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Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II Hardcover – April 13, 2010

3.7 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Post-Depression New York was struggling to get back on its feet, hosting a world’s fair that was only beginning to reflect international tensions. Its most prominent political and financial figures would soon become involved in the debate about whether or not to go to war. Journalist Goldstein chronicles how citizens, famous and obscure, acted and reacted as the nation prepared for and went to war. He recalls Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Century Association pushing for intervention while Charles Lindbergh spoke on behalf of the isolationists. The Manhattan Project at Columbia University resulted in the building of the atomic bomb. Drawing on interviews and memoirs, he recalls how New Yorkers remember first hearing the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; enlisting in the service or other war efforts, from conservation to victory gardens; the rounding up of Japanese, German, and Italian nationals for a reverse Ellis Island experience; and Mob dock workers helping to root out saboteurs. He recalls patriots as well as spies; heroism as well as rising anti-Semitism and racism. A complex look at New York during WWII. --Vanessa Bush


"Mr Goldstein...is an outstanding and thorough researcher...Reading his book is like opening a huge trunk stuffed full of tiny forgotten treasures." --The Economist

“The iconic image of a sailor and nurse embracing in Times Square has always stood for New York City during World War II, but Richard Goldstein's Helluva Town gives us innumerable others to better understand, and to round out, that era: U-boats off the Long Island coast; Bundists in Yorkville; “dimouts” in the Polo Grounds; the bittersweet merriment at the Stage Door Canteen and the bizarre frivolity of the Copacabana; a city filled with troops - and troupes; rioting in Harlem; the Normandie aflame; European refugees and Fiorello La Guardia just about everywhere. As so many eyewitnesses to this fascinating but largely forgotten chapter in New York's history leave the scene, Goldstein has brought it all back in pulsating neon.”

— David Margolick is the author of Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink (2005) and is a contributor to Newsweek.

"Richard Goldstein’s Helluva Town, like the hit show tune from the ‘40s that gave him the phrase, is brimful with affection for his native New York City. Through a series of fascinating vignettes in this tale of World War II New York, he introduces titans like La Guardia, Morgenthau, and Rockefeller, but also Sono Osato, a Japanese-American dancer whose father was among those swept into the internment camps, and Seymour Wittek, a Bronx Coastguarder who became eyewitness to a major threat to the port of New York. Sailors, dockhands, artists, canteen workers, intellectuals, actors, army men, and a myriad of others move through these pages, along with Ethel Merman, Moss Hart, Lillian Hellman, and Irving Berlin. As a fellow New Yorker, I reveled in the vistas into our shared history, and in an era of extraordinary human accomplishment."

--Philip B. Kunhardt III, co-author Looking for Lincoln, 2008 and Lincoln, LifeSize, 2009.

“Richard Goldstein has produced a rollicking, finely reported tale of the coming-of-age of the "capital of the world." All of the actors in the greatest drama of the 20th Century--Nazi spies, movie stars, talented immigrants, and the American soldiers who save democracy--come together on history's center stage--New York. Helluva Town is one helluva ride.”

–Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

"New York is big, and much of this swaggering, nostalgic history recounts the sheer size of the city's contribution to the Allied victory: the prodigies of shipbuilding and repair at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; the 81,000 WAVES churned out at Hunter College; the millions of soldiers sent overseas from New York's harbor after consoling themselves with America's glitziest nightlife. But the story's New Yorkness doesn't resonate from the grand logistics or the war stories—wan spy capers, the accidental shelling of Wall Street, the bomber that crashed into the Empire State Building—with which Times-man Goldstein (America at D-Day) bombards us. More evocative are his accounts of how the upheaval became fodder for the city's efflorescent culture. Insouciant Manhattanites partied in the streets during civil defense drills instead of taking cover; Broadway tunefully repurposed patriotic and martial themes in Oklahoma! and On the Town; and at the Stage Door canteen, a nightclub for servicemen staffed by celebrities, a GI could score a dance with Lauren Bacall. In these engaging vignettes, New York—lively, brave, humane—conquers not just the Axis but war itself."

--Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"Thanks to exemplary use of many firsthand accounts, Goldstein captures the spirit of the wartime city, offering enormous appeal to fans of New York City, as well as to students of World War II history." --Library Journal

"Helluva Town is a helluva read...a fascinating look at a remarkable time and a remarkable town." --Associated Press

"Goldstein's well-researched Helluva Town is a rich, wonderful wartime whirl through a great city." --Philadelphia Inquirer

"[Goldstein] recalls patriots as well as spies; heroism as well as rising anti-Semitism and racism. A complex look at New York during WWII." --Booklist

"...a splendid study of the stay-at-homes during those hectic years... Goldstein creates a vivid picture of everyday life at home in New York City during [World War II]." --Maury Allen, The Columnist


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (April 13, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416589961
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416589969
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,456,880 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By wogan TOP 500 REVIEWER on May 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover
`Helluva Town' presents the story of New York during WWII. It covers the confusion in the beginning of the war of air raid drills and shelters and the landing of German spies, the stealing of the Norden bombsight which luckily - a double agent aided in the arrest. The tales of the harbor are well told, troops marching, ships leaving in the night, the accidents and explosions and sinkings, the underworld cooperation on the waterfront which preserved much of the security. The Brooklyn Navy Yard is included, however, the role of women working in the city is only touched upon, a huge lapse.
Much is included, the patriotism and the `Normandie' fire, that affected New Yorkers, so much, that I even remember being taken by the pier in the 50's and told the story of the smoke and its' capsizing. The crash of the B-25 into the Empire State Building is given a chapter. Information on tensions in Harlem and the Bund and between Catholics and Jews, the miracle of penicillin, most of which was manufactured in `Brooklyn are dealt with.

But it seems too much of the book relates the show business and entertainment of the city, which yes should definitely be included in the story, but there is little of the `common' men and women of the city and what they did and the effects the war had upon them. I had really anticipated stories of this kind, instead of descriptions of `Oklahoma' and café society and the Copacabaana. Yes, the story of Harold Russell who played the veteran who lost both hands in `the Best Years of Our Lives' is interesting as is Irving Berlin and `This is the Army' and `On the Town' - the consummate tale of sailors on liberty. It just would have been good to have more interviews with those who lived and worked and really made up the city during the war years.
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Format: Hardcover
This is really excellent on Times Square, "Irving Berlin's Army," "Moss Hart's Airmen," Broadway theatre, even the military film studio in Astoria, Queens.

Unfortunately, that ends Mr. Goldstein's interest in WW II. A third of the book is patchy, not too accurate, and disappointing. As others noted, he isn't interested in women in WW II unless they're with the Stagedoor Canteen or are Broadway dancers.

Example of weak bored reporting: He mentions the 1943 Harlem riot, but NOT that Harlem until the 1950s was primarily German and Irish on West 125th; Italian, Cuban and Puerto Rican in the East. A grievance was that African Americans were living almost entirely in a small area of Lenox Avenue, as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Claude MacKay, and my entire family knew!

Better title: "Helluva Town: The Story of New York City Theatre During World War II"
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I truly believe that this snapshot of New York City during World War II has a little something for everyone, but many may be disappointed, feeling that their theatre of interest may have been short-changed by the author. A book of less than 300 pages is not going to be a comprehensive look at the subject. The author attempts to organize the book into sections that deal with one aspect of the war and the city, but is not always successful. A narrative style, starting in 1939 and continuing to 1945, might not have been any better at capturing the many themes that the author wished to cover.

The opening section deals with the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and then meanders on to Nazi spys and U-Boat landings on the coast, to the last chapter in that section where we meet the Rosenbergs and the Greenglasses. The next section then begins again with New York harbor in 1941 and shipping out in the early part of the war, and ends with a reference to 2006 and the war-time death of Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Some people were not happy with the amount of coverage given to cultural events such as plays and movies, or with the famous Stage Door Canteen. However, one of the nice things about a book arranged in this fashion is that a reader can decide to skip a section that is not of particular interest and still capture the essence of a dynamic city at a particular time in history. One might have longed for more coverage of women and racial minorities, but they are not totally ignored.

The book cries out for more photographs -- there is just a small section near the end of the book, as well as the wonderful cover image. It seems to me that more and more publishers are skimping on photographs, perhaps as a way of making the book less expensive to publish.
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My Dad, who was in the American Navy, lived in NYC during this period of time. Reading this book has given me insight into his young adulthood during this time of history. Not only did the author give me a historical background but he quoted people who had experienced this period of history. I also enjoyed reading about the Broadway and Hollywood stars who contributed to the war effort. I have recommended this book to several friends.
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If you have ever seen the movie, you know the lyrics from _On the Town_:

New York, New York, a wonderful town,
The Bronx is up but the Battery's down,
The people ride in a hole in the groun',
New York, New York, it's a wonderful town!

But New Yorkers themselves knew better. When the Broadway musical, about three sailors on a 24 hour pass in the big city, played, it wasn't "a wonderful town" that was sung about, but "a helluva town;" MGM had thought the rest of the nation could not stand the saltier lyrics. So it is entirely appropriate that Richard Goldstein has quoted from the original version of the song, a song from a show that celebrated the bustling wartime New York, to get the title of _Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II_ (Free Press). On the town here are plenty of soldiers and sailors, some on their way to the war and some in training and some singing in Broadway productions themselves; but there are also politicians, volunteers, gangsters, scientists, and just plain New Yorkers, going about the city's business with the extra urgency, determination, and bereavement that the war had brought them. If this was "the greatest generation," here are chapters of descriptions of it at work in the greatest of cities. There are heroes here, but mostly there is resilience and a frenetic pace. Look to this book to get a bit of the feeling of what it was like to be a New Yorker, native or just passing through, during those heady times.

Broadway was never far away. At the Stage Door Canteen, seven nights a week, 3,000 servicemen (no servicewomen) came to drink, dance with junior hostesses (maybe Lauren Bacall), and have their coats checked by Hume Cronyn, or their meal cooked by Alfred Lunt.
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