On the Town

When New York City Hit Its Stride

In the ’20s, the Big Apple took off when culture and commerce started going steady. Until the Depression, New York was the red hot center of everything.

John Kobal Foundation/Getty

Donald L. Miller’s Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America is an awesome book on an awesome subject, a time in the history of New York City when commerce and culture engaged in a symbiotic relationship, spurring an unprecedented boom in architecture, art, music, theater, popular culture, and mass communications that lit up the city, then America, and then the world.

Miller, the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College, has written nine books, including Masters of the Air, which is currently in production as an HBO dramatic series from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

I spoke to him from his office in Pennsylvania last week.

Allen Barra: There are startling statements on nearly every page of Supreme City, and at 600 pages of text, that’s a lot of startle. But you grabbed me in the first paragraph of your preface when you wrote that there was “a story within the larger story I had set out to tell—the transformation of midtown Manhattan in the ’20s from a commercial backwater with one consequential skyscraper, the 25-story Times Tower on Times Square at 42nd Street and Broadway, into the entertainment and communication center of New York City—and America—and a business district that rivaled Wall Street in power and consequence.”

When you talk about midtown Manhattan as being a commercial backwater, I find it mind boggling. It sounds like you’re going back to a time before the Civil War.

Donald L. Miller: First of all, even though the ultra-rich had begun moving uptown a few decades earlier, most notably when the Astor mansion went up on Central Park West and 65th Street in the mid-1890s, the real midtown transformation kicked off in 1913 with the completion of Grand Central Terminal.

Before then there was no Park Avenue north of 42nd Street because of the railroad yards. If you started from the East River, there were the stockyards and the Steinway piano factory and then this tremendous railroad yard—someone in the 19th century described it as a “cow town.” Over on Lexington Avenue there was all this low-rent housing, and then Fifth Avenue was dominated by Vanderbilt mansions, one after the other, most of them occupying an entire block. That was Fifth Avenue then. Swing all the way over to the West Side, Hell’s Kitchen was run by Owney Madden and mostly Irish gangs. Then there was theater life in midtown—the original Oscar Hammerstein Theater was there along with the Ziegfeld on 54th.

Commercially, stocks, advertising, publishing, the early radio industry—all that stuff was still downtown. That part of New York, lower Manhattan, dominated for 300 years, then all of a sudden the whole thing rises up—Eureka-like. It was amazing.

If you had to pick one person who symbolizes the city and the era, it would have to be Jimmy Walker, the mayor from 1926-1932. Today, Walker is something of a joke—we think of him as Bob Hope, who played him in the movie Beau James—and when Walker’s name is mentioned today, it’s usually in connection with rampant corruption. Yet he was enormously popular in his time. Why is that? Would he have been successful at other times in New York’s history?

I don’t think he could have existed in any other time. He was too slick to be part of the Tammany Hall crowd, and it’s hard to see him operating in today’s political milieu. He was too openly loose; in today’s climate there would have been a scandal a month. He profited a great deal from knowing how to keep the reporters on his side, supplying the newspapermen with great material. Jimmy Walker was perfect for his time—he really was “The Jazz Mayor.”

I don’t recall seeing a lot of scholarship on Walker and his era.

There really isn’t—some popular bios. His papers are voluminous but arid, nothing of the man comes through. You have to go to the newspapers and autobiographies of people who knew him to really get a sense of what a driving force he was in New York during that period. It’s hard to think of an American politician whose personality meant as much to his time and place as Walker.

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On the whole, would you call Jimmy Walker a positive influence on the development of New York?

I think so. His personality was essential to the time. He opened Tammany to other ethnic groups—he actually fought the bosses on that. He made strenuous efforts to get the black vote.

On that note, I was intrigued that Walker wanted to get one of the real heroes of the Twenties, Jack Dempsey, to fight the great black heavyweight Harry Wills. But it didn’t come off. There were too many people who didn’t want see a black-white heavyweight match.

Indeed, Dempsey was a hero of the Twenties. He was probably the biggest sporting hero of the decade—more popular at his peak than even Babe Ruth. His fights were major events that held New York and the entire country enthralled. “The million dollar gate” was the result of Dempsey’s appeal and the shrewdness genius of his promoter, Tex Rickard—imagine the live gate for a boxing match or anything else exceeding 1 million dollars! When Dempsey fought, people died from heart attacks listening on the radio. It was that exciting. I don’t think we can imagine today what it’s like to get that excited over a sporting event. In comparison, sports today is just another form of entertainment.

You mentioned Owney Madden. He’s my favorite gangster, and I was glad to see that you gave him his own chapter in Supreme City instead of more famous hoods like Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond. Why did you single him out?

I think Owney was a perfect midtown character. He crawled out of the worst side of town—Hell’s Kitchen before World War I. He was boyhood pals with George Raft, who later played characters based on Owney in the movies, and, for a while, he and Mae West were a couple. The other famous gangsters in that period such as Lucky Luciano or Dutch Schultz didn’t operate in midtown, but Owney was out there all the time, at one of his nightclubs shaking hands with James Cagney, at a big fight in Madison Square Garden. He hated publicity but loved notoriety. He was Irish—colorful and Irish—but unlike most of the Irish bootleggers of the period, he was controlled. He wasn’t a wild man like Al Capone.

Do you think Madden made a genuine contribution to the culture of the period with his nightclubs?

Definitely, especially with the Cotton Club, where so many of the great black performers of the Twenties first made themselves known to white audiences. If you didn’t have Madden running a huge illegal brewery and supplying booze to the Cotton Club and getting all those white people, a lot of black talent would have never been known. Duke Ellington, for instance, who really catapulted to fame late in 1927. Ellington’s was the house band for the Cotton Club from 1927 to 1931, a time when Ellington reached full maturity as an artist.

Let me read a passage from Supreme City: In the 1920s, “European intellectuals were calling New York the city of tomorrow, a place bursting with exciting innovations in the arts of mass entertainment and communications, the ‘Futurist city,’ New York was in the vanguard of cultural, social, and technological transformations that would make the 20th century the American Century: the rise of commercial radio and talking movies; the invention of television; the ascendancy of advertising; the beginnings of tabloid journalism; the spread, through radio and phonograph records, of a pulsating urban music called jazz; and the emergence of mass spectator sports—sold-out baseball and football stadiums and prize fights … the Manhattan skyline, the most tremendous in the world, symbolized the city’s cultural and financial hegemony.”

If you had to pick the one thing that caused all of this to come about in this place and at this particular time, what would you say?

It was obvious in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the emblematic writer of his age: money. He said to Hemingway, “The rich are different from you and me.”

“Yeah, they have more money.”

As H.L. Mencken wrote, “There is little in New York that does not spring from money.”

And you quote de Tocqueville at the front of your book, “Every American is eaten up with a longing to rise.”

It seemed like every New Yorker in that period was rising. New York was the richest city in the richest country in the world—in all of history. The city was almost entirely self-sufficient. New York received no federal monies and just a small amount of state aid for education.

Where was the money coming from?

Business was booming, and the city derived its revenue largely from real estate taxes and licenses and fees. There was no sales tax then or city income tax.

You’re talking about a city with a population approaching 6 million and about to surpass London as the most populous city on Earth. The annual budget of New York City was roughly $500 million, nearly five time greater than London’s.

How did that compare to the budgets of other major American cities?

It didn’t. You’d have to combine the annual budgets of Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, St. Louis, and San Francisco to equal New York’s.

Something else fueled New York’s boom—immigration. I was astonished at some of the figures you came up with, specifically about Jewish immigrants.

True. In the 1920s, New York was becoming increasingly a Jewish city. At the beginning of the decade, 30 percent of the population was Jewish.

But though the Irish percentage was down to about 20 percent, they continued to dominate the police and fire departments.

And the Board of Aldermen was a kind of Hibernian social club. There were a few German Americans, a few Jews, and just five white Protestant aldermen. No Italians or blacks. But though the percentage of Irish among the population of the city was declining, Tammany Hall saw great times in the 1920s. Its power was indivisibly linked to the general prosperity of New York.

Here’s something that is amazing to those of us who live in or near New York today. You write that the Twenties “was the most spectacular building boom in the city’s history.” From late 1921 and for the next eight years, a “new building went up in New York City every fifty-one minutes, on average.” How did this compare to what was going on in the rest of America at the time?

Most of the country was going through a similar boom, but on a smaller scale than New York. In the 1920s New York City accounted for 20 percent of all new residential construction in the country, mostly apartment buildings.

And not just apartments. Movie theaters—movies began to dominate entertainment. You write that “The subway crowd had taken over Times Square.” Taken over from whom?

Prior to the movie boom, on theater night Times Square was littered with taxis and limos delivering smartly dressed upper-class patrons to dozens of legitimate theaters, but as the decade went on, around 1927 when the Roxy Theater opened, subways were bringing many times more patrons to movies. In his 1927 book, Highlights of Manhattan, the journalist Will Irwin wrote, “Now Broadway at the theater-hour belongs to the people.”

And not just mass entertainment but mass communications with radio visionaries like David Sarnoff.

Born in a desolate Russian village that didn’t have a telephone, a telegraph, electricity or gas. Left his village to begin the voyage to America when he was 9 years old. He knew nothing about New York and couldn’t speak a word of English.

And, as you write, “almost singlehandedly steered RCA into the radio business.”

Though credit must be given to another product of an immigrant family, and later his rival, William Paley, the single most important man in the history of radio. Radio was the first modern mass medium. One historian said that “Radio made America into a land of listeners.”

New York was booming in ways we don’t even think about today. I love your chapter “The Woman’s City,” which deals with entrepreneurs such as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein.

As influential in their own way as Sarnoff and Paley. They built a mass market for cosmetics, a new American industry centered in midtown Manhattan.

When Rubenstein arrived in New York—she was born in Poland—American women were spending about $25 million a year on cosmetics and other beauty products. By 1927 it was nearly $2 billion, half a million more than Americans spent on electric power that year.

What ended this golden age for New York?

The crash of 1929 took down so many people. The whole thing depended on real estate—when everything came down the valuation wasn’t there and the banks pulled the plug on the city and then the country.

What can be done to restore New York’s luster?

I don’t know how you’d do it. New York in the 1920s was iridescent, and its boom was spontaneous. New York still has a lot of things going for us—a very strong industrial base in the garment industry—and a great harbor and the railroads. It’s also thriving as a tech city, and that could be a factor in the economy the way the radio industry was in the Twenties.

Let me close with a passage from your chapter “Visions”: “In November 1927 two of the most stupendous public works projects in the history of New York City were in the news. The Holland Tunnel, which was opened to traffic that month, and the George Washington Bridge, whose groundbreaking was a great civic interest … these two titanic physical structures are testaments to a time when America’s greatest city not only planned big, but built big, as well.”

That says it. No other decade in our history was more alive or enduringly creative.