Monday, October 24, 2011

Monday Review: MANHATTAN WHEN I WAS YOUNG by Mary Cantwell (1995)

This will be a weird review because I've injected myself into the proceedings. More than usual, I mean.

MANHATTAN WHEN I WAS YOUNG is a journal of self-discovery by Mary Cantwell who was, for sixteen years,  a member of the NY Times Editorial Board. But previous to that, she'd toiled at Mademoiselle and Vogue. She also wrote several books.

I was attracted to her memoir because of the evocative title and because Cantwell and I had a few things in common, the main one being our love of NYC.

I grew up in Manhattan and was a young woman in the sixties, but I consider the fifties my formative years. Mary Cantwell, the author of MANHATTAN WHEN I WAS YOUNG,  arrived in New York from Providence, Rhode Island in the early fifties, fresh-faced and tremulous, with just 80 bucks in her purse.  She arrived, as millions of young women did (and do), to work and make a life for herself though she hardly knew what that life should be.

Like many girls of that era, she was intrigued by Sylvia Plath, was dating a boy she'd met in college and had hopes of some sort of vague career squeezed in around marriage.

Cantwell and a friend found a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village and she promptly got a job at Mademoiselle Magazine, though it was the job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art she really wanted.

The job at the Met - working on the museum bulletin, I think it was - was the one I wanted. There I would improve my mind, which the young man who was half the reason I was in New York was very anxious to have me do. "How can you read this stuff when you could be reading Virginia Woolf?" he would say when he saw me with yet another John Dickson Carr. "God! You haven't even read Tristram Shandy."

(I'd pick John Dickson Carr over Tristram Shandy anyday. Score one for Mary.)

Cantwell wanted to do something with her English Major, "...but what, besides teach, can one do with Chaucer?"

The idea I've always had of NYC in the fifties being a playground for me and my friends makes a lot of sense in retrospect. Well, I survived it and so did my friends. But here's the thing: Mary Cantwell survived too. She was fortunate. By her own admission, she was incredibly insecure and naive. If the city had been truly dangerous, she would have been devoured. She seemed that ill-prepared. No street smarts to speak of. Yet, in some strange way, despite her protestations to the contrary, she was undaunted. She kept at it.

This unflinching memoir, written in a matter of fact way, of course, reveals Mary Cantwell's personal life, her eventual marriage and even the final, cold dissolution of that marriage - painful to read. Divorce. Another thing Mary Cantwell and I had in common.

While reading and getting to know the young man who would become her husband in these pages, I kept thinking, she should never marry him - it was that obvious. But she did (she was actually grateful that he kept trying to change her) and at least, she had children who enriched her life. The last few pages detailing the demise of her marriage are incredibly sad.

At Mademoiselle Magazine, Mary Cantwell  came more and more in contact with the quirky members of MLLE's staff, for instance: famed columnist Leo Lerman whose column I read for years back then when I subscribed to Mademoiselle (and Glamour).  I always thought the girls in those pages led such charmed lives. Lerman knew everyone who was anyone and wrote about their comings and goings monthly.

Leo Lerman, the entertainment editor, sat in a sort of railed-off den behind an enormous mahogany desk, taking phone calls from Marlene Dietrich and  Truman Capote.  A plump bearded man, he lived in a house so assertively Victorian it defied the century, which was the point, and had a collection of friends so dazzling I am still dazzled by it. I knew about them only by heresay, however, from the acolytes who clustered about his desk and giggled over his every word.

These magazines were much different then than they are today. They had more influence. They were glossy fashion and life advice bibles, printed on beautiful paper and put together by talented writers, artists, photographers and designers who devoted themselves to putting out a great product every month. The pages were healthy with advertising. Sex was hinted at, but never  displayed front and center. The thick college issue alone, was worth the price of a subscription.

Oh, how I envied the girls in those pages They seemed like creatures from another world.Though I too lived in Manhattan, my life was far from glossy and never would be.

Those girls in MLLE wore twin-sets and pearls and little circle pins. They wore penny loafers. They had long smooth hair which did what it was told to do. They knew all sorts of things I'd never know. Elusive things that would remain forever mysterious to me. They were college grads!

While reading Mary Cantwell's story, I realized that she too felt as unsophisticated, as untutored by life.  She thought the people she met were more interesting, more exotic, more knowing. It's a very inhibiting thing. Something else she and I had in common.

Mary Cantwell's first job at MLLE reminded me of my job at Cosmopolitan in the early sixties. Though our duties were a bit different. Still, she and I worked in the fashion biz. Her career went much MUCH further than mine - she became an editor and author, while I quit after a couple of years to work freelance at home. Mary Cantwell hung in there, she found her niche. She became a somebody. Though I'm not sure she ever felt like somebody.


As a young woman freshly arrived in the city, Mary Cantwell had been afraid her boyfriend might be a communist.  In an era when the Rosenbergs were brought to trial and eventually convicted and executed, she had an unreasoning fear that the same thing might happen to him. He was Jewish, too. She really did worry about it.

When I was 19, I dated a guy who was around 30 at the time - if my mother had known how old he was she'd have had a conniption- anyway, I learned that my date had communist sympathies. He had a picture of Lenin in his bedroom. (I was only in there long enough to drop my coat during a party.)

Of course, that added even more exotic allure to someone who appeared to be a man of the world. In truth he turned out to be a double-dealing dolt. I found out he was dating the sister of a good friend and she had marriage plans So, what was he doing with me?

I dumped him. He was too old for me anyway.


I admit that as much as I got caught up in Mary Cantwell's life, her work, her colorful travels to Europe, my main interest still, was the city I knew so well once upon a time. A Manhattan I miss to this day:

After school snacks at Woolworth's. They had the best soft ice cream sundaes served in tall soda glasses. It was really just vanilla ice cream and strawberry syrup, but I've never tasted anything better. We also ate at the Automat - the place where I was first introduced to peanut butter and raisin sandwiches.

The Automat was a magically efficient place where each individual portion of food was kept behind glass doors trimmed in shiny yellow brass. You dropped nickles into the slot and the little rectangular doors would open and you reached for your pie or sandwich or beans or whatever. They made the best macaroni and cheese, bar none.

Later it was Schrafft's. I still remember the darkly panelled look of those homey, comforting restaurants. The pleasant waitresses. Schraffts.

I shopped at Gimbels or Macy's or Ohrbachs. Right across the street from the oh-so-exotic (to me, at least), Bloomingdales was a large store devoted to the sorts of prices Marshalls and maybe Wal-Mart have now. It was called Alexanders (I shopped there too), and once while I was working at Cosmo, Helen Gurley Brown (the editor in chief) spotted my outfit, liked it, and asked me who  the designer was. I said, smugly, "Alexander's basement."

One evening we all went to a party in Sutton Place at a magnificent duplex owned by the family that owned Alexander's. Those were fun perks. Especially for a girl from the lower east side of Manhattan.

Were the women who worked on fashion magazines like Vogue in the late fifties crazier than the ones who work on them today?  (Mademoiselle, but for its fashion editors, attracted more bookish types, the kind who later staffed publishing houses.) Or is it that I, small-town and shy, saw anyone whose sophistication exceeded mine as exotic?...The late fifties at Vogue, and presumably Bazaar, represented the madwoman's last hurrah.

Remember FUNNY FACE with Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn? Kay Thompson was perfection as the ultra sophisticated fashion magazine editor. I thought of her immediately when I read the above paragraph. "The madwoman's last hurrah."

Also thought about THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, another fashion business oriented film starring Meryl Streep as a calm, cool, sophistiated, perfectly dressed ogre. Not any less 'crazy' than the women in the fifties who ran the fashion mags. So, I suppose it's a permanent part of the biz.

"Would you look at those buttons!" screeches the fabric editor, whose hair is a kind of Seven Sisters pageboy (though she herself dropped out of someplace on Long Island) moored with a silver barrette. "Those buttons are impossible!"

..."Well", one or two or three of us say, because this is the prescribed response to the ghastly, "it's a look."


Mary Cantwell developed a life-long love affair with Greenwich Village. While married and with small children, the idea of having to move to larger quarters on, say, the the upper West Side was unthinkable . They were 'Villagers.' They  had become Villagers.

She loved Greenwich Village (in the same way I do, though I never lived there), or what she imagined the Village to be. Anyone who knows the Village knows that back then, it was a place of invention.

What do I know of these rooms, some of which are shuttered? Nothing, really, only that they are spare and clean and that they have wide floorboards and small fireplaces. These are the rooms in which I have always wanted to live, the material equivalent of Jane Austen's prose, and that they once existed in the Greenwich Village is reason enough for me to believe that some of them still do.

Cantwell became Managing Editor at MLLE, she also worked for Vogue. She was a member of the NY Times Editorial Board and died in 2000 at the age of 69.


  1. What a lovely review and post.

    I suppose as I was born in the early sixties, my formative years should have been the seventies, but the truth is I feel more at home in the quiet, boring fifties. I wouldn´t want to go back to poverty and all the restrictions for intelligent women, of course, but I don´t like the fast pace of our time very much.

  2. Thank you, Miss Dorte.

    I'm with you when it comes to disliking the too fast pace of our times. Jeez.

    Take a breather why don't you? That's what I want to say sometimes. On a loudspeaker. To the whole world. :)

  3. A fantastic review of Cantwell's book, and discussion of Manhattan in those so stylish days. I've got to read the book. Thanks so much for sharing your own memories. Always love to read about NYC through your eyes.

  4. Thanks so much, Jacqueline. I think you'd like this book. Though it's rather bittersweet, it really evokes the Manhattan of another age.

  5. Perhaps this will explain why my daughter found her home in NY.

  6. Patti: She's very fortunate indeed, to have done so. If I could, I'd still be there.

  7. This sounds like a fascinating biography, Yvette. As a Brooklynite, Manhattan was always "the city" to me and I was fascinated, if not greatly intimidated by it. As a girl from a lower middle class family I never read Mademoiselle or Glamour as they were out of my league. I was focusing on a career in Nursing as a way to make a living and in the early 70's that life was rather austere. Your life working at a magazine sounds so glamourous to me! I was not even up to an Alexander's level back parents bought our clothes at John's Bargain Stores that was located near Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

    When I was around 12 or 13 I began taking subway trips by myself into Rockefeller Center or the museums on museum mile. I always had the desire to see new things and they were such exotic places for me!

    I did have the opportunity to work in St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village in the late 60's and the allure of the Village was also strong with me. I remember listening to Richie Havens sing in Washington Square Park and ordering my first restaurant meal of my life in "La Crepe." I sought out e e cummings home on Patchin Place and Bob Dylan's pad on McDougals. I always wanted to live in Greenwich Village, and still do, although I think Williamsburg in Brooklyn is the new "happening" place for many young people these days and the Village is past its prime.

    My daughter went to NYU, so I lived the Village life vicariously through her for the few years she lived on campus. I feel happy my kids were able to do a lot of the things I was only able to dream about.

  8. Not only do I want to read the book, I want to visit New York and take you out for a coffee so I can hear more of your stories! I just picked up a stack of Seventeen magazines from 1949 and 1950 and it's amazing how much that magazine changed from that time to the time I read it (not regularly, I always thought it was so dumb but I could spend hours with the issues from the '50s and '60s!). I'll have to keep an eye out for old issues of Mademoiselle and Cosmopolitan.

  9. What a great review of what sounds like a fascinating book.

    Your post brought up so many things I miss about New York City, as someone who loves living here.

    I miss Woolworth's. I used to get everything there. There was one in my current neighborhood, but it closed. Now I don't even know where to buy thread. Where to buy buttons? An enigma. So many other things.

    And I miss the Automat. There was also one in my neighborhood, where friends and I would sit for hours.

    I figuratively lived in Alexander's in Rego Park during my high school days, the place my friends and I got our clothes -- my turtlenecks and tights.

    And Macy's and Ohrbach's, and even Gimbel's -- yes. Even later on, in the late seventies, I bought a pair of red leather sneakers at Ohrbach's for $10 -- a great pair of shoes.

    And apropros to a blogger above, I look at Patchin Place now and then; it's lovely.

    And while I spent much of my high school career hanging out in "the Village," and it's different now, it's still got great restaurants, Italian cafes, Washington Square Park -- and other places to hang out.

  10. Yvette, you've just gotten me to add yet another book-I-must-read to my ever-increasing stash! Your review of MANHATTAN WHEN I WAS YOUNG brought me back to my dear late mom's colorful anecdotes about her own fascinating life. Like Cantwell, Mom worked in the fashion industry for a time, including staging fashion shows to benefit charities. Although Mom was young Mary Cantwell's age in the 1940s, it sounds like she and my mom and other young yet soignee friends and loved ones of hers had a lot in common. I loved your affectionate review. Great post, Yvette, as always!

  11. Pat: We live again through our kids. :) I remember so many times heading up (from the lower east side, the Village was 'up') to walk around, have some dinner or drinks or look in the shops or just absorb the vibes. Occasionally we went to a club. Though I lived in the city, the Village was still exotic. :)

    I remember La Crepe! Loved it. We felt so Frenchified. Ha!

    Do you remember Klein's on 14th Street. Gone.

    Pat, we were working in the city at the same time!

    I loved Alexanders. Sad day when all these stores closed. So many besides ALexander's.

    B. Altman
    Best and Co.
    Arnold Constable
    W&J Sloane
    Is Ohrbach's still there?

  12. Lauren: I'm not sure I have all that many stories. We could have an expresso. Got enough stories for that. :) I was lucky enough to live and work in the city when it was a lot of fun to do so. Though, thinking back, by the time I was working at Cosmo I think I was living in the Bronx. I was newly married and the Bronx had large affordable apartments and was relatively safe in those days.

    A few years later, the area I'd lived in for a couple of years was like a ghost town. My favorite restaurants gone. The whole neighborhood a dangerous, crime-filled shambles. So sad.

  13. Kathy: If I could have stayed in the city forever, I definitely would have. Even though today it's SO different from what I remember.

    I would gladly live in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. :)

    My boss at Cosmo had a gorgeous apartment on W. 10th Street. She actually had French doors that opened onto a small garden. I LOVED it! I thought it was the most special place.

    We once did a fashion photo shoot at her place. So much fun. But lots of hard work.

  14. Thank you, Dorian. I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

    Memories. It's how we keep the past alive. Thank goodness.

    Your mom and me and Mary Cantwell and Pat were probably all working in the city at different times but overlapping each other. :)

  15. West 10th Street is still beautiful; the whole West Village is nice. It is.

    I had forgotten about Altman's, where occasionally I would go. My dentist's office was across the street, and I'd walk through Altman's, look at everything on the main floor. And then use their comfortable rest room. It had lots of comfortable chairs. And then I'd get iced tea or something and sit.

    I like the city today very much. I live in a great neighborhood where everything is available -- except everything that Woolworth's used to carry.

    The one thing I miss in my neighborhood is a good bookstore, with a coffee bar.

  16. I haven't been there in years, Kathy. But I have my memories. :)

    I LOVED B. Altman. The day they finally closed, I went there specially to buy something on that last day. (I went to the Altman's in Short Hills.) Sad day. I was a bit teary-eyed. The New York main store was such a gorgeous place. The Christmas windows alone were were oh so wonderful every year. I still have my pink Altman credit card. A memento.

  17. Okay. Finally got to read this book. I loved it, despite the crushing sadness of many memorable scenes. Such astute observations on the era. Remarkable to be able to illustrate with such frankness events so personal, and moods and anxiety so little understood by her back then. I'll brood about it for a long time. Thank you so much for posting on Cantwell's memoir.

  18. I'm glad you enjoyed this book, Jacqueline. (Didn't you want to stomp on her husband near the end?)

    I'm so pleased when a book I recommend winds up being read and appreciated by a friend. :)

  19. Yes, I did want to stomp on husband. I would have wanted to give her a good shake, too, except for the splendid way she turned out.

  20. Yeah, I wanted to shake her as well. I kept thinking: DON'T MARRY HIM!

    But as you say, she turned out splendidly in spite of that dolt.


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