Book Review: The Brazen Age

The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia by David Reid

No less than Paris in the 1920s, New York City in the 1940s was the center of the world, according to this exhilarating account of the city during that decade.

Journalist and editor David Reid, begins his rich history with a bang, describing the city’s boroughs through the eyes of a gaunt, ailing Franklin Roosevelt during a daylong, 50-mile 1944 electioneering tour in an open car in a cold rain to refute Republican claims that he was ailing.

The purpose of the tour was “to demonstrate in the most vivid possible way that… he was alive and laughing.” writes the author. At his death six months later, great world cities not in ruins after World War II were exhausted, but New York flourished. At the time, journalist John Gunther praised NYC as “the incomparable, the brilliant star city of cities, the forty-ninth state, a law unto itself, the Cyclopean paradox, the inferno with no out-of-bounds, the supreme expression of both the miseries and splendors of contemporary civilization, the Macedonia of the United States.”

This efflorescence benefitted from a flood of European exiles fleeing fascism. Superstars (Einstein, Toscanini, Brecht, Stravinsky) aside, the average American and America’s government felt little sympathy, but this represented the greatest transplant of talent since Greek scholars fled to Italy after 1453, the fall of Constantinople.

Movie and theater attendance began declining after 1945, but it remained the golden age of print. New York had more than 15 daily newspapers and dozens of smaller ones, and the nation’s largest department store, Macy’s, contained the nation’s largest bookstore.

Having read or seen nearly every artifact of this period, Reid delivers his opinion in a score of unrelated but brilliant chapters on iconic New York individuals (Berenice Abbott, Weegee), groups (returning soldiers), politics (the 1948 elections, leftist magazines), and bohemia (Greenwich village again and again).

A historical tour de force.