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It Happened in Manhattan

An Oral History of Life in the City During the Mid-Twentieth Century

By Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

The Berkley Publishing Group, 345 Hudson Street, NY NY 10014, 312 pages, 2001, $24.95

Serious ex-GIs, Messengers, Caviar Wars, Blue Laws, Max Lerner and the Beatles, Cup Size, the 51st State, Tapping Time, Christmas Cards

Lewisohn Stadium, packed for summer concerts, at City College

"Hello, everybody" was Minnie Guggenheimer's greeting from the stage at the summer evening concerts at City College's great, but now demolished, Lewisohn Stadium at 136th Street and Amsterdam Avenue

By Carter B. Horsley

"This book is a pastiche, an impressionistic account of life in Manhattan over three fateful decades, as remembered an evoked by a select group of people. Some, like the doyenne of haute couture Pauline Trigère or the voice of New York Jimmy Breslin, we went after. Some came to us by accident," wrote Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer in their acknowledgements to this delightful book, the latest in their series of oral histories that has also included tomes on Broadway (see The City Review article on "It Happened On Broadway") and Brookyn and the Catskills.

In addition to Trigère and Breslin, the interviewees include restauranteurs Elaine Kaufman, Sirio Maccioni, André Jammet, Michael Tong and Ken Aretsky, food mavens, Andy and Nina Balducci, Saul Zabar and Mark Federman, Father Peter Colapietro, pastor of the Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church at 329 West 42nd Street, press agents and publicists Eleanor Lambert, Helen O'Hagan, Merle Dubuskey, Mickey Alpert, music promoters and producers Sid Bernstein and Joel Dorn, advertising mogul Jerry Della Femina, Joel Eichel, an owner of Bigelow's in Greenwich Vilalge, preservationists Margot Gayle and Jane Jacobs, architectural historians John Tauranac, Carole Rifkind and Michael George, baseball star Monte Irvin of the New York Giants, lawyers Thedore Kheel, journalists Howard Kissel, Hilton Kramer, Leonard Koppett, Dorothy Wheelock and Jack Lang, architect Theodore Liebman, opera singer Robert Merrill, Bear Stearns & Co., Inc.'s chairman Alan Greenberg.

The list of interviewees is eclectic but impressive and the charming anecdotes they relate well capture much of the spirit and energy of Manhattan after World War II, and the hard work and ambitions of its citizens.

Hilton Kramer, the art critic of The New York Observer and formerly of The New York Times, recalls attending Columbia University in 1950, "the time of the GI Bill of Rights": "My whole undergraduate and graduate experience was very much shaped by that because there was a level of commitment on the part of these ex-GIs that raised the level of seriousness in the classroom. At Columbia, I studied with Lionel Trilling, Mark Van Doren, Eric Bentley, Gilbert Highet, Ernest Nagel - it was a tremendous faculty in those days.Gilbert Highet especially stays with me. He was a Scotsman with this marvelous accent who had been an undergraduate at Oxford, like all the aesthetes of his generation. You know how academics generally dress, but Gilbert was a fashion plate. His course was on the influence of Greek and Latin classics and later English and European literature. He was particularly funny about Joyce's Ulysses, which he loathed, although his edition of Ulysses was bound in black velvet. He generally loathed all of modern literature; compared to the Greek and Latin classics, he felt it was decadent."

Alan Greenberg recalls showing up in Manhattan in 1949 and going "down to Wall Street looking for a job": "At that time, all the firms in the investment banking industry were located there. It was a very impressive group of old-line firms, most of which have since gone out of business. One reason all the action was down there is that securities were moved back and forth physically. There were all these little guys with big briefcases running around, carrying securities from one firm to another. All the book-keeping was done by hand. But the whole street was dead. Everybody was starving. The volume of the New York Stock Exchange was one million shares a day. I went to maybe six firms, they all said no. It was a Wasp-oriented business. But Bear Stearns was a partnership, and probably seventy-five percent were Jewish. There were about 125 people in the whole firm them. They hired me as a clerk in the oil department for $32.50 a week."

Jerry della Femina grew up in the Sea Beach section of Brooklyn and his father sold newspapers in the morning, worked as a press operator for The New York Times during the day and a soda jerk in a candy store at night and on weekends in the summer operated rides in Coney Island. He recalls working for the Mercury Messenger Service in Manhattan after going to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn during the day: "I delivered messages until eight o'clock at night, wandering the streets because I was able to save a dime if I walked instead of taking the subway or bus. Walking from place to place, I got to know the streets and neighborhoods. I got a feeling for the city that you just can't get otherwise. When I was seventeen, I got a job delivering advertising for the New York Times. Sometimes I made pickups at advertising agencies. One day I came into an agency, it was four, five o'clock, and I saw a guy with his feet upon the desk. Being a curious kid, I asked, 'What does that guy do?' 'He's an advertising copywriter.' 'Wow! A job where you put your feet on the desk and they pay you? How much does he make?' 'Thirty thousand dollars a year.' From that day on, I wanted to be in advertising. It took me seven years."

Saul Zabar provides the following account of the origin's of Zabar's, an institution second in importance on the Upper West Side only to the Lincoln Center for The Performing Arts:

"Henry Morgan was a humorist who lived on the Upper West Side and had a radio program. 'Meet you in front of the cigar store,' he'd always say. There used to be a cigar store on the corner of Broadway and 80th Street. Everybody passed by it. If you stood outside that cigar store long enough, you'd meet everybody you ever want to meet. Today, if you stand outside Zabar's, you'll probably meet everybody you'd ever want to meet."

Henry Morgan would become a panelist on the very popular television program of the 1950s, "What 's My Line." He was very droll and something of a cross between Jack Paar, Fred Allen, and Oscar Levant and in his own way was a precursor of such great radio raconteurs as Jean Shepard and Garison Keilor. Shepard's all night program on WOR radio was a wild trip that was a 50s version of Robin Williams and non-visually was almost on a par with Ernie Kovacks. This book is immensely enjoyable and very nostalgic for older New Yorkers, and one of the book's omissions is a lack of Shepard and Kovacks, although it should be noted that it pays good homage to the city's role as communications center with good reminiscences about the Beatles, Ed Sullivan, and Red Buttons.

Mr. Zabar recounts how his father, Louis Zabar, came to America from Ostropolia, a shtetl in the Ukraine, in 1923: "there were public markets in Brooklyn where stalls could be rented. Almost immediately my father got a stall and went into the produce business. In 1934, when I was six and my brother Stanley was two, he heard about an appetizing counter that was available on the Upper West Side. It was in a Daitch Dairy, a fairly large store noted for its cheese. He rented the counter, and we moved to an apartment on Amsterdam Avenue and 81st Street. After a few years. The owner of Daitch decided to sell. My father bought the store, probably on notes because he didn't have the kind of money. East of Broadway to Columbus was Irish, but along Central Park West and from Riverside Drive to Broadway, from 72nd Street to abut 86th Street, was an affluent Jewish area. The store developed a big charge account trade from the well-to-do people in the neighborhood, a lot of telephone orders and deliveries. George Gershwin, Fannie Brice, Babe Ruth were among the customers. Then came the war period, and everything boomed. In 1941, my father moved his store down the block to the present Zabar's location at 2245 Broadway and 80th Street. They had the Blue Laws then, which didn't allow retail establishments to be open for the full day on Sundays. We could only be open from nine to eleven in in the morning and from four to seven in the afternoon. It was hard to get personnel to work those hours so Stanley and I had to come in. I worked in the cheese department"

Louis Zabar died in 1950 and Saul soon runs the store. "Then one day Murray Klein appears on the scene. He was a survivor who managed to escape from the Germans and the Russians. After the war he would up in a DP camp in Italy where he learned Italian and ran a business in the camp. He came to work for me as a stock man. He was so talented and capable that he soon became manager. After a while, he got married and went into business for himself. 'Come on,' I said, 'join us.' At first he said he didn't want to, but then he agreed. Murray was really the founder of Zabar's as it exists today. Then my brother Stanley came back into the operation. He provided the more sophisticated aspects, like importing the cheeses from France, the olive oils. And we began servicing a new breed of customer who wanted the kinds of foods that were not generally available. Now we're into the 1960s. The food revolution is taking place. We've becoming aware of European tradition, the cheeses, the breads. This is the time of the so-called caviar wars with the big department stores like Macy's and Bloomingdale's, who had very good food departments. They undercut us. We undercut them. There was a lot of publicity. This was also the time of David's Cookies. Everybody was baking cookies."

Mark Federman is the owner of Russ & Daughters, the fish store on Houston Street and provided the following commentary about the famous Lower East Side establishment:

"Grandpa Russ had no sons, but he did have three pretty daughters - Hattie, Ida, and Anne - and because of them the store prospered. As soon as they were in high school, they began helping out. You had these three good-looking teenage girls picking herrings out of barrels and slicing lox. Who was going to argue with them? Customers would fall in love with every piece of fish they laid on the counter....The daughters met their husbands through the store. All three sons-in-law came to work in the business, and all the families lived together under the control of my grandfather....On Saturdays, Russ and Daughters would get very easy in the evening after the Yiddish Theater on Second Avenue let out....We had to stay open way past midnight....On Sundays, the scene was extraordinary. It was mobbed, and no one had come up with the idea of taking numbers yet.....Overall the Lower East Side was dead on Saturdays because the Jewish-owned businesses closed for the Sabbath. On Sundays, however, the area was teeming....Because of its Jewish nature, the Lower East Side was exempted form the Blue Laws that kept businesses closed on Sundays. And that was what enabled the neighborhood to thrive economically. It was when the Blue Laws were abolished and the suburban malls stayed open on Sundays that the Lower East Side started to decline."

"I was always asked why I didn't move Russ and Daughters uptown to where my customers were. Sooner or later uptown will move downtown, I said. It's happening. The Lower East Side is becoming romantic," Mr. Federman mused.

Food may be the staff of life, but music feeds the soul.

Sidney Bernstein recalls attending lectures by Max Lerner, The New York Post columnist at the New School for Social Research and being advised to read periodicals from England:

"I read the Manchester Guardian. Naturally I was attracted to the news about the musical scene in england, and that's how I learned about this group of four young musicians from Liverpool. Every week the font of the stories about them got bigger and bigger. I had not heard their music; all I knew was what I read. But it was like I got a whiff of this new act, and I felt I had to bring it to America. In Feburary 1963, I contacted their manager, Brian Epstein, and I told him I wanted to arrange for the Beatles to come to New York in May or June. But he wanted to wait until they had a hit record so there would be no chance of their playing to an empty house. I booked the concert for Feburary 12, 1964....I don't think I had ever been to a classical concert, but I knew all the great symphony orchestras and all the great basso profundos and sopranos performed at Carnegie Hall. So I figured that would be a good place, something different. At that time it cost three thousand dollars to rent Carnegie Hall. I took a gamble and put down a five-hundred-dollar deposit. The lady who arranged the Canregie Hall bookings asked me, 'Who are these four young men whom you're so excited about" I said, 'Mrs. Satescu, they're an incredible group.' When she head 'group,' she thought a chamber group, a string quartet. After the show, she told me, 'Never come back again.' Some time later, Ed Sullivan was changing planes at Heathrow Airport, where he saw a crowd of kids waiting for a plane. They were shouting, 'Long live the Beatles!' 'We Love The Beatles.' He understood this was a phenomenon and booked them. Then, he found out an American promoter already had a date on them....My tickets were sitting there gathering dust until October 1963, when the Beatles' records hit. By February, they had the first five of the top one hundred hits. Carnegie Hall had sold out, and I was a celebrity....The Beatles playing at Carnegie Hall was a breathrough event for rock 'n' roll. It took it out of the local clubs to a bigger arena. It was a breakthrough event for Carnegie Hall as well; they had never done music like that before. After Carnegie Hall, I took the Beatles to Shea Stadium, and that changed the face of the rock 'n' roll concert. I had acted on intuiton. Sometimes I have hunches that I take long-shot chances on. I do have one regret though, and that is never having told Max Lerner that he was the spur that brought the Beatles to America."

A good part of the book focuses on the city's eateries. Howard Kissel, the senior theater critic for The Daily News, recounts that when he worked for Woman's Wear Daily "a big part of our coverage was chronicling who lunched where." "Orsini's was one of the key places. The two Orsini brothers had started in a little take-out place that served northern Italian food," he continued, "but by this time they had a beautiful restaurant on 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth. It was on the second floor with windows up near the ceiling, so when the sun streamed in it was like natural lighting to show you off. The thing about Orsini's is everyone knew the food was mezzo mezzo, but it was the place to be seen. One day a friend of mine who was very proud of her breasts (once she told me they weighed thirty pounds) was seated at a table at Orisini's that she regarded as much better than Mrs. Onassis's table. She remarked this to Mr. Orsini who, by the way, was a very handsome man. 'In my restaurant,' he said, 'women are seated by cup size.'"

Sirio Maccioni, the owner of Le Cirque 2000, one of the city's fabled restaurants, recounts working at The Colony, a restaurant that catered to New York's "society": "When I first began, I would go around and ask, 'Is everything all right?' The owner took me aside. 'At the Colony, everything is always all right.'"

One of the great glories of the city in the years after the war was the series of summer evening concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, shown at the top of this article, which was built as the athletic field for City College, which was also one of the city's glories and produced many of its brightest minds including such journalism stars as Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb of The New York Times. Some nights Earl Wild would perform Gershwin and other nights José Greco would lead his troop of Flamenco dancers, and most nights were devoted to classical music. Fifth Avenue buses dropped off people from lower Manhattan a few blocks away and most nights the stadium was filled to capacity and those inside could see people in the windows and on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings listening raptly and occasionally looking upward in anger at passing planes.

"Once there was a Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center, that was the end of the Lewisohn Stadium summer concerts," reminisced Stanley Drucker, the first clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic. "An air-conditioned venue was preferable to an outdoor theater, and City College did other things with the site. But what a marvelous thing it used to be to play out in the open air on the summer night. You couldn't beat it. Under the name of Stadium Symphony, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra would play a six or eight-week season at Lewisohn Stadium, the athletic field of City College. It was a Greek-style colonnaded arena of concrete benches with some tables and chairs down below that held twenty-five thousand or more. Tickets cost from twenty-five cents to $1.20. We played six nights a week, had only one rehearsal per concert, and performed a different program every night."

Ken Libo, an editor and writer, also had fond memories of Lewisohn Stadium, which was eventually demolished to be replaced with a Z-shaped megastructure: "Minnie Guggenheimer's mother was friendly with Adolph Lewisohn, which is how Minnie got the job of organizing the concerts and introducing the performers. She always made intermission speeches, prefacing her remarks with 'Hello, everybody,' and the audience would answer back, 'Hello, Minnie.' Once a member of the royal family in England was in attendance and he got lost somehow. Minnie grabbed the microphone and called out, 'Here, Prince. Here, Prince.'"

President Truman, Mayor Wagner and Gabe Pressman

President Harry Truman shaking hands with Mayor Wagner with Gabe Pressman, the television journalist in the background

The book nicely covers a lot of ground including the turf of politics.

In the mid-1970s, the city endured a terrible fiscal crisis. "I was a Congressman at the time," recalled Herman Badillo, "and I remember the struggle to get President Ford and Congress to support us. My colleagues in Washington didn't like New York. To them, it was a city of minorities: Irish, Italian, Jewish, black or Puerto Rican, not really part of America. Fortunately Governor Hugh Carey came up with the idea of the Financial Control Board to guarantee that the state would oversee the operations of the city and make sure that it would have a truly balanced budget... The city was saved but it had to pay a heavy price. We had to fire tens of thousands of city employees and increase the subway fare. City services declined greatly. But the most tragic result of the crisis was the end of free tuition at the City University. Members of Congress hated the idea that the City University was the only free university in the nation. So they insisted that one of the requirements for providing federal aid would be that we impose tuition. It was a blow directed against the poor. Five generations of New Yorkers had moved from poverty into the middle class through the City University. People like me and Abe Beame would not have been able to make it if not for the fact that we could go to a college that was free."

Mr. Badillo's concern about City University did not start with the fiscal crisis: "Mayor Lindsay was so terrified of riots that he allowed the City University to be destroyed in 1969 after a group of black and Latino students at City College demanded the admissions standards be changed so that there would be the same percentage of black and Latino students at CNY as there were in the high schools. I was the only public official to come out against open admissions because I knew the value of the City University would be destroyed if the colleges no longer had standards....The change to open admissions came about during the time I was running for mayor. I was borough president of the Bronx then and had gotten a lot of good press....I got the Reform endorsement, and six weeks later Wagner announced his candidacy. That was the first disaster. The second was Norman Mailer. He had become close to Jose Torres, the light heavyweight champion of the world, who was a good friend of mine. Jose arranged a fund-raiser for me at Norman's Brooklyn Heights home. All of the intellectuals, Jack Neufield, Jimmy Breslin, and other such people who were writing for the New York press were there....A week later Norman asked me to meet him for lunch at the Alqonquin. 'You know, you were vcry good,' he said, 'but I'm thinking I want to run for mayor myself. I talked to Jimmy Breslin and he agreed to run with me for city council president'....Mailer and Breslin went around drunk though the whole campaign talking about the fifty-first state....I only lost by about thirty-nine thousand votes. But Mailer carried the Village and the West Side, getting around forty-three thousand votes that would otherwise have come to me...Mailer and Jimmy just wanted to have a good time. Mailer admitted it was a question of whether to run for mayor or write a book about the astronauts. It was all a joke. But it was a really serious thing, and I've never forgiven Mailer for that."

Not all New Yorkers, of course, thought that Mailer's and Breslin's notion of the city becoming a separate state was such a bad idea.

Some New Yorkers were inventive in their madness. Joe Darion, the lyricist and librettist and playwright, tells the story of of an irascible music publisher, Goldy Goldmark: "He was about six feet two and when he got excited, he'd get on top of his desk and jump up and down while he talked to you. I remember the time when one of our songs was being recorded and one of the musicians was tapping time with his foot. For some reason, Goldy Goldmark could not stand it when anybody did that. When they took a break, the musician took off his shoes. Somehow or other Goldy found a nail and hammer, and he nailed that man's shoe to the floor."

The book is full of delightful stories about a wide range from celebrities ranging from Rocky Graziano to Joe Dimaggio to Diane Vreeland to Sophie Gimbel to Jackie Gleason to Walter Winchell to Toots Shor.

"Years ago," Elaine Kaufman, the legendary owner of Elaine's, recalled, "I was at P. J. Clarke's late one night. Some people told me Toots Shor was there and that he wanted to meet me. I said, 'Okay, fine. I'll go over to him.' He was an older man by that time. They said, 'No, no, he'll come over to you.' They broght him over and he said, 'I just want to see the broad that's going to take my place.'"

Mary Martin, Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Rodgers at the St. Regis
Mary Martin, Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Rodgers at the St. Regis

The book well documents the glory days of the Fillmore East, the heyday of the great department stores, the Harlem hangouts, the hotel nightclubs, the clatter of the great Horn & Hardart automats, the hurly-burly of the Garment Center.

Sixth Avenue El in Greenwich Village

The Sixth Avenue "El" went up through Greenwich Village and passed by the Jefferson Market Courthouse complex and tower

"In the early 1960s," Margot Gayle, the preservationist recalled, "the Jefferson Market Courthouse on Sixth Avenue and 10th Street, which was about half a block from where I lived, was put up for auction. They said they couldn't locate any agency that find any use for that odd building. But I knew that with really strong community demands, things that were not considered worthy at that time could be saved....And so we founded this organization called the Village Neighborhood Committee for the Clock on the Jefferson Market Courthouse. At that time, everything old was being torn down. People didn't think about conserving old buildings. Our committee, which included Lewis Mumford, Maurice Evans, and e. e. cummings, was in the forefront of something new. We met in my apartment. We had no money. But we did have an artist with us who designed Christmas cards of the Jefferson market, and we sat on the steps of the Jefferson Market and sold these Christmas cards. We got petitions signed. It was a heck of a fight that went on for about a year, but we succeeded. Philip Wittenberg, a well-known lawyer, felt very strongly that the Village needed a new library. There was only a small library on Sheridan Square, and the Village was a highly literate part of town. He brought pressure that the Jefferson Market become a big central library. But here's a funny thing. When the mayor said he would restore it for the New York Public Library, the library said, 'That's really nice. But we'd like to tear down the building and build a nice modern libary.' 'No way,' said Mayor Wagner. He was a friend."

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