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THE GUEST LIST by Ethan Mordden


How Manhattan Defined American Sophistication—from the Algonquin Round Table to Truman Capote's Ball

by Ethan Mordden

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-312-54024-1
Publisher: St. Martin's

Sassy celebration of the talented dames and gents who invented equal-opportunity Manhattan sophistication.

New Yorker and New York Times contributor and Broadway-musical maven Mordden (Ziegfield: The Man Who Invented Show Business, 2008, etc.) whisks readers through five crucial decades—1920s to ’60s—of New York’s golden era, when cultural refinement began to free itself from the shackles of aristocratic pedigree. The author writes with zesty society-page cattiness about a wide variety of characters, including Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker and other members of the Algonquin Round Table, hedonistic mayor Jimmy Walker, journalist and cultural power broker Walter Winchell, political columnist Dorothy Thompson, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Irving Berlin, John O’Hara and Truman Capote, among numerous others. The major thematic string tying all these pivotal figures together is Mordden’s concept of “New Yorkism,” which refers to an original multicultural melding of people and ideas—often thanks to gay, Jewish or African-American sources—whose collective exoticism helped make Manhattan into the cultural Mecca by the early to mid-20th century despite Middle America’s distrustful gaze. Mordden also gives ample space to the conservative front that opposed this culturally diverse scene: Neo-Nazi aviator Charles Lindbergh, The Stork Club’s Sherman Billingsley, Elsa Maxwell and others. Unfortunately, because achievement for nonaristocrats required a cutthroat ambition and ruthless self-preservation instinct, many of the author’s main subjects died alienated and alone. The author obviously has a few soft spots for Capote and the lavish Manhattan soirees that gave him the social prominence his own personality couldn’t, yet Mordden never considers the possibility that these indulgent parties eventually ruined Capote as a working writer. Then again, the author is more concerned with the lifestyle these artists and writers created for themselves than with the cultural products associated with their names.

Informative, racy and fun, but lacks the heft of a serious historical study.