Ideas and Observations

John Lukacs
How Certain Foreigners Saw New York
Autumn 1993

For more than a century, New York was the wave of the future and the repository of some of the best products of Western civilization. Not only its museums, libraries, and art collections, but the city itself has been such a product. Naturally, it has been the object of intense interest and scrutiny by foreign writers, among whom Paul Morand, Jan Morris, and V. S. Pritchett are three of the most engaging. In their respective recollections they describe the city in 1929, 1945, and 1964. It is not only their unusual perspectives, but the details they record that remain compelling, and while they contribute to our historical knowledge, they contribute even more to our historical understanding.

Allow me to insist on the precision of my title. “Foreigners in New York” will not do—since almost throughout its history at least one of every four inhabitants of New York was, and is, a foreigner. “Visitor” will not do, either, because most visitors to New York are Americans, for whom seeing and experiencing New York is not comparable to the experience of a foreigner. Someone could render future historians of the city a valuable service by publishing an anthology in two volumes, one including impressions of New York at various times of its history written by Americans, the other by foreigners. The two volumes would be very different.

Paul Morand, 1929

Paul Morand was a very intelligent and unusual French writer, largely forgotten now, though there is some reason to believe that his reputation may rise. He was a Parisian man of the world rather than an intellectual, and—what was relatively rare in the 1920s—a Frenchman who knew English well and was at home in England. In his book New-York, published in 1930, he writes: “I understand it because I had spent ten years in England.”

Morand was in New York four times between 1925 and 1929. Well-mannered and well-dressed, precise and handsome, he was received almost everywhere; yet he is acidly critical of the upper class. In New-York there is a sense that the luxurious and urbane elegance of the Twenties, with its great automobiles, lacquer, jewels, blazing fights, furs, and perfumes, will soon fade. But even as Morand deplores this luxury and self-consciousness, he knows upper-class society from the inside, and his best writing in New-York is in his description of it, even when he is wrong.

Did the upper-class society of New York really “learn their grand English manners from Ouida and Marie Corelli” (end-of-the-century sentimental novelists)? The exactitude of their fashions he finds slightly frightening, “une politesse terrible.” On the Upper East Side people dress more than in Paris; the women wear silk gowns and pearls even in the morning, as though going to a grand tea or garden party, and the men will not allow themselves to wear a soft hat or collar or any but black shoes until later in the day. About the margins of society Morand is a good observer as well: “With death in their souls, foreign gold-diggers incessantly pan and rinse the golden sands of Park Avenue, where many a foyer is filled with dispossessed German princes, White Russian grand dukes, magicians, chocolate-skinned diplomats, fashionable psychoanalysts and demanding ladies of the Old World with steel traps behind their smiles.” About Fifth Avenue he is acid and admiring at the same time. “The American woman conquers the pavements of this Fifth Avenue with an air of assurance, of happiness, and of a superiority that is (almost) depressing. She does her errands before going to lunch at the Ritz or at the Colony.”

Morand is not very fair (well, fairness is an English and not a French virtue) and sometimes not entirely honest either. “I have a great weakness for the common people of America, they are the kindest,” he writes. But he keeps repeating the contemporary bromide that “the Jews own New York, the Irish run it, and the Negroes enjoy it.” He likes the Negroes of Harlem more than he likes Jews; the Italians are hardly assimilable.

But Morand was a good observer with an eye for interesting and, sometimes, significant details. In 1929, the price of food in New York was cheaper than in Paris, surprising at a time when the dollar was the most admired and expensive currency of the world. He dislikes the speakeasies (“I cannot think of anything sadder”) where a bottle of champagne costs $40 and cognac $12. At the same time a sprightly woman tells him that she likes prohibition because of the speakeasies: “Before them, no decent woman would go into a bar; now no one remarks us for that.” The men in New York “telegraph, send cables, supercables, night-letter cables, but never write a letter.” (Perhaps fax and E-mail are not so new.) On the more serious side, he notes that in Yorkville, the German district, “certain cafes are the meeting places of racists: ’Jews Not Wanted’ is on their doors.” (This four or more years before Hitler comes to power in Berlin.)

He reports odd linguistic details: the “burlesk,” originally a Central European importation, is still so spelled around 14th Street, but it becomes “burlesque” north of 34th Street. High New York society speaks French fluently, especially the women: “like the Russian aristocracy before the war, ’parler francais c’est elegant’.” The New York intellectuals pretend, rather than speak, French well. He lists some of their favorite French words in their articles and books: “cachet,” “coterie,” “ingénue,” “blasé,” “recherché,” etc. He himself misspells “shop-suey” and “chow-mien.”

Morand dislikes the Statue of Liberty by Bartholdi, “an Alsatian, glacial practitioner of the Ary Scheffer atelier”; Broadway, “the heart of Manhattan”; and the new Roxy Palace, “a profanation of everything of music, of art, of love, of colors. Here I may have had a complete vision of the end of the world.” (His view was shared by another Frenchman, Denis di Rougemont, who wrote in December 1940: “Above everything, I felt despair everywhere ... in Times Square, the state of the world where the soul is absent.”) He admires City Hall, “not faux Louis XVI, as the Woolworth Building is false Gothic,” and Washington Square’s “red houses, with their green doorways and shutters; the afternoon sun enriches them, it gives to them, like to the furniture and the period a magenta velvet tone.... These houses in the old American style have a noble breed and Washington Square with its thin trees and dry lines make me think of an early Corot.”

In his conclusion, Morand writes that he “followed no other method of telling about New York than to show what pleased me.... And I tried to remain as foreign as I could, to explain it best to other foreigners. . . . I love New York because it is the greatest city of the universe and because its people are the toughest, the only people who, after the war, went on building, and who do not merely live on the capital of the past, the only ones, besides Italy [Morand admired Mussolini], who do not demolish but construct.”

But in the end this urbane and reserved writer becomes an apocalyptic visionary. “When the globe turns cold, this city will have marked the hottest moment in the history of man. . . . New York. Will it explode one day? Nothing can destroy Paris, unsinkable vessel. Paris exists in me, it will exist in spite of God, like Reason itself. That often makes me love it less. But I am not always sure of that marvelous present that New York is. What if it wasn’t but a dream, a prodigious attempt, an avatar, of an ephemeral renaissance, a magnificent purgatory? Will the Atlantic waves wallow one day over those red rocks that was New York and that no longer is, and then nothing will trouble the decline of that once incessant agitation of a world?”

Jan Morris, 1945

The best foreign writers about New York are often English, and Jan Morris is among them. Of course language is one of the main reasons for this (despite the witticism about America and England being two countries separated by a common language) as is the advantageous perspective of the English on America—not hopelessly far and yet not too close. Another is the English tendency to describe rather than to define. Last but not least, British people are well-treated in America, which almost invariably affects their impressions.

In Manhattan ’45, Morris sets out “to evoke the unexampled island at that unrepeatable moment of its history.” In fact, Morris first came to New York in 1953, and one may quibble about how much material in the book she took from things written well before or after that year. Yet in the end this doesn’t matter much. Her point is that 1945 in Manhattan was unique. “I chose the title Manhattan ’45 because it sounded partly like a kind of gun, and partly like champagne, and thus matched the victorious and celebratory theme of my book. But like bubbles and victories, that moment of release, pride and happiness was not to last.”

Frequent readers of Jan Morris (and this writer is one of them) may notice that she is a master at beginning a book—perhaps, never more remarkably than in this one. Her starting vignette describes the early afternoon of 20 June 1945, when the Queen Mary moved slowly through the Narrows into the bay and the harbor of New York, “treading easily towards the city with only a gentle sliver of steam from her funnels,” carrying 14,445 American servicemen home from the European War, surrounded and welcomed by an armada of flotillas, fireboats, tugboats, and thumping bands. Cheering wafted shoreward from the great ship as it eased toward a berth along the great city “untouched by the war the men had left behind.” Its buildings “stood there metal-clad, steel-ribbed, glass-shrouded, colossal and romantic—everything that America seemed to represent in a world of loss and ruin. . . . This was not only bound to be, in the postwar years, the supreme and symbolical American city. All the signs were that it would be the supreme city of the Western world, or even the world as a whole ... this crowded island was the head, the brain, the essence of America, and the idea of America was omnipotent then. . . . It was the present tantalizingly sublimated. It was the Future about to occur.... The Manhattan skyline shimmered in the imaginations of all the nations.”

Here and there Morris exaggerates: “people everywhere cherished the ambition, however unattainable, of landing one day upon that legendary foreshore,” and “it was above all a romantic style, Manhattan was as truly romantic as Venice itself.” She is also at times overly sentimental about Manhattan in 1945, attributing to New Yorkers a fellow feeling they may never have had: “Manhattan in 1945 does not seem to have been an envious city.” (Had Jan Morris read her Tocqueville, with the latter’s maxim that while the dominant sin of aristocratic ages was pride, the dominant sin of democracy was envy?) “Citizenship in this city in itself made for a bond beyond class. To be a citizen of Manhattan was an achievement in itself—it had taken guts and enterprise, if not on your part, at least on your forebears’. The pressure of the place, its competition, its pace, its hazards, even the fun of it, demanded special qualities of its people, and gave them a particular affinity one with another. They were all an elite!”

But one of the great charms of this book lies in her descriptions and details: “New York was indeed the City of the Future. Where else, after all, did businessmen commute to work by seaplane or by speedboat? Where else did security guards look through X-ray mirrors or secretaries drop the morning mail down mail chutes 800 feet long, iced to prevent the letters catching fire? Where else, in 1945, could you have your photograph taken by an unmanned machine (the Photomaton), or go to a theater on the fiftieth floor of a skyscraper (the Chanin building), or for that matter get an electric shock just from touching a door handle, in a city so charged with energy that the very air tingles with it?” On Broadway: “Those neon waterfalls gushing, those illuminated peanuts falling, those smash hits announcing themselves so dazzlingly ... a fabulous display of electric lights.” Sometimes, her observations are improbable, as when she writes that “old Irish ladies of Manhattan still sometimes curtseyed when a priest went by.” (If so, only in a parlor, for a bishop.)

In 1945, she writes, the word “’ethnic’ had not yet entered the Manhattan vocabulary; only in 1945 (O.E.D.) did it first appear in print as a noun.” In the summer of 1945 the New York Times found it necessary to report that a thirteen-year-old was found in a doorway on East 83rd Street “suffering from alcoholism and marijuana.” In 1945, “black Nationalism was already fierce [in Harlem] but Black Power had not yet emerged, and despite the poverty the social atmosphere was merry. . . .” It was in 1945 that the Puerto Rican migration began to turn into a flood; in 1940 there were 40,000 Puerto Ricans in New York, fifteen years later almost half a million. There were “White Russians, whose best-known area of settlement was the cluster of expensive apartment houses in midtown Fifth Avenue, whence they sauntered ever and again into dinner party and gossip column.” She notices a quip in The New Yorker in 1945 about El Morocco “where the dress-for-dinner contingent is making its last desperate stand.” In 1945 the dry martini is becoming “to the world at large as emblematic of this city as beer was of Munich.”

In 1945 there were still trolley lines in Manhattan; three years later some of the old trolleycars were shipped to Vienna “where for years they were to be seen trundling with revived aplomb around the Ringstrasse.” She also recalls the “quaintly bobbled and bargeboarded stations [of the El] with protruding windows and fancy balustrades of wood and iron. Steep covered staircases approached them from the streets below, and connoisseurs of the urban antique particularly cherished their shabby old waiting rooms, which had potbellied stoves in them, hurricane lamps for emergencies, and sometimes stained-glass windows.”

New Yorkers thought Central Park “intensely beautiful, and were very proud of it. Foreigners were not always so sure, finding its picturesqueness too contrived and its rocks of greyish basalt rather gloomy.” (She is right about this.) But in 1945 it was “decidedly genteel. It was a place for family pleasures. No transistor radios blared upon the morning, no buskers twanged their guitars, no wild roller skaters careened around those bosky lanes. Even the jogger was a rare figure, and was generally assumed, if spotted, either to be training for the first postwar Olympic Games, or to be one of those New York eccentrics one had so often heard about. As for crime, police records tell us that in 1945 Central Park was one of the safest places in the whole of Manhattan.” That, too, is an exaggeration; but still ...

Looking back from 1987, Morris writes: “The moment of grace soon passed—it lasted no more than a few years, and by the mid-1950s was fast becoming hardly more than a regretful memory. New York was never to lose its excitement, its power to move, its limitless energy; but never again, perhaps, would it possess the particular mixture of innocence and sophistication, romance and formality, generosity and self-amazement, which seems to have characterized it in those moments of triumph.” It was that 1945 moment of American triumph that dazzled Jan Morris in retrospect, and that she evokes so inimitably in the first pages of this attractive book. Yet a sensitive social and urban historian may still arise to suggest that, as for New York, its finest hours were those of the Twenties and even the Thirties—despite that great dazzling sunny afternoon in June 1945.

V. S. Pritchett, 1964

V. S. Pritchett is one of the best English prose writers in this century, though not, like Jan Morris, a travel writer. New York Proclaimed is an odd title; but then this is also a picture book, with striking pictures by Evelyn Hofer. It is more than the coffee-table book its format suggests because of Pritchett’s interest in the history of the city, which he recounts accurately and intelligently. What is not history in New York Proclaimed is description, in plummy but thoughtful prose. It is obvious that Pritchett liked New York and that he felt at home—except for the weather (“a city so violently available to sheets of water”). There is a softened, townhouse atmosphere in the rich pages of this book, even when its writer’s mind is exercised by other scenes of the city. Like so many foreigners, he loves Gramercy Park, a kind of visual oasis to his eyes, perhaps reminiscent of a vanished and vanishing London. Some of his impressions may be telling: “To my eye, the balance of racial influence seems to have produced a city nearer to Central Europe and less either Southern European or Atlantic.” Harold Nicolson noted something similar in the Thirties.

For Pritchett, New York’s turning point was the Thirties; and in 1964, the changes were still all for the better. “By the Thirties it was over. New York changed for good. The period of maturity had begun.... Perhaps because it was untouched by the Second World War. It is cleaner, better governed than it used to be. It has been chastened by becoming a conscious part of the world outside. It has become courtly and accueillant to the hundreds of thousands of us who come just to look. . . .” It is pleasant to record that an elderly and thoughtful Englishman saw New York evolving that way as late as thirty years ago.

Not everything about New York pleases him, of course. Arrival is awful: he shudders to recall “the long hysteria of the tiled white tunnels that connect Manhattan to the mainland and Long Island by a prolonged madhouse scream. The foreigner coming into the John F. Kennedy International Airport has to endure one of these high-class sewers after about seven hours at thirty thousand feet closer to God than he could have wished.” The noise of New York disconcerts him as well: “New York is dotted with screamers on a scale I have seen in no other city of the world, though Naples has its share.” Yet this, too “reveals the incessant pressure of the active spirit.” The skyscrapers leave Pritchett cold: “The stereoscopic hardness, the unblending, hazeless, hostile separateness of the skyscrapers. Their columns of windows that have not suggested a closer connection with human life than one sees in the columns of other people’s bank accounts.” But he has many encounters with a pleasant and real generosity among New Yorkers. Whatever New York’s drawbacks, he does not miss the grey ice on the faces of many people in London.

Broadway, to Pritchett, is entirely outdated. It evokes nothing except some hits that “have no relation to it, were already gone forty years ago when I was young.” He shares the foreigners’ lack of enthusiasm for Central Park, “the ground-down gneiss and limestone of the Ice Age which sticks out of the ground in Central Park and Washington Heights.” His descriptive passages are often telling: “the wide vale of Harlem ... as red as cinders in the August fire, hot by the virulent flashing of car bumpers in the sunlight. On damp days the place lay like a mudflat in the fumes of a low city.” In 1964 it is no longer “fashionable” or “amusing” to go to Harlem. Like many other foreigners, he finds Greenwich Village faux, though he is amused by some of its people. “In any year one may see the quintessential couple, rather more domesticated than in the past: he, tall and gangling in check shirt, jeans and sandals, with a sort of net haversack on his back containing a baby. An unsmiling youth, he is followed by his plain unsmiling squaw, a stroller containing books, two more unsmiling children, and some groceries. They are the rebellion, the quarrel with society in person. They are moving towards their room-and-a-half, their typewriter, their Fulbright, and their divorce. It is rather touching.” (Of course, this scene could have been repeated, and perhaps still is, in cities across the country.)

“New York,” V. S. Pritchett wrote in 1964, “is the metropolis of the United States because it is the most European [my italics] city in the country, that is to say, it reproduces in miniature the fundamental foreignness of Europe, where we are all foreign to one another.” Was it so in 1964? It is not so thirty years later. In 1993 the provenance of people in New York is as much Asian or Caribbean as it is European. Besides, New York reproduces nothing “in miniature”; it is a city where so many impressions, architectural or human, strike one by their unaccustomed proportions. That is as true in 1993 as thirty or even 130 years earlier.

In these writings about New York the city is a symbol of abundance and, above all, of the future. These writers all saw New York’s great illusion: of an everlasting present that not only contains the germs of the future but is the future. New York has been the symbol of the American century. Whether America and New York’s preeminence will last into the next century we do not know, but we do know that this symbol is still alive—and surely worth preserving.

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