The 1920s: The Good Times?

David Wallace
Capital of the World:
A Portrait of New York City in the Roaring Twenties

(Lyons Press, 2011)

The 1920s are back, bigger and better than ever.

The era has long been immortalized in movies like The Cotton Club, as well as TV series like The Untouchables. Its popularity amplified in the recent HBO series, Boardwalk Empire; Woody Allen’s nostalgic ode to the city of light, Midnight in Paris, adds to the decade’s enduring appeal.

A growing list of recent books have further propelled the ’20s back into national consciousness. (See “The Not-So Roaring Twenties,” the Brooklyn Rail, July 2010.) Perhaps the nation’s possible financial collapse into another Great Depression has helped invoke this pivotal decade.

David Wallace’s book, Capital of the World, seems to have been written to take advantage of the renewed interest in everything ’20s. Sadly, it is a deeply flawed work that fails to capture the allure of this unique moment in U.S. history. The author’s previous books, especially Lost Hollywood and Exiles in Hollywood, are about Los Angeles, a city he knows well. Sadly, he doesn’t know New York, let alone Gotham during the ’20s, and his latest book shows it.

One can well debate whether the Big Apple was the “capital of the world” in the ’20s. Many insist that Gotham did not assume this role until after World War II, when the grand cities of the old world, especially Paris, Berlin, and London, were laid to waste and the locus of global capitalism shifted to the U.S. 

Wallace’s analytic weakness is most acutely evident in the absence of an argument defending his hypothesis; he merely offers an empty assertion. If he had done even the most perfunctory research, he could have presented the simplest demographic fact about the Big Apple: in 1920, its population topped 5.6 million people. Not only did it dwarf all other American cities, being double the size of Chicago, but it claimed over one million residents more than London.

Making matters worse, the use of the iconic Art Deco image of the Chrysler Building’s steel dome or vertex on the book’s cover is the unconscious give-away as to the book’s deeper intellectual flaws. The book consists of 20 or so thumbnail profiles of many of the usual suspects and other charming characters who gave New York its media appeal during the ’20s. However, half of the information Wallace provides in these profiles involves what occurred either before or after the ’20s.

Thus the problem with the elegant Chrysler Building. While the building’s construction started in September 1928, it didn’t open until May 1930, seven months after the stock market crash which literally and symbolically ended the Roaring Twenties. Had Wallace linked his throw-away conclusion about the Chrysler Building to two other defining midtown Manhattan landmarks, Rockefeller Center (construction started May 1930, completed November 1933) and the Empire State Building (excavation began January 1930, opened May 1931), he could have offered a far more insightful analysis of the impact of the ’20s “bubble” economy—symbolized in monumental constructions—and how it burst with the crash and Depression. Sadly, analytic insight is not one of Wallace’s strong suits.

The book’s 20 or so thumbnail profiles include such predictable characters as “Gentleman” Jimmy Walker, Lucky Luciano, Walter Winchell, David Sarnoff, Dorothy Parker, Henry Luce, Bessie Smith, Babe Ruth, and Scott Fitzgerald. Others are surprises, often overlooked by more conventional treatments of the era, including Polly Adler, Texas Guinan, Fanny Brice, and Elsie de Wolfe.  

Wallace never explains why he chose these particular celebrities; one can only assume that it was because most have name recognition. In this way, his book mirrors another recent work on the ’20s, Lucy Moore’s Anything Goes: A Biography of the Twenties.

One deeper question involves who Wallace has left out of his book. If one has the presumption to title a book The Capital of the World, one must ask, where are the Rockefellers? They were America’s 20th-century royal family. Why did they create Rockefeller Center? Why did they back the Museum of Modern Art and not simply fund a wing at the Met? What role did they play in the history of Citibank? Why did they switch from staunch prohibitionists to reformers opposed to the 18th Amendment? What would Gotham be in the ’20s, let alone today, without the Rockefellers? Sadly, Wallace never mentions the family.

Clearly, everyone is not a Rockefeller and one can’t include everyone who made New York the “capital” of the ’20s. But three of those who are missing from Wallace’s Wikipedia-like collection of profiles are:  A’Lelia Walker, daughter of the first African-American female millionaire, daughter of Madam C. J. Walker, and queen of the Harlem scene; Carl Van Vechten, author of the enormously influential Nigger Heaven and host of celebrated arts salons; and Pauline Morton Sabin, the Sutton Place socialite who led the fight to abolish Prohibition.

Like many popularizers of American history, Wallace writes backwards: the present frames the past. He looks back from the perspective of currently fashionable personalities and concerns.  This is most evident in his coverage of Gotham’s gangster scene. By making alcoholic drinks illegal, Prohibition made law breaking a popular indulgence and facilitated the birth of today’s crime syndicate.

Wallace views the gangster from the perspective of the celebrated The Godfather book (written by Mario Puzo) and film series (directed by Francis Coppola). Thus, he captures a one-dimensional sense of crime in the Big Apple in the ’20s.

But looking backwards prevents Wallace from seeing history as lived by those of the period, as a process of development. Thus, while acknowledging the participation of first-generation Italian immigrants, he does not acknowledge the roles played by other immigrant groups in Gotham’s underworld. This included Jews like Arnold Rothstein, the boss-of-bosses, and Dutch Schultz, or Irishmen like Owney Madden or Legs Diamond.

Because Wallace sees crime as a celebrity practice, he never dirties his hands with the quotidian crime common to New York and other American cities during the ’20s. However, two relatively recent books about Prohibition-era, front-page tabloid crime stories, Landis MacKellar’s The “Double Indemnity” Murder: Ruth Snyder, Judd Gray, and New York’s Crime of the Century and Stephen Duncombe and Andew Mattson’s The Bobbed Haired Bandit: A Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York, offer what Wallace’s book cannot: unique glimpses into Gotham’s real life. These more rigorous and revealing books serve to remind the reader of the disappointment of struggling through The Capital of the World.

Contributor

David Rosen

DAVID ROSEN is author of Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Counterpunch, and Filmmaker Magazine. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

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