Editor's Choice May 2005

Eminent Domains

What to read this month

If, as Gaines asserts, "real estate has become a voyeuristic preoccupation in America," then this is one smutty book. It probes the world of Manhattan's most exclusive apartment houses—both the so-called Good Buildings on Fifth and Park Avenues and the now glam towers on Central Park West—and dishes plenty of tittle-tattle about such matters as the rigors of Tommy Hilfiger's shockingly successful interview with the co-op board of 820 Fifth Avenue (no endeavor on earth is more arduous than getting into one of these buildings), the details of Donna Karan's deal for her digs at 55 Central Park West, and celebrity renovations at the San Remo. The gossip is pretty tired or predictable for devoted readers of the aggressively jaded New York Observer, and the potted histories (of the development of apartments in New York, of the Ansonia Hotel, of Sutton Place) read like digests of, for example, Elizabeth Hawes's New York, New York: How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City. But Gaines's profiles of his guides—some of the fanciest real-estate brokers in the city—are charming. For the most part these people come off as ironic, skeptical, and very smart—and a lot more interesting, sensible, and humane than their clients. But what makes this book really fascinating is what makes such dated books as Cleveland Amory's and Stephen Birmingham's portraits of the rich and well-born, and John O'Hara's novels, still arresting: the analysis of minute social gradations within the privileged classes. As Gaines nicely puts it, "The location of an apartment half a block in either direction, the age or construction of a particular building … can peg your social or financial status, your religious or ethnic background, or your sexual preference." For instance, even now that Fifth Avenue has nearly completed its evolution (or, some would say, decline) into its current tinselly condition (read "the home of more and more celebrities," but really read "the home of more and more Jews"), Central Park still represents an enormous social chasm, between the East Side (read "fewer Jews") and the West Side ("more Jews"). On this very small island the differences between exclusive enclaves are at once subtle and vast; and no doubt Mariah Carey really did feel "banished," as Gaines recounts, when the co-op board of the Upper West Side's Ardsley rejected her and she beat a retreat to "the multimillion dollar confines of the lofts of TriBeCa"—where she consoled herself by hiring "the uptown 'Prince of Chintz,' Mario Buatta" to decorate her penthouse triplex. Gaines precisely dissects the distinctions between, say, the milieus of the Upper East Side's chilly and remote (in more ways than one) Sutton Place and its lovely haute bourgeois Carnegie Hill, and between Chelsea and the West Village, but surprisingly he fails to explicate those between the apartment houses on Park Avenue and the ones on Fifth (again, read "fewer Jews, more Jews")—distinctions that Tom Wolfe has keenly gauged. Indeed, some Good Buildings are better than others, and no two are good in the same way. With such formidable and intrusive vetting procedures, these edifices can't help having marked personalities; in fact, they're "vertical neighborhoods," explains the most socially exclusive of Gaines's brokers. Gaines, who wrote the similar Philistines at the Hedgerow, a chronicle of mansions and millionaires in the Hamptons, has the formula of gossipy sociology down pat; but anyone who describes the Upper West Side's Columbus Avenue—a boulevard that epitomizes urban gentrification, meaning it's lined with the favorite chain stores of the upper middle class and with far too many restaurants that serve brunch—as "a seething multicultural and honky-tonk world" with a "Tenderloin feel" has too thoroughly absorbed the peculiar viewpoint of his subjects.

London 1945, by Maureen Waller (St. Martin's). Wartime London is a great literary subject. The ravages were so terrible (pieces of children littered the bomb sites), so poignant (treasures such as the Guards' Chapel and the Great Synagogue lost, five million books destroyed in a single night in a bombing raid), and so surreal (walking back from lunch at Simpson's, an editor of the Evening Standard noticed that the blast from a V-1 flying bomb had stripped the leaves from the trees and replaced them with human flesh). Also, the sustained attack over five years on a great and civilized city provided ample scope for the usual mixture of cowardice and heroism, selfishness and altruism, fecklessness and pluck. And finally, so many sensitive and articulate people recorded and distilled their experiences there. Of course these include George Orwell ("The Lion and the Unicorn"), Anthony Powell (The Valley of Bones, The Soldier's Art, The Military Philosophers), Evelyn Waugh (Sword of Honour), Mollie Panter-Downes (London War Notes), Henry Green (Caught), Elizabeth Bowen (The Heat of the Day), Harold Nicolson (Diaries and Letters: The War Years), and Graham Greene (The End of the Affair). But hundreds of literate and well-spoken ordinary men and women—clerks, housewives, doctors, social workers—also wrote vivid, funny, moving, and stylish diaries and letters, or were interviewed during the war (in its efforts to keep citizens productive and healthy, officialdom collected information of unprecedented depth and range about their everyday lives). Although Waller isn't the first to exploit these sources specifically or this rich subject generally (London 1945 joins the ranks of such works as Philip Zeigler's London at War and Robert Hewison's Under Siege: Literary Life in London, 1939—1945), her 528-page book is at once abundantly and discerningly detailed (she aptly quotes a Walthamstow woman's description of the silent V-2s, successors of the droning V-1s, as "bombs with slippers on"), and her depiction of the daily fabric of wartime life in the capital is unrivaled. Moreover, Waller has used the last year of the war as her cynosure, an illuminating approach that allows her to show how the previous five years ruptured all of London life, from the cityscape to family relations to fashion. More important, it reveals not the familiar story of indomitable Londoners facing the Blitz but, rather, how the fervor of "their finest hour" modulated into a squalid and dispiriting routine, how defiance lapsed into snappishness, and how resilience gave way to exhaustion, cynicism, and not infrequently despair (one Croyden woman who gassed herself wrote in her suicide note simply: "The war lasted too long for me. I can't go on"). This is a sad book about a city staggering to victory.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon About the Toys in Your Cereal Box

The story of an action figure and his reluctant sidekick, who trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion


What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.


Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."


The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In