David Wallace Relives the Glamour of New York’s Jazz Age in a Starry New Book
Taking its name from the glittering epithet bestowed on 1920s New York, David Wallace's The Capital of the World presents an anecdotal history via the era's most salient public figures, including playwright Eugene O'Neill, satirist Dorothy Parker and aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. “From art and music to sports, New York represented a whole new lifestyle that fascinated the world,” says Wallace, who investigates the city’s cultural movements by shining a light on its most notable ambassadors: the Harlem Renaissance through blues legend Bessie Smith, modern dance via Martha Graham and American literature with F. Scott Fitzgerald. A longtime journalist for Life and People magazines, Wallace has previously explored Los Angeles's golden age in his books Lost Hollywood and Hollywoodland. NOWNESS contributor Chris Wallace chatted with his author father in his Palm Springs home.
How did prohibition shape this generation?
For the first time in history, the majority of Americans were actively breaking the law. You could say that drinking and smoking, on the part of women, became a rebellion from their parents and the Victorian strictures that had gone before. This was a cultural revolution led by youth. The kings of crime—Charles “Lucky” Luciano, for example—became folk heroes by bringing liquor to the people. They weren’t Robin Hood, but, in a sense, they were.
Who were some of the era’s other heroes?
Babe Ruth. He changed the entire game of baseball. Before he started hitting home runs, literally out of the park, it was a low-scoring game. But, suddenly, it had to become a high-scoring game and he was responsible.
That near-mythical level of fame seems impossible to grasp now—was the world just smaller then?
The world was smaller in the sense that it was easier for a bunch of wisecracking New Yorkers—I’m talking about the [Algonquin Hotel] Round Table crowd—to make headlines across the country. The rest of the country was largely rural until two things happened in the 20s: the evolution of the automobile, and radio. Now, at the turn of the dial, people whose worlds were no bigger than their small town were tuning in to world events. This brought a great deal of sophistication to America. But it was in that small world that people like Dorothy Parker could really shine. Polly Adler wasn’t the only madam in town but she made herself the number one madam through her personality and showmanship.
Who among these personalities is your favorite?
Jimmy Walker worked harder than any mayor before him. He was more widely quoted and more loved than probably any mayor before or since—even though people had to overlook certain unpleasant elements about him, because he came on as an everyman who succeeded. He drove a $200,000 (in today’s money) car—or, rather, he was driven; he had 70 custom-made suits; he dressed very dapperly. He was Mr. New York. My next favorite is everybody’s favorite, Dorothy Parker. I mean, what a mouth she had. She’s the person I wish lived next door.
Is glamour still alive?
Oh sure. If New York was the capital in the 20s, Hollywood quickly became the center in the 30s, and still is.