Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Manhattan '45," by Jan Morris

Jan Morris does such a great job of recreating New York City - Manhattan - so well in its golden moment that a fun exercise for a writer would be to draft some characters and we've them throughout the structure of this entertaining text and see what comes out.

Morris establishes a framework for his study, a Manhattan that is the last great city standing in the wake of World War II, the product of a recent building boom and sturdy enough to handle the business of two continents rather than one.

Intelligently broken up into novel but digestible categories such as style, system, movement, race and class, "Manhattan '45" manages to tell a story while not getting lost in the complexity of its remarkable topic.

Morris writes light and breezy like some of the newspaper columnists of era mentioned and one can't help but wonder the extent to which the place and era have come to infuse the writers technique.

Reeling through the '40s requires a certain degree of listing. The listing of names, the listing of places and eateries, the listing and Manhattan's less-that-evocative grid of numbered streets and avenues, but Morris drops in just enough prosody to make it work as in the passage about the nightlife so typical of the work:

The Beau Nash of Manhattan, though, was Sherman Billingsley of the Stork Club. Where but the Stork Club could one see Cobina Wright, "the city's loveliest debutante" in the same room as H.L. Mencken, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor or the Ernest Hemingways? Billingsley, known to his often fawning customers as "Sherm," at once basked in their reflected fame and vigorously exploited it. He employed two teams of press agents, one on day shift, one on night, and he assiduously cultivated the friendship of newspapers columnists like Walter Winchell (the King), or Leonard Lyons, of the "The Lyons Den," who were by then celebrities themselves. Some said he had actually invented Cafe Society; he had first advertised his club in college newspapers, and given publicity to suitably prepossessing and sufficiently moneyed students as "prominent members of Cafe Society."

The author's passion for Manhattan shines throughout and is so infectious even the odd reader who picks up the book because nothing else is at hand my catch the fever.

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