A fitfully told history of New York night life.
Caldwell (A Short History of Rudeness, 1999) leads us from New York's first days as a wood fort at the foot of Manhattan through its inexorable migration uptown, as the city’s early inhabitants pushed back woodland and streams to forge the concrete neon-lit metropolis of today. He shows that even in its earliest days, the city's nightlife was never for the faint-hearted, from its back-alley, bare-knuckle prize-fighting to cockfighting and rat-baiting. The author traces the city's metamorphosis from a grimy, backwoods settlement where, in 1834, one could be fined for letting one's pig roam the streets without a nose ring, through the glory days of gilded nightclubs like the El Morocco and the Stork Club. We follow New York's development as an urban center, witnessing the arrival of the first subway trains, telephones, streetlights and ever-ascending skyscrapers. Caldwell provides facts, figures, statistics and personal stories aplenty. There's Caroline Restell, a famed abortionist-brothel madam who committed suicide in her Fifth Avenue apartment in 1878; Joyce Hawley, arrested for performing nude in a bathtub of Prohibition-era champagne; and celebrated nightclub owners through the ages, from P.T. Barnum to the Cotton Club's gangster-owner Owney Madden. Unfortunately, too much of this story reads like a stodgy textbook. The author is prone to tedious digressions, such as detailing the plotlines of early stage plays. There are also puzzling omissions as the story approaches the present day. For example, Caldwell lavishes attention on short-lived discos like Arthur's and Studio 54, while never mentioning the famed Fillmore East or the recently shuttered Bottom Line.
Some rare historical delicacies, but Caldwell proves better at listing dates and names than at weaving a compelling narrative.