Author: Donald L. Miller
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
According to the Preface to Donald L. Miller’s, Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America began as quite a larger undertaking dealing with the history of New York City and all five boroughs in the years between World War 1 and World War 11. This was narrowed down to the transformation of Midtown Manhattan in the 1920s from a commercial backwater to a thriving metropolis which for the most part was the result of its builders and not dreamers, who brought in the future. How did it all come about and how did New York become such a great city? Those questions, among others, are answered in this book.
Miller takes a thematic approach and begins his book with the Jimmy Walker era who was mayor of New York from 1926 to 1932 when he was forced to resign due to a scandal. At the time New York was a deeply divided city where recent immigrants, Italians, Jews, Irish, Germans and others were living in tightly defined ethnic communities and where tribalism ran strong. Although Jewish immigrants made up over thirty percent of the population, the Irish were still the dominant power in city government. Prohibition became the law of the land, however, for many, including Walker, the law favored the “haves” over the “have-nots,” and he also believed that it was a tyrannical abridgement of personal freedom.
Notorious criminals Frank Costello and William Dwyer were the kings of the bootlegging business and Owney Madden was the closest thing Manhattan has ever had to an Irish Crime czar. Nightclubs were in full bloom and quite different from the pre-Prohibition “lobster places” as they were smaller, livelier, and more risqué. Miller points out that the modern Manhattan night club was a creature of prosperity as well as Prohibition becoming one of the city’s most lucrative businesses. You had the 300 Club located at 151 West Fifty-fourth Street, The Puncheon owned by Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns, the Cotton Club and others.
While all of this was going on, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. was taking off from a grass airstrip on Long Island in 1927 in his single-engine monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis to Paris France. And as mentioned, “Although Lindbergh would not have known it, his parade up Fifth Avenue upon his return from Paris traced Manhattan’s relentless march northward, over three centuries, from the Battery, to Washington Square, to Herald Square, to Midtown. This is the area between forty-second street and the southern border of Central Park-the expanding city’s newest commercial and entertainment center.” The city never built more ambitiously or aggressively than it did during the latter part of the 1920s and Manhattan was converted into a huge construction site, with “steel girders climbing into the clouds, rivet guns hammering away, and mud-caked laborers digging up the streets and moving entire buildings to make way for more underground trains.” One of the most prominent construction projects was the building of Grand Central which created a min-city within New York, including the Commodore Hotel and several office buildings. It spurred construction throughout the neighborhood in the 1920s including the Chrysler Building.
New York also was emerging as the radio capital of the world brought about by such visionaries as David Sarnoff, William Paley, and others. Not to be omitted, were the celebrities in the world of sports such as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and others, all of whom Miller devotes considerable ink.
Miller quotes from a vast number of sources including newspapers, letters, history texts and other writings, that are part of the text that never becomes dull for the reader. In addition, there are ninety-nine pages of notes and a bibliography of forty-two pages.
I strongly recommend this fascinating book to anyone who has an interest in the making of New York City.