In the south of England, soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied forces massed for the long-awaited invasion of northern France. On the American homefront in this first week of June 1944, tensions rose as D-Day neared. But in Times Square, the Broadway theaters, the movie palaces and the nightclubs played on. Mary Martin starred at the 46th Street Theatre as a statue come to life in One Touch of Venus. Harry James brought his orchestra to the Astor Roof. Imogene Coca drew the laughs at the supper club Le Ruban Bleu. Servicemen were everywhere, looking for girls, and war-plant workers flush with cash were looking for night spots to empty their wallets.
Carlos Romulo, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Filipino journalist who fled Corregidor with General Douglas MacArthur’s staff in the early months of the war, had arrived in Manhattan soon afterward to find “a city living apparently in a state of fiesta.”
“I came from the battlefield into the Starlight Room of the Waldorf where men and women in evening clothes were dancing to Cugat’s music,” Romulo would recall. “Everyone was out having fun, and only the paper hats and horns were lacking to make every night a perpetual New Year’s Eve.”
As a native New Yorker intrigued by the city’s history, as someone who had written on World War II combat, I had wondered: Was there really a war on so far as Brooklyn and the Bronx could tell?
Indeed there was. In seeking to answer this question, I came upon a story of scientific brilliance, artistic genius, a generous spirit, and the courage of ordinary men and women.
Times Square hosted a nightly frenzy, but why not? The more than three million servicemen who passed through it between Pearl Harbor Sunday and V-J Day were racing against time. Like the three sailors of Broadway’s On the Town looking for love on a twenty-four-hour pass, they were on their final flings before facing an uncertain fate.
In recalling the show’s signature number “New York, New York,” Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the book and lyrics and became one of its three couples, were convinced that “New York was a helluva town.”
There were nine daily newspapers, you could buy a hot dog for a nickel, adventure in the streets may have been raffish but not necessarily fatal, and you could see a Broadway movie for 40 cents before 1 p.m., and it might have been Betty Grable or Hutton corn, but not porn.
New York was going to show the men and women headed overseas a good time before shipping them out. And it dispatched their armaments from its magnificent harbor while the Brooklyn Navy Yard built the battleships and aircraft carriers to avenge Pearl Harbor.
The city’s popular culture became an arsenal of democracy of another sort. On the Broadway stage, Lillian Hellman, Robert Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson, and John Steinbeck championed the democratic cause, Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army and Moss Hart’s Winged Victory paid tribute to the armed forces with their all-servicemen casts, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! buoyed American optimism at a time of national testing. Broadway’s leading actors and actresses performed at the Stage Door Canteen in Midtown and at bases and military hospitals around the world.
And New York became a haven for the scientists, artists, journalists, and playwrights fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe.
Laura Fermi, the wife of the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Enrico Fermi, remembered the morning of January 2, 1939, when she arrived with her husband and two children in New York from Southampton, England, aboard the steamship Franconia on the final leg of their journey from fascist Italy:
The New York skyline appeared in the gray sky, dim at first, then sharply jagged, and the Statue of Liberty moved toward us, a cold, huge woman of metal, who had no message yet to give me. But Enrico said, as a smile lit his face tanned by the sea: “We have founded the American branch of the Fermi family.”
Enrico Fermi became part of an unseen New York.
Fermi joined with his fellow émigré Leo Szilard to conduct pioneering experiments in nuclear fission at Columbia University leading to creation of the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project having been named for the place where it all began. The FBI, meanwhile, chased after Nazi spies in the city, Navy intelligence enlisted the Mafia to avert sabotage at the mob-run docks, and the British mounted a vast intelligence operation from obscure offices in Rockefeller Center.
Long before 9/11, New Yorkers felt vulnerable to a foreign foe. The city was assumed to be “Target Number One” if the Germans could send bombers into America’s skies or shell the coastline from U-boats. Some 400,000 New Yorkers served as air-raid wardens while antiaircraft guns ringed the city. New Yorkers bought war bonds, donated blood, planted Victory Gardens, and collected metal scrap for conversion to armaments. Lest nostalgia get the best of us, this was also a time of racial and ethnic tensions. Racism and poverty spawned a riot in Harlem. A national rise in anti-Semitism brought attacks upon Jewish youngsters on New York streets.
Finally, this 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—its international clout underscored when the newly created United Nations voted to establish its permanent headquarters along the East River.
After ten years’ absence from New York, the British writer J. B. Priestley passed through the city in 1947 on his trip to Mexico for a meeting of the United Nations Economic and Social Conference.
Speaking on the BBC when he came home, Priestley took notice of New York the world city.
Its huge cosmopolitanism—it has more Jews than Palestine and more Italians than Naples—is untouched in the history of man. And this gives its little shops and restaurants and odd corners a unique charm. The ends of the earth are gathered together down one New York side street. You can dine, drink and amuse yourself in three continents. 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.
© 2010 Richard Goldstein