Monday, January 29, 2007

In pursuit of speakeasies.

Stanley Walker's The Night Club Era was published in 1933, and according to its content, it probably was completed just before Prohibition was repealed. Walker was a journalist, and while he conveyed facts as a journalist should, his style and tone is definitely of the era. That is, conversational, snappy, and droll, with the fedora brim tilted just so. I imagined the text as a script from one long radio show. And since he was a journalist, immersed in the culture and politics of the day, the man name-dropped like a name-dropping fiend. I could only pick up a small percentage of the bigger names, like Al Smith and Jimmy Walker, but the rest, I had to take his word for it that they were who they were. Still a surprisingly fun read, though. His description of the NYPD and its men was pretty much spot-on, and it still applies today. A choice observation:

It is true in Chicago, as it is true in New York, that the average citizen wants to trust the police, but he can't do it. The administration usually is shot through with politics of the worst sort; if not politics, then sheer incompetence. Most policemen are brave fellows, with a savage hatred of crooks, but they are members of a system which often handcuffs them.

I loved the way the author took you right down into the speakeasies, even gave their names and addresses if he could. You could tell that he loved this city, every inch of it. I guess he reminded me of Pete Hamill in that way, because he always balanced the good with the bad, giving equal attention to both, reminding the reader that all of it made up the essence of New York.

I think what impressed me most about this book was that Walker singled out Florence Mills in a section all her own, as one of the top good things to come out of this era. Today, hardly anybody knows about her anymore. But in her day, she was big enough and bright enough for him to dedicate a few pages to her in his book. He praised her. He praised Harlem and its people's love for her. He was reverent when writing about her death, the way her passing brought out thousands of mourners into the streets.

The last chapter is just Walker jotting down his thoughts from the past decade, chock-full of names and places and snarky recollections about politicians and socialites and gangsters. They're microscopic vignettes, fragments separated by ellipses, and they read like writing prompts. And sometimes even if you have no idea who he's talking about, it'll still make you smile.

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