New York Storeys: A vintage view of Manhattan

Armed with a 1939 guidebook to the city that even then never slept, Mark C O'Flaherty gets a fresh perspective on New York, and discovers parts of it that today's travel guides just don't reach
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

If lunching with Joan Collins indicates that you've arrived, then I'm definitely here, in the right place. OK, so I'm not really dining with Joan Collins, more like within fedora-stroking distance of the actress. Nothing unusual there, you might think: Joan Collins at Manhattan's 21 Club, a fashionable, jacket-required midtown restaurant. The unusual thing is that I'm here on the recommendation of a guidebook published in 1939.

In New York Behind the Scenes – Uncensored!, the 21 Club appears in the chapter headed "Celebrities" as the lunchtime hot spot of " actors, actresses, movie folks, writers, society and glamour girls". Situated at 21 West 52nd Street, it was at the very heart of so-called " Swing Street", the epicentre of happening, buzzing, decadent New York.

Scanning the rest of the chapter, it appears that most of the more prominent establishments are still here. The Stork Club may have long turned away its last wannabe, but the Algonquin has its followers, the Waldorf-Astoria has reopened its Peacock Alley restaurant, the Rainbow Room continues to beam at the heart of the Rockefeller Center, and the St Regis has remained a magnet for the wealthy and the glamorous ever since Colonel John Jacob Astor IV, who built it, failed to make it back across the Atlantic on the Titanic to the second-floor Watteau Suite, his opulent private residence.

Modern Manhattan strikes a peculiar balance between Art Deco ambition, Beaux Arts splendour and shabby old age. There hasn't been a real landmark building erected since the Twin Towers rose triumphantly in the early 1970s. The New York of the popular imagination that inspired the comic-book fantasy of Gotham City – the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Centre – was dreamt up and constructed almost entirely between the end of the 1920s and the 1930s. During this period, the finest architects of the century were all working on the same island, spurred on by industrialists determined to have their buildings soar higher than anyone else's.

The 1930s also represented the start of immense social change: the Jazz Age and the Cotton Club in particular provoked a new social mix of black and white, even if roles were still rigorously enforced (when Billie Holiday visited the Waldorf-Astoria, she was forced to use the service elevator).

Type the words "New York vintage guide" into the eBay search engine, and you can usually find a plethora of out-of-date, but all the more fascinating, guidebooks to the city for under a tenner. Those from the 1930s are solid gold. At first flick-through, some are a treasure trove of unintentional humour. This certainly isn't a New York City that the Sex and the City author, Candace Bushnell, would recognise: "You can go to a movie or get an ice-cream soda", offers one introduction to its female readership, "but for nightlife, well, you've got to have that otherwise indispensable creature, a man, with you. Unescorted ladies may as well hang themselves after 10pm."

Regardless of your gender, if you've visited New York, you've probably ticked many of the tourist boxes already, from buying cheap underwear at Century 21 to being driven around Central Park in a horse-drawn carriage. But by following the advice of a guide that's a piece of history in itself, you become an adventurer as much as a tourist. Even shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch becomes a history lesson. The vintage books reveal that the brand was as popular in New York in the 1930s as it is now, though more for the sports field than the nightlife of Chelsea.

The Manhattan of 70 years ago sounds like a marvellous, racy place, where you can buy "love potions" from Pell Street in Chinatown, and where police "find it difficult to prevent dime-a-dance girls from making appointments to meet men after closing hours at 1am". Those looking for raunchy phonographs could visit the East Side, where many shops "stock specially pressed records with lyrics that are not exactly up (or down) to the Dubuque standard".

Visitors looking for an even bluer part of the spectrum are advised to head to Broadway, where "most night clubs and musicals go in more or less for nudity", or to "enrol in one of the city's hundreds of art schools to paint nudes in the life... even if you can't paint, you may still enrol". Finally, voyeurs are given the advice to head to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which "has originals and copies of the world's leading specimens of sculpture, including many nude figures". Indeed.

Using my pre-war copy of The Modern Age Key to New York, I navigated my way around the Met. Some of the wings of the Egyptian section are new, but most of the exhibits and room plans are accurate enough in the guidebook, and lend the visit an H G Wells quality. Pre-dating Elvis and the cathode-ray tube as they do, vintage guides offer in-depth criticism of fine art, but pop culture's love affair with modern art is anticipated: the Modern Age guide says that "the Van Gogh exhibition in 1936 at the Museum of Modern Art was attended by 147,341 people, proving that contemporary art interests a great many people".

It is Manhattan's historic skyline that makes it what it is today, even without the Twin Towers. The economics of visitor turnover have done away with the lounge, writing room, soda fountain and café described in the Modern Age's guide to the Empire State Building, and few visitors to its summit will "spend an entire day and see the varying moods of the city from breakfast to after dark". A shame, but at least you can still get to the top of the edifice, unlike many of the other viewing platforms in the other skyscrapers. Back in those days, as well as a $1 trip to the top of the Empire State, New Yorkers could pay 50 cents to scale 77 storeys of the Chrysler Building, or, for the same fee, the first 60 of the Woolworth Building.

The Empire State aside, only the Rockefeller Center's Art Deco GE Building retains any accessibility, with its reopened Top of the Rock platforms giving the finest vantage points in the city. The building itself is described by various guidebooks as possessing "breathtaking size and beauty", and of giving "an idea of what the New York of the future may look like". They were right – it still is the future, and it's a tragedy that for many weekend visitors, a 10-minute photocall of the ice rink and its gold-leaf Prometheus is the entirety of their Rockefeller experience. To tour it today, while consulting an awe-struck vintage guidebook alongside the pamphlet from reception, reveals the complex in all its splendour.

One of the more interesting journeys into the past may take you off the island, to Queens. Most of the original pavilions from the World's Fairs at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in 1939 and 1964 have long gone, apart from the big top-like New York State Pavilion, left abandoned and boarded up like the backlot of a film studio, with one of the space-age "sky streak" capsule lifts still stranded halfway up, its windows smashed. However, some elements of the two fairs remain functional. The remarkable Art Deco NYC Pavilion from the first fair is now the World's Fair Ice Skating Rink. The 140ft-high Unisphere, the largest representation of the Earth ever constructed, is stunning, and looks like it could be one of Ken Adam's centrepieces for a James Bond villain's lair. Standing at the edge of its fountain pool is said to give you an impression of the Earth as viewed from 6,000 miles out in space. It's a compelling snapshot opportunity.

Even on a fine day, you'll have the park to yourself. It's a picturesque and peaceful expanse of green beside Shea Stadium, with some outstanding historical markers: even the benches have curved, Jetsons-style lines to them from the last fair. Any vintage guidebook will give you a detailed walking tour, starting with two circular pavement murals marking the time capsules buried beneath, at the park's entrance. The capsule from 1938 includes "the August edition of Harper's magazine".

A place that once buzzed with talk of the future has now been put out to pasture. It seems impossible to imagine thousands of people descending on the park to take "a thrilling ride on an escalator that will take you inside the Perisphere and deposit you on a magic carpet floating high", when, on a weekday afternoon in 2007, the only sign of life is a group of kindergarten children.

The bulk of a New York guidebook from any era remains focused on island life, and Manhattan's hotel scene continues to trade on its gilded past. The recent Jumeirah takeover of the Essex House, with its neon signage overlooking Central Park South, for example, has given a sensitive injection of new life u o into what was originally a 1931 Art Deco sister to the St Regis. We may be used to long-weekend jaunts to the city now, but in the 1920s and 1930s, you'd be checking into a hotel for a whole season: " When pretty girls first get that boyfriend they move into the St Moritz, later the Essex House, finally the Waldorf". The St Moritz, one of the architect Emery Roth's finest works, on the same stretch as the Essex House, is now one of the most lavish Ritz Carltons on earth. Only the very moneyed – or truly indebted – could afford to stay for a season.

A little imagination is needed to appreciate what the hotel scene was like in the Thirties. The ornate mail chute in the lobby of the St Regis was the first of its kind, as was the hotel's early, and rudimentary, air-conditioning system. Carriages would pulled up every day for the 3pm cocktail dance at what was then the highest building on the block.

Earlier this year, the Monkey Bar, a fixture of high society in the 1930s, was refurbished with a luxurious oriental twist, and reopened with the celebrity pan-Asian chef Patricia Yeo in the kitchen. The original faded monkey murals remain, and the cocktails are flowing again. It's a wonderful blend of Jazz Age glamour – Tallulah Bankhead lived in the hotel upstairs with her pet monkey, giving the bar its name – and 21st-century style.

While some vintage guidebooks give the impression that the 1930s were some kind of big-budget martini-drenched interpretation of Tender is the Night, played out by the Astor Four Hundred, there has always been an edgier side to the city. There was a thriving burlesque scene, legions of dive bars and mobile gambling houses ("runners, up and down Broadway, inform prospective customers of the day's address", says one book).

The illicit gambling may have gone out with the advent of zero tolerance, but you can still feel the darker spirit of New York at Rudy's, a Hell's Kitchen institution at 627 Ninth Avenue, and the quintessential neon-drenched dive bar for over 60 years – from back when the area was "the home and breeding ground of America's most desperate criminals". The drinks are cheap, the hotdogs are free, the booths have more gaffer tape than leatherette holding them together, and there's Joy Division on the jukebox. Every regular at Rudy's, in this now gentrified district called Clinton, has their favourite story of debauchery. "A woman came in drunk recently," one told me. "She opened her purse, threw up in it, snapped it shut and ordered another drink."

Such behaviour may be difficult to imagine at the 21 Club, perhaps, but it's surely as memorable as any sighting of Joan Collins – and the location is just as historically significant.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

The writer flew to New York with MAXjet (0800 023 4300; maxjet.com); return flights start at £848. There is also plenty of choice of flights from other UK airports to JFK and Newark airports. www.airindia.com

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico. co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

VISITING THERE

21 Club, 21 West 52nd Street (001 212 582 7200; www.21club.com)

Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street (001 212 840 68 00; www.algonquinhotel.com)

Peacock Alley Restaurant at Waldorf-Astoria, 301 Park Avenue (001 212 355 3000; www.waldorfastoria.hilton.com)

Rainbow Room, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, 65th Floor (001 212 632 5100; www.rainbowroom.com)

St Regis Hotel, 2 East 55th Street at 5th Avenue (001 212 753 4500; www.stregis.com).

Ritz Carlton New York (formerly the St Moritz), 50 Central Park South (001 212 308 9100; www.ritzcarlton.com).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street (001 212 535 7710; www.metmuseum.org), admission $20 (£10)

The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street (001 212 708 9400; www.moma.org)

Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Avenue (001 212 736 3100; www.esbnyc.com), 8am-2am daily.

Top of the Rock platform, 30 Rockefeller Plaza (001 212 698 2000; www.topoftherocknyc.com), 8.30am-11pm, admission $17.50 (£8.75)

World's Fair Ice Skating Rink, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (001 718 271 1996; www. nycgovparks.org), October-April, admission $5-$8 (£2.50- £4), skate hire $4.50 (£2.25)

Jumeirah Essex House, 160 Central Park South (001 212 247 0300; www.jumeirahessexhouse.com)

The Monkey Bar & Grill at the Hotel Elysée, 60 East 54th Street (001 212 838 2600)

Rudy's Bar & Grill, 627 9th Avenue (001 212 947 9169)

More information: NYC & Company: 001 212 484 1200; www.nycvisit.com

Comments