Jonathan Yardley

Jonathan Yardley reviews "Helluva Town," by Richard Goldstein

Helluva Town
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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 25, 2010


The Story of New York City

During World War II

By Richard Goldstein

Free Press. 321 pp. $28

If you know your classic Broadway musicals, you know at once where Richard Goldstein found the title for this account of New York City during World War II. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the lyrics, and Jerome Robbins did the eye-popping choreography. The show, of course, was "On the Town," which opened in December 1944. It was about three sailors on a 24-hour pass in the Big Apple, and the song everyone whistled leaving the theater began,

New York, New York, a helluva town,

The Bronx is up but the Battery's down,

The people ride in a hole in the groun',

New York, New York, it's a helluva town!

Yes, as Goldstein points out, "a helluva town" was bowdlerized to "a wonderful town" in the otherwise terrific movie adaptation, but everyone knew what the real words were as well as the sentiments that inspired them. Because in those days New York really was a hell of a town. The electricity that always crackles in the city -- especially in Manhattan -- was ramped up by the tension of wartime, the millions of soldiers and sailors who passed through en route to battle, the women who found their horizons expanding (occupational as well as amatory), and the theaters, nightclubs, restaurants and other establishments that brought entertainment and fun to people who badly needed both.

Certainly it wasn't all fun. The atomic-bomb-building Manhattan Project was underway in its eponymous borough as the war started, and retained its name after it moved west and became "a vast national enterprise with industrial facilities in Tennessee, Washington State, and elsewhere beyond the testing grounds at Los Alamos, New Mexico." The "German military spy service, the Abwehr, was hard at work" in New York, and Nazi submarines frequently patrolled the northeast coast, sometimes with unhappy results for American ships, their crews and cargo. The British Security Coordination, under the legendary William Stephenson, had "1,000 or so agents and support workers at Rockefeller Center," and needless to say the FBI was a formidable presence in New York as well. The city was the center of wartime shipping:

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