Writing about Old New York
I was a young lawyer in the 1960s. Imagining another lawyer for my book, Pardon the Ravens, wasn’t that hard. The lure, though, was reentering an era that was richly atmospheric and has almost entirely disappeared. I actually felt, as I mentally revisited that time, that I might be indulging something more than nostalgia.
Certainly, there’s a rush to be felt opening your memory to the various periods of your life. In my case, it was the 1940s (in New York, lots of sports in gyms, sandlots, and streets; stage shows at the Paramount and Roxy; doubleheaders at the Polo Grounds); the 1950s (in New Haven, the Brigadoon of a college campus, new worlds of people and books); the 1960s (back in New York, the early stages of launching a family and a legal career); and even the more recent past. The nostalgia, obviously, is not simply for the era, but for one’s prior self. Also, looking at the changes, decade by decade, in yourself and the world, is a very good way of understanding both. Yet there may be something even more specific involved.
Mad Men is responsible for a great deal of interest in the 1960s, especially by those who were too young to remember it or not yet born. But it’s a series mainly about the advertising industry (about which it does a great job), and there were, of course, many other worlds. My world primarily was the community of large legal institutions: the judiciary, the government agencies and departments, the bar associations, the law schools, and the big firms.
Remembering life then brings back many wonderful things now gone. My first vision of Wall Street, as I emerged from the subway, actually was what’s described in Pardon the Ravens: a sea of white boater hats with bright silk bands, streaming on currents of lawyers and brokers. This was the time before Bates v. Arizona, when it was unethical for lawyers publicly to promote themselves, let alone advertise in print. It was also a time when big firms were, in effect, the law departments of big companies. Clients were not simply loyal; they were captive, which was idyllic for the outside firm and certainly for the young lawyers at that firm. Before I was taken in as a partner, I tried fourteen cases, including the case involving alleged price-fixing on the new wonder drug, tetracycline (for E.R. Squibb & Sons), the case concerning the “salad oil scandal” (for the American Express board of directors), and the Long Island City plant closing case (for the “Jack Frost” company, National Sugar). As a very young partner, still in the 1960s, I litigated all major cases for Time, Inc., CBS, and IBM. It was an extraordinary experience that opened up vistas that I enjoyed for forty-four years of practice. But it couldn’t happen today.
The 1960s are, of course, mainly now remembered for great social upheavals. But many phenomena of the past continued, as if oblivious to those changes, and were still quite wonderful. The Stork Club was an elegant hangout, with its blue-and-gold room glistening with silver and crystal, its well-dressed patrons dancing to the music of a Lester Lanin orchestra. Debutante cotillions were a serious matter, and the Hamptons looked like the rural havens of a Fairfield Porter canvas. Every week offered new bursts of creativity from Truffaut, Bergman, De Sica, Antonioni, and many others, and “art houses” sprouted everywhere. T.S. Eliot was still supreme; so was J.D. Salinger; and Ariel was spectacularly published—the outpourings of Sylvia Plath (with whom I once double-dated in New Haven).
But evils abounded; hence the upheavals that were long overdue. I grew up a poor kid in Queens. Half the kids in my grade school were black, as was my date for the senior prom (of course, the prettiest girl in the class). I can still feel the shock of disbelief, seeing signs in the South for separate drinking fountains and restrooms. There were 140 students in our law school class, 14 of whom were women. Do the math! If this wasn’t a quota, it sure looked like it. Harvard was worse. They had an incoming class of 500, 5 of whom were women. My late wife, who was the smartest person in our law school class and probably in our generation, was denied a job by almost every large firm in the city. One of the most prestigious allowed that she could work in Trusts and Estates, but only for female clients, and not on a partnership track. Also, she was asked whether she could type, presumably so that she could fill in as secretary to a man on days they were short-handed.
Profound social changes, decade by decade, are like layers of one’s life. Cosmologists now increasingly believe we live in a pointless universe. I don’t doubt it. But reentering any past era, feeling its differences from today, makes one realize that the details do matter and how full life really is.