- The Washington Times - Friday, July 30, 2010

TWILIGHT AT THE WORLD OF TOMORROW: GENIUS, MADNESS, MURDER AND THE 1939 WORLD’S FAIR ON THE BRINK OF WAR
By James Mauro
Ballantine, $28,
401 pages, illustrated

There have been many other books about universal expositions or world’s fairs in general, and even about the one held at New York’s Flushing Meadows in the ill-chosen years of 1939 and 1940, but this one is a little different. For while without in any way slighting the particular event - far from it, this book contains an exhaustive account of everything from its funding to its construction - magazine editor James Mauro has widened his scope far beyond its confines. Not only does he of course include the outbreak of World War II while the fair was in its first season and the effect this had, particularly on its 1940 second act, but he also uses Albert Einstein’s connection with the New York World’s Fair to make it a kind of backdrop to his role in the development of nuclear weaponry.

This may seem like a stretch, but although this is Mr. Mauro’s first book, he knows how to tell his story and he has succeeded in structuring a narrative as plausible as it is compelling.

He can also write well, with a knack for bringing alive both the characters responsible for the exposition and the fair itself:

“Grover Whalen, dubbed ‘the greatest salesman alive,’… by 1939 had made a name for himself as New York’s dandiest police commissioner, a top-hatted top cop who loved racing after fires in his specially outfitted touring car that allowed him to gleefully blare the siren from his backseat perch. But he was better known as the city’s ‘official greeter,’ practically inventing the ticker tape parade for visiting celebrities. … For Whalen, this World’s Fair was the culmination of a career defined by maximum public exposure and grandiose spending (though never with his own money). It also capped a life filled with odd coincidences and crosscurrents, an intersection of lives and biographical happenstance that had led him to believe he was living a charmed life.”

The idea for all this did not begin with Whalen and, thanks to his overarching and wildly optimistic projections, by the end he was not even really in charge anymore, but this book makes it clear that he was always more than just the public face of the enterprise: He was its prime mover, its guardian angel, almost its incarnation.

Who else could have got 62 nations to be represented and an “astounding twenty-two” to build expensive pavilions during a worldwide depression and in the shadow of a looming global conflict? Or lobbied Mussolini personally and Stalin (indirectly, but through knowing the right emissary) to get each dictator to commit to grandiose buildings? FDR insisted that the fair be open to all nations, so even Nazi Germany was invited. But such was the feeling against Hitler that he pleaded lack of dollars as the reason to absent himself. As Mr. Mauro writes, he preferred to spend his dollars “secretly building up a war chest against the day when cash would be needed for military supplies.”

Or perhaps to pay for the explosives in the bomb that blew up in the British Pavilion on July 4. 1940, killing two New York City bomb squad detectives, Joseph Lynch and Freddy Socha, both brought to life so effectively in this book that their deaths come as a blow to the reader. The bomb may have been planted by the Irish Republican Army. But by this time Britain was locked in a life-and-death struggle with Nazi Germany, and with multiple bomb threats coming in, most suspected Nazi Germany was behind them. Mr. Mauro writes that “a pervasive feeling that New York was under attack began to spread, and the fear of more terrorism surged like wildfire.” (A feeling that sounds very familiar to us seven decades on, in 21st-century America.)

Fortunately, such fatalities were an isolated phenomenon, but there was discomfort aplenty amid all the fun and games. There are lighthearted accounts of the travails wrought upon fair-goers by New York’s alternating summertime horrors of extreme humidity and torrential rain. Royalty beat a dignified path to Flushing Meadows in the form of the crown princes and princesses of Norway and Denmark but when King George and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain visited right before they headed up the Hudson to stay with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt at Hyde Park, things did not go as planned. Perhaps it was the heat and humidity, maybe it was something he ate, but turmoil in the royal intestines resulted in protocol taking a hurried backseat to more fundamental concerns. In the picture of King George signing the visitors’ book, he looks uncharacteristically disheveled and after his day at the fair, no wonder.

But if Whalen dominated the World’s Fair, it is Einstein who stands out most prominently in this book. He came not only to perform ceremonial roles - switching on the innovative fluorescent lighting as darkness fell on opening day with a talk on cosmic rays and returning to open the (Jewish) Palestine Pavilion with an emotional paean to what had been achieved there - but returned to visit incognito. He was particularly entranced by the Haifa Diorama:

“Designed to display the transformation of Emek Jezreel, the former Bedouin Valley of Death, into the fertile land of modern Palestine, the scene blinked instantly from barren wasteland to modern city before your eyes through trick mirrors.”

The photograph of him transfixed by this feat shows that he was indeed, as Mr. Mauro writes, “captivated,” his expression rapt and enthralled. He may never have found the unified field theory of physics that was preoccupying him, but there is no mistaking the unabashed joy he felt that day. It was just this feeling, shared by so many visitors, that the fair’s organizers had hoped for. And so, even though the 1939 New York World’s Fair lost money and was beset by a host of other troubles, it was not a failure, as this book amply demonstrates.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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