I’m not a big fan of non-fiction… but with all those topics to choose from, surely I could find something I wanted to read about. I got the book at the library down the street.
I needed to read Twilight at the World of Tomorrow because Mauro is a friend of mine. I was a little nervous because I didn’t know what I was going to say if I didn’t like it. I couldn’t imagine Jim writing anything mediocre – he was, after all, once an editor of the now defunct but iconic SPY magazine in Manhattan – but what if?
The “what-if” went away pretty quickly- by the time I finished reading the author’s note at the beginning of the book, actually. He had me at “enduringly magical.”
For those of us whose grasp of world history is limited to Marco Polo as a swimming pool game, Twilight at the World of Tomorrow is a great find. It reminds me very much of Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927 in which Bryson managed to include Babe Ruth, airplanes bursting into flames, the Model T Ford, Sacco & Vanzetti, whiskey, the advent of the “talkies”, and the original Ponzi scheme. Like Bryson, Mauro wove together a surprising variety of mismatched information into a real story with plots and surprises, tragedies, romance, Nazis, bomb threats, Albert Einstein, and a garbage dump. Not to mention the World’s Fair.
America was just catching her breath in the 1930’s, trying to recover from The Great Depression. Hitler was pillaging, plundering, creating an empire, and engineering a master race; but that was over in Europe, far enough away that Americans could dance the Charleston and celebrate the end of Prohibition. It was the perfect time to concentrate on a future filled with hopes and dreams and fancy kitchen appliances. People were hungry for a better future. Some, however, were looking for something more tangible.
The beginnings of the 1939 World’s Fair are less altruistic than one may have thought. It was the brainchild of a Belgian businessman trying to get back on his feet financially and a distant relative of the presidential Roosevelts. Neither man pretended that they cared a whit about the common good, a better future, or good will. It was all about money and reputation.
The idea gained purchase, and suddenly, famed urban planner and developer Robert Moses was drawing up plans to clean up the colossal garbage dump in Flushing Meadows where the Fair would be built – and Grover Whalen, a self-serving promoter, politician, and businessman, was hogging all the credit.
But the story of the Fair is tangled with the stories of all the men and women who were even tangentially connected to the process, and the tension in Europe was uncomfortably palpable in New York. Relationships and egos, money, deadlines, and rain all get in the way until the Fair itself emerges as another character in the book, and the reader wants more than anything for the Fair to succeed.
The Fair is a dream and an obsession, and it pulls people in – people who want to build it, those who want to protect it, and those who wait in line to attend it. The whole nation is in love with the Fair, and so, as with any love affair, people are selfish and reckless, eager and passionate, or earnest and committed. And like many romances, things go bad along the way. I became fond of Einstein, Grover Whalen started to remind me of our current president, and I was hating Mother Nature. The rain ruined so much.
It’s a book filled with familiar names and surprising details; Mauro’s clearly done his research. There are 2 ½ pages of acknowledgments, 30 pages of notes and sources, and a remarkable bibliography, yet none of it reads like a textbook. Nevertheless, it is non-fiction: when two characters die a gruesome death, I could not console myself by saying it’s only a story. And the final sentence foretells more sadness to come.
It’s a book rich with story and facts, which unnervingly remind us that history can, and sometimes does, repeat itself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In the past, James Mauro was an editor for Spy Magazine and executive editor of Cosmopolitan. He has also served as an editorial director for Moffly Media and has had his work featured in various publications. He is most famously known for his 2010 novel Twilight at the World of Tomorrow.