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Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center Paperback – November 30, 2004


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (November 30, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142001775
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142001776
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.1 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #173,104 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Those of us who love New York tend to love the city passionately, for its past as well as its present. Daniel Okrent's Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center is a book for New Yorkers from Ashtabula to Zimbabwe: a study of ambition, audacity, and deal-making on a grand scale that led to the construction of some of the most famous skyscrapers in the world. The cast of characters includes not only the many and diverse members of the Rockefeller family, but other powerful New York institutions such as Columbia University, the Metropolitan Opera, the Museum of Modern Art, and The New York Times--not to mention the radical Mexican artist Diego Rivera, the New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, the Marx Brothers, and a bevy of "Rockettes." Okrent's narrative neatly balances the epic and the intimate; he offers both authoritative pronouncements on modern architecture and reams of good gossip. Like New York itself, Great Fortune contains multitudes: densely packed, it remains surprisingly--and welcomingly--commodious. --Tim Page --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Just as Okrent's Nine Innings beautifully telescoped all of baseball into a single game in 1982 between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Baltimore Orioles, so the former Life editor and Time Inc. executive finds in the creation of Rockefeller Center a good deal of New York and many of the contradictions in American life as the country worked to emerge from the Depression. Built for profit on a run-down stretch of midtown between Fifth and Sixth Avenues called the Upper Estate-myriad lots that underwriter John D. Rockefeller Jr. slowly and inexorably leveraged into an available whole-the seven-year project was second only to the WPA in temporary job creation, though as Okrent shows, the project was far from worker-centered. While one of its originally intended (and abandoned) roles was to provide a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, the sprawling complex came to house a hydra-headed media center anchored by NBC, RKO and RCA, yet saw its gorgeous Center Theatre torn down in 1954 (though Radio City Music Hall and the Rainbow Room remain). But the real stories here come from individual contributions to the huge project, from Junior (and his six children) to hired-artist Georgia O'Keeffe and her apparently abusive photographer-gallerist husband, Alfred Stieglitz; the Roxyettes and the Glee Club singers; engineer O.B. Hanson (inventor of "studio audiences"); and Ray Hood (who ascends from radiator-cover designer to architect of the "Radiator Building"). That the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition began during construction in 1931 as a "modest balsam" decorated by site workers with cranberries, "garlands of paper and... a few tin cans" is just one of thousands of details (including the famous commissioning and destruction of Diego Rivera's murals) that make this magisterial account, itself seven years in the making, fascinating and immediate.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

What a gem of a book - so well written, extensively researched and compelling.
Michele Ankduda
Having lived in NYC for 25 years, I found this a particularly enriching history of one of the central areas of the city and one of the central families.
B. Young
Great book for fans of history, New York, architecture, or just plain good writing.
Daniel Friedman

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Friedman on May 18, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Daniel Okrent, public editor of the New York Times, has crafted a terrific history and love letter to New York through the microcosm of the tale of Rockefeller Center, one of the seminal landmarks of the city and one of those true stories that seem stranger than fiction.
I can only speak for myself but I imagine that it's hard for anyone who has lived in New York in a time when Rockefeller Center has always existed to appreciate the level of diplomacy, architecture, finance, and artwork that went into creating the complex, not to mention the somewhat scandalous occurrences, but Okrent captures it with a snappy prose style that also manages to blend in some fine observations and humorous analogies. Especially due to the continued presence of the Center, it is gratifying to be able to put into modern context the various descriptions and details and visualize them as they exist today.
The history of the Rockefellers, while obviously much broader and filled with much more intriguing information than is relevant here, is nonetheless captured more than adequately, particularly John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his second son Nelson. More than just the account of a building project, the book also marks the transition between old-time New York society of the Gilded Age and the modern New York of the twentieth century. The chapter regarding the controversial Diego Rivera mural seeks to set the record straight on a story that has taken on it's own life over the years and the characters who have previously been given short shrift finally get their due.
Perhaps it's fitting that the seminal word on the complex should come from the Gershwins - "They all laughed at Rockefeller Center, now they're fighting to get in." And we still are. Great book for fans of history, New York, architecture, or just plain good writing.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Glen McIntosh on October 15, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Absolutely terrific! An absorbing look at the social and cultural history of New York in the first half of the 20th Century, told through the prism of the greatest construction project in American history. I figured it would be good, because I've read the guy's baseball stuff before, but I didn't figure it would be this good.Wonderfully anecdotal, seriously scholarly, ujtterly captivating. And you don't have to be a New Yorker to be bowled over!
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Steve Iaco on November 16, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Daniel Okrent has produced a vividly rendered account of Rockefeller Center's formative years. This is a superb book, destined to the the definitive standard on its subject, that will appeal strongly to readers with a wide variety of tastes and interests.
Seven decades removed from the event -- with Rock Center holding such an iconic place in the Manhattan skyline -- this reader was especially struck by Rock Center's seemingly star-crossed beginnings: its architecture universally excoriated (Lewis Mumford being among the most vociferous early critics, until suddenly and inexplicably reversing course); opening night at Radio City Music Hall an unmitigated flop; the sparsely-trafficked retail concourse derided as "the catacombs;" a controversial Diego Rivera mural providing a public relations black-eye, etc. With its leasing program stalled in the Depression-ravaged economy, the Rockefellers desperately slashed office rents from $4 to $1 per sq ft, under-cutting the market. Their tactic of buying-out the existing leases of companies being courted to lease space at the Center -- not uncommon in today's marketplace -- drew the opprobrium of rival property owners, including a lawsuit from August Heckscher (whose grandson would go on to be a high profile Parks Commissioner).
"Great Fortune" is laden with rich anecdotes and compelling, larger-than-life characters like the mercurial John R. Todd (managing agent and construction manager and grandfather to the future New Jersey Governor, Christine Todd-Whitman); the lead architect with a penchant for fast living, Raymond Hood, and, of course, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his ambitious second son, Nelson, first among equals of the Rockefeller's third generation.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Ben Sonnenberg on December 19, 2003
Format: Hardcover
GREAT FORTUNE is even better than its best reviews suggest. Its understanding of society and social history, of architecture and architectural history, its authority of research and elegance of style--its sheer fun!--make GREAT FORTUNE that rarity among modern books: a work one can read and read again. Okrent's portrait of the great Raymond Hood is alone worth the price of the book.
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Format: Paperback
"Great Fortune" is a history of the people, the buildings, the politics and the greatness of one of the biggest building projects in human history: Rockefeller Center. When he agreed to lease 11 acres of midtown Manhattan land from Columbia University, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (AKA "Junior") intended to build a grand opera house. He ended up building an enormous complex of 12 buildings containing 5.1 million square feet of office space, 2 theaters, restaurants, and retail shops, all financed by Junior himself during the Great Depression. Daniel Okrent takes us through the whole project, from the days of the ill-fated opera house project, demolition of 228 buildings on the site, hiring of the developer and architects, building, decorating, and leasing the buildings, 1928-1939.

Okrent balances the creative and financial details of the project with the personalities involved. Woven into the story are biographical details of many of the principle and some tangential characters. These include John D. Rockefeller, Jr., his sons Johnny and Nelson Rockefeller, who would become president of Rockefeller Center, developer John R. Todd, architects Raymond Hood, Harvey Corbett, Wallace Harrison, Reinhard, and Henry Hofmeister, the flamboyant designer of Radio City Music Hall's theater Samuel Lionel "Roxy" Rothafel, RCA president and inventor of commercial radio David Sarnoff, and more. The book is dense with detail about who did what and why, and we stories like the straight scoop on the infamous Diego Rivera mural intended for the RCA building.

Most of the book concerns the first phase of the complex, 1931-1936, but the second phase, 1936-1939, is also covered.
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