Sunday, March 13, 2011
My Kind of Town
I’ve finally found the perfect place to live. Too bad it no longer exists.
The spot I’m thinking of is post-World War II New York City, the time ranging from the mid-forties to the early Sixties, when Manhattan was the center of the universe. This is my Camelot, my Shangri-La.
It’s the world of “Sweet Smell of Success,” one of my favorite movies, where Burt Lancaster, portraying a psychotic gossip columnist, witnesses a scene of midtown mayhem and happily declares, “I love this dirty town.”
So do I, Burt, so do I.
This is back when people went to clubs and men wore suits and ties and hats. Everybody ate steaks, smoked cigarettes, and drank bourbon round the clock. The neon lights really were bright on Broadway back then.
There were no laptops, cellphones, I-pods, or other such devices that I like to complain about, but, of course, would never give up now that I have them.
Newspapers were still the dominant media and this town had a dozen of them. Radio had its place, of course, and that pesky television thing started gaining attention, but typewriters still banged out the news of the world.
I got reintroduced to this period recently when I watched Kristi Jacobson’s fabulous documentary “Toots,” a film about her grandfather, the renowned bar and restaurant owner, Toots Shor.
Toots Shor’s seemed to be the epicenter of post-war New York. Movie stars, athletes, gangsters, and reporters all gravitated to Toots’ place.
One of the people interviewed in the film talked about walking into the restaurant one night and seeing Chief Justice Earl Warren on one side of the room and Frank Costello, the “Prime Minister of the Underworld,” on the other.
Frank Sinatra, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Bing Crosby, Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Frank Gifford are just a few of the people who found their way to 51 W.51 Street.
"Match Me, Sidney!"
Yet it seemed to be the kind of place where ordinary shmos could go to have a good time, too; where you didn’t have to beg for entry, the way Studio 54 patrons had to do a generation later.
The film includes footage from an episode of the show “This is Your Life,” dedicated to Toots and an audiotape interview that Shor made shortly before his death. In telling the story of one man, the film also chronicles a vibrant time of American history.
My parents met and married in this time so they knew--or knew of-- a lot of these people and places.
My father, a World War II veteran and heavy duty sports fan, used to tell me about the time Billy Conn took on Joe Louis for the heavyweight title. Conn, the former light-heavyweight, gave Louis a tough time, but he eventually fell in the 13th round.
A lifelong gambler, Shor said he dropped $100,000 on that fight—his biggest loss ever—when he put his money on Conn. I don’t even want to think about how much that translates into modern day dollars, but you can be sure that it’s a lot.
The world keeps moving and the days of Toots Shor eventually came to an end. Drugs, urban decay, and the upheaval of Sixties, all pushed the old generation aside. Athletes started making more money and opening up their own clubs.
The likeable rogue type gangster gave way to heroin dealers, who, Nicholas Pileggi observes, could never be considered likeable. Shor got into trouble with the IRS and lost his place.
I vaguely remember seeing ads for a restaurant called “Toots Shor’s” in the Seventies, but, according to the film, he was little more than a front man by that time.
Toots Shor died in 1977 and New York was in hideous condition by then. It has bounced back dramatically, but it’s not the same place.
Everyone has a favorite time period that looks great on paper. And to be honest, one man’s golden age can be another man's reign of terror. It’s easy for me to wax poetic about a time I never knew. If I lived back in that Fifties, I’d probably long for the days of spats and speakeasies.
You can’t live in the past and you can’t stop time. And no matter how much it changes, I'll always love this dirty town.