BY DAYNA NORRIS
Supermodel Janice Dickinson describes her New York City life of glamour and gore in her vapid, but fabulously titled autobiography, No Lifeguard On Duty. How NYC manages to function as smoothly as it does is astounding, yet the image of a pool of 10 million with no lifeguard is perfect. Before some contemporary New Yorkers report on life in the wild, some past occupants want to set the scene.
In Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin People of New York, the Lenape invite you to imagine Manhattan surrounded by “playful” whales, seals, porpoises, and dolphins, to see the cherry orchards instead of Cherry Street, to visit their cherished Minetta Creek still flourishing as a fountain in a co-op lobby on lower 5th, and to hear their wise chieftains known as sagamores orating where Cooper Union now stands. They named the rugged Shawangunks north of the city as the “mountains where you go south,” while their friends the Mohicans termed a “safe sheltered harbor” Poughkeepsie. The Tappan Indians ask you to remember them as you cross the Tappan-Zee bridge, while the Ramapo knew long before the NY Thruway Commission there was only one pass north from there. For fun, the natives frolicked on Konyen Island, a.k.a. Rabbit Island, a.k.a. Coney Island. Yet the Delaware mourn the loss of their original tribal name, because commemorating Baron de la Warr just isn’t the same.
The Indians are gone, but New York City’s tradition of immigration was permanently established. Most fortunate for the city destined to be the financial capital of the world was the arrival of an illegitimate orphan from Nevis. The most neglected of the founding fathers, yet the most farsighted in planning for America’s financial primacy is Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow’s spectacular biography, Alexander Hamilton, gives the financial genius his long-overdue recognition. Arriving as a clerk for a Caribbean import firm, Hamilton soon matriculates at King’s College (now Columbia), then joins the Revolutionary army, where bravery during the September 1976 retreat through Harlem and the battles of Trenton and Princeton gets the attention of General George Washington. As Washington’s aide-de-camp, he writes, organizes, soothes egos, reads incessantly, marries a Schuyler, and leads an important charge at Yorktown. After the war he establishes a successful New York law practice, but gains fame as the co-author with Madison of the crucial Federalist Papers, called “the gloss on the Constitution.” As Treasury Secretary, he imagined mercantile America when plantation America was in vogue. Hamilton organized the Customs Department to manage tariff income and the Coast Guard as Customs’ enforcer. His absolutely brilliant “Report on Public Credit” submitted to the first post-Constitution Congress delineated policies still dominant today on taxes, debt management, banking, and stocks. Had Hamilton not been killed at Weehawken, he most likely would be remembered more today for his achievements than his death.
Pause for a mid-19th century poetic interlude from New York’s lover, Walt Whitman:
“Just as you feel when you look on
the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living
crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the glad-
ness of the river and the bright flow,
I was refreshed.”
Is there a 20th century name more synonymous with New York City than Rockefeller? David Rockefeller’s recent autobiography, Memoirs, gives an enchanting view of life at the very top. When your father is third-generation oil money and your mother starts the Museum of Modern Art from her own collection, it doesn’t matter that you are the sixth child and fifth son. If other brothers enter politics, there is still the family bank to run—Chase Manhattan. He manages to make international banking sound fascinating. He also tells the inside story of meeting Khrushchev, Zhou Enlai, Kissinger, Golda Meir, King Hussein, Anwar Sadat, Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela and of befriending the ill Shah of Iran. David also describes serving as the family representative on the boards of MOMA, Rockefeller University, the Tri-Lateral Commission, and the Council of Foreign Relations.
Of the many books on life at the New York Times, one of the best is City Room by retired metropolitan editor Arthur Gelb. Beginning as a copy boy in 1944, he soon developed Times Talk, the first in-house daily. He survived the police beat, wrote a bestseller, Bellevue Is My Home, from his assignment on the health section, loved writing Broadway reviews leading to the definitive Eugene O’Neill biography, and in 1976 invented the breakthrough Weekend section and Science Times. Just to sample the exquisite writing, listen to his description of the effects of the January 1953 ice storm: “42nd Street was closed as chunks of ice the size of dinner plates fell from the Chrysler Building.”
More fun NYC reads are Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera by Johanna Fiedler, the absorbing Morgan: American Financier by Jean Strouse, and two by chef Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour.