REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN
“Don’t give the people what they want. Give them something better than they expect.” — Samuel L. “Roxy” Rothafel (1882-1936), American theatrical impresario and entrepreneur
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Roxy’s axiom fits the scores of people profiled in Donald L. Miller’s “Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America” (Simon & Schuster, 784 pages, in-text and photographic inserts, notes, bibliography, index, $37.50) as well as the book itself. It’s the kind of big book a fan of architecture, city planning, politicians and gangsters (often the same people!), the birth of radio, show business, tabloid newspapers, book publishing, music, fashion and just about everything that emerged from New York City in the Roaring Twenties doesn’t want to end.
Miller’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, is part of the story in his account of pioneering publisher Horace Liveright, founder (with Albert Boni) of Boni & Liveright. BL was the publisher of Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Hart Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, among many other authors. Max Schuster’s friend, Richard L. Simon — father of singer-songwriter Carly Simon — was a book salesman at Boni & Liveright. They joined forces to form S&S. Their first book was a collection of crossword puzzles and it was a bestseller. The company was saved when the crossword puzzle craze fizzled by the publication of Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy” which was a bestseller.
Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of Random House, also worked at Boni & Liveright. As a book reviewer and avid reader, of course I’ve heard of Boni & Liveright. I didn’t know that Horace Liveright’s name is pronounced “Live Right”, not “Liver Right”. Like many of the people Miller writes about, he was Jewish and his father anglicized the name from the German “Liebrecht” — which translates to “Live Right.” Cerf and his partner, Donald Klopfer, got off to a grand start at Random House with their purchase of Boni and Liveright’s Modern Library for $210,000, a poor decision on Horace Liveright’s part, but a brilliant move on the part of Cerf and Klopfer.
Much of “Supreme City” describes of how Manhattan’s development arc moved from its historic downtown birthplace — the area around City Hall — to Midtown, especially around Grand Central Terminal, completed in 1913. The New York Central rail yards at Grand Central were roofed over, creating Park Avenue, which quickly became one of the prime residential areas of the city. The gigantic mansions on Fifth Avenue were demolished by real estate developers — many of them Jewish — and luxury co-operative apartments were built there and on Park Avenue in one of the biggest building booms in the city’s — and America’s — history.
Miller describes the building of the George Washington Bridge, connecting Fort Lee, New Jersey, with upper Manhattan. The bridge — in the news lately over N.J. Gov. Chris Christy’s alleged “BridgeGate” — was the creation of a young Swiss immigrant Othmar Ammann, who later went on to build other several bridges in the city, including his last one, the Verrazano Narrows bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island. The story of the Holland Tunnel is also part of Miller’s book.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, from a wealthy Washington, D.C. African-American family, called the city “the capital of everything.” His connection with Jewish music publisher Irving Mills led to his success in records, radio broadcasting and his performing at Harlem’s Cotton Club, owned by gangster Owen “Owney” Madden, a native of Leeds, England. Only white audiences were admitted to the club, which featured black musicians.
If there is one recurring them in Miller’s supremely readable book, it is how people from elsewhere — like Chicago-born Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld Jr. and Philadelphian William Paley, founder of CBS — became successful in New York. His arch rival, David Sarnoff of NBC, was a Russian-Jewish immigrant. They were joined by many talented NYC natives.
The list of out-of-town successes is lengthy: Baltimore’s George Herman “Babe” Ruth; Coloradan boxer Jack Dempsey; Texas-reared sports entrepreneur Tex Rickard, who promoted Dempsey’s fights with Firpo, Gene Tunney and other boxers; Waco, Texas-born speakeasy hostess Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan; Kansas-born auto manufacturer Walter P. Chrysler, who used his own money — not his firm’s — to build the iconic Chrysler Building at 42nd and Lexington. (The Panama Smith character in the 1939 movie “The Roaring Twenties”, played by Gladys George, is based on real-life “Texas” Guinan.)
The list goes on: Chicagoan Joseph Medill Patterson, cousin of Robert R. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, came to the Big Apple in 1919 — a city with more than a dozen dailies — to start his own tabloid, New York’s “picture” newspaper, The Daily News. It quickly became the city’s largest circulation newspaper and survives to this day.
Cosmetics and fashion figure prominently in “Supreme City.” Canadian farm girl cosmetics specialist Elizabeth Arden and Polish-born cosmetics innovator Helena Rubenstein — who never talked to each other — set up their businesses on the new commerce driven Fifth Avenue. Thanks to building efforts by visionary developers like Abraham Lefcourt, Seventh Avenue became the center of ready-to-wear fashions, while fashion driven department stores like Bergdorf Goodman moved to Fifth Avenue with great success.
“Supreme City” is an important book by a renowned historian about a remarkable decade that saw the spectacular rise of Manhattan. It’s written with such engaging prose that most readers will agree with my assessment that I didn’t want it to end!
About the author
Donald L. Miller is the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College, Easton, PA. He hosted the series A Biography of America on PBS and has appeared in numerous other PBS programs in the American Experience series, as well as in programs on the History Channel. He is the author of eight previous books, among them the prize-winning City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, The Story of World War II, and D-Days in the Pacific.