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I Romanticize the Shit Out of the 1939 New York World’s Fair

17 Mar

Growing up in Eastern Queens, seeing the towers of the New York State pavilion from the 1964 World’s Fair rise above the Grand Central Parkway like twin homes from the Jetsons cartoon, I had an inkling that something a little weird had happened here, before I showed up. The decommissioned rockets standing proudly outside the psychedelic edifice of the New York Hall of Science, the ice skating rink housed in a building that might have looked more at home in ancient Rome, all of these strange relics that implied something had happened right in Flushing Meadows Park. Something important. And because I am just that kind of asshole who can’t let nagging questions go unanswered, I eventually found out that New York City had hosted not one, but two World’s Fairs a couple of miles from my house! And most of the relics I was familiar with were from the shittier one that my parents’ generation recalls so fondly!

It’s not really, well, fair of me to venerate the 1939 World’s Fair over the 1964 World’s Fair, considering I wasn’t alive to attend either. At the same time, I am afforded a vantage point where I can compare the two events, as if that needs doing, and in the end it’s my personal decision. My appreciation for these auspicious occasions does not affect their respective facts. However, I’m not alone in elevating the 1939 World’s Fair to a legendary, untouchable status, and it’s not difficult to see why. The ’39 fair was built on a garbage dump that was converted to park land in three years; the ’64 fair simply built on the grounds that were already established. The ’39 fair happened at the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II; the ’64 fair seems to have precipitated years of protest and civil unrest. Trinkets surviving from the 1939 World’s Fair are mainly of silver and porcelain; surviving junk from the ’64 fair is almost all plastic crap.

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow by James Mauro is another brick in an ethereal monument to the grandeur of the 1939 World’s Fair, and Mauro pays homage without having to compare it to 1964 at all. There’s little in the way of new information in this title, but if you were thinking you’d like to read some kind of comprehensive narrative about the ’39 fair, well you need look no further. It’s reasonably well-written, and I could tell that the author really enjoyed writing about some of the famous New York characters that populate the story behind the story of the fair. James Mauro takes a rather worldly point of view, contrasting the fair with bubbling political events abroad. The problem is that you never know how he means to contrast the two occurrences: is the fair a microcosm of European political tensions and war, or a beacon of peace and democracy that is the reverse of fascist oppression happening in the other hemisphere? The point is never made clear. Perhaps the World’s Fair can be both, or neither, or whatever you’d like it to be when viewed through the petroleum jelly-smeared lens of retrospect.

My gripe with Twilight at the World of Tomorrow is that it so desperately wants to be Devil in the White City, which is a brilliant book about the Chicago Exposition of 1893. It wants to be that book, but it’s not, and in trying to be that other book (and match its success, naturally), Twilight at the World of Tomorrow sells itself short. Devil in the White City is, loosely, about ambitious men who are able to capitalize during the last decade of the nineteenth century as the Industrial Revolution took hold. The 1939 New York World’s Fair also occupied a sliver of history which somehow illuminated and magnified the preceding and following events. However, Mauro seems keeps projecting a kind of naivete on the masses that attend the Fair, one that doesn’t seem to apply to a generation that would go on to fight in World War II. For all of his romanticizing of the fair, Mauro’s story is more about the aristocratic men who created and operated the World’s Fair, not the faceless rubes and yokels that paid admittance.

While I’d recommend Erik Larsen’s book to just about anyone, I’d only recommend Twilight at the World of Tomorrow to people for whom this topic is remotely within their sphere of interest: fans of New York City history, people interested in the American Jewish reaction to Adolph Hitler, or (as is my case) folks who romanticize the shit out of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. I admit that fantasizing about a defunct, overblown carnival is a little strange, but I’ve been hooked ever since I first glimpsed those Jetsons homes so many years ago. I was even mildly annoyed when they were used as part of the central plot to the movie Men in Black.

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