ON MARCH 9, 1933, the “42nd Street Special” came roaring into Grand Central Terminal after a ten-day trip across country. Bette Davis was on board, and Tom Mix, and many of the contract stars at Warner Bros., which had chartered the train and laid on the ballyhoo to promote 42nd Street, its entry into the swelling sweepstakes of backstage Broadway movies. As many as a quarter of the early talkies—including, of course, the very first one, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer—were backstage shows; it was the most obvious way of working songs into a movie, as well as capitalizing on the prestige of Broadway. Three of the four biggest movies of 1933 would be shows about Broadway musicals: Gold Diggers of 1933, Foot-light Parade, and, of course, 42nd Street, starring Dick Powell, Una Merkel, Ginger Rogers, and Bebe Daniels, and featuring the kaleidoscopic choreography of Busby Berkeley.
Coming at the moment it did, 42nd Street symbolized the transfer of energy, and of glamour, from the stage to the screen, as if Hollywood had vampirically sucked the lifeblood from Broadway. The Times Square of 1933 had been ground down by the Depression and transformed by new forms of entertainment, above all the movies. Half of the street’s ten theaters had been converted either to movies or to burlesque. The number of plays showing in Times Square, and the average number of weeks that the area’s theaters were open, had both been dropping steadily since the glory days of 1927. Variety called the 1932–33 season “legit’s worst year”; only 26 of the 117 shows either broke even or made a profit. To those who knew it well, 42nd Street itself had already lost its status as the fabled nexus where, as the movie put it, “the underworld can greet the elite.” The elite had moved on, and Broadway was rapidly becoming a honky-tonk world of burlesque and dance halls and pitchmen and hot dog stands.
The movie 42nd Street arrived at precisely the moment when this tawdry new Times Square was taking shape. It was based on a novel by Bradford Ropes, a thoroughly wised-up twenty-eight-year-old ex-vaudevillian, a junior version of Walter Winchell. The novel, which the novice producer Darryl F. Zanuck bought for $6,000, a very ample sum at the time, contains only a few hints of the Depression: the boys and girls in the chorus are starving, but only in the immemorial way of the Street of Broken Dreams. 42nd Street describes a world that is as pitiless and all-consuming as a meatpacking plant: when an old actor dies onstage in rehearsal, the producer’s only concern is how to hide the misfortune so as not to delay opening night. Everyone from the chorus girls to the starlet is scheming and sleeping her way to the top. Even the ingenue and heroine, Peggy Sawyer, agrees to serve as the beard to a popular homosexual dancer in order to raise her status. Peggy extenuates her hypocrisy to herself by saying, “Pardon me while I climb a few rungs on my ladder!” By the end, Peggy’s few scruples are altogether forgotten, and she is as self-important, and as hard, as everyone else in the company. But this is a familiar story: Ropes’s book is essentially a grimly desentimentalized version of the Kaufman-style Broadway satire of the late twenties, as if too many years and too many shows have leached all the delight out of the form, and out of Broadway itself.
The movie version of 42nd Street is a much stranger piece of work, a giddy extravaganza about economic desperation. While the play familiar to today’s theatergoers is the story of those plucky kids in the chorus, and the novel was the story of the implacable Show, Zanuck’s movie, which he described as a “musical exposé,” is chiefly the story of the director Julian Marsh, who has emerged from retirement despite fragile health because he has lost his entire fortune in the Crash. Marsh is a desperate and bitter figure, a screamer and a slave driver; commanding the chorus girls to hike up their skirts, he shouts, “Higher, higher, I want to see the legs!” The girls are in no position to argue, since the show is their only shot at a square meal. When Peggy at first declines the chance to step in for the show’s fallen star, Marsh cries, “Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend on you! It’s the lives of all these people.” The characters are playing for much higher stakes than they had been in the world of George S. Kaufman and Ben Hecht and Irving Berlin.
But of course this is Hollywood, and the movie fantasticates its Depression setting into something every bit as delightful and improbable as the Broadway of Damon Runyon. (The Runyon stories themselves were then being rapidly converted into movies.) When the chorus sings “We’re in the Money” after one of them finds a nickel, hard times seem about as overwhelming as a toothache. Like the other Broadway movies that Hollywood churned out in a great flood in those years, 42nd Street capitalized on a national romance with Times Square that had been building for decades. The combination of crime and Depression had given this 42nd Street a darker hue. But that, too, was part of its appeal; 42nd Street is in love with 42nd Street, just as were the Broadway Melodys (1929, 1936, 1938) and the “Gold Diggers” series and all the others.
But if 42nd Street is a love note to the tough-hearted Times Square of the Depression years, it also, almost unconsciously, serves notice that Broadway’s star is fading. Pretty Lady, the play-within-the-movie, is hopelessly hokey and stilted; the jokes are stale, the dances are drab, and even the singing has the stiff elocution of an earlier age. The feel of the movie abruptly shifts halfway through when Busby Berkeley arrives, and his inspired cinematic effects launch the action into the realm of fantasy. The girls are mounted on a rotating table—a classic Ziegfeld touch—and a camera, high above, shows them weaving some stretchy material into fantastic geometry. The girls form a row, and the camera guides us through an endless A-frame of long, perfectly tapered gams. Here is an effect that even Ziegfeld himself could never match; here is beauty closer than you’ve ever seen it before. Although 42nd Street celebrates the raffish life of Broadway, underneath, it marks the ascendancy of film and the decline of theater, and thus of that very world of Broadway.
The advent of talkies tilted what had been a close match between a classic and an upstart medium into a one-sided battle. A Broadway show in a movie was so much bigger, brighter, and dreamier than the show itself, and so much cheaper to present. You could fit two or three times as many people into a cinema house as into a theater, and you could turn that audience over two or three or four times in a day. The iron law of Times Square, and of the entertainment districts that preceded it, is that real estate is turned to its most profitable use; even in an earlier generation, it had become plain that economics favored film. The first movie theater had appeared on 42nd Street in 1910, and movie houses began replacing theaters in Times Square as early as 1914, when Vitagraph Studios turned the Lyric Theatre in Hammerstein’s Olympia into the Criterion. That same year the Strand became the first theater on Broadway built expressly for the movies, with a thirty-piece orchestra, three thousand seats—and no stage. It was there, in fact, that 42nd Street opened, for the converted theaters of 42nd Street itself, mostly dating from the first years of the century, were far too small to accommodate a blockbuster movie. By the mid-twenties, both sides of Broadway were lined with impossibly opulent movie palaces—the Rialto, the Rivoli, the Capitol, and, above all, the Roxy, with 6,214 seats, the 110-piece Roxy Symphony Orchestra, the corps of dancers known as the Roxyettes, and, of course, the Roxy ushers, whom Cole Porter was later to immortalize as the acme of swank. In 1930, the Palace, the sun around which the vast universe of vaudeville had once revolved, was wired for sound—and all Broadway mourned.
The movies very swiftly displaced theater as America’s chief form of popular culture. As the folks in Altoona decided they wanted to see movies rather than plays, those splendid theaters in every downtown in America were converted to movie houses, just as they were on 42nd Street. The number of legitimate theaters nationwide plummeted from 1,549 in 1910 to 674 in 1925; the number of touring companies dropped even more drastically. It had been the insatiable demand for real Broadway shows in towns all over the country that had provoked the theater-building spree in Times Square; with the decline in demand, Broadway had more theaters than it could fill. By the early thirties, plays were shown almost exclusively in Times Square’s side streets; the great public places of Broadway and 42nd Street showed movies.
Times Square was in many ways the movie capital of the country. As the center of the entertainment world, Broadway had the grandest movie houses in the country; as the favorite source of Hollywood’s material, it served as the eastern headquarters for virtually all the big film companies. But Broadway didn’t make the movies; Hollywood did. And so Broadway didn’t matter as it had before; the expressions that Americans had on the tips of their tongues, their favorite characters, their jokes, and their gossip, no longer issued from Times Square. The beloved stars moved to Hollywood. The glossy magazines glorified the sun-shot world of Hollywood, not Tin Pan Alley or the Main Stem.
And just as the movies were displacing 42nd Street from the center of the universe, the rabble was laying siege to the street’s fabled charms. The street, and Times Square itself, had long lived in a fine balance between the mob and all that was inaccessible to the mob—between the lobster palace and Hammerstein’s Victoria, between the dance hall and the roof garden. But gradually the elite had begun to exit Times Square in favor of the more sheltered precincts of Fifth Avenue; and the masses increasingly filled the vacuum. The decline of 42nd Street can be dated to as early as 1925, when Murray’s Roman Gardens, a relic from the age of the lobster palaces, closed up and was quickly replaced by Hubert’s Flea Circus, a Coney Island–style dime museum with sword swallowers and freaks and, of course, trained fleas. But it was the Depression that really killed the old elegance, because cheap and crude forms of entertainment like the dime-a-dance hall and burlesque quickly replaced more expensive and refined ones.
Burlesque traced its lineage back to The Black Crook and Lydia Thompson’s Blondes, and then forward to the hootchy-kootchy dance that made “Little Egypt” the sensation of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Burlesque was a world of dirty songs, crude jokes, and women in frilly underthings shaking whatever they had (and that was usually a very great deal). Irving Zeidman, a historian of the form, crisply sums up its place in the galaxy of the arts by noting that “while variety became vaudeville and aligned itself with talent, burlesque became itself and aligned itself with dirt.” Burlesque gradually moved northward from the stews of the Lower East Side to Union Square, and thence to Harlem. And then, in 1931, Billy Minsky, the Ziegfeld—or perhaps the Hammerstein—of burlesque, breached the final barrier when he took over the Republic Theatre, which Hammerstein himself had built, and which for many years had served as the headquarters of David Belasco. The arrival of burlesque on 42nd Street was as shocking a proof of decline as the conversion of the Palace to a movie house.
By this time, the erotic dance had given way to the striptease; the girls stripped down to a G-string, and nothing else. Artists of the strip like Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand hadn’t yet come along to give burlesque its air of tawdry glamour. Variety, no nest of prudes, described the girls at Minsky’s opening as “too inelegant, too dumb and too dirty to be called a troupe,” and called the show “the cheapest dirt, the dirtiest coochers ever forced upon a stage or platform.” Minsky’s was actually considered high-class burlesque; the dearth of both plays and vaudeville meant that he could feature actual Broadway talent in the chorus and charge as much as $1.50 for seats. But when the Eltinge, at the other end of 42nd Street, began to offer four-a-day shows with cheap seats, Minsky was forced to follow suit. And then the Apollo went burlesque, and then the Central, at 48th Street, and the Gaiety, at 46th. Times Square seemed to be returning to the lubricious men-only world of early vaudeville.
The Times Square of the mid-1930s still had glamorous nightclubs and black-tie openings and giant spectaculars lighting up Broadway in a hundred colors; but the character of the place, and especially the character of the place in the harsh light of day, had become irretrievably tawdry. The Depression had burst, and burst forever, the glittering bubble blown by Ziegfeld and Hammerstein and George Rector and the Castles. And this collapse, so sudden and so sweeping, wrung the heartstrings of Broadway’s leading citizens. A new form of literature came to flourish in Times Square—the dirge, the woeful lament of “O tempora!, O mores!” In 1933, the great George M. Cohan, a child of Broadway if ever there was one, wrote an impromptu and thoroughly disgusted ditty:
It means the increase in honky-tonk joints,
The blast of the radios from the amplifiers hanging over dance-hall
The pedlers and the barkers shouting at the top of their lungs:
“Buy a balloon an’ act natural”;
“Come in and see the great flea circus”;
“This way for a good time, folks”;
“No tights in this show”;
“Plenty of seats in the first balcony; ‘She Kissed Him to Death’ just
“Magnificent love story; bring the children.”
The decline of Broadway provoked Stanley Walker, hard-boiled city editor, into a mighty blast of dismay. The street, he wrote, “has degenerated into something resembling the main drag of a frontier town. . . . There are chow-meineries, peep shows for men only, flea circuses, lectures on what killed Rudolf Valentino, jitney ballrooms and a farrago of other attractions which would have sickened the heart of the Broadwayite of even ten years ago.” The great old chophouses had given way to penny restaurants, “where a derelict just this side of starvation may get something known as food for as little as one cent.” The very faces on the street had become grotesque: “cauliflower ears, beggars, sleazy crones, skinny girls who would be out of place in even the cheapest dance hall, twisted old men, sleek youths with pale faces, the blind and the maimed.”
Broadway had, in short, turned into Coney Island, a street carnival staged for the tourist and the boob. Runyon had adored and immortalized the Broadway street life, but by the early thirties Runyon was spending more time in Miami than at Lindy’s. Where were the hoods of yesteryear? This new world was a ceaseless yammer of religious nuts and self-styled magicians and novelty salesmen—itching powders and exploding cigars— and hot dog vendors and con artists and even, late at night on the east side of Broadway, dope peddlers. Runyon’s Dream Street, the block behind the Palace, was no longer, just as the Palace itself was no longer. The gossip columnists Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer wrote, “Its 200 yards are lined almost unbrokenly by cheap hotels and rooming houses sheltering all manner of strange characters: retired vaudevillians, down-and-out horseplayers, dope fiends, grifters and grafters, pickpockets, derelicts (male and female), drunks, stage widows, miserly recluses, tars and their tarts, crap-game-steerers and bottom-dealers.” Here, by the way, was a subspecies of the new literature of decline: the epic enumeration of depravity.
Nowhere was the change more drastic than on 42nd Street, increasingly the home of shooting galleries and peep arcades and dumb movies. As the theaters passed into the hands of the banks, they emerged with very different owners. In 1931, William and Harry Brandt, who had made a living in movies and low-grade vaudeville in the city’s more humble neighborhoods, bought the Lyric Theatre, tried a diet of four-a-day vaudeville, and then switched to second-run movies. The Brandts took over the Apollo in 1932, and then the Times Square, the Selwyn, the Eltinge, and the Republic—the block of theaters that would later form the core of the porn empire of the 1960s. The Rialto, which had been showing movies at the northwest corner of Broadway and 42nd since 1916, was torn down in 1935 to make way for the New Rialto, whose first feature was Fang and Claw. The New Rialto was open all day and well into the night, and charged as little as 25 cents a ticket. These theaters, like the burlesque shows and the dime-a-dance halls and the penny restaurants, brought a very different kind of customer to 42nd Street: the lowlife whose many faces Stanley Walker had catalogued.
Burlesque actually had a very short life span in Times Square. Here was a species of show so crude that many of the critics found it as deplorable as the moralists did. But what killed burlesque was not so much dirt as menace. The burlesque theater spilled out into the street in the form of barkers and steerers who tried to whip the customers inside; giant posters of half-naked girls blared from under the marquees. The burlesque theater seemed to degrade the street in the same way as the sex shop and the porn movie house would in the 1960s; it posed, in effect, an ecological danger. At hearings in 1932, the New York City license commissioner, James F. Geraghty, said that the lobbies of the burlesque houses served as “loitering places for men who trade on the shady side of night life.” A New York Times editorial complained, “The alleged obscenity of the burlesque shows is exceeded by their external frowsiness. The neighborhood of such theaters takes on the character of a slum.”
The crusade against burlesque, later mocked and memorialized in The Night They Raided Minsky’s, was fueled by fears that Broadway was sinking beneath a mighty wave of trash. Fiorello La Guardia’s license commissioner, Paul Moss, whose brother B. S. Moss was an old nickelodeon operator who had become a producer and movie house owner, devoted himself to cleaning up burlesque; when that proved hopeless, on May 2, 1937, he revoked the licenses of all fourteen of the city’s burlesque houses. “This is the beginning of the end of incorporated filth,” said the mayor. And it was—for the nonce. The houses were reopened under regulations prohibiting the striptease. Clean burlesque was, of course, a contradiction in terms, and by 1942 the brief reign of burlesque had come to an inglorious end.
As burlesque waned on 42nd Street, so did legitimate theater. By the mid-1930s, the only house still showing plays on 42nd Street was the redoubtable New Amsterdam. In January 1937, Walter Huston starred in Othello; and that would be the last play mounted on 42nd Street for over forty years. In July, the New Amsterdam reopened under new ownership as a movie theater. The first feature was A Midsummer Night’s Dream— the very same show which, in a different medium, had inaugurated this art nouveau castle in 1903.
IT SEEMS A STRANGE irony that the quality of theatrical writing improved markedly as the cultural power of theater declined; but perhaps it’s no irony at all. As Broadway lost its status as the proving ground for national culture, where plays were hatched to be distributed to the hustings, theater became an increasingly local medium, needing to please only a local, and of course, sophisticated audience. Movies took on the burden of suiting the lowest common denominator. And as the grip of Broadway culture on the national imagination weakened, or perhaps as viewers counted on the movies to glorify that magic world, dramatists began to look far beyond the confines of Times Square for their subject matter. Few of the leading playwrights of the thirties were themselves Broadway figures, as George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly and Moss Hart were; they were biographers, essayists, advocates, novelists, and whatnot. Some of them, like Elmer Rice, professed to despise the theater as a thoroughly compromised medium of expression, while others tried their hand at plays to earn their keep while doing something they deemed more important, like crusading for justice. The 1930s was the era of Depression and the onset of war, and thus of intense ideological mobilization, at least within the intelligentsia; the drama of the time was exalted, and sometimes banalized, by those profound concerns.
There can be little question about the difference in quality. Very few plays from the 1920s or earlier have made it into the semiofficial canon of school anthologies and beloved revivals, but at least a dozen Broadway shows from the 1930s have achieved that status. The list includes, but is scarcely limited to, Maxwell Anderson’s High Tor, William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess— almost certainly the greatest musical work mounted on Broadway up to that time. In the 1933–34 season, when 42nd Street was stealing Broadway’s thunder and the number and profitability of shows was dropping like a shot, theatergoers could attend O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, Sidney Howard’s Yellow Jack, Gershwin and Kaufman’s satirical musical Let ’Em Eat Cake, and Tobacco Road, Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s bleak novel of sharecropper life, which ran for 3,182 performances.
The best plays of the thirties were both more serious and more literary than the drama of the previous generation. Plays like Of Mice and Men and Tobacco Road exposed theatergoers to a world of rural immiseration utterly foreign to them. In They Shall Not Die, John Wexley bluntly condemned the police, attorney, and judges responsible for locking up the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men who had been falsely, and sensationally, charged with raping two white women in 1931. In There Shall Be No Night, of 1940, Robert Sherwood, who in previous works had denounced militarism and declared an equal pox on all the houses of Europe, reversed himself and urged his listeners to accept the necessity of war to defend democracy against totalitarianism. Meanwhile, the protean Orson Welles was shocking audiences with a haunting voodoo version of Macbeth set in Haiti, as well as a modern-dress interpretation of Julius Caesar.
As Kaufman, the master satirist and wit, was the prototypical playwright of his age, so Clifford Odets, the inflamed pamphleteer, was the emblematic figure of Broadway in the thirties. Odets was a struggling actor who in the early thirties had joined the Group Theatre, a cooperative that brought together actors like Lee J. Cobb, John Garfield, and Franchot Tone; directors like Elia Kazan; and instructors like Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler. Though the Group Theatre was not originally politicized, many of its members, and above all Odets, were deeply marked by the growing radicalization of the time. In 1934, Odets, who had never had a play produced, wrote Waiting for Lefty, an anticapitalist tract barely disguised as a drama. In a thrilling coup de théâtre, the actors turned to address the audience directly, turning the theater into a union hall and the spectators into fellow workers; at the climax, when word arrived that the heroic Lefty had been murdered by company goons, first the actors, and then the patrons in the seats, took up the cry “Strike! Strike! Strike!”—and the identification was complete. Waiting for Lefty ran for 168 performances on Broadway and was subsequently performed by special troupes all over the country, several of whom were dragged off to jail by outraged local authorities.
Odets turned out to be a gifted playwright who knew how to reproduce real feelings and real speech; he quickly learned to embed the doctrine in the narrative. Jacob, the embittered patriarch of Awake and Sing!, views capitalism as legalized theft and is given to such stony pronouncements as “If this life leads to a revolution it’s a good thing. Otherwise, it’s for nothing.” Odets seems to share Jacob’s views, yet Awake and Sing! is far from the blunt agitprop spirit of Waiting for Lefty, which it followed by only a year. The play revolves around the struggle of a young man to break free from his all-consuming mother. Awake and Sing! has something of O’Neill’s harsh realism, though it is at the same time infused with Odets’s fervid romanticism about human prospects. The dialogue abounds with the Yiddish turns of speech—“You gave the dog eat?”; “He should talk to you an old man?”—that Moss Hart and S. N. Behrman must have heard at home every day, but would never have dreamed of putting into a play. The world of Broadway is all but invisible from the family’s Bronx tenement; Jacob’s son Myron absentmindedly picks his teeth as his daughter reads of the doings of Sophie Tucker. What matters, finally, is not political revolution but personal liberation—“Get-what-it-takes,” as one character puts it. Myron doesn’t have it; life has squashed him flat. But Ralph, Myron’s son and the play’s protagonist, just might. Jacob makes Ralph the beneficiary of his will and then, horribly, arranges his own death. And Ralph, finally independent, accepts the dreadful sacrifice with joy. “I saw he was dead and I was born,” he declares, in the kind of melodramatic speechifying to which Odets was much given. “I swear to God, I’m one week old!”
The plays of the thirties were notoriously engagé, but they were also very often set at a great distance from the audience’s place and time, in Lincoln’s day or in that of Mary, Queen of Scots. They aspired, as literature does, to universal truths rather than to the kind of immediacy and familiarity that delighted the audience of The Front Page, not to mention Earl Carroll’s Vanities. Theater traditionally depends on topicality to forge a bond with the audience. And yet Thornton Wilder, a novelist whose subject was almost always “the human condition” rather than any particular transitory state of affairs, devised in Our Town a form of drama wholly removed from the particular. The village in which the play is set, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, has the generality of allegory; it could be—indeed, is—anywhere. Wilder even dispenses with incident itself, an act of daring and a conscious flirtation with tedium that few authors before Samuel Beckett even thought to attempt.
The stratum of life Wilder seeks lies below the busyness and turbulence of event. “This is the way we were,” says the Stage Manager, who narrates the comings and goings of Grover’s Corners: “In our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.” The prose itself aspires to a kind of stately, reverential quietude. Our Town has no wit, no politics, no “views.” The small-town folk talk endlessly about the weather and express themselves in the kind of earnest aphorisms that would have marked them as oafs in the sparkling drama of an earlier generation. The play’s faith in common wisdom is a rebuke to urbanity itself. But Wilder doesn’t mean the rebuke: Our Town wishes to recall us to our common humanity, and to remind us that death settles all differences and stills all vanity. And the wiseacres of Broadway, to their great credit, recognized Our Town for what it was. Jed Harris, who had produced and directed many of Broadway’s wittiest and most self-referential shows, directed the play with the softest of hands. And the work was hailed as “a gentle masterpiece” by that most prolix and noisy of critics, Alexander Woollcott.
Men like George M. Cohan and Stanley Walker and the columnist Jack Lait, who recoiled in horror before the new Broadway of dance halls and penny arcades, had been raised in, and in some cases had helped shape, the old Broadway of the lobster palace and the roof garden. But younger men could not share their nostalgia, or their horror. A. J. Liebling was born in 1904; the Times Square he knew as a rich kid growing up on Park Avenue was the Times Square of the speakeasy and of the fight crowd hanging out at Jacobs Beach. Liebling was an impudent and mischief-making character who loved the con artists and sidewalk mythologizers of Times Square. All forms of fabrication, so long as they were ingenious or at least preposterous, appealed to him; and as a young reporter on The World-Telegram, he returned again and again to the petty characters of Broadway. He covered Commissioner Geraghty’s 1932 hearing on burlesque and quoted Geraghty heartily defending Professor Heckler’s Flea Circus, the star attraction of Hubert’s Museum, whose license was also up for renewal. Billy Minsky sniffed, “I will not tell my girls that they have been compared with fleas. They would be much offended.” “Well,” one of the lawyers cracked, “at least the fleas wear clothes.”
Liebling yearned to write for the arch and saucy New Yorker; and in 1935, he got his wish. His already prodigious literary gifts were polished to a yet brighter sheen by contact with his fellow wags at The New Yorker, as well as by the opportunity to write at greater length and with greater leisure; but his subject matter, and his essential tone, changed not at all. Liebling wrote about the nobodies of Times Square, and especially about the nobodies in its northern reaches, which Damon Runyon had haunted the decade before. He wrote of Izzy Yereshevsky, the proprietor of the I. & Y. cigar store at 49th Street and Seventh Avenue and genial host to a free-floating late-night salon. Liebling delicately pumped Izzy and his patrons full of the hot air of mock-epic. He wrote, “Most of his evening guests—their purchases are so infrequent that it would be misleading to call them customers—wear white felt hats and overcoats of a style known to them as English drape. . . . Short men peer up from beneath the wideflung shoulders of these coats as if they had been lowered into the garment on a rope and were now trying to climb out.” (Is it any wonder that Liebling laughed out loud as he typed?) Each of these men, he wrote, “fosters a little legend of lost affluence; fifty grand dropped on the races in one day, twenty grand blown on a doll in a brief sojourn at Atlantic City. Never to have been in the chips marks one as a punk or a smalltimer. It precludes conversation in big figures.”
Liebling was the bard of Times Square in its era of picturesque impoverishment. He wrote a long profile of Hymie Katz, a local virtuoso of the con who ran a racetrack “tipping service” in which he scammed out-of-town ministers and doctors. Hymie was a hero at the I. & Y. “Hymie is a man who knows how to get a dollar,” said the habitués. Hymie had opened twenty-five nightclubs in his day, and took a view of them which precluded all forms of sentiment. “What is a nightclub?” he sneers. “Spit and toilet paper.” Hymie explained how it was possible to open a nightclub with nothing more than a loan of $50, which was the figure required to retain a lawyer in order to draw up a lease for one of the innumerable basement rooms in the West Forties usable for nothing save a nightspot. Hymie would then flourish the lease, and a great deal of promotional and by no means credible nonsense, before a hat-check concessionaire who would front $3,000; use these funds to lease cut-rate supplies from a nightclub equipment supplier, and to buy liquor; and then sell jobs to waiters— $400 for the captain, $200 for the headwaiters, $50 for the rest of the staff. “Waiters like to work for Hymie because he lets them take whatever they can get,” Liebling writes. He quotes Hymie as saying, “Most of the stealing they do is from the customers, so what do I care?”
Liebling was a famous gourmet and gourmand, but he rarely wrote about New York’s fine restaurants; likewise, he considered the great clubs of the day unworthy journalistic material. He referred to the Times Square of the late Depression as a “famine area”; and it was life under famine conditions that stirred his imagination and provoked his humor. Liebling’s masterpiece in this spirit of Daumier was a series of articles about the Jollity Building, a fictional office building formed out of several real-life low-rises on Broadway in the upper Forties. Liebling guides the reader through the many layers of the Jollity with the rapt attention of Dante surveying the Inferno; as his Virgil he recruits the Jollity’s rental agent, Marty, “a thin, sallow man of 40 whose complexion has been compared, a little unfairly, to that of a dead robin.” On the ground floor of the Jollity are eight phone booths manned by what Marty calls the “Telephone Booth Indians,” “because in their lives the telephone booth furnishes sustenance as well as shelter, as the buffalo did for the Arapahoe and the Sioux.” A Telephone Booth Indian who puts a few dollars together through, say, successful bookmaking may graduate to one of the tiny cubicles on the third floor, in which case he becomes a “heel.” And if a heel can put together a down payment on an unfurnished office upstairs—say, through booking a few animals acts at a nightclub—he may graduate to the rarefied status of “tenant,” though it tends to be a very transitory state. “A dispossessed tenant often reappears in the Jollity Building as an Indian,” Liebling writes. “It is a life cycle.”
A quarter of a century earlier, Julian Street, the Liebling of his day, had recoiled in disgust from the hedonism and heedlessness of Broadway. A decade after that, Damon Runyon hadn’t blinked at hoods pumping bullets into one another, though he had sentimentalized street urchins like Dream Street Rose. But now that hedonism was itself a distant memory, and the remaining hoods were small change, Liebling neither excoriates nor sentimentalizes; he records, with anthropological care and journalistic zest, the innumerable, and only rarely legal, means by which the residents of the Jollity Building earn their precarious living. Liebling notes that in the precincts of the Jollity, a “promoter” is understood to be “any man who mulcts another man of a dollar, or any fraction or multiple thereof,” and that the highest praise among the residents is “He has promoted some very smart people.” Liebling’s gallery of small-time promoters includes Hockticket Charlie, a booking agent who on the side sells pawn tickets enabling the holder to redeem objects that are, in fact, trash, and Lotsandlots, who sells phony land lots secured by phony deeds. But the noblest figure in the rogues’ gallery is surely Maxwell C. Bimberg, known as the Count de Pennies, owing both to his waxed mustache and his reputation for tightfistedness. The Count is a publicity agent who cons everyone he comes across, including such otherwise unpromotable figures as strippers, bookmakers, and nightclub owners. After the Count steals several thousand dollars, he gambles it all away at the track and is soon back to begging nickels for phone calls. Even his marks admire the Count’s bravado. “The Count de Pennies was never no good to nobody,” says Marty, “but he was the champion heel of the Jollity Building.”
It is Liebling’s characters, not Liebling himself, who invent the nicknames and the slang that pepper his prose—or at least, he puts the words in their mouths. An exotic language seems to arise almost unconsciously from the exotic lives they lead in the sheltered village of Times Square. “I like the country,” says Whitey Bimstein, a fight manager of ancient vintage. “It is a great spot.” Times Square’s language was a Yiddish, showbiz, midway patois; but not only that. Innumerable flavors made the Broadway stew. Liebling’s only rival as a Broadway folklorist, his friend and NewYorker colleague Joe Mitchell, quotes the bearded lady of Hubert’s Museum, an ex-Tarheel like himself, as follows: “When I was a young’un I taken the name Princess Olga. After I first got married I changed to Madame, but when every confounded swami-woman and mitt-reader in the nation taken to calling herself Madame So-and-So, I decided Lady was more ree-fined.”
It was language that became Broadway’s great cultural export when theater lost its salience. In the twenties, Damon Runyon and Walter Winchell and Ring Lardner and the staff of Variety began to reproduce the village slang of Broadway, and soon the knowing cosmopolites back in Evansville were talking about rats who got bumped off when they squawked. As the cultural historian William Taylor has written, “Press replaced theater as the voice of the area, a transfer of energy . . . from stage to page.” But Runyonese, or Winchellese, was a cartoon language, a language more invented than overheard; it was a theatrical product every bit as much as what Kaufman was offering on the stage. Liebling and Mitchell, and Mark Hellinger and Ben Hecht and Myron Berger, were newspapermen, with a gifted reporter’s ear for the peculiarities of speech and behavior. In their language, the reader could feel the strange combination of provinciality and cosmopolitanism that made Times Square.
It is from Mitchell, as much as from Liebling, that we receive the sense of Times Square in the years just before World War II as an enclosed garden in which the strangest, the most endearingly misshapen, flowers bloomed. Mitchell was a quiet and gracious Southerner, a meditative character who seemed to identify with the sadness of the oddballs he portrayed. His profile of Jane Barnell—Lady Olga—is an act of loving observation; the hyperbolic sense of dignity of this woman who carefully wraps her beard in a scarf when heading out for a cup of coffee is touching rather than absurd. “Some of Miss Barnell’s less gifted colleagues are inclined to think that she is haughty,” Mitchell writes, deadpan, “but she feels that a woman with a beard more than a foot long has the right to be haughty.” A time would come, a few decades hence, when Hubert’s was a dive; but Mitchell’s Hubert’s is the New Amsterdam of the dime museum. Professor Roy Heckler, maestro of the flea circus, drops his flock, one by one, onto his forearm, “where they browse for fifteen minutes,” while he smokes, reads the paper, and shares a quiet moment with his friend Lady Olga. “Taciturn herself,” Mitchell writes, “Miss Barnell does not care for talkative people.”
Mitchell and Liebling created a Times Square that lives today—and not merely through the golden haze of memory. When we mourn the passing of a Broadway that once was and never will be again, few of us try to wish back the top-hatted and white-tied Broadway of Ziegfeld and the Castles, and Fitzgerald and his Princeton pals. Those images are not only too remote in time, they are, in a way, too contaminated by privilege and wealth. We are all populists now, and few of us would wish back a place so gaudy, so deluxe, so unattainable. That Times Square does not feel authentic to us in the way that the Times Square of Hubert’s and the Jollity Building does. That Times Square is a populist place—the home of carny populism. People like Izzy and Marty and the Count de Pennies and Lady Olga have a kind of proprietary right to Times Square; what we most wish for Times Square is that it be hospitable to eccentrics like them. And we wish that because Liebling and Mitchell made these characters so very alive, and somehow endowed them with the life of the place, as if they were its indwelling genius. Most of us, had we been alive then, would have passed through Times Square without even noticing the I. & Y. cigar shop; Times Square would not have been to us what it was to Liebling and Mitchell. But we live with their Times Square, as surely as we live with the Times Square of Guys and Dolls or Broadway Melody of 1929.
We want to have a Times Square that is hospitable to Izzy Yereshevsky—even though Izzy’s grandchildren probably now live in Westchester. In the debate over what Times Square should be, the pull of carny populism was, and remains, powerful. We can’t help feeling inauthentic in the face of the vital, tawdry Times Square of 1938. But we cannot have it back; we cannot have a Times Square that Joe Liebling would have loved.