A skillful novelist fashions an ordinary paean to the Broadway That Was, followed by an unsurprising rebuke of what we’re left with.
New Yorker Charyn (Bronx Boy, 2002, etc.) declares that 9/11 occasioned this Gotham scrapbook. He wished, he says, to honor all of Manhattan by celebrating one particular place, a certain street, a certain time. The author begins with Damon Runyon (whose Broadway stories he greatly admires) and moves more or less chronologically by creating patchy portraits of those who form the popular pantheon of characters who once ruled the street or flashed across the horizon of celebrity or acted or sang or danced or joked in vaudeville. His sketches of Arnold Rothstein, Flo Ziegfeld, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, Fanny Brice, Jack Johnson, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and George Gershwin will enlighten no one who reads widely or watches A&E’s Biography. Okay, readers may not know that “rosebud,” the last word to escape the lips of Charles Foster Kane, was the private name that William Randolph Hearst gave to the private parts of Marion Davies. Similar shocked delight may accompany the discovery that Jolson called exceptionally sexually adept women “chandeliers” (because they would do it even while hanging from a chandelier). Charyn does give overdue credit to the black performers of the era (e.g., Bert Williams, Florence Mills), all of whom endured crushing indignities, not the least of which was watching lesser (white) talents apply blackface and win popular acclaim. And he retains, even in the most unremarkable passages, the ability to craft a remarkable line (Broadway was “that nighttime capital of chaos”), although he is also quite capable of writing a sentence so ordinary that it seems to have come from the pen of an evil twin (“Both Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were the center of everything, with an aura all their own”). There simply aren’t enough new insights or revelations to justify this parade of well-known stories and personalities.
Entertaining, affectionate—but not a hit.