JP Gaul visits the lost city: New York in 1964
Cities and periods of time, and the collision of the two to produce something lasting and important. Tate Modern had a show at the start of the millennium called 'Century City' which looked at precisely that - the moment when a particular city sat at the centre of a cultural swell and appeared to embody the values of a time. So the Tate offered us connections like Vienna and Paris in the 1910s (Adolf Loos, Egon Schiele, Cubism, Fauvism, Picasso), London in the 1990s (Damien Hirst, 'Sensation', Juergen Teller) and New York in the 1970s. Hang on, run that past me again, New York in the 1970s? I do beg to differ. Nineteen-sixties New York, sitting just at the tail-end of the glorious 20-year post-war explosion of creativity, surely offers an intoxicating blend of the dying art of the abstract expressionists, the new art of the minimalists, men dressing with style and panache, the great modern jazz scene alongside the sweet pop of the Brill Building artists and the R&B of the Sue, Wand and Scepter record labels. Before the world got sloppy – not long after this I'd say in about 1972 – New York City circa 1964 had it all.
I always knew, or felt this to be intrinsically the case. The writers of Mad Men
clearly felt this way too. But getting hold of a piece of prima facie evidence, a 47-year-old piece of NYC scripture, has solidified my convictions. I am grateful to a friend of mine, who shares my cultural and sartorial prejudices, for mailing me a copy of The New York Guidebook
, published in April 1964, which also happens to be the month in which the zygote that turned into yours truly was created. You got 450 pages for 95 cents back in 1964, and essays by luminaries including Buckminster Fuller who celebrates New York City as a "Focus of Energy" and "the first great Einsteinian reality". You don't get writing like that in a Time Out
guide. Shops shops shops - that's all they tell you about now. Yet consumption plays only a minor part in this guide book, with the emphasis much more on history and culture, particularly architecture. The section on 'Shopping and Shops' fills just nine pages, the same amount as Bucky's philosophical piece, and the bit that I really wanted to know about, men's clothes shops, (referred to, of course, as 'Men's Furnishings') well it gets less attention than the section on embroidery. But there is such nonchalant authority in the book's commandment "For the average well-dressed male New Yorker, there seems to be no substitute for either BROOKS BROTHERS, or J.PRESS. CHIPP and PAUL STUART are said by some to be slightly less expensive and to sell exactly the same stock." Actually I can't read that with an American accent in my head - I hear Jeeves. Oh that one day I'll pick up a London guide book and it will say "For the average well-dressed Londoner there seems to be no substitute for either John Simons
, eBay or a few tatty second-hand shops."
Reading this book largely provokes a sense of melancholy as one ponders what seems to me to be a lost civilisation but there are elements which jar with a modern, perhaps more progressive sensibility. A chapter is devoted to "What to do While Your Husband Keeps Business Appointments" - good advice here girls, including tip number one - "The first thing I recommend is to stay out of his life while he is involved with his work". Mad Men doesn't exaggerate, it underplays the subordination of women! NYC beyond Manhattan largely doesn't feature and neither, come to that, does the city beyond the Upper East Side. Some of the advice given is so strange it's beyond offensive - check this out "You will see, if you are lucky, the shadowy silent figures of two people carefully sorting through the refuse. They are scavengers. Not bums nor indigents. The life of a scavenger is a hard one but exciting. There is always the possibility of hitting the jackpot through someone's mistake. Do not be afraid of them." That's a novel take on poverty and a potent corrective to my bleeding heart liberal values…
The book's charm is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of a number of illustrations by somebody called Jay Robinson. They are throughout the book and are rather sketchy, often unfinished, but always interesting. All New York is captured - the great skyscrapers, traffic, jazz musicians, children - but my favourite, and the one, curiously, he seems to have detailed the most, is of a couple from the "well-publicized colony of the city's nonconformists". There is love in his sketch of the man in goatee and horn-rims and the girl is a forlorn ringer for Natalie Wood inLove With The Proper Stranger, made the year before this book came out. Truly, here is a book to perfectly accompany the act of listening to Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard in 1961 - a compelling visit to a vanished sensibility, often charming, occasionally rather disturbing, and much like New York itself.
Readers are strongly advised to visit The Syllabus, JP Gaul's absorbing blog in which he muses on literature, gloomy streets, the perfect button-down shirt and points in between.