Ah, finally in New York, the city of superlatives, as they say, the most diverse metropolis ever. I suppose no one has ever said it better than Jan Morris in her luminous Manhattan ’45, a title the author chose because it sounds ‘partly like a kind of gun, and partly like champagne’. Here she is right off the bat, in her prologue: ‘Untouched by the war the men had left behind them, they stood there metal-clad, steel-ribbed, glass-shrouded, colossal and romantic — everything that America seemed to represent in a world of loss and ruin.’
Morris is writing about the returning Yankee soldiers encountering the Manhattan skyline from their ships steaming into New York harbour. The same Manhattan an 11-year-old me came face to face with as I got off a TWA super constellation and was driven to the magic isle. Gone was the austere and dilapidated traffic of old European cities — my mother and I had stopped in Rome, Paris and London on the way — here were gleaming, bright-painted cars, Packards, Cadillacs, Buicks and De Sotos, and I remember calling them out by name until I was told to cool it for a while. What was hard to fathom were the outdoor advertisements, emblazoned across every building on the way in from the airport, signs that didn’t evoke death, as political posters did back in Athens, but signalling the boom times coming. Buy and you’ll be happy forever, and although I outgrew the ads rather quickly, it seems not many of the natives have.
Mind you, the natives sure have changed. Not only in the colour of their skin and their clothes, but in the manner in which they interact. For example: New York today is full of self-involved bloggers, solipsistic texters, mobile-phone fanatics, all narrowly missing each other as they make their way to work, back from work, to an assignation, or even after an assignation. Conversation, except for ‘you know’, is as dead as songs such as ‘The furtive sigh, the blackened eye, the words I’ll love you till the day I die...’
But I’m getting ahead of what I wish to say. Incidentally, to continue the song, ‘The self-deception that believes the lie — I wish I were in love again. When love congeals it soon reveals the faint aroma of performing seals, the double crossing of a pair of heels, I wish I were in love again.’ And the refrain: ‘The flying plates, the wasteful waits, the loving love-ins and the hateful hates...’ This was the first American song that got under my skin, written by a drunk, gay genius by the name of Hart. But back to Manhattan. Here’s the great F. Scott describing the place in Gatsby: ‘The city is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.’ How right poor old Scott was. There’s never been a time I haven’t flown in and upon seeing the Manhattan skyline not having thought back to 1948: the power, the glory, the glamour, the expectancy that sooner or later a beautiful woman would come up to me and ask what I was up to. Manhattan always seems coiled in readiness to astound. Even today, post-Madoff and the credit crunch, the place still reeks of sex and boundless ambition.
The thing I miss most — except for the then-dominant Wasp culture — is the language. No one says ‘scram’ any more. No girl says that some boy is ‘swell’. Nobody, but nobody, ever says ‘gee!’, that almost deliberate code word of innocence in the chaste world of Norman Rockwell. My God, how I miss it.
New York has always been a parochial place, like all great cities, divided along ethnic and class lines. Little Italy, Chinatown, Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper East Side, the West Side and, of course, Harlem. It all changed after the hipsters from the Village and the yuppies from Wall Street — brothers under the skin, in reality, in their worship of brand names and designer labels — called a halt to the faking and joined forces. It had a lot to do with my friend Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. His hero, Patrick Bateman, believed the Armani suit he wore had more reality than the person who wore it. Brett’s man was strange, but so were the yuppies he wrote about.
Ellis’s novel was a brave effort to bring New Yorkers back to reality. Twenty years before New Yorkers had lost their way, he tied mergers and acquisitions to murders and executions. I remember being in Elaine’s with him when the bad notices came in. I was very drunk and tried to do what drunken friends always do, and always manage to make it worse. ‘It’s because they’re bigots, Brett, because you’re gay,’ I told him. ‘Nothing to do with the book.’ Brett howled. That’s when his and my publisher, Morgan Entrekin, stepped in and told me, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you, that’s the worst thing you can say to Brett.’
Like London and Paris, two cities I’ve lived in and loved, New York has given birth to many a myth. Mostly in one’s imagination. Novels, plays, essays, and poems by giants such as Whitman, Wharton, James, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and Wolfe have confirmed the myths I have imagined, and cocktail parties with superannuated Wasps, lunches with ethereal creatures, and dinners with mysterious Transylvanians confirm it even further. New York is the grail we’re all seeking.