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Ceremony of Innocence

ISSUE:  Summer 1976

WHEN I was young—really young, a little girl— we used to play a game, one of those universal games that go under different names in different countries. “I packed my Saratoga trunk to go to Europe,” each player began by reciting, “and in it I put—” Then he was supposed to list the things put in it by those who’d preceded him, and to add something of his own—a pair of riding-boots, a diamond necklace, or whatever. One after another player would drop out, as they forgot some content of the trunk; whoever was left, won, Saratoga trunks were enormous, with arched cover and several trays lined (I remember from a real one in our attic) with linen; for some occult reason the body of the trunk was lined with old newspapers. One could learn a lot about the 1880’s from scanning the lining of our Saratoga trunk.

Nowadays when I pack my clothes to go to New York, it is in a feather-light suitcase I bought in London in 1959 (and horrified my husband by paying the equivalent of $65. 00 for) since I shall probably have to carry it myself at the airport, if not from the taxi into the club where I stay. And in it I put— well, I put the minimum. The basic essentials of what I once saw called, in an airline advertisement, “toiletries,” the fewest dresses I can get by with. Not more than two pairs of shoes. A vintage pair of rubbers because I, who hate wet feet, shall stand waiting for so many buses (which now cost 50$), and a small umbrella to protect me from the tempests across the savage steppes of Manhattan. Over one last, tubular object I hesitate: “Guardian Rescue Device” it says on it; “For Protection Against Attack.” I drop it into my bag; then, as ever, I take it out again, and put it back in the drawer. Plenty of reason, in 1976, for taking it along; but in the late 20’s and 30’s I used to be a New Yorker, and there is something in the mass of intangibles that also goes into my bag that keeps me from taking it. What intangibles?

There is, first of all, the memory of the feeling with which I would approach the city in those days, at an angle even physically different from now. My family home was near Boston, where I occasionally went for weekends, taking the Five o’clock, after work at the Condé Nast Publications (at $35 a week, rising to $125 in 1932—1 felt rich) which was in the Graybar Building, so it took me five minutes to get into my Pullman seat; returning to New York Sunday. The feeling would begin as early as New Haven: the anticipation, the excitement. By the time the train stopped at 125th Street and I looked out of my parlor car window (everyone took Pullmans in those days, even on $35 a week) into those other, tenement windows—each one an illustration to a Gorki novel—my mind was filled with tunes: “A million hearts are beating—there! That’s that Broadway melody!” and the Hart lines, “The island’s a lovely toy/Just made for a girl and boy; We’ll turn Manhattan/Into an isle of joy!” The songs seemed like the voice of the city’s spirit; as a line from Coward’s current Private Lives ran, “Strange, how potent cheap music is!”

My heart, lifted out of the swamps of Boston, went out in a great wave of pleasure to this marvelous place where—as the taxi-driver of the cab I took home from Grand Central (apartment rent: $150 a month for four rooms) said about whatever mess the city was in at the moment, “Well, we’re all in the same boat.” If the city’s soul was in its songs, its taxi-drivers expressed its sourpuss philosophy, summed up in the Durante line, “It’s a fake, it’s a phony, but it’s my town. . . .” In those days, it was my town,

I used to wake up in the mornings thinking, “Anything in the world any one could want—brains, beauty, pictures, theater, music, clothes, anything—you name it and it’s here.” Talent studded the city like jewels. One image of the city, frequently evoked, was of the wonder-child, one of those precocious children for whom no sacrifice is too great. New York was that prodigy, breaking loose from the rest of the country: part of the country resented it, most misunderstood it, some worshipped it, but no one failed to recognize its difference from everywhere else. By no one was the difference more recognized than by New Yorkers—they knew they were special, they knew the rest of the country was the sticks, they knew they were the jewel in the toad’s head. They were both pride and joy. We young were filled with the joy (and with the pride).

Joy unsullied by any sense of danger. In 1935 when I was working as a reporter on the New York Times, with a transportation account that did not stretch beyond subway fare (10$), I used to go all over the city at night alone. I remember one night when (although I had not taken that little drink in “Old Man River”) I ended up in Astoria (the place we used to substitute for “jail” in singing the song). It never crossed my mind to worry about safety, or the mind of anybody else in the city room, or my family’s mind either. Muggings, which we called hold-ups, made the front page.

A funny story was going around about then of a débutante who left a ball at the old Ritz, alone, after a fight with her beau. She got into a cab and gave the driver her home address. After a while she became aware that was not where they were heading. “Where are you taking me?” she cried. The driver, not replying, drove on down the empty avenues of three A. M. Finally he pulled up somewhere—it may even have been Astoria, a place-name we found inexpressibly funny—and said, “There! You realize you are in my power.” “Yes,” she faltered. “Then let that be a lesson to you, not to go out alone at night. Young girl like you!” scolded this avuncular type. Turning the cab around, he drove her back to her impeccable East Side address. This story, supposedly true, we found extremely amusing. It was the first suggestion I, at least, so much as heard that it was not perfectly safe for a young girl or anyone else to go out alone at night. It was also the handwriting on the wall. Last time I was staying at my club—on 66th Street at Lexington—I dined with a friend on East 73rd Street, two blocks west. When afterwards she drew the three bolts that bar her front door, to let me out, and instead of looking for a cab I started off that short way home, she called after me in consternation, “You’re not going to walk?”

Yet, in the days of Prohibition—my day—we were living all the time on the rim of what, with hindsight, looks like a volcano. Much of our lives was spent in speakeasies; with their beaming servitors, their willingness to cash checks, they were like clubs, each serving some different segment of the population. When I first escaped Boston for New York, the system of illegal drinking had not reached its full flower: at the restaurant, Divan Parisien, you drank your Orange Blossom cocktail out of a demi-tasse; at the old Montmartre, where I went dancing with a cousin and some of his World War buddies, they took a bottle in a brown paper bag (on the contents of which these gentlemen were presently impelled to start a sort of antiphonal chant—”Are you ready, Harvard?”—”Are you ready, Yale?” which went on for hours). But by the later years of Prohibition your companion often did not need to ring the bell of a speakeasy and be looked at through a little window: he just rang the bell.

I knew, among other speakeasies, Martin and Mino’s, on East 52nd Street, where people from the New Yorker also went for lunch. (Drinks 50¢. ) Mr. Thurber, who was said there to have not one glass eye but three—one normal, one bloodshot to put in later, and a final one with the American flag on it—augmented this patriotic aura the day when, joining another writer at the bar whom he thought hostile to him, he said, “Don’t fire until you see the Whites of the New Yorker.” Many Scribner’s editors lunched at Cherio’s, not far away. On 52nd Street near Sixth Avenue (no nonsense then about the Americas) there was Jack and Charlie’s, sometimes called 21; and late in the evening everyone went, on the same street, to West Side Tony’s to drink; I remember eying Lillian Hellman and Hammett at their table with awe, as regulars. There was also an East Side Tony’s; but that catered more, it was said, to the Larchmont commuter trade. What lay back of these cozy, home-y establishments—the police protection, the gangsters (as we called what I suppose was the Mafia), the general hanky-panky—all those things we dimly knew of, but never worried about.

In his column, The Conning Tower, F. P. A. ran his own stanza on a contretemps going on between a Congressman named Sirovich and the theatrical celebrity Richard Boleslavsky. “Life,” Adams wrote, “is just a Boleslavsky; Don’t take it Sirovich, It’s too mysterovich.” We didn’t. We took life’s bowl of cherries very lightly indeed. In my early days, the Mayor was Jimmy Walker, famed even then for corruption within his administration. Nightly his limousine would sweep up the drive to the Central Park Casino where, dancing out on the glassed-in terrace, we could see the headlights; in a moment more His Honor—small Irish face handsome, clothes natty—would come in accompanied by his sweetie, Betty Compton. Today, when I walk in rubbers, carrying my umbrella, along the streets of the upper Sixties and pass the Hotel Mayfair, I still make the connection: “That’s where Mayor Walker lived.” His charm, his style, were part of the collective wondrousness; his acts invested with the ceremony innocence bathes reality in.

It is as strange to realize as it would be of another world, that nightclubs were something ordinary people—New Yorkers, who were not rich and not on expense accounts—could and did go to. The Embassy on East 57th Street was filled with elegant European customers’ men, some with titles, some impoverished; but lots of ordinary citizens danced there too. Young, lively, impecunious people danced, too, at the new St. Regis Roof. One night at the house of the sister of the editor of Hound and Horn I met a very young man who, to the gramophone music, essayed a few steps with me on the hearth-rug. “Come on, let’s go dancing,” he said; and we took a taxi to a Seventh Avenue nightclub I remember as the Lido Venice, where everybody else sat down after a bit to watch us, he was so good. The young man, whose mother lived in the last wooden house left in midtown Manhattan, could not, however, usually afford such surroundings; after that we went to Roseland, the big dance hall upstairs on Broadway, and to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, with two orchestras playing at opposite ends, alternately, so that there were no breaks. We didn’t drink a drop but stuck to practicing the Lindy Hop like everyone else on the floor. In those days it felt perfectly safe to be in Harlem. Everybody went.

Many went to the Cotton Club, but there was also a small place without dancing called Gladys’s. Gladys was a huge fat women who accompanied herself on the piano to some extremely improper lyrics, She was said to have been married to a white woman by a Voodoo priest. This did not seem so much sinister, to us, as part of the extraordinary dream New York was. Neither did it seem frightening the afternoon I came out of a Park Avenue apartment house where I’d been for lunch— wearing a gray tailored suit with a black silk shirt an Italian beau had given me and which I thought a chic combination— to have a swarthy man working in the street shake his fist at me, uttering imprecations in a foreign tongue; it took me some time to figure out why. The truth was, in those days many of us young hardly bothered to read the newspaper, even when we worked on one.

Other sinister aspects of the city were celebrated in song. Coming back from a weekend in Connecticut on the train, we sang “Ten cents a dance, That’s what they pay me”; revelling in the rhyme, “Sometimes I think I’ve found my hero, but it’s a queer romance!” And, “Love—for sale! Appetizing new love—for sale! If you care to pay the price For a trip to Paradise, Love—for sale!” We were, we thought, in very good voice; at least none of the other passengers contradicted us. Strange, how potent cheap music is.

By 1930, “Mr. Herbert Hoover says that now’s the time to buy; So let’s have another cup of coffee, And let’s have another piece of pie!” Not long after that the banks failed. “Who cares?” we sang, “what banks fail in Yon - kers, As long as I get The kiss - that - conquers!” and, in our best tough accent, “No more money in de bank; No cute babies we can spank; What’s to do about it? Let’s put out the light and go to—” A naughty pause. “Sleep!” With Roosevelt’s election, national politics—which had hitherto left the heart of Manhattan cold—began to titillate along with the anti-FDR, anti-Eleanor jokes, put about, it was said, by such Wall Street types as were intact. In the offices of Vogue, they said that “of course” Walter Lippman was “too divine.” I still own a coat bearing the Blue Eagle, emblem of the NRA, the New Deal’s assist to (among others faltering) the garment industry. A bright girl in the advertising department of Macy’s (who Macy’s tells me was named Bernice Fitzgibbon, but whose first name I remember as Margaret) coined a slogan that swept the city: “It’s Smart To Be Thrifty.” No more telling memorial exists to the temper of those times than that, even today, we who lived through them still feel very clever to wear clothes from, so to speak, Wool worth’s; whereas today’s young relish the grand label. It was, simply, smart. To be thrifty.

Social consciousness was another aspect of reality to which the young, at least, had been immune. It stung sharply when haggard men at the street corners offered their apples through the window of a taxi. “Make sense,” people began to say, and one night on a penthouse terrace that was still lined with potted gardenia plants, I even heard a lady playwright, soon to be famous, say, “It’s chic to be mature”—but it was not up to the original. The New York wonderchild had lost little of its zaniness, however; “Of thee I sing, baby!” voiced the collective patriotism in the 1931 elections. “You have got that certain thing, baby!” George Gershwin, playing his song at the piano in a friend’s house, rested his ubiquitous cigar between the black keys. Another friend, bitten by the bug of civic duty, hurried to the nearest precinct station to offer her services in upcoming city elections, only to be met with notable indifference. “Y’r name?” the official muttered as he filled out a form. She, intimidated, replied, “Audrey O’Day.” “Ah! Miss O’Day, is it?” he purred, face wreathed with smiles, “If it’s working y’r after, we’d be proud to have y’r aid. . . .”

I remember another friend bursting into a party in 1933 with the glad news that Broadway was thronged with celebrators of this country’s recognition of Russia; there was not one displeased face. One funny story that got run into the ground, was about a man making a speech from a soap-box and declaiming, “The way things is now, what you do? You eat swill. And you wear rags. And you sleep with your wives. Comes de Revolution, what you going to do? You’re going to eat caviar, and wear diamonds, and you’re going to sleep with Peggy Hopkins Joyce.” A little voice from his circle of listeners spoke up plaintively, “But I don’t like Peggy Hopkins Joyce!” The orator was firm: “Comes de Revolution, you’re going to sleep with Peggy Hopkins Joyce and ‘you’re going to like it.”

Somewhere between Depression and War, I left New York and came South to live. Strange and wonderful things kept happening right up to the moment I left that could only happen in wonderland—as when a man was taking me home to my apartment on East 57th Street at about three o’clock in the morning and we were held up by the light at Second Avenue. Deep in conversation, I happened to glance out of the window. Just outside was an elephant, swaying gently from foot to foot—and I’d only had one drink all evening. Beyond were still more elephants. Lots. A long line of them, connected tail to trunk. It was the circus (Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers combined, I think) avoiding daytime traffic by bringing them in at night—I only wish I had seen those elephants atop the Queensborough Bridge—to Madison Square Garden, a place itself dreamlike, where you could go anytime, day or night, during the six-day bicycle races and watch those men pedalling round and round and round. It wasn’t only prosperity that made Manhattan marvelous; it was exuberance, that always accompanies the imaginative.

It could have been generations that had passed, instead of years, since the days when its and my spirits soared so high. Now, when I pack my so to speak Saratoga trunk to go to New York, I could be going to Tasmania or some equally forbidding spot, or so it seems as I put in my rubbers, my short umbrella, and that tubular safety device in case of attack. Then, as always, I take it out again; I guess I trust things still. It is with a sinking heart, after my plane lands at Kennedy (which used to be Idlewild), I approach the darkly hostile face of a porter whom I try—and fail—to secure; the snarl with which the taxi-driver greets my question about Mayor Beame—which, since I attach confidence to taxi-drivers’ views, alarms me; the paper and dirt blowing around the sidewalk as I get out at my club; the closed-away faces of people hurrying by in the bitter January wind; they seem to express a different New York, one I never lived in; what I mind worst of all, what makes my heart not only sink but ache, is an atmosphere, not of exuberance, almost of sadness. When I get upstairs to my room ($24. 50 a day; cheap; —my husband has to pay $29, with academic discount, at a hotel), it is so overheated I have to strip off my dress before I can unpack. Turning off the radiator does have an effect: that evening when I come back from dinner the room is cold as the tomb.

After a night’s sleep, I have to laugh: heat in New York buildings always was out of control, I once spent a month at the old Lafayette on Irving Place (I had a rate there, but I don’t remember what it was; at the Algonquin about the same time I had a rate, for a small suite, of $7. 00 a day). I had to keep the shower on all night in order to sleep, so dried by steam-heat was the air. Everything was, after all, just the same—in spite of the news in the morning paper I picked up outside my door that “the new deficit figure is expected to surpass previous assumptions by about $300 million, and may reach $1,024 billion.” What other city with a fiscal catastrophe beyond any trouble it ever got into before (and all its own doing, too) would thus squander expensive energy as if, moreover, the blackout of a few years ago could not possibly happen again? I could quit aching for it. As I lay in bed, awaiting my breakfast tray, “Anything in the world you want or don’t want,” I thought, almost the way I used to in the high old days, “Extravagance, suffering, splendor, squalor, degradation, idealism, brains, beauty, ignorance, horror, luxury, danger—You name it and they’ve got it.”

When I went out, I asked Elsa, the elevator girl—a true New Yorker from Mexico—what she thought of the heat in the building. How you couldn’t get it to be anything but full on or totally off. “When the autumn comes,” she replied, mystically, “They turn it on.” “They always did,” I said; and went on out into the street. It felt marvelous to be in the fresh air—and, in New York, for all the pollution the air always does feel fresh. It even seemed as if the combined heat of all those buildings warmed up the wintry outdoors a degree or two.

All day long I asked people what they thought about the heat in the buildings. All agreed it was overwhelming and autonomous. “What can you do?” said the very bright young man at the reference desk in the New York Public Library. The waitress behind the counter at Schrafft’s shrugged her shoulders, gave me a glass of tomato juice, and looked helpless. At lunch my agent said, “I know, darling, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it,” and at dinner my editor remarked thoughtfully, “I suppose it is possible for heat to be controlled, but not here. Not in New York.” It was the same with everyone else I asked: the woman beside me on the bus, the taxi-driver when I was late for lunch, the saleslady at Saks.

Not until late that night could I turn out my light; I had to read a long time because the room was too hot to sleep—I had forgotten to turn the heat off when I went out to dinner. This heat! It seemed an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual New York I used to know—always doing everything in the most prodigal way possible, even when the money wasn’t there to pay for it; displaying the same recklessness, the same innocence (if that’s what you want to call unconsciousness); even the same élan and creativeness—but, it seemed, not hitched up to work for the city’s own benefit.

I turned my pillow over to put my cheek on the plumper side, and it occurred to me all these were characteristics not only of a very young person but of a very old one: one of those old persons who have grown old without ever growing up. Such exasperating old creatures—set in their wilful ways, their potentialities become merely lost opportunities—as with difficult children, what can you do with them but love them?

But I was too tired to entertain such a pious thought for long; I plumped my pillow again. New York’s neither a child nor a dotard! It’s a municipality of adults, isn’t it? Privy to the best advice, free to choose whether or not it will get, as the Times that morning quoted Governor Carey as hoping, “In touch with reality again.”

In my ear, “Whaddaya mean, again?” the voice of the cosmic taxi-driver seemed to snarl.

That will be the day.


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