A “BEHIND THE SCENES” LOOK AT THE NEW YORK WORLD’S FAIR
Last evening I stayed late at the museum to serve as moderator for the Wolfsonian’s book club, meeting to discuss James Mauro’s Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War. It was only fitting that our group met in the museum’s conference room since there are two museum objects from that fair hanging on the walls. Hammered and soldered out of sheets of brass, Hildreth Meière’s sculptures of the Pharmacist and Maternity were originally displayed in the New York World’s Fair’s Hall of Medicine building promising better living through chemistry and modern medicine.
The book club participants were fairly divided in their opinions about Mauro’ Twilight: while everyone in attendance was enthusiastic about the subject matter, some felt that the book failed to fully deliver. While everyone lauded the author’s researching skills, his eye for detail, his skill at describing the intricacies of some of the famed exhibits, and his ability to flesh out characters like Grover Whalen, Robert Moses, Albert Einstein, many had trouble with his execution of plot and narrative style.
Taking advantage of my position as chief librarian, I led the group upstairs to the library to see some of our New York World’s Fair materials. The library holds important collections of materials from most of the world’s fairs and national and international expositions beginning with the so-called “Crystal Palace” Exposition in London in 1851, and trailing off in the wake of the 1939-1940 fair in New York City. One item designed as propaganda to be distributed at the Soviet Pavilion at the NYWF is on currently on display in the library exhibit: Statistically Speaking: The Graphic Display of Data. USSR : an album illustrating the state organization and national economy of the U.S.S.R. features colorful statistical symbols designed by Russia’s premier graphic designer, El Lissitzky in an English language publication touting the achievements of the U.S.S.R. while America remained in the doldrums of the Great Depression.
After a quick perusal of the exhibit in the foyer, we headed inside the library for a private viewing of some other NYWF materials in the library collection. Since Mauro’s book centered around the outlandish character of Grover Whalen, the self-appointed and self-important “ambassador” of New York and president of the NYWF, I thought our guests might appreciate seeing and reading his own publicity statements published in periodical bulletins.
The library also holds a number of quirky keepsakes that capture the spirit of New Yorkers, including a puzzle, a build-it-yourself NYWF game board, and a Ciné Vue souvenir.
The library also possesses a hilarious publication lampooning the fair’s ubiquitous symbols, the Trylon and Perisphere. In Trylongs and Perisites, author Oley O’Leahy provided New Yorkers with tongue in cheek advice on how to “defend yourself” from the “world’s unfair guests.”
The Wolfsonian library also has a program from the highly popular “Futurama” exhibit as well as from Billy Rose’s Aquacade, which, according to James Mauro, was one of the few concessions that turned a profit during the fair’s two season run.
Mauro writes that when fair attendance waned and finances grew dire, miserly Harvey Gibson replaced Grover Whalen as de facto head of fair management. Gibson’s draconian cuts and his attempt to “dumb down” the fair during its second season to appeal to “regular folk,” however, failed to attract larger audiences or stave off the inevitable. Mauro also provided a scathingly funny recounting of the blundering statements made by the new fair’s mascot, “Elmer” during his kick-off press conference.
In Twilight at the World of Tomorrow, Mauro argues that Grover Whalen’s lofty ambitions for the New York World’s Fair were doomed by the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. It could be argued that by 1939, Americans had to have been suffering from fair-fatigue—after all, in addition to the Century of Progress Exposition (1933-34 : Chicago) noted by the author, there had also been the California Pacific International Exposition (1935-36 : San Diego), the Great Lakes Exposition (1936 : Cleveland), the Texas Centennial Exposition (1936 : Dallas), not to mention the competing exhibition on the West Coast, The Golden Gate International Exposition (1939: San Francisco)—all intent on fighting unemployment and stimulating domestic tourism.
GIFTS OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA
One would image that in the tail-end of the Great Depression, cash-strapped Americans might be hesitant about spending money on travel and accommodations in New York City.
But there are other items in our NYWF collection that do, in fact, support Mr. Mauro’s contention that the fair was yet another casualty of the European war. We have, for example, a Book of Nations catalog that defiantly pictured the unfinished Czech0-Slovakia pavilion; a voluminous exhibition catalog in Polish and English languages lauding Polish culture and civilization even as the country was invaded and partitioned; and an official guide book of the Belgian Pavilion—all casualties of totalitarian aggression that seemed to foretell a nightmarish future rather than the rosy world of tomorrow packaged to the world by Grover Whalen and his collaborators at the NYWF.