Jerome Charyn,
Gangsters & Gold Diggers:
Old New York, the Jazz Age
& the Birth of Broadway

(Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003)

New York City is so multi-faceted, so enormous and so vital that it may be impossible ever to reduce it to one thing, one essence. But if one were to try, the street called Broadway might be a good choice. Broadway was the place where the arts, commerce, sports, crime, money and changing social mores collided with each other.

The characters in Jerome Charyn's history of Broadway's glory days are a who's who of American celebrity: Irving Berlin, Fanny Brice, Louise Brooks, Legs Diamond, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, William Randolph Hearst, Jack Johnson, Al Jolson, Damon Runyon, Babe Ruth, Flo Ziegfeld. ... It was a time when white vaudevillians won many fans by performing in blackface, while black athletes were seldom allowed to compete against whites. Ziegfeld's Follies romanticized the image of glamorous women while women writers and stage performers found it difficult to win respect from their male colleagues. Jewish musicians and actors found a world where they work on Broadway while much of America remained hostile to their culture. Prohibition, organized crime and the money that flowed from bootlegging were also integral parts of the scene. In a sense, all the denizens of old Broadway were outlaws as far as the white Protestant American establishment of the time was concerned.

This is a history, albeit a history written by a novelist. The colorful array of historical figures in the pages of Gangsters & Gold Diggers might be a kaleidoscope of vivid fictional characters. This is only appropriate because so many of the denizens of old Broadway spawned their own fictional analogues in the theater, movies, fiction and even comic strips. Thinly disguised versions of them populate both the arts of their time and the works of those myth-makers who came afterward. Charyn, in fact, fleshes out his portraits of real people with reference to their fictional dopplegangers. Many of these celebrities were not above creating or embellishing their own stories, either.

This is not one of those histories with a linear timeline. Charyn's story whirls chaotically like a jumbled crowd of pedestrians on the street. A person is mentioned in passing in one chapter, only to become the subject of the next, and then reappears in others, like a guest wandering into a succession of parties. Charyn might be the guy sitting next to you at the bar, telling you about these people as they come in out of the cold and hand their coats to the hat-check girl. This conversational style leads to some instances of repetition through the course of the book, but it gains in vivid anecdote.

Those who require sources for vivid historical anecdotes will appreciate the chapter-by-chapter list of references that appears in the back of the book. (There is also a bibliography.) There are eight pages of black-and-white photos in the center of the book, but the brightest pictures from this narrative will be formed in the reader's mind.

In the end, a book with this style suits old Broadway's history better than a more linear history would. Charyn is free to draw from art, memoir and biography to create a fuller portrait of the time. Whether your interest is the social changes that resulted from this mix of cultures or the characters that have come to seem larger than life in the decades since the 1920s and '30s, you will find plenty of material in Gangsters & Gold Diggers.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 15 May 2004

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