If you happen to be in the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn tonight (or if you don’t mind a schlep) come check out a panel I’m moderating on New York history and pop culture during two fascinating time periods. The discussion, which starts at 7:30 at Greenlight Bookstore (686 Fulton street), features David Wallace, author of Capital of the World: A Portrait of New York City in the Roaring Twenties, and Richard Goldstein, author of Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II.
Capital of the World, which just came out, is a rollicking look at the outsize personalities who defined the city in the ‘20s. Tellingly, given the freedoms and irreverence of the era, there are a lot of women in the book. Some of their names are familiar (Dorothy Parker, Fanny Brice, Martha Graham) and some are less so. Wallace introduces us to Texas Guinan, a housewife turned celluloid cowgirl who parlayed her Hollywood fame into a job as a New York City speakeasy hostess. Guinan’s job was to get people drunk and entertain them, and she was spectacularly good at it, making oodles of money (though a lot of it had to go to bribes). Guinan turned insult into an art form – she liked to greet customers with the phrase “Hello, suckers!”– and she later became the inspiration for Mae West’s brand of sass. Wallace also tells the story of madam Polly Adler, who rose from factory-toiling immigrant girl to owner of a series of decadently decorated bordellos that were a gathering place for artistic luminaries , mobsters, politicians and celebrities like Joe DiMaggio. She was buddies with Dorothy Parker, who helped pick the titles for the bordello's bookshelves. (That's the kind of bordello it was – a bordello with books.) "Going to Polly’s?" became a popular phrase of the ‘20s. She wrote a best-selling book called A House Is Not a Home. But she died poor and forgotten.
Goldstein’s book, which came out last year, looks at the texture of life in the city during the war. It’s thick with telling detail; he writes about the Tennessee Williams cruising Times Square soldiers for gay sex (with some success), and tells the story of how the Navy enlisted the help of imprisoned mobster Lucky Luciano to keep the New York piers safe from foreign sabotage. If you want to know about the unlikely California woman who wound up spying for the Japanese, she’s in here. (Her name was Velvalee Dickinson and she ran a Madison Avenue doll shop, of all things.) So is the precise number of soldiers who reported contracting venereal disease in New York City during a nine-month period in 1943. (Precisely 3,662, more than in any other city.)
It’s riveting history, and these guys know it really well. Join us tonight if you can.