An exuberant celebration of more than 100 women who shaped the myths and realities of New York City.
In her debut book, journalist Scelfo, who has written for the New York Times and Newsweek, aims to counter histories of New York that focus only on “male political leaders and male activists and male cultural tastemakers.” As the author discovered and shows, the contributions of women have been deeply significant, and she has chosen a copious roster of personalities, gathered under three dozen rubrics, such as “The Caretakers” (pioneering physicians Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and Dr. Sara Josephine Baker, who enacted revolutionary hygienic measures in early-20th-century tenements); “The Loudmouths” (Joan Rivers and Better Midler); and “Wall Street” (brokerage firm founder Victoria Woodhull and miserly investor Hetty Green). With a plethora of women to choose from, Scelfo aimed for representation from musical theater, law enforcement, education, social justice movements, and various professions and organizations. Some of the women are familiar (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for her preservation work; Brooke Astor for her philanthropy), some iconic (Emma Lazarus, in a category of her own as “The Beacon”), and some little-known (artist Hildreth Meière, whose art deco designs can be seen on the south facade of Radio City Music Hall). One odd category is “The Crooks,” which includes several forgettable women who contributed to the city’s “cons and crimes.” The author’s brief, breezy bios reveal quirky facts about each woman, a form better suited to “The In-Crowd” (restaurateur Elaine Kaufman, hardly a crowd), entertainers (Betty Comden, Ethel Waters), and “The Wisecrackers” (Nora Ephron, Tina Fey) than to Susan Sontag, Edith Wharton, and Joan Didion. Nevertheless, the book is lively and fun, with something, no doubt, to pique anyone’s interest. Heald’s blithe illustrations add to the lighthearted mood.
An eclectic assortment of women make for an entertaining read.