HELLUVA TOWN: THE STORY OF NEW YORK CITY DURING WORLD WAR II
By Richard Goldstein
Free Press, $28 321 pages, illustrated
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
It was a commonplace during the 1940s to speak of people who had had a good war. For if war is by definition a terrible cataclysm, it is nonetheless true that it brings forth out of its whirlwind all manner of advances. Some of these are industrial or scientific - new technologies and medical treatments - others more ineffable but nonetheless potent in their effect demographically, politically and even psychologically.
Perhaps this is why, although the world saw horrific things in that decade - genocide on an unparalleled scale and millions of military casualties - people look back with some fondness on that time of what some have dubbed in this country “the greatest generation.”
New York certainly had a good war back then. Fortunate to be spared the devastating bombing and destruction visited upon so many of its great sister cities all over the world, it only grew stronger and more vibrant as others tottered and struggled to endure.
Of course, in this it mirrored the United States as a whole, which was the only nation to emerge from World War II stronger and more powerful than when it had gone in. But there is a case to be made for New York occupying a very special place. “Helluva Town” quotes at its outset a Filipino diplomat describing New York in 1944 as “a city living apparently in a state of fiesta … a perpetual New Year’s Eve.”
Part of this gaiety undoubtedly was due to a spirit of “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” But there was much more to this than a neurotic frenzy. As Richard Goldstein, a former New York Times editor and author of many books on historical topics, writes, his “Helluva Town” is a story of “New York’s transformation at war’s end. The more than 800,000 New Yorkers who served in the armed forces came home to a city that was emerging as the world capital. New York surpassed Paris in art and fashion, London in financial prowess.”
Passing through New York in 1947, British writer J.B. Priestley concluded that “the New York that O. Henry described forty years ago was an American city, but today’s glittering cosmopolis belongs to the world, if the world does not belong to it.”
All very true, but as you read “Helluva Town’s” account of the multifarious splendors of New York and New Yorkers, the words that inevitably come to mind are “Only in America.”
So many unique characters strut their hours on the pages of this book, from the city’s ubiquitous mayor, the irrepressible Fiorello LaGuardia, to all sorts of lesser-known figures, shipbuilders and firefighters, comedians and Coast Guardsmen. With its USO dance halls and thriving theaters, nightclubs and other entertainment venues, it seemed that the city was a giant stage.
Of course, it also was a staging ground, the point of embarkation for more than 3 million servicemen who went off in huge seagoing convoys to invade Europe and liberate it from Nazi tyranny. New York’s enormous natural harbor was “the finest and largest in the world,” according to Mr. Goldstein, who describes it with characteristic fervor in colorful prose:
“The harbor extended over 400 square miles of water, it boasted a developed shoreline of more than 650 miles, and it was crammed with 1,800 docks, piers, and wharves. It included thirty-nine shipyards in addition to the vast Brooklyn Navy Yard. Some 1,100 warehouses, with 41 million square feet of enclosed storage space, stocked the armaments and foodstuffs arriving from around the country for shipment to Europe.
“Popular Mechanics magazine, surveying the wartime port, insisted it was big enough to hold every ship on the globe. Its winters usually free of ice and severe fog, its tides sometimes tricky but mastered by 575 tugboat captains, its deep natural channels smoothing the way for oceangoing ships. … Bristling with ocean liners converted to troopships, with transports, freighters, ferries, barges, and tugs, their foghorns sounding, steam rising from their funnels, the wartime harbor became a waterborne spectacular, the scene of a logistical miracle day after day.”
In the course of telling his story, Mr. Goldstein brings in many fascinating people and events. These range from the time an American bomber mistakenly flew into the Empire State Building, providing an eerie preview of the far more catastrophic events of Sept. 11, 2001, to the firefighters whose efforts to douse the flames devouring the great French superliner Normandie only succeeded in damaging it irreparably as they caused it to capsize into the Hudson River.
Refugees fleeing Europe, from French playwright Henry Bernstein to German surrealist dada artist Max Ernst enriched New York’s cultural life. We hear about the amazing industriousness and grit of the workers toiling in factories and shipyards to support the mighty war effort and of the bravery displayed during dreadful accidents that cost lives and caused injuries as devastating as those on battlefields.
Then there is the development and amazingly quick production of penicillin that saved so many civilian and military casualties from being fatal. “Helluva Town” provides a memorable portrait of a city giving its very considerable all for the war effort and in so doing enriching itself in myriad ways.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.