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HELLUVA TOWN by Richard Goldstein

HELLUVA TOWN

The Story of New York City During World War II

By Richard Goldstein

Pub Date: April 13th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4165-8996-9
Publisher: Free Press

A vivid but scattershot exploration of the pivotal role New York City played in mobilizing America’s World War II effort, both logistically and culturally.

If there’s one point that this series of vignettes drives home more than any other, it’s how dramatically the perception of, and support for, war has changed on the home front since the 1940s. New York Times writer Goldstein (Desperate Hours: The Epic Rescue of the Andrea Doria, 2001, etc.) weaves a patchwork quilt of communal camaraderie that demonstrates how the can-do spirit of metropolitan New York helped define the country’s attitude toward the war—a stark contrast to today’s fractured perspectives on conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author’s many stories include: dockside workers’ Herculean attempts to ramp up ship-building capabilities in New York Harbor; the Mafia’s cooperation with law-enforcement officials to provide intelligence on German dispositions; Irving Berlin and a host of other Broadway performers banding together to entertain troops and a worried American public; and the combined efforts of pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Squibb and Merck to mass-produce the newly discovered “miracle” drug penicillin to aid soldiers’ recovery from battlefield infections. The author loosely organizes each series of anecdotes into themes including “The Harbor,” “The Uniforms” and “The Tensions,” but the material is as eclectic as the city itself. This is a beneficial attribute when the stories are lively—as in the case of a small plane crashing into the Empire State Building in the midst of a city terrified of the possibility of air raids—but the jarring transition to less-riveting tales creates a sense of disconnect and gives the book the feel of a rough-cut documentary filled with fascinating information but in need of judicious editing.

A concluding essay contextualizing New York’s role vis-à-vis other parts of the country would have been welcome, but Goldstein produces a worthwhile book for WWII buffs and lifelong New Yorkers.