged the first appearance of the Beatles in the United States.
JANE BEVANS: Manhattan-based attorney and artist.
JIMMY BRESLIN: Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a columnist for Newsday.
ANDREW BUSHKO: Dean of University Life at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania.
JOHN CAMPI: A vice president of the Daily News.
FATHER PETER COLAPIETRO: Pastor of Holy Cross Church on 42nd Street.
JOE DARION: Lyricist, librettist, and playwright who won the Tony Award for writing the lyrics to Man of La Mancha, he died in June 2001.
MERLE DEBUSKEY: Longtime theatrical press agent.
JERRY DELLA FEMINA: Owner of an advertising agency and two restaurants bearing his name, and the author of From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor.
JOEL DORN: Producer of jazz albums who worked for Atlantic Records for many years and won four Grammy Awards.
STANLEY DRUCKER: First clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, an institution he joined in 1948.
JOEL EICHEL: An owner of Bigelow’s drugstore in Greenwich Village.
MARK FEDERMAN: Attorney, owner of Russ and Daughters, the appetizing store on the Lower East Side founded by his grandfather Joel Russ.
BILL GALLO: Award-winning sports cartoonist, worked for the Daily News for more than forty years.
MARGOT GAYLE: Nationally known authority on cast-iron architecture and founder of Friends of Cast Iron Architecture.
MICHAEL GEORGE: Art and architecture historian.
IAN JAY GINSBERG: An owner of Bigelow’s drugstore in Greenwich Village.
ALAN GREENBERG: Chairman of the Board and Executive Committees of Bear Stearns and Company.
DAVE HART: Longtime talent agent in the music business.
MONTE IRVIN: Baseball Hall of Famer, one of the first black players on the New York Giants and a longtime star of the Negro Leagues.
JULIE ISAACSON: International President of the Toy Union, AFL-CIO, and a well-known figure on the sports scene.
JANE JACOBS: An urban critic who authored The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
ANDRÉ JAMMET: Owner, along with his wife, Rita, of the restaurant La Caravelle, he was born in the Bristol—one of the grand hotels of Paris, which was built by his father.
ELAINE KAUFMAN: Founder and owner of Elaine’s, the restaurant and literary hangout.
THEODORE KHEEL: Longtime lawyer, arbitrator, negotiator, and mediator who served three presidents and five New York City mayors.
HOWARD KISSEL: Senior theater critic for the Daily News and the author of David Merrick: The Abominable Showman.
LINDA KLEINSCHMIDT: Teacher and graduate student.
LEONARD KOPPETT: The only person named to the writers’ wing of the Baseball and Basketball Halls of Fame, he was for many years a sports columnist for the New York Times.
HILTON KRAMER: Author of The Twilight of the Intellectuals, cofounder and editor of the New Criterion and for many years the art critic of the New York Times.
ELEANOR LAMBERT: Fashion publicist who invented the International Best Dressed List and the Coty Award.
JACK LANG: Sports columnist who for many years wrote for the Long Island Press.
GILLES LARRAÍN: Landscape, portrait, and album-cover photographer whose subjects include many famous performers. He is the author of Idols.
KEN LIBO: Editor and writer, the coauthor of World of Our Fathers and How We Lived, and the author of We Lived There Too.
THEODORE LIEBMAN: Partner in the Liebman Melting Partnership, architects and planners.
SIRIO MACCIONI: Founder and owner of the restaurant Le Cirque 2000.
ELAINE MARKSON: Longtime literary agent in Greenwich Village.
ROBERT MERRILL: Metropolitan Opera baritone, also a star of the stage and television, as well as a recording artist.
RABBI JUDAH NADICH: Rabbi emeritus of the Park Avenue Synagogue, where he served for thirty years, and past President of the Rabbinical Assembly.
HELEN O’HAGAN: Longtime Vice President of Public Relations and Special Events for Saks Fifth Avenue.
BARBARA PRINGLE: For many years the Executive Director of the Masters in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth College.
MAURICE RAPF: Wrote thirteen screenplays, including Disney’s Song of the South. He founded the film studies program at Dartmouth College, and taught film history and production there for many years.
WALDO RASMUSSEN: Head of the International Program at the Museum of Modern Art.
ALVIN REED: Former police officer and the owner of the Lenox Lounge in Harlem.
CAROLE RIFKIND: Architectural historian, wrote A Field Guide to Contemporary American Architecture and teaches in the historic preservation program at the Architecture School of Columbia University.
TOM SLATTERY: Chairman of the Advisory Board of the United Restaurant and Liquor Dealers of Manhattan.
LACONIA SMEDLEY: Voice and music teacher and Harlem community activist.
JOHN TAURANAC: Urban and architectural historian and map designer whose books include an atlas of Manhattan.
MICHAEL TONG: Owner of the restaurants Shun Lee Palace and Shun Lee West.
PAULINE TRIGÈRE: Famed haute couture designer and a two-time Coty Award winner.
MARCIA TUCKER: Founder of the New Museum and an art critic, lecturer, former museum director, and comic.
JOAN WASHBURN: Owner of the Joan Washburn Galleries on 57th Street.
DOROTHY WHEELOCK: Theater and features editor at Harper’s Bazaar from 1940 to 1957.
MARGARET WHITING: Longtime nightclub singer and recording artist.
SAUL ZABAR: An owner of Zabar’s, the Upper West Side food emporium founded by his father, Louis.
SID BERNSTEIN: I’m still a tourist in the city I was born and raised in. I’m a walker of the city streets. If I walk by a place and an aroma greets me, I go in there.
One day I walked past Dave’s Luncheonette on the corner of Canal Street and Broadway. It had been there for years. This time I smelled chocolate, and I went in. It was their own bittersweet chocolate that they were making downstairs for their egg creams. I had one, and I was hooked. Dave’s had their own recipe for egg creams. To the chocolate, they added very cold seltzer. Then they added the milk that softened the harsh seltzer taste and made it very mellow. They served it in a big, thick glass with a long spoon to mix the molecules. I didn’t need a straw; that would take away from the taste.
Back then, garbage trucks used to stop, police and firemen would stop. It wasn’t a hangout; it was more like a pit stop. For egg creams, it was n
Yonah Schimmel’s on Houston and Allen Streets on the Lower East Side is famous for its knishes, but I loved its potato-nick—that’s a potato pudding with a real firm crust. It was marvelous. How did I find it? Again, I smelled it. Yonah Schimmel started the business around 1910. He handed it down to his daughter, Mrs. Berger. Then her son took it over. Now a Russian guy owns it, but he keeps up the same tradition, uses the same recipes. Every ten to twenty years they repaint the store so it never looks like anything but an old store. But its knishes are world famous, more so than Mrs. Stahl’s in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn.
One day I was walking down Houston Street near Yonah Schimmel’s, and I smelled pickles in a doorway. I went in. Houston Street is a filthy street, but this store was white, immaculate, the counter was gleaming. It was Russ and Daughters. When I first became a customer, one of Russ’s daughters was still living. Her son Mark now runs it. They had chopped herring, which I love. And because the store was so neat, I felt I could trust the chopped herring. Then I saw the schmaltz herring. Every time thereafter when I went to Russ and Daughters, I’d have them slice one, and before I got to the street, I had at least one slice with a toothpick. By the time I got on the bus or back to my car to bring the food back to my family, I’d have knocked off half of it.
I go to Zabar’s for the cheeses, I go there for the nova. I love it paper thin. Sam Cohen was a favorite behind the counter. I’d say, “Hello, Sam, vus machts der [how are you]?” and move on to the next clerk, who would slice it paper thin. Sam didn’t have patience for me. I bothered him. He was more interested in the ladies.
Every few years Zabar’s expanded—upstairs to the mezzanine, downstairs to the basement. Everyone who moves away comes there with the ice chest to stock up before they go home. The crowd is enthusiastic. I used to see Tony Randall there. He’d walk around, pick out his gefilte fish, wait for his sturgeon and nova, get a jar of sour tomatoes. I considered him a good shopper. What makes a good shopper? Someone who knows what he wants. Some of the tourists are like Alice in Wonderland: They just walk around staring, amazed.