Triumphal Manhattan. It's 1945, and the `wonderful town' is about to happen

Manhattan '45, by Jan Morris. New York: Oxford University Press. 273 pp. Illustrated. $17.95. SOMETIMES, when we travel, what we secretly seek is not a place but a time - or perhaps what we seek is a place as it was at a particular time. To some, the real New York is the Jazz Age beacon of the 1920s. Others may cherish stories (and, if they are old enough, memories) of turn-of-the-century ``Old New York.'' For many people, Manhattan in 1945 represents the city at its pinnacle: a moment in its history when it seemed most itself.

Nineteen forty-five was the year of the Broadway musical ``On the Town'' (it opened on Dec. 28, 1944, to be exact): Three sailors on leave in New York singing and dancing to the music of Leonard Bernstein, book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (all New Yorkers). Coming to Manhattan was practically a story line in itself!

Jan Morris tells us she did not visit Manhattan until 1953 (the year of another Bernstein, Comden, and Green musical, ``Wonderful Town,'' in which two sisters come to New York...). Thus, in writing ``Manhattan '45,'' Morris has embarked on a trip that relies, perforce, on other people's impressions of the city at that time - coupled with her own ability to create an imaginative reconstruction. This she has accomplished with a surprising feeling of immediacy, which comes, not because she was there but because she is so closely attuned to the momentum of the occasion. Morris has already written a fascinating account of New York as ``The Great Port,'' and her sense of Manhattan Island as doorway to the world, a haven, a forcing house, a creator of wealth and commerce, is again evident in this portrait of a modern yet mature city at its peak. She rightly makes much of the city's stance: frozen energy ready to be unleashed, a city that stood poised as much of the world shifted from wartime austerity to prosperous peace, and as the United States assumed the mantle of world leadership.

Looking at Manhattan from many angles, Morris examines the city's style, its systems of government, its neighborhoods, transportation, entertainment, manners, and morals, along with questions of race, class, and ethnicity. She treads lightly, but looks sharply: This tour is hardly a scathing expos'e of the urban jungle, but neither is it city-booster propaganda.

In 1945, Morris reminds us, New York was still a city of ships, barges, and ferries, of bridges, tunnels, subways, trolleys, and sleek, luxurious, streamlined trains like the Twentieth Century Limited. Its best-loved mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, was serving his last months in office. Frank Sinatra was inspiring bobby-soxers to go into what Morris has determined were deliberately planned and premeditated ``swoons.''

Architecture was still ``beguilingly idiosyncratic.'' The boxy International Style had not yet made inroads: Buildings zigzagged skyward in step-like formations in accord with zoning laws. Decoration flourished in a variety of modes from classical to Gothic to Renaissance. ``The skyline,'' she recalls fondly, ``was not so dense in those days, so that one could more often see the gleam of water at the end of a street - Cheever's `river light'....''

From Harlem to Chinatown to the lower East Side, ethnic diversity flourished. Some tenements were scandalously ill-suited for habitation. But the city had a system of schools that offered immense opportunity to all its students. Crime, though a real enough problem, had not yet reached epidemic proportions, and people still felt safe strolling through Central Park.

Although the pace of life was fast (or seemed so to those who came from quieter places), foreign visitors in those days noticed not rudeness, as they later would, but a high degree of formality in Manhattan manners, a quality Morris attributes both to old-line New Yorkers and to the newer immigrants and their children, who eagerly embraced the courtly style of their city.

Dedicated to the memory of nine young servicemen from New York who did not live to return to the triumphal Manhattan of 1945, Morris's unabashedly sentimental journey is narrated in a breezy, sometimes gushing style, yet maintains a high level of accuracy. Although it covers familiar ground, there are intriguing bits of information and insight that spotlight aspects of the city we may have taken for granted. Neither as elaborately conceived nor as exquisitely written as some of Morris's other works, ``Manhattan '45'' has more of the quality of a good television or film retrospective, such as ``That's Entertainment'': It provides some food for thought, some fine writing, but mostly, just fun. Yet some of this fun comes from remembering something that was genuinely good: a city that, Morris tells us, 95 percent of its citizens reportedly ``enjoyed,'' a place that combined energy and civility, and a time when the city's - and the nation's - newly generated wealth still seemed, despite the contrasts of rich and poor, a wealth in which all might share. From ``Manhattan '45''

``Like Venice, the place is all dapple. Its lights and shades are intense, and endlessly varied - the shadows of the skyscrapers slant-wise across the avenues, or plunging the cross-streets into cavernous darkness, the sudden black that New Yorkers prefer for their bars and restaurants, the flicker of bridge girders upon passing cars, the dense patterns of fire escape ladders, the shifting silhouettes of park trees along sidewalks, the tenebrous gloom, speckled and latticed with light through the ironwork above that lurks beneath the tracks of the elevated railroad.''

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