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Summer 1994
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  I deas and Observations

Park Avenue in the Jazz Age
Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald
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Beginning in the pool of glass that covers the Grand Central tracks, Park Avenue flows quietly and smoothly up Manhattan. Windows and prim greenery and tall, graceful, white facades rise up from either side of the asphalt stream, while in the center floats, impermanently, a thin series of water-color squares of grass—suggesting the Queen’s Croquet Ground in Alice in Wonderland.

It is a street for satisfied eyes. A street of unity where one may walk and brood without being distracted by one’s own curiosity. Through the arches and open gates one sees paved courtyards big enough to convey a cloistered, feudal feeling. It is the guarantee made by realty barons that people under their protection will always have enough air—and always morning air. For Park Avenue has the essence of a pen-and-ink drawing of Paris. In the morning, when it is hot noon and lunch hour on Fifth Avenue, it is still nine o’clock on Park. Even the crisp, translucent New York twilight, hovering high above the city, seems here to drift along in order to conceal the missing afternoon.

There has never been a faded orchid on Park Avenue. And yet this is a masculine avenue. An avenue that has learned its attraction from men—subdued and subtle and solid and sophisticated in its understanding that avenues and squares should be a fitting and sympathetic background for the promenades of men.

In the bright, gusty mornings, Park Avenue is animated with sets of children, slim and fashionable, each set identically dressed and chaperoned by white and starched English nurses or blue flowing French nurses or black and white maids. They clutch in gloved hands the things that children carry only in illustrations and in the Bois de Boulogne and in Park Avenue: hoops and Russian dolls and tiny Pomeranians.

There is a lightness about these mornings. Nobody has ever asked a geographical question on Park Avenue. It is not “the way” to anywhere. It exists, apparently, solely because millionaires have decided that life on the grand scale in a small space is only possible with as tranquil and orderly a background as this long, blond, immaculate route presents. It is a fitting resting-place for the fine and glittering automobiles that browse the curbstones under the patronage of gilded concierges. Even the traffic here is aloof and debonair, with an inch more freedom than it enjoys in other streets, and seems to progress by a series of hundred-yard dashes. Taxi-chauffeurs wave gaily as they rush by with empty cabs—the result of too much morning air and too much reading of the Social Register; and newsboys roller-skate under the smartest motors.

High in the air float green-blue copper roofs, like the tips of castles rising from the clouds in fairy tales and cigarette advertisements, fragile points and crags and sturdy shelves suspended on a fortress. There is even the drawbridge in the Grand Central runway, so that sweeping off into the avenue one experiences the emotion of entering a stronghold—the stronghold of easy wealth.

Little shops, like sections of a glass-fronted doll’s house, nestle in the corners along the lower avenue—shops of the boudoir sort, where one may buy an apple with as much ritual as if it were the Ottoman Empire, or a limousine as carelessly as if it were a postage stamp. These crystalline shops, lying shallow against buildings, exist on sufferance so long as they are decorative.

Park Avenue is first the New Yorker’s street. It is full of nuances and suggestions of all New York, but they are shaped and molded into an etched pattern. There are disciplined, cool smells—the smell of hot motors and gusty dust—-of violets and brass buttons—-globular lights through an apologetic mist—gay awnings in the rarefied sunlight—Sunday bells and rows and rows of icy windows. It is the place to walk, which means that it is an international street—where the trades-people are accustomed to a clientele who need nothing, want nothing, and buy freely because they have large leisure and filled purses. Here shopping is pleasant and expensive and holy. There are foreign chemists with remedies for French-speaking germs, and Dutch florists with bulbs grown only on dykes; and there are corners stuffed with hunting-print hat-boxes. Yet there is none of the atmosphere of the bazaar that colors Madison Avenue a block away. These shops are yourself in Paris—in Rome—wherever you’d like to be, without being incontestably reminded that you are somewhere else. It is a street for strutting. It is a street for luncheon in impeccable French restaurants. It is a street to use when in a hurry, and it is a street for dawdling down. It is a street to have friends on at teatime. I suppose a street could be other things—but in the immortal words of Ring Lardner, “What of it?”

Late at night, dignity departs not from the reproachless lane. It even lends a majesty to the great revolving broom that polishes away imaginary dirt between the hours of three and five—invests the functioning of the Street Cleaning Department with the isolated and pink-lit smallness of a Whistler London night. Occasionally a flying police car or sometimes a fire engine tears past, lost in the black and misty light before the sound is out of your cars—mysterious night-riders hastening to a destiny other than their own, disturbing the peace of a street too alert ever to give a sense of repose.

At one time we have known in a single apartment house a moving-picture star, an heiress, a famous amateur athlete, a publisher, an author, and a friend. It was very convenient and we were sorry when cornice trouble or a delinquent summer or bankruptcy caused them to scatter along the street. Such is this flaming street—widened now until it has become the most colossal thoroughfare in flaming Manhattan. It is known the world over. And yet we heard a well-groomed and cosmopolitan-looking young lady say one day, “Oh, yes, that’s the street next to Madison, isn’t it?” And she lived in New York!

—Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald
January 1928

Reprinted by permission of Harold Ober Associates, Inc. (c) Harper’s Bazaar, 1928.

 

 


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