Books

05.09.14

How the Jazz Age Invented Modern America

Supreme City sketches the origins of mass culture, from cosmetics to boxers and department stores, and shows how New York became the quintessential 20th century city.

The sure hand of a seasoned professional is evident in Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America, Donald L. Miller’s lengthy but lively new book, which synthesizes a vast amount of material on everything from skyscrapers to showgirls to create a scintillating portrait of Manhattan in the ’20s. Miller, a history professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania who has consulted on numerous television documentaries, knows how to bring scholarship to life for a general audience without dumbing it down. He expertly weaves multiple strands of information into a smooth narrative studded with mini-biographies.

These personal stories give vibrant human interest to Miller’s overarching theme, which is not quite what the subtitle suggests. Jazz Age Manhattan didn’t give birth to modern America so much as become its “entertainment and communications center,” as Miller notes in his preface. His real subjects are the development of midtown Manhattan and the concomitant transformation of New York into the quintessential 20th-century city. Supreme City is essentially a companion volume to Miller’s 1996 history of Chicago, which he named City of the Century—the 19th century, that is. Chicago was the center of meatpacking, railroads, and mechanized agriculture, the flagships of industrial capitalism. Manhattan, beneficiary of the broader (though still glaringly uneven) affluence created by industry, ushered in new forms of commerce devoted to pleasure, leisure, and consumption.

Not that Miller neglects the nitty-gritty. Part One, “Power and Politics,” depicts a city still run by the (somewhat) reformed Tammany Hall machine; most residents tolerated graft and fraud as necessary components of the city’s explosive growth. Wildly popular mayor Jimmy Walker shared his constituents’ laissez-faire attitude. In Part Two, “Crime and Prohibition,” we see him and many other New Yorkers patronizing venues that more or less openly sold illegal liquor. The unpopular Eighteenth Amendment enabled small-time hoodlums like Owney Madden and Larry Fay to move up through bootlegging to become the proprietors of fashionable nightclubs, mingling with celebrities and socialites titillated by their lawless ways. Prohibition didn’t create organized criminal syndicates, in Miller’s assessment, but it gave them a huge new market.

These two sections form a prelude to the book’s central drama, the literal rise of midtown Manhattan in the wake of the opening of Grand Central Station in 1913. Engineer William Wilgus’s visionary decision to replace open-air railroad lines with underground tunnels (made possible by the introduction of smokeless, electric-powered trains) transformed an area fouled by steam and soot into prime real estate. Seizing this opportunity, speculative builders threw up business skyscrapers on 42nd Street, high-rise apartment buildings on Park Avenue, and multi-storied luxury shops on Fifth Avenue. The Fred F. French Building and the (Irwin S.) Chanin Building name-check two of these bold developers, whose paradigmatic careers Miller traces.

The midtown skyscrapers housed law firms, advertising agencies, and other service businesses becoming increasingly important in the American economy. Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue were foremost among the department stores relocated from Herald Square to be closer to their wealthy customers. Realizing that modern women didn’t necessarily want to make time for fittings, Edwin Goodman supplemented his custom-made couture with an exclusive line of ready-to-wear dresses, while Adam Gimbel made Saks a byword for “elegance in volume at a price” with his mass-produced, high-end merchandise. Beauty trade titans Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden pampered the elite with facials and massages at their Fifth Avenue salons, but they made their millions by building a national market for cosmetics. “Every woman has a right to be beautiful,” Arden proclaimed.

For although Manhattan in the booming ‘20s was home to some of the richest people in the world, it was also at the forefront of mass marketing and mass entertainment. Miller is at his best delineating the interplay of technology, commerce, and culture. The Holland Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge facilitated the decentralization of industries like the garment trade: manufacturing moved out of Manhattan, and trucks moved the merchandise as needed to the showrooms and sales departments in midtown. Sports became a national obsession, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth national celebrities, via radio broadcasts of boxing matches and baseball games over networks built around “super stations” in Manhattan.

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Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America. By Donald L. Miller ()

Radio also gave African-American bandleader Duke Ellington his first nationwide exposure to white audiences outside the big cities, Miller notes in “Jazz Age Icons,” his slightly specious final section. Yes, Ellington broke into the big time at a Times Square speakeasy, Florenz Ziegfeld staged his famous Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre on West 42nd Street, and Horace Liveright was one of the many book publishers clustered in the East 50s. But New York’s long-established musical, theatrical, and literary scenes don’t seem as crucially linked to the evolution of midtown Manhattan as the innovations in real estate, retail, communications, and transportation Miller chronicles in earlier chapters. They do, however, give him a convenient platform from which to wrap up his story, which closes with the 1929 stock market crash that ruined Ziegfeld and Liveright.

Still, much of Supreme City’s charm comes from the amiable way Miller ambles through Jazz Age Manhattan, exploring any corner of it that strikes his fancy. Some of those byways stray rather far from the main narrative path, but he’s an agreeable and informative guide at every turn.