With the Great Depression subsiding and Europe headed for war, New York City threw a party. It didn’t go well.
The theme of the 1939 World’s Fair was “The World of Tomorrow.” Plagued by ferocious rain storms, withering heat waves, labor disputes, power outages, lower-than-expected attendance and weak revenues, the fair’s glittering vision of the future nevertheless managed to amaze most of its 45 million attendees, even as they nervously consumed the news from overseas. Recounting the exposition’s wonders and woes, former Cosmopolitan executive editor Mauro spices his story with tales of visiting presidents, kings, queens, politicians, sports heroes and movie stars. He wonderfully elaborates on the fair’s movers and shakers: feisty Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, imperious and scheming Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and businessman Harvey Gibson, whose feckless application of “homey touches” to the proceedings embarrassed the city’s official greeter and fair president, the pretentious and beleaguered Grover Whalen. Demonstrating how real-world events intruded upon the fair’s assertions of sweetness and light, Mauro follows the careers of two policemen killed removing a bomb from the British Pavilion, and he tracks the activities of Albert Einstein, a three-time Fair visitor. Voluntarily in exile from Germany, the physicist abandoned his well-known pacifism, authoring a letter to Franklin Roosevelt warning about Hitler’s atomic-bomb program, a notification that eventually inspired the Manhattan Project. Before the end of the fair’s first season, many of the countries represented on its grounds were at war. Mauro’s story will likely appeal to fans of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (2003), but readers should know that the crime element plays less heavily here.
A delightful time capsule, skillfully unpacked.