Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

Manhattan at Mid-Century

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Selected as an editors' pick in Reminisce Magazine (January 2014).

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

It Happened in Manhattan: An Oral History of Life in the City During the Mid-Twentieth Century

(Berkley Publishing Group, 2001 Hardcover;  ISBN: 0425181693)

(Berkley Publishing Group, 2003 Paperback)

Catalog Copy

New York Times




"In the clubs of Harlem, people really let their spirits soar. If you are sensitive enough spiritually, you could actually feel the vibrations of those places when you walked in because the people who played there had left their essence behind." -- Laconia Smedley

Journey back to New York's golden age (no cab fare required) with the special hardcover tribute IT HAPPENED IN MANHATTAN. Filled with hundreds of vintage photographs, this book is a unique chronicle of a special time in Manhattan told in the voices of those who lived it. IT HAPPENED IN MANHATTAN is a mosaic of mid-century Manhattan ranging from the euphoric post-war years went the city came into its own to the 1970's when it nearly went bust. This was a time when the waterfront was filled with boats unloading cargo and ocean liners setting off for points abroad, when B. Altman's was on Fifth Avenue and S. Klein's was on Union Square, when songwriters peddled melodies at Tin Pan Alley and guys and dolls went to the Friday night fights at the old Madison Square Garden. Eleven dailies covered the city beat, the Third Avenue El cast long shadows onto the street, and SoHo - then a collection of warehouses - was saved from the wreckers' ball by a 'bunch of mothers'. Jimmy Breslin, Bill Gallo, Monte Irvin, Robert Merrill, Herman Badillo, Elaine Kaufman, Jerry Della Femina, and Pauline Trigere join a host of other New Yorkers in recreating a lost world of 52nd Street jazz joints, Harlem clubs, the Fillmore East, Checker cabs, Automats -- in short the mystique of magical, memorable Manhattan.

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September 13th, 2003 at the Museum of the City of New York


MYRNA: ìNew York is not a completed city . . . It is a city in the process of becoming. Today it belongs to the world.?/span>

          This quote, so apt a description of New York today, was actually said in 1948 by Le Corbusier, the architect of the United Nations building. Thatís the time IT HAPPENED IN MANHATTAN begins, the euphoric post-war period when New York was on its way to becoming the capital of the world. But when IT HAPPENED IN MANHATTAN ends some 30 years later, New York is nearly bankrupt. The Daily News headline ìFord to New York: Drop Dead!?captures the moment.

          IT HAPPENED IN MANHATTAN is an oral history told by New Yorkers whom remember a Manhattan during a period of great change. World War II is over. The lights are on again all over the world, but nowhere more brightly than on Broadway where musicals like The King and I and dramas like Death of a Salesman are playing to SRO crowds.

          With Europe in ruins, New York is catapulted into a world-class metropolis. Itís the site of the United Nations. The center of haute couture moves from Paris to New York. So does haute cuisine as great continental restaurants make their debut.  A whole population of European artists, writers and scholars had come to New York fleeing Fascism, and their influence helps make the city an intellectual hub. Art becomes important in a way it never was before. New museums like the Guggenheim open. So do new galleries, first on 57th Street, then in a seedy downtown neighborhood called SoHo. 

          During this time, the Third Avenue El comes down; white brick buildings and glass and steel office towers come up. Along the downtown waterfront, wholesale food markets are replaced by financial markets. Urban Renewal relocates thousands of people from a midtown site that becomes Lincoln Center, moving them into low-income high-rise housing projects. There are subway strikes and school strikes, a growing poor population and an exodus of the middle class to the suburbs. These are some of the themes of our book. 

          Tonight weíll give you a little taste of It Happened in Manhattan beginning with some stories about food. This little memoir came from a music promoter, Sid Bernstein:

HARVEY: Iím still a tourist in the city I was born and raised in.  Iím a walker of the city streets.  If I walk by a place and an aroma greets me, I go there.

One day, I walked past Daveís Luncheonette on the corner of Canal Street and Broadway. I smelled chocolate, and I went in. It was their own bittersweet chocolate that they were making for their egg creams. Daveís had their own recipe. To the chocolate, they added very cold seltzer.  Then they added the milk that softened the harsh seltzer taste and made it very mellow. They served it in a big, thick glass with a long spoon. I had one, and I was hooked. Yonah Schimmelís on the Lower East Side is famous for its knishes, but I walked by and smelled its potato-nick, thatís a potato pudding with a real firm crust.  It was marvelous.  Yonah Schimmel started the business around 1910.  He handed it down to his daughter, Mrs. Berger.  Then her son took it over.  Now a Russian guy owns it.

Paolucciís in Little Italy is still my favorite Italian restaurant. How did I discover it?  Same way.  Walked by and smelled a lot of garlic coming from up a stoop. Itís a rustic, beat up place.  But they made the best chicken cacciatore in New York.          

Another favorite of mine was McGinniss on 48th and Broadway where you could get a roast beef sandwich with gravy on rye bread with seeds that doesnít exist today.  And Ratnerís on Delancey Street -- better than the chopped vegetarian liver and the chopped eggs and onions, the vegetable soup and the lima bean soup, were the soft onion rolls.

Their waiters were unique.  ìWhat kind of soup do you want, Mr. Fancy-Dancy.?/span>

ìPotato soup.?/span>

ìYou want to live to tomorrow??/span>

Their Yiddish accents, their seriousness, their sense of humor and their style   It was New York. 

Some people say there was no food in New York before Henri Soule.  But the knockwurst was here, the herrings were here, the knishes were here.  The cuisine Soule brought to New York was for the Lutece crowd, the moneyed crowd.  But you didnít need a lot of money to eat well in New York.

MYRNA: Henri Soule was sent by the French government to run the French pavilionís restaurant in the 1939 Worldís Fair. He remained in New York and after the war, he opened a restaurant called  Le Pavilion. Pauline Trigere, the late and great fashion designer told us ìWhen I came to New York in 1939, the food was something atrocious. The big change came about because of Henri Soule. Le Pavilion was the most extraordinary restaurant in America, very chic. After the war, all of a sudden, French food became important, and New York became a city where you can eat as well as anyplace else. Every good chef, every good waiter worked for him, and all those boys went on to become chefs at other great restaurants that opened up.?nbsp;  

Andre Jammet, the owner of La Caravelle told us the following story:

ìIn 1958, three of the men who worked for Henri Soule found another  place on 55th Street which had been a speakeasy during Prohibition and decided to open an elegant bistro.

 Creating the restaurant was intimidating. The three men were coming from Mr. Soule who set the standards. But just before they opened, there was some kind of argument between Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy and Henri Soule.  Kennedy came to one of the owners and said, ìFreddy, you open your place, weíll be there on the first day.?nbsp; And when the restaurant opened on September 21, 1960, the Kennedys were there.  They backed La Caravelle morally and financially.

Less than two months after La Caravelle opened, John F. Kennedy became president.  The timing was terrific.  He and Jackie came to La Caravelle often. It  became the favored place.

 After La Caravelle, La Grenouille followed in 62 and Lutece in 63. The 1960ís was a French culinary invasion. La Caravelle was the first restaurant that bridged out from Le Pavilion. But everything came from Henri Soule.

HARVEY: Another restaurateur we spoke to was SIRIO MACCIONI, the dashing and charismatic owner of Le Cirque 2000.  His is a true New York success story. Sirio grew up in Tuscany during World War II and came to New York in 1956.  Hereís what he told us: 

When I came to New York, I got a job at the  Colony, the restaurant of caf?society. As I learned English, I began replacing the head waiters on their days off.  One Saturday night, the maitre d?who had been there for many years died.

The owner, Mr. Cavallero, told me ìYou can be in charge for the next couple of weeks.?/span>

 My first day on the reservation desk, the phone began to ring ìMr. Onassis -- the usual table.?

ìMr. Sinatra --the usual table.?/span>

ìThe Duke and Duchess of Windsor ?the usual table.?

 ìTruman Capote -- the usual table.?nbsp;

Cavallero comes in. ìHowís everything??nbsp;

ìOkay,?I said, ìbut would you mind to tell me what ëthe usual table? means??/span>

He took me by the arm and showed me one table.  ìEverybody thinks that this is his table.  But you want to be the maitre d?  Itís your problem.?And he walked out.

I made up my mind: first come, first served. It happened that the first to come was Frank Sinatra.  ìOkay my boy,?he said to me, ìIím going to tell your boss youíre the best. But first Iím going to the bar. Keep my table.?    

I said, ìMr. Sinatra, no, please go to your table.?/span>

ìWhat do you mean??/span>

Somehow I managed to convince him to go directly to his table. 

The next person was Onassis.  He saw Sinatra and said to me, ìYou gave him my table because heís Italian.?nbsp; Thank God those were the days of the three martini lunches.

 Then came the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They looked right away at the table.  I ushered them to a banquette. ìPlease sit here, itís very comfortable.?

The Duke said ìDonít judge for me what is comfortable. That is my table.?/span>

I got through that day using all of my charm, but I will remember it all of my life.

MYRNA: Another major industry in New York is the music business. Weíll read two little memoirs that reveal  how it mirrored larger changes that occurred in New York and the nation at large. The first is by the lyricist JOE DARION  

ìThe Tin Pan Alley that I had to do with was in the late 1950ís and early 1960ís. Its heart was the Brill Building on the west side of Broadway between 49th and 50th.  The whole Brill Building was filled with music publishers. The front door to every publisher was open, and you could hear a piano pounding from the inside somewhere. Standing in the hallway, you could go crazy?the cacophony was overwhelming!

Every publishing house had an outside office where the secretary sat.  She was called the ìdragon lady?because you couldnít get past her.  It also had an inside office which was a small room with a piano, and in that room sat the guys who were pounding out these immortal songs. It was very hard to get to the inside office.

On the sidewalk outside of the Brill Building, there would be a crowd of guys, all looking pretty down at the heels, each one holding a dirty manila envelope in his hands with his two latest creations. These were the songwriters.

It would get so crowded outside that the police would come along and shoo us into the building.  Then the superintendent would shoo us out again. But it was out on that sidewalk where you made your contacts and partnerships, where you gossiped, where you found out who was up for a date, who was coming up to record, what music publisher was in with what record company, and when they were going to record. You ran your life according to that information.

 I would come down to the Brill Building with my dirty manila envelope and my two lyrics in it wondering where I would get a piano so I could sit down and work out a song with a composer.  We were always fighting to get a piano for a few hours. It was a very, very hard way to make a living.

Then I hit with ìRicochet Romance?recorded by Theresa Brewer.  Crazy things happened.  The phrase ìRicochet Romance?became part of the lexicon.  A senator made a speech where he said heís not going to have a ìricochet romance?with something or other, and it got into the Congressional Record . Some girl in Canada was singing in a nightclub, and a drunk kept insisting ìSing Ricochet Romance.?nbsp; She didnít sing it so he picked up a chair and brained her with it. She landed in the hospital, and that made the headlines.

Ricochet Romance got to the Top Ten, stayed there for three weeks, and then climbed to number one where it stayed for months.

Now the publishers were stuffing money down my throat. I couldnít go into the Brill building without getting dragged into a publisherís office.  And it was then that my wife Helen and I looked at each other and said, ìYes, but where do we go from here??nbsp; I knew that I had more to say than I was saying in these pop songs.  I wanted to go beyond it if I could.

Anyway Tin Pan Alley was finished. I could see very plainly the handwriting on the wall.  Youíd go into a publisher and he wouldnít ask ìWhatís the lyric about??nbsp; He wouldnít ask ìWhatís the tune??nbsp; Heíd ask ìWhatís the sound??nbsp; That was the death knell of what we were doing. 

When Elvis came along, when rock ën roll came in, the Tin Pan Alley that I knew died. There were guys there who were so talented. They walked around like ghosts saying ìWhat happened? What happened??It was so quick, overnight.

HARVEY: Dave Hart who is a music manager today was part of the generation that doomed Tin Pan Alley. Hereís Daveís story:

In September 1965, I began film school at NYU. But  I was bored stiff. Some of our classes were over on Second Avenue in a drug-infested slum, a great place to be when youíre eighteen years old.

There was this big old  theater on Second Avenue called the Fillmore East. Once it had been part of the Yiddish theater, but Bill Graham, a rock promoter rented it and put on some wonderful rock ën roll shows. A friend of mine who worked there as an usher got me a job on his crew.?nbsp;

All the new cutting-edge acts were coming into the Fillmore like the Allman Brothers. Iím not sure exactly when this was ?you know what they say about the 60ís, if you remember it, you werenít there.  But I do remember they showed up in a converted school bus, came out and did a 55-minute set and just blew the sold-out house away.

The first time the Chicago Transit Authority performed, the first time Elton John performed were amazing nights. There were so many of them. The crowd was your typical long haired, late sixties-early seventies youthful audience.  There was a light show; the psychedelia would flow.  Drugs were always there. As for sex ?it was a wide open situation. It was part of the culture ?free sex, free drugs.  There were none of the fears then that there are now except for the fear of getting arrested.  But the police were very understanding and knowledgeable about the crowd.

When the Grateful Dead came to the Fillmore East, we would make special arrangements for people who took LSD.  There was an artistís office off the stairs to the second balcony where we put kids who were freaking out.  We had a doctor on call who was real good at dealing with freak-outs.

I never went to see ìHair.?nbsp; Who had to see it?  I lived it.  ìHair?was for suburbanites; it tried to explain to them what weíre doing.  Besides the music sucked.  The hardness, the gutsiness of the rock ën roll I was into was about power and strength.  This was not about the Age of Aquarius; this was about the power of the Age of Sex and Drugs and Rock ën Roll.

 During its time, Fillmore East was truly a magnet. Kids from all over flocked there.

Today I tell people I worked at the Fillmore.

ìYou did? I used to go there.?/span>

ìYeah, I told you to put your cigarette out.?/span>

(ìBut itís a joint!?nbsp; ìSorry, you gotta put it out.?

 ìAh,?theyíll say, ìyou were the guy at the end of the aisle.?/span>

MYRNA: These and all the other New York stories in our book were familiar territory to us because until 1996, we had been life-long New Yorkers. Then we got an offer to teach at Dartmouth College and moved to  New Hampshire. But the lure of the city is too strong. We keep coming back.

Late last August, we came into Manhattan to return the many photos people had loaned us to use in our book. It was a perfect summer day, rare in the New York of our memories. We started out around noon walking over to Le Cirque on Madison Avenue, a restaurant that epitomizes New Yorkís haute cuisine. We took in the mid-day, midtown scene we know so well, the elegant restaurants and casual coffee shops, the range of shops, the traffic, the crowds of pedestrians.

 That afternoon, we drove downtown along Fifth Avenue, into Greenwich Village and NYU where we had met as undergraduates writing for the school newspaper.

HARVEY: We turned east off Broadway and stopped at Russ and Daughters, an  eighty-year old appetizing store that has become one of the hottest places in town. Itís part of the remarkable revival of the Lower East Side, the tenement neighborhood our great grandparents lived in that is now enjoying such a great rebirth.

 Back on Broadway, there we drove through SoHo and thought of how it almost was demolished to make way for a cross town expressway. Our next stop was the studio of the famed photographer Gilles Larrain who told us when he moved to SoHo in 1967, people walked around with flashlights at night because there were so few streetlights.

Going north now, we passed Chelsea. Today itís a fashionable neighborhood but people in our book remember when it was filled with rooming houses run by Irish landladies for retired stevedores.

 We drove by the Garment District, still operative but hardly the manufacturing center it used to be, crossed 42nd Street, and continued along the edge of the theater district  to the Upper West Side where we stopped at several graceful old buildings in this hilly, leafy neighborhood overlooking the Hudson. We passed the northern boundary of Central Park and Columbia University and at 125th Street turned east and headed towards Harlem.

MYRNA:  Laconia Smedley a pianist who came to New York from Detroit in 1956, came to mind. ìI got off the train at Grand Central,?he told us, ìand I took a taxi up Fifth Avenue (which was two-way then). As soon as we reached 110th Street, I sensed a change.  Downtown it was bum-bum, bum-bum, bum-bum ?very regular, everybody marching with their little briefcases.  But at 110th Street, it became da-dum, da-dum, da-dum; the swift repetitive beats had become a relaxed kind of syncopation. Without hearing it, I felt a different rhythm.?/span>

We could feel the rhythm as we turned on to Lenox Avenue and our next stop: the Lenox Lounge. Billie Holiday used to entertain at this club which was bought by Alvin Reed in 1988.  ìI saw the future of Harlem and the future of this place, so I took it on,?he said.

Now we headed downtown again and drove along elegant Fifth  Avenue. We made our last drop at a building facing Central Park where Helen OíHagan, the former vice president of Saks Fifth Avenue lives. And with that, our little circle tour of the isle of Manhattan was complete.

Going from neighborhood to neighborhood that afternoon, we had re-lived the process of putting together the story of IT HAPPENED IN MANHATTAN. But at the same time, we witnessed contemporary Manhattan in all its glory. New York was truly the Emerald City that beautiful end of summer afternoon. Everywhere people were out, walking the city streets, riding the buses, taking in the sunshine from a stoop or park bench, sitting with a cup of coffee in a sidewalk caf? Formerly down and out neighborhoods were taking on new patinas. All of New York seemed to be basking in the promise of this great city at the dawn of a new century.

 The next day before we started out for home, we paid the de rigueur visit to Zabarís where we always stop and stock up on enough New York nourishment to last us until our next visit. This time, though, it was a brief run-through. We didnít fill the ice chest in our car. After all, we figured, weíll be back in Manhattan September 12th.

HARVEY: Well clearly we didnít make it that day. But we did come back the following month and many times since. The ice chest is still in the car.  And what we are finding today is the same kind of resiliency people spoke about when they recalled the 1970ís when the city almost went broke. It seems to us that quality is the very essence of New York. After all, once youíve  lived here, no other place can compare. And to illustrate that point, let me conclude with the little story that concludes our book. (And this  happened to me.)

In 1975, I met a man named Garry Schumacher who had been the publicist for the old New York Giants and moved with the team to the west coast.  We met in San Francisco where I was interviewing for a baseball book.  We hit it off quite well and even went out for a couple of drinks. He was an incredible fund of baseball knowledge dating back to the days of John J. McGraw, and a true New York character.

Some years later, I read in the newspaper that Garry died. And a short time after that, he came to me in a dream. Standing there in my bedroom, he was as big as life, just as I remembered him.

I asked, ìGarry, how are you?  How are things where you are??/span>

And he answered, ìHarvey, itís okay. But itís not New York.?/span>