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Editor’s Choice: ‘Supreme City’ by Donald L. Miller

Supreme City by Donald L. Miller, Simon and Schuster, 762 pages ($37.50). The subtitle of this immense, ambitious and readable book lays out its purview: “How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America.” Miller, a historian who writes books and juicy documentaries for PBS and HBO, has found a subject and made it his own for our time: great American cities and their impact on their nation and their time. His previous book (and PBS series) was “City of the Century” about Chicago.

You can’t say what turns out to be one of his major subjects any better or more succinctly than E.B. White does in one of this marvelous book’s epigraphs:

“There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here … Second there is the New York of the commuter … Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities, the greatest is the last – the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical development, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.”

It’s one of New York’s oldest and richest ironies: So much of what we think of as “sophisticated” about New York is an import from somewhere else, whether it’s Omaha or Cleveland or Romania.

This, then, is a gargantuan and lucid history of New York “in the years between World War I and World War II” – Tamany Hall, Jimmy Walker, Bill Dwyer, Owney Madden, Texas Guinan (“almost single-handedly she changed the late night culture of New York”), F. Scott Fitzgerald, various Astors, Vanderbilts and such in the “Melting Pot of the Rich,” Edwin Goodman (of Bergdorf-Goodman, who was born in Lockport and raised in Rochester), Fred French, Walter Chrysler, Adolf Ochs, Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, David Sarnoff, William S. Paley, Joseph Medill Patterson, “Tex” Rickard, Flo Ziegfeld and Horace Liveright. Some of them are as well-known today as Babe Ruth, Duke Ellington and Gene Tunney; many need a historian with a thesis and a cause as well-chosen as Miller’s.

– Jeff Simon