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This Was New York

June 2023
1min read

Terrible Honesty Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s

by Ann Douglas, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 576 pages.

“Culture follows money,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his friend Edmund Wilson in the 1920s, and few eras could have borne him out more completely. Ann Douglas takes that maxim to heart in her history of the decade as it was played out in New York. She stitches together anecdotes and personal histories from 120 of the era’s leading players—from Dorothy Parker to Duke Ellington to Josephine Baker to Walter Winchell.

To Douglas, the rapidly urbanizing country’s cultural center shifted during the Great War from the New England of Emerson to the New York of the appealing scoundrel mayor Jimmy Walker. The city was a consumer capital of ad copy, Broadway hucksters, sports lingo, Freudians, bootleggers, modernists, and jazz. These elements “mongrelized,” she writes, to produce the brash entertainment industry that became the nation’s great export for the rest of the century. “This was the first generation to grasp the supremacy that mass culture would acquire,” she writes.

But it was also a time of “terrible honesty” for a generation sworn against the old certainties and sentimental thinking they believed had led to the Great War. As the book depicts these writers and artists and musicians leaving farms and small towns for the big city, it builds a larger picture of the era: of nightclubs where the races mingled in a “charged collaboration,” of the rise of primitivist art, of a city of jutting new skyscrapers—”a supreme example of the elated and mongrel spirit of the age.”

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