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Notable New Yorkers
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Oral History Research Office
Notable New Yorkers
New York and the Nation
Notable New Yorkers

Depending upon one's definition of generation, the interviews offered here represent two or three generations of New Yorkers who lived at a time described by Fred Siegal as a moment in the history of New York when the "Future Happened Here." From the close of the First World War, when it became apparent that the capital of the world was now located in New York, to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the combination of economic expansion, popular mobilization, a firm tax base, and federal largesse made New York the center of culture and a shining example of civic greatness. The city attracted the creative talent from its own population, for the most part the sons and daughters of immigrants, and the young and creative from the American heartland and, after World War II, from the world. By the 1950s it seemed no one could disagree with Theodore White when he described the decade as the highpoint of the city's history. The sad eulogy for the city drawn by F. Scott Fitzgerald had proven wrong. To be sure the city was not an island, but it was the center of the blue and green expanse that stretched beyond it. Like moths to a flame "the world and its mistress" came to and prospered in New York.

Such considerations are obvious in those interviews that document the rise of the important media empires such as Time, Inc., the New York Times, CBS, and Random House. But they also inform the history of unionization revealed by the story of 1199, the national history of medical-research funding, the history of various reform movements in New York, and in the history of the New Deal. While the Oakes, Heiskell, Lasker, Stanton, and Cerf interviews focus on New York as the center of American culture, the Perkins, Clark, and Foner interviews remind us that the shared base for that culture and the social order it represented was in many cases problematic and unequal, and at its best the greatness of the city was the result of a constant struggle for equality. New York may have been the center of international capital and media-made America, but it was also, as Joshua Freeman notes, a union town, and that ethos radiated throughout all its institutions, resulting in a deep sense of social responsibility duplicated nowhere else in the country. If the future happened here, it promised a level of well-being and social mobility, government service, and a widely shared sense of the exciting possibilities of life in the city.

In September of 1985, Town and Country magazine ran a pictorial essay featuring 35 quintessential New Yorkers. On inspection quintessential turns out to mean 35 people living in New York who had what the author of the essay, Owen Edwards, considered interesting jobs. The essay points to the problem of "quintessential." New York is made up of so many places, communities, historical traditions, societies, and such a complicated environment that it is impossible to select the quintessence. The interviews we have selected we have purposely not called "essential" in any form. The ten people whose memoirs are included in this site are all, in some sense, the product of the city but all are, in another sense, the product of unique parts of that city and of singular histories.

The New York that formed the consciousness of Frances Perkins, a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, was the New York after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, granting the vote to women—an urban environment which was alive with women engaged and involved in a raft of reform movements, marking their emergence as a force in the nation's politics. Perkins along with Eleanor Roosevelt, Belle Moskowitz, and hundreds of others in organizations as diverse as the Children's Aid Society, the Women's City Club, the National Consumers League, the Democratic and Republican parties and various labor unions and charitable institutions formed a milieu of political activism that provided the backbone of the state administrations of Alfred E. Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt and then the New Deal. The Perkins interview is replete with descriptions of that New York at that special moment of history and the space opened up by women for women.

As already noted the personal histories of John Oakes, Frank Stanton, and Andrew Heiskell are also the history of the agglomeration of the mass media in New York and the special role those institutions played in the development of a national culture. Only Hollywood provided some competition for the forging of the popular mind. The growth and vibrancy of these institutions provided an exciting and enormously expanding arena for the talents of those like Stanton and Heiskell, who were born elsewhere, and for Oakes, who was a member of one of the first families of the city. If there was an "American establishment," as Richard Rovere with tongue-in-cheek called it, then Stanton and Heiskell and Oakes were in its first or second tier. So too were Bennett Cerf, a third generation New Yorker, and Mary Lasker, a transplanted Midwesterner, who came to the city as a young woman to seek her future. Both became a vital part of the emerging modernist culture of the international city: Cerf as the publisher of almost every modern writer, and Lasker, first as a gallery owner, then as a major player in American political life, and finally as a philanthropist.

As is to be expected, the interviews are also deeply informative of Jewish New York. Oakes, Foner, and Koch are the sons of very different New York Jewish communities: Oakes, of the long standing German-Jewish community that formed the heart of the financial and intellectual milieu of the city for over a century, and Foner and Koch, of the great migration from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Their personal trajectories, however, are quite different. For Foner, his brothers' example and the Spanish Civil War led him first to the Communist Party and then to a lifelong commitment to the struggle for equality through the American labor movement. For Koch, half a generation younger, the formative experiences of the Second World War and the 1952 Adlai Stevenson campaign led first to a career in law, and then to reform politics and electoral office. The striking differences in these experiences show us the futility of trying to parse the history of the city to find one stream, even if we were to separate one element of the population for analysis.

So it is with Kenneth and Mamie Clark. There is no doubt that their life's work owes as much to their identities as New Yorkers as to their identities as African Americans. The institutions they founded—the Northside Center for Child Development and the Metropolitan Institute—represent an illuminating strand in the city's intellectual and educational life at the same time that they build upon the history and represent the aspirations of their community. Their deep involvement in New York institutions such as Columbia and City College (later City University) of New York nurtured their careers, and other institutions such as the Public Library and the New York Board of Regents deepened their identification as New Yorkers. But it is also clear that their experiences are but one pattern in the warp and woof of African American life in New York. Of course, the City University of New York, the higher-education system of the city, was instrumental as a New York institution in the lives of Foner and Koch as well as the Clarks. A close reading of these interviews will reveal literally dozens of ways in which the lives of these New Yorkers intersected with, and lived in, a dynamic and dialectical tension with almost all of the major institutions that have defined the city in the twentieth century.

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