John Strausbaugh, Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers During World War II (New York: Twelve, 2018), 488 pages.
John Strausbaugh’s Victory City is a chronicle of New York City right before, during and after World War II in a book that is at times sweeping in its marshaling of data, at others intimately in-depth in characterizing individual lives. Moreover, with an exemplary judiciousness, the book, while showing many instances of social solidarity as the city pulls together to battle the Axis, also reveals in every depiction, the counter-stresses that would maintain sexual and racial hierarchies, even to the point (before the U.S. directly enters the war) of many New Yorkers rooting for pro-fascist and anti-Semitic groups.
His description of the Stage Door Canteen, for example, highlights this dual energy. The club on West 44th Street “was rather like a USO, only staffed with stars [who pitched in to aid the war effort] … Katherine Hepburn might be serving hot dogs … Alfred Lunt bussed your table.” At the same time, the club’s liberal policies contrasted to those prevailing in other locations. “It was one of the very few venues anywhere, including anywhere in New York City, that welcomed black servicemen as well as white.”
Even more striking than the (perhaps expected) maintenance of segregation is Strausbaugh’s description of the home grown fascists, such as those belonging to the German-American Bund, filled with pro-Hitler New Yorkers of German background. On Long Island, this group established Camp Siegfried, which, starting in 1936, attracted thousands every seasonable weekend. “Oktoberfest was celebrated with much beer and sausages and the singing of old songs. But there was also open Nazi propagandizing … vendors hawking Nazi and anti-Semitic books … Most troubling to outside observers, boys and girls were uniformed and trained like Hitler Youth.” At the same time, even less foreign-inspired reactionary groups flourished, such as the Christian Front, first pushed by rightwing Detroit radio priest Father Coughlin. “Through 1942 and 1943 there would be numerous reports in the press of roving gangs of young men, mostly identified as Irish and affiliated with the Front, beating and sometimes even knifing Jews in neighborhoods such as Flatbush, Washington Heights and the South Bronx.”
Indeed, this picture of wide support for groups which would turn out to be the country’s enemies can be nicely counterpointed to the portrayal of the Apple in Strausbaugh’s previous work, City of Sedition, set during the Civil War, which shows how many New Yorkers supported the Confederacy, as witnessed by rabidly anti-Lincoln newspapers, ones closed as seditious and the draft riots that ended in an anti-black pogrom.
Perhaps, I should balance my remarks on the pro-fascist forces by noting that many New Yorkers were on the other side, ones like diplomat Varian Fry, who was tasked with getting 200 people out of Vichy France and instead saved 1,500, including “Chagall, Andre Breton, Andre Masson,[and] Marcel Duchamp.”
Moreover, not only were there fascist leaning groups in the city, but (as I certainly didn’t know) their boats were closing in. As the U.S. joined the war, Nazi subs began trawling along the East Coast in search of prey. In one month, March 1943, submarines sank 50 boats off the Atlantic Coast. “The waters off New York were so U-boat infested that shipping was temporarily routed around the port, causing thousands of workers in New York’s harbor to be laid off.” To make it harder for the enemy to see the merchant ships, which were silhouetted against New York City’s bright lights, the city had to cut the glare. “All over the city, streetlamps and traffic lights were dimmed and vehicles headlights were painted over to emit just thin strips of light, low beam only.” As for Times Square, “The multicolored neon signs that flashed and shimmied and sparkled all over the area and gave it its hectic year-round carnival atmosphere went black. … The Camel cigarette man, who kept blowing five-foot smoke rings … kept puffing, but those rings floated silently over darkened streets now strange and spooky.”
However, as mentioned, the book also delves into individual life histories. In fact, to really characterize the book, one might say: This is a history in faces. Every chapter is filled with portraits of heroes, like Fry, villains, like Christian Fronter Joe McWilliams, called the “glamour boy Führer,” and, in most cases, people who are a little bit of both. So the book becomes not only a painting of the city: light and dark (or dim), but of the colorful members of this generation.
Take, on the darker side, Laura Ingalls, who “was a concert pianist, a ballerina and vaudeville dancer before she started taking flying lessons at Ebbets Field.” Her reactionary views brought her into contact with fascist publicist Catherine Curtis. In one notable outcome of their alliance, “In September 1939, Ingalls flew over the White House, violating restrictions on air space, and dropped isolationist leaflets written and printed by Curtis.”
On the more anti-fascist side, we meet Carlos Tresca, Italian immigrant, IWW member and militant. “When New York hotel workers went on strike in 1913, Tresca stood up at a meeting ant railed, ‘Fellow workers, a strike is not a course of lectures but a fight’ … He then led them on a rock- and bottle-throwing attacks on the finer hotels around Times Square.” He became publisher of Il Martello, a virulently anti-fascist paper, making him a radical star but also leading to his assassination on the street.
All these thumbnails are precise, witty and to be savored.
Moreover, as a final unifying force, one oddball character keeps bobbing up throughout the narrative. In City of Sedition, this was Daniel Sickles, first notorious for slaying his wife’s lover in front of the White House, then as a retired Union general, helping get the Gettysburg battlefield made a historical site as part of his campaign to prove his actions there saved the day for the North. In Victory City, the place is taken by Grover Whalen, self-named Mr. New York. Though coming up poor on the Lower East Side, “he looked as if he were born wearing a top hat and tails.” Going from congressman to Police Commissioner, in 1936 he became “president of the non-profit corporation formed by some of the city’s top businessmen and bankers to plan a world’s fair.” The fair, as it went on for two seasons, really reflected the world in that in the second year Poland lost its pavilions as the country fell to the Nazis, and Germany withdrew, and the British pavilion was bombed.
The city survived to thrive, becoming for one period, from after the war to the early 1960s, the wonder city, which according to an only slightly exaggerated Time piece, which the author cites, “the de facto world capital of art, architecture, literature, medical research, finance, advertising, philanthropy and … television.” Perhaps that torch, Liberty’s torch, has been passed to another city now, but our New York City, Strausbaugh suggests, can only be known if the sediments of that greatness are recognized and integrated into our emerging sense of the now.