It isn't the only place to hunt for the Roaring Decade. But it is the first one that leaps to mind, because I am a man of the 1990s, a man with a plan -- a 401(k) plan, to be exact. I am highly conscious of the Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange. I attend to dividends and appreciate the miracle of compounding. And so, while I have never skimped on baby food to buy more shares of Amalgamated Conglomerated or eStuff.com on margin, I feel a certain kinship with those stock maniacs of the 1920s who rode an amazing bull market up a mountain and off a cliff. They seem so familiar to me. They had a huge man hitting more home runs than anyone could imagine, just like we do. They had a genial, skirt-chasing president whose vice president was stiff and rectitudinous, same as us. They had rich people squandering money on ridiculous luxuries. And, like us, they thought it would go on forever.
They are calling to me across the years, in the hot licks of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, from the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald, out of the sporting dispatches of Grantland Rice and Ring Lardner. The '20s. Broadway! Jazz! Bathtub gin! Babe Ruth and flappers and Hemingway when he could still write. Men sitting for weeks on flagpoles and wearing straw boaters and flying across the Atlantic in cold and tiny aeroplanes. Women with bobbed hair in dresses with no hips playing golf smashingly and holding their liquor.
I want to find the roots of it all, and so I have come to Wall Street. There is an East Side subway and a West Side subway and the platforms are three blocks apart. Three blocks turns out to be a very significant distanceon Wall Street, because this iconic address -- as potent as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., as explosive as Los Alamos, N.M. -- is in reality a rather short and narrow street, a bit crooked. Nothing like the wide, straight power avenues of midtown and upper Manhattan. Wall Street does not seem very powerful at all. It is quaint. London-like. It is boxed in at each end, by lovely Trinity Church at the top of the street and by the East River at the bottom.
At the corner of Wall Street and Nassau is a four-story neoclassical building. The address is 23 Wall St. It looks like a very large tomb, but in fact it is a very large bank. Beginning in 1913, this was the headquarters of J.P. Morgan, the most powerful financier in the world, perhaps the most powerful man, period. Though his most Olympian days were behind him (in 1901, for example, Morgan personally brokered the creation of U.S. Steel, the world's first billion-dollar corporation, and in 1907 he single-handedly ended a stock market panic), Morgan remained in 1920 the epitome of money and influence. He was Buffett and Greenspan rolled into one.
You might say this is where the '20s began. On this corner, at noon on September 16, 1920. Survivors recalled the clock at Trinity Church was tolling the noon hour, and the street was filling with clerks and traders bound for lunch. Someone saw a horse-drawn wagon stop on Wall Street just below Nassau. Someone saw the driv-er jump down and run. The world became a thundering hurricane spiked with shrapnel and choked with dirt. Thirty-five people died in the blast, including a man killed by a falling pipe a full five blocks away, and 130 others were injured.
The disaster was never fully explained. It could have been an accident; dynamite traveled in wagons in those days, and Wall Street was very bumpy. But everyone blamed the anarchists. The anarchists were very big at the start of the '20s. They mailed pipe bombs. They held rallies. They published manifestoes. Blend our wild-eyed militias with our Unabomber, add a dose of Save Mumia! claptrap, and you'd have an approximate parallel. Of course, dissent was more serious back then. When the anarchist heroes Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927, thousands of their supporters gathered in Union Square, at 14th and Broadway, under the menacing snouts of police machine guns on the roof of a nearby building.
The House of Morgan, 23 Wall St., looks on the bustling, money-grubbing street with a blank and superior stare, perfect -- except that on the Wall Street side, where the wagon paused as the clock was tolling, you can still see pockmarks in the smooth stone. The Morgan empire survived. There are other blemishes in the facade of this building, and they have been neatly patched. These wounds, however, are preserved as a point of pride.
New York is not an aspect of the '20s. It is not an element of the '20s. From Coney Island to Yankee Stadium, from Wall Street to Harlem, New York is the essence of the '20s. It is the poetry of Langston Hughes and Edna St. Vincent Millay. It is the painting of Aaron Douglas. It is the music of the Gershwin brothers, handsome George and clever Ira. It is Dutch Schultz smuggling rum in coffins, and the politics of Al Smith and Jimmy Walker. If you boiled the '20s down to a residue, what you'd have left is New York.
You'd have, for example, the Algonquin Hotel.
You remember the Algonquin, that dowager in the club district, just west of Fifth Avenue on 44th Street. There, in the early 1920s, the in-crowd from Vanity Fair drank their lunches. They loved the place because the owner, Frank Case, liked the cut of their jibs and gave them free celery and popovers and a big round table. Smart guy, that Frank Case. His round table became the Round Table -- the most famous literary gathering in America since Thoreau did odd jobs in Concord for Emerson while Louisa May Alcott gamboled across the lawn.
The Algonquin lobby is still a lovely place to sip a martini or a Manhattan -- not that anyone drinks Manhattans anymore, alas. It would also be a very nice place for Miss Havisham to sit at tea with J.D. Salinger, because the room is as dark as a closet, even at high noon on a throbbingly bright day. There are tiny puddles of light on small tables in quiet corners. There are dark oak bookshelves bearing first editions by James Thurber and Alexander Woollcott and Robert Benchley and E.B. White and A.J. Liebling and Stephen Leacock and S.J. Perelman and Dorothy Parker.
Parker, who said of a group of debutantes: "If all these sweet young things were laid end to end, I wouldn't be the slightest bit surprised." She is a quintessential '20s figure: suave, drunk, hilarious, bitter. Her likeness appears lower left in the oil painting that hangs in the center of the Algonquin lobby. She is clutching a poem that she wrote:
Drink and dance and laugh and lie
Love the reeling midnight through
For tomorrow we shall die
(but, alas, we never do.)
Harold Ross, the genius cuss from Colorado, dined here in the Algonquin and, between courses, wheedled the money from his dinner guests to start a new magazine. He called it the New Yorker. It was about humor and booze and jazz and world-weariness. Also sophistication, money, the theater and sex. In sum, it was about the '20s.
It was not the bitterness and alienation of 23 Wall St. No, this was glamorous bitterness and alienation. It played itself out as bored hilarity, as languor with an undertone of panic. Woollcott, for a prank, filled Moss Hart's bathtub with Jell-O. Ernest Hemingway had a fling with "Legs" Diamond's girlfriend, not at the Algonquin, but in the kitchen at "21" a few blocks away. Parker had a crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald. Was there ever a decade with more famous people in it?
Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Waite Hoyt and Miller Huggins winning one World Series after another in that amazing new stadium up in the Bronx. Marcus Garvey convening the First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World and filling Madison Square Garden. Paul Robeson singing slave spirituals for the first time to audiences of white intellectuals.
And the money! If you leave the Algonquin and stroll grandly up Fifth Avenue toward the Plaza, you pass the great shops of the '20s, the temples of luxe, the palaces of prosperity. Saks Fifth Avenue is the oldest, built on the southern flank of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Tiffany is up the street, and Harry Winston, the dueling diamond duchies. And northernmost, facing the Plaza, is the former site of Bonwit Teller, now occupied by the equally tony Bergdorf-Goodman. This building was the apotheosis of consumption over accumulation, of spending over manufacturing, of seeming rather than being, for it rose on the rubble of the great Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion. The Vanderbilt place was perhaps the finest private residence in Manhattan, a French chateau covering nearly an entire city block, yet they tore it down to build a department store where shoppers could see in the window the latest dress worn by Broadway's fabulous Ina Claire. (She wore only Chanel.)
I pondered the place from a bench shaded by Bradford pear trees, soothed by the splish-splashing of the five-tiered Pulitzer Fountain on Grand Army Plaza. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald supposedly went wading in this fountain, dressed to the nines in evening wear. Was that the same night that they cruised across town to a party, one on the roof of the taxi and the other clinging to the hood? Or was it the night they came barreling up Seventh Avenue holding hands and scattering pedestrians? Was it the night Fitzgerald was thrown out of a vaudeville show for stripping in his seat?
Van Wyck Brooks, the drama critic and bon vivant, once told of a night when the Fitzgeralds arrived an hour late for a dinner party and promptly passed out at the table. They had been out all night for three days running. Zelda was carried off to bed and Scott was left on a sofa -- where, after a few minutes' catnap, he roused himself to order two cases of champagne and taxis to take everyone to a nightclub.
"That moment and scene bring back now a curious note of the Twenties that one did not connect with insanity and tragedy then," Brooks wrote.
But we make the connection today.
You might say these '20s -- the drunken, nihilistic, eat-drink-and-be-merry '20s -- began with the gas and bloody trenches of World War I, and with the shocking cynicism sown by that war.
I ask the cabdriver to take me to 140th Street and Lenox Avenue. He pauses, then repeats the address skeptically. Nobody, black or white, takes a taxi to that corner anymore. Don't get me wrong -- it is a perfectly nice corner. But it isn't a destination. There's a playground on one corner, a grocery store on another.
In the '20s, every cabbie in the city knew 140th and Lenox. In the wee hours, after the bustling theaters on Broadway discharged their audiences (the '20s were the busiest era Broadway has ever known), cabs from downtown and midtown caravaned to this corner, site of the Savoy Ballroom.
How my heart was singin'
While the band was swingin'
Never tired of rompin'
And stompin' with you
At the Savoy --
John Hope Franklin, in 1947, called the amazing thing that happened way uptown in the '20s the "Harlem Renaissance," and that's precisely what it was, a black American Flor-ence. The Savoy, long gone, was just one bit of it, but what a terrific bit -- integrated, swinging, hot. Home of the Charleston and the Lindy Hop. Louis Armstrong was there, smoking reefer and playing so loud they made him stand 10 feet from the microphone. Fats Waller and Bessie Smith were there. Duke Ellington was there, and so was pale, white Benny Goodman. They were busy inventing American music -- it's almost as simple as that. The poet and historian James Weldon Johnson, who wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the so-called Negro national anthem, was right in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance. He captured it almost as it happened in a marvelous 1930 book he called Black Manhattan. In it he said: "It is from the blues that all that may be called American music derives its most distinctive characteristic."
Harlem seethed and Harlem simmered. From the site of the old Savoy, stroll west and south a few blocks to the section known as Strivers Row, between Seventh and Eighth avenues at 138th and 139th streets. Beautiful blocks of Stanford White mansion town houses. This is where the doctors and bankers and funeral home owners made their homes -- black men in magnificent digs, a shocking and wonderful thing that foretold an American future somewhere down a long and twisty, bumpy road.
Black Manhattan happened by accident. Before the turn of the century, the city's black population was concentrated elsewhere. Harlem had a rural pedigree. In the 1890s, white speculators believed the subway would make uptown boom, and they built a glorious housing stock on spec. The boom never came. Instead, a businessman named Philip Payton began brokering the rental of Harlem properties by blacks.
Things took off. New York, after all, was an irresistible magnet in a very hostile world. For blacks in America, you might say the '20s began in the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1919. White lynch mobs rampaged through the city, and blacks took up arms to save themselves. In the years that followed, the country was ripped repeatedly by white racial violence. The Ku Klux Klan amassed great power across large sections of the South, the Midwest and the West. The black business district of Tulsa was incinerated by whites in 1921. Rosewood, Fla. -- a flower of black enterprise -- was obliterated by white marauders in 1923.
And here was Harlem, beckoning, welcoming. Everyone came. Singers and dancers, painters and sculptors. Poets like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurston. Adam Clayton Powell as a very young preacher, ensconced in the pulpit at Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Where there is art there are patrons of the arts. A'Lelia Walker was the greatest of these, daughter of the cosmetics magnate Madame C.J. Walker, lavishing her mother's fortune on art and artists. When she died in 1931, Hughes wrote that it "was really the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem . . . The generous 1920s were over."
It would be nice to suggest that those cabs streaming uptown to the Savoy and other clubs were loaded with colorblind citizens who fully comprehended a miracle in process. But of course it was something else. For one thing, Harlem was not quite Harlem in those days. White merchants still controlled the business on 125th Street, the neighborhood's Main Street. The great dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson became known as the Mayor of Harlem not so much for his glad-handing (in fact, a lot of people found him awfully stuck-up) as for his door-to-door campaign to get Harlem shops to hire black employees.
A pilgrimage uptown usually came after a night of theater, dining and drinking in the speakeasies of midtown or Greenwich Village. The whites were lured by the power of the exotic. Josephine Baker and her ocelot. The Berry Brothers, dancers who leapt nearly to the ceiling and landed in splits. Every show, even the great Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake revues -- which rivaled the Follies and the Scandals on Broadway -- included at least one "jungle" number. The chorus girls were high yellow and scantily clad. The taxis rolled up to the Savoy and the Cotton Club and the Apollo; each club catered to a slightly different sense of adventure. The Apollo, for example, was very black. The Cotton Club was very white -- except for the staff and the entertainment. White audiences would arrive at the club slightly tipsy with their bootleg in their pockets. A black maitre d' showed them to their tables. The waiter arrived bearing glasses of ice and mixers in tiny bottles. The set-up cost more than the hooch. Ethel Waters was onstage.
Did they have any idea how good Ethel Waters was? Did they know what they had? Did anyone sense that it might end?
On Bedford Street in the Village, I arrive at a brown door in a brown building. There is no sign, no mailbox. Only the number 86 -- and even that is almost invisible, having been painted the same shade of brown. An air conditioner over the door is dripping on the step.
This is Chumley's, often billed as the least changed of the '20s speakeasies. Inside it is dark and grimy with charm. There is a rotary pay phone, and it is the newer phone in the place. The one behind the bar has a cord insulated with cloth. You can get a burger and a good glass of beer here, and sit at a table so deeply carved with old initials that there is almost no surface left. There is sawdust on the plywood floor. The only decorations are the photographs and book jackets of writers who found inspiration here -- Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Anais Nin, Jack Kerouac, Marianne Moore, Salinger.
Need I say that the '20s finally began with Prohibition? January 16, 1920. If the war had planted the seeds of cynicism, Prohibition nurtured them into full bloom. Suddenly booze was daring, glamorous, sexy and all-consuming. All the writers and artists were drunks, or seemed to be. All the music was played in smoky nightclubs. If the '20s sometimes seem to us like a long and ideal youth -- with all its romance and ennui and energy -- perhaps it is because everyone spent the decade sneaking drinks like schoolchildren. Prohibition made people wildly interested in alcohol. Before the ban, the historian Edward Robb Ellis reports, there were 15,000 places to get a drink in New York City. After the ban, the number rose to 32,000.
It was a grand and jaded, giggly and awful, time.
It was so human.
As the decade came to its close, New Yorkers looked heavenward, not for salvation but for confirmation of an eternal prosperity. In the boom times of the late 1920s, nearly 5 million square feet of office space was built in the financial district alone. Towers rose, it seemed, on every block, from the seaport to Central Park.
Across the street from the Morgan Bank, in 1929, a building went up at 40 Wall St. Floor after floor it quickly climbed, an amazing 71 stories in all, aimed at a peak that would be the highest in the world.
In midtown, meanwhile, Chrysler Corp. was building a tower of its own, an Art Deco ecstasy, at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue. The rival architects were former business partners, and they raced for the title of Tallest in the World. There was a giddiness to it all. The newspapers followed the contest like a pennant race. The buildings mounted like hysteria.
The Chrysler topped out with a brilliant silvery dome. Triumphant workers at 40 Wall St. then placed their own crowning touches a few feet higher.
Triumph was premature. Suddenly, rising like a giant arrow aimed at the heart of God, a fiery needle burst through the top of the dome. The unforgettable zenith of the Chrysler Building made it the tallest in the world, the first building to reach past 1,000 feet. The needle had been assembled in secret inside the building. The builders of 40 Wall St. had been tricked into finishing their tower first.
The wonderful, whimsical, ebullient Chrysler Building -- notice the automobile motifs carved into the facades, and the giant stylized radiator caps thrusting from the lofty corners -- had only a brief moment as the record holder. Even as it was being finished, plans were announced for a new tower on 34th Street, on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. It would beat the Chrysler by a full 200 feet.
And though the stock market crashed, the sheer momentum of the '20s sent the Empire State Building soaring skyward, sometimes as quickly as five stories per week, to its completion in 1931. From all over today's New York, you catch glimpses of it. The mast atop the building rises like a hymn to human achievement.
As I leave the city, with the glorious behemoth rising in the distance, it occurs to me that, seven decades later, we have nothing like this to show for ourselves. From the jazz to the novels to the skyscrapers, we're still living in the psychic shadow of the '20s. That frantic and outsize decade lingers everywhere in New York City, and everywhere in the American mind.
We can find many beginnings -- bombs, war, race riots, Prohibition. With this mighty tower, the decade finally ends, with all its energy spent, in a colossal exclamation point.
David Von Drehle is a Post staff writer.