Did you know that the first murder victim in modern-day New York was a crewman on the flyboat Half Moon, killed by a Lenape dart in 1609 while its captain, Henry Hudson, was sailing up the river that bears his name? Or that in 1800 New York, 12,000 stray pigs littered the streets, more than the human population of Washington, DC, the nation’s new capital? Or that prominent New York judge John Lansing disappeared without a trace in 1829 almost exactly a century before the famous disappearance of Judge Joseph Force Crater?
Or that Horace Greeley published a magazine called the New Yorker in the 1830s? That High Constable Jacob Hays, the city’s top policeman from 1801 to 1950, was Jewish? Or that “Dixie” was first performed in New York – in blackface?
Neither do I, and I thought I knew a lot of New York history, both epic and trivial. But now I have been taught by a Master and it has been my pleasure. Sam Roberts’ The New Yorkers: 31 Remarkable People, 400 Years, and the Untold Biography of the World’s Greatest City is a brilliant social history of Gotham, narrated in deft profiles of everyone from John Colman, Henry Hudson’s hapless crew member, to the Gilded Age portrays husband and wife team Bradley and Cornelia Martin, who threw an infamous let-them-eat-cake costume party for 100 wealthy people after the financial panic of 1893, for Audrey Munson, a beautiful young artist-model immortalized in the gold statue was of civic fame on the municipal building near the town hall and countless other famous statues.
Mr. Roberts, author of nearly a dozen books on New York and other subjects, is a master of the compact biography, a skill he regularly demonstrates in the obituaries he writes for The New York Times. And he’s a diligent researcher, unearthing fascinating nuggets – some profound, some just plain fun – from known and obscure sources. The result is a sometimes dense but always rewarding panorama of the smart, driven, crooked, brilliant, gifted, fortunate and unfortunate people in charge of the city that happily sees itself as the capital of the world.
The New Yorkers: 31 Remarkable People, 400 Years and the Untold Biography of the World’s Greatest City
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Think of the book as a lively Netflix dramatization of The Encyclopedia of New York City, Kenneth T. Jackson’s compendium first published in 1995. In the pages of Mr. Roberts you will meet the crooks of Tammany Hall; the men behind the Great White Way theater district, Grand Central Station, the unification of the five boroughs, New York’s supply of delicious pure water, and the opening of Harlem to black New Yorkers; the women who led the pioneering women’s garment workers’ union, the Irish girl who was the first immigrant to be processed on Ellis Island, and many more. You’ll likely exit the book with a renewed appreciation for the ingenuity, bravery, guile, and sacrifice that transformed the forested wilderness that Henry Hudson first explored into today’s vibrant, dangerous 21st-century metropolis.
Mr. Robert’s skillful method is best demonstrated in his sketch of Tex and Jinx – advertising magician John “Tex” McCrary and his wife Eugenia “Jinx” Falkenburg, the feisty beauty queen. These two teamed up on morning radio in 1946 to invent the celebrity-interview talk show, with a variety of guests from Hollywood mermaid Esther Williams to Kibitzer-to-President Bernard Baruch.
Before portraying the McCrarys, the author provides a suitably narrow history of New York’s tabloids, beginning with the Daily News in 1919 and quickly followed by Hearst’s Daily Mirror, where Tex began and boasted of Walter Winchell’s staccato gossip column. He even gives the derivation of the word “tabloid” — a compressed pill, a metaphor for airy journalism.
Over the years, a pantheon of future news stars toiled backstage for the McCrarys, including William Safire, Barbara Walters, Andy Rooney and Hugh Downs. Jinx was the first Miss Rheingold – another New York institution – and was a relentless star of USO shows during World War II. Tex became a Republican PR impresario, hosting the famous “I Like Ike” rally in Madison Square Garden to convince Dwight Eisenhower to run in the 1952 election and the “Kitchen Debate” between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon on one American Exhibition in Moscow 1959.
Similarly, the author uses his profile of a humble Bronx housewife named Lillian gemstone to shed light on the era – and the devastation – of Robert Moses, the dictatorial builder of New York’s streets and parks. In the early 1950s, the extended Gem family lived in a Bronx tenement along the route of Moses’ 225-foot-wide Cross Bronx Expressway, which was destroying neighborhoods as it bisected the borough. Mrs. Juwel mobilized opposition to the exorbitant project, but Moses prevailed and thousands of New Yorkers lost their homes, allowing rush-hour motorists to cross the Bronx at an average speed of 13 miles per hour. The Moses she fought against, writes Mr. Roberts, “led her people away from the promised land, not towards it.”
As he brings his New York cavalcade into the present, Mr. Roberts evokes the elegant Jacob Hays in his sketch of Jack Maple, the dandyish former transit cop who helped transform the crime-ridden city of the 1990s high police officers of the 19th century one of the safest in America. It was Maple who developed CompStat, the data-based system that tracked crime precincts by precinct and gave New York’s reinforced police force the ability to predict where murders and muggings were likely to occur and prevent them or catch the perpetrators. Crime fell by 26% in just two years and has continued to fall. But New York’s history is cyclical, and a generation later, rampant crime is once again the talk—and scourge—of the city.
“Even in the early years of New York’s founding, naysayers predicted its demise,” writes Mr. Roberts. “Some of their dire predictions could have come true. . . But time and time again, the city has been willing to capitalize on its good fortune.” Like a gifted New York craftsman, he has expertly set his tiles in a lavish new version of what New York’s first black mayor, David Dinkins, called our “beautiful mosaic.” liked to call.
Born and raised in New York, Mr. Kosner was the editor of Newsweek, New York, Esquire and the New York Daily News.
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