The Rake

COMING TO AMERICA

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It was, as usual, P.G. Wodehouse who summed it up best: “I’m bound to say that New York’s a topping place to be exiled in. Everybody was awfully good to me, and there seemed to be plenty of things going on, and I’m a wealthy bird, so everything was fine.”

Although it is Bertie Wooster explaining his love of New York, in the 1919 story Leave It to Jeeves, the sentiments were Wodehouse’s. A century ago the British comic novelist and stage writer was a hit on Broadway: his shows played to packed houses, and New York became a sort of playground for him.

Thitherto the Old World’s relationship with New York had been largely as a place from which to import heiresses for the European marriage market, and to which to export its poor. But as anything else? Well… as anyone who has read Dickens’s 1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit will remember, the 19th century novelist was appalled by the primitive, almost barbaric, moneygrabbing society he had encountered. Wodehouse had taken to the place, and he became one of the prototypical examples of the Englishman in New York.

However, it would take 20 years, and the outbreak of another world war, before a large number of Europeans put Wodehouse’s view to the test, when, as Michael and Ariane Batterberry put it in On the Town in New York, their 1973 study of social life in the city: “Driven from their homelands by the bleak winds of a second world war, countless uprooted Europeans escaped to America.” The outbreak of world war II was a defining point in the waxing social and cultural importance of New York. “Not since the French revolution had so many talented, prosperous and well-educated refugees gathered in New York at the same moment in history. Together they managed to reproduce a civilisation in microcosm, as artists, aristocrats, teachers, bankers, businessmen and other representatives of a disrupted society reconvened in a foreign land where friendly natives welcomed them with warmth. Their presence contributed greatly to the status of New York, establishing the city once and for all as the cultural capital of a disjointed world.”

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It was also in wartime New York that the foundations of a new post-war commercial aristocracy were being laid.

Today it is hard to imagine the allure of New York and the excitement of seeing its celebrated skyline emerging on, nor the brittle, rigidly snobbish world portrayed in the novels of Edith Wharton. The years between the wars had seen the Jazz Age, prohibition, bootlegging, speakeasies, the Wall Street crash, and the Great Depression. In that time the city had acquired its two totemic towers — the Chrysler and Empire State buildings — as well as the monumental Rosario Candeladesigned apartment buildings of the Upper East Side.

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