Twilight at the World of Tomorrow
A stranger-than-fiction true story about the 1939 World’s Fair and one of the remarkable characters behind it.
Nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who recognize the name Grover Whalen, a once-famous man who served as New York’s police commissioner during Prohibition and became “better known as the city’s ‘official greeter,’ practically inventing the ticker tape parade for visiting celebrities, including Albert Einstein and Howard Hughes,” writes James Mauro in Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War. “When Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight from New York to Paris in 1927, Grover Whalen was the last man to shake his hand before takeoff at the Roosevelt Field airstrip on Long Island and the first man to welcome him upon his return to the city.”Skip to next paragraph
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Einstein, Hughes and Lindbergh are not lost to history. Whalen, on the other hand, is “[u]njustly a forgotten man now,” Mauro writes. And while “Twilight at the World of Tomorrow” is concerned with a larger web of intricate, overlying threads – including Einstein’s efforts to get the United States to develop nuclear weapons before the Nazis, and the political unrest at the Fair that reflected the growing war in Europe – the most indelible character is undoubtedly Whalen, a man once “recognized on the street by more persons than any other New Yorker except Al Smith, Babe Ruth, and Jack Dempsey.”
Mauro, a former editor of Spy magazine and executive editor of Cosmopolitan, says in the acknowledgments that he wanted to do justice to this colorful, unabashed social climber who was known as “the best promotions man in the country” and served as president of the star-crossed 1939 exposition – “a $160 million ‘World of Tomorrow’ built on twelve hundred acres of primeval bog. That it was constructed on a notorious garbage heap [the infamous ash heaps mentioned in “The Great Gatsby”] stood as a prime example of unintended irony and unbridled optimism for the future, despite the looming certainty of war.”
Whalen was charged with selling this spectacle – to companies like General Electric, who’d be asked to exhibit without being allowed “to blatantly sell their product lines – a seemingly impossible task”; and to dictators like Josef Stalin and Benito Mussolini.