Richard Goldstein

Published April 2010



"Helluva Town" is a helluva read. Richard Goldstein, who writes for The New York Times, is the author of several books about World War II. For his latest, he takes a line from 'New York, New York,' a song in the musical "On the Town," where three sailors on leave sing about the city as a "helluva town"
During the war, it was certainly that.
Amid the fear and patriotism, the theaters still staged plays - productions such as "This Is the Army" and "Winged Victory," and nightlife went on. Amid the bustle, refugees from Europe began pouring into New York. With them came artists, scientists and giants of the literary world.
"Helluva Town" is a fascinating look at a remarkable time and a remarkable town.


New York is big, and much of this swaggering, nostalgic history recounts the sheer size of the city's contribution to the Allied victory: the prodigies of shipbuilding and repair at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; the 81,000 WAVES churned out at Hunter College; the millions of soldiers sent overseas from New York's harbor after consoling themselves with America's glitziest nightlife ... The upheaval became fodder for the city's efflorescent culture. Insouciant Manhattanites partied in the streets during civil defense drills instead of taking cover; Broadway tunefully repurposed patriotic and martial themes in "Oklahoma!" and "On the Town;" and at the Stage Door Canteen, a nightclub for servicemen staffed by celebrities, a GI could score a dance with Laren Bacall. In these engaging vignettes, New York - lively, brave, humane - conquers not just the Axis but war itself.


Thanks to exemplary use of many firsthand accounts, Goldstein captures the spirit of the wartime city, offering enormous appeal to fans of New York City as well as to students of World War II history.


Engaging, breezy, offbeat entertainment, dappled with colorful characters, Hollywood and Broadway celebrities, statistics, spies, racism, gang wars, troop embarkations, shipbuilding and repair - the vivid, nonstop gamut of the home front in the city that never sleeps.


Goldstein chronicles how citizens, famous and obscure, acted and reacted as the nation prepared for and went to war. Drawing on interviews and memoirs, he recalls how New Yorkers remember first hearing the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; enlisting in the service or other war efforts,from conservation to victory gardens; the rounding up of Japanese, German and Italian nationals for a reverse Ellis Island experience; and Mob dock workers helping to root out saboteurs. He recalls patriots as well as spies; heroism as well as rising anti-Semitism and racism. A complex look at New York during WWII.


How the can-do spirit of metroplitan New York helped define the country's attitude toward the war ... Goldstein produces a worthwhile book for WWII buffs and lifelong New Yorkers.


Goldstein's war tales are as dramatic, exciting, revealing, entertaining as any of the battle books of the combat war from Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," Irwin Shaw's "The Young Lions" to James Jones' "From Here to Eternity." More than 17 million men and women served their country in uniform during World War II across the globe. Millions more served at home by keeping their homes, villages, businesses and communities operating safely. Goldstein's book explains that they earned as much glory."


Goldstein, who's penned a number of books about World War II, knows New York intimately. This book covers everything from Broadway's contributions to the war to the city's role as an embarkation point for the European theater. ... you probably don't know all you could about America during the war until you've read this book.


Goldstein chronicles not only New York City's magnificent contribution to the war effort, but also its concomitant scientific, sociological, and cultural transformations.... Goldstein's well-researched Helluva Town is a rich, wonderful wartime whirl through a great city.


Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, author of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One," and "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope"

Richard Goldstein has produced a rollicking, finely reported tale of the coming-of-age of the "capital of the world." All of the actors in the greatest drama of the 20th Century - Nazi spies, movie stars, talented immigrants, and the American soldiers who save democracy - come together on history's center stage - New York. "Helluva Town" is one helluva ride.


David Margolick, author of "Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink," and a contributor to Newsweek.

The iconic image of a sailor and nurse embracing in Times Square has always stood for New York City during World War II, but Richard Goldstein's "Helluva Town" gives us innumerable others to better understand, and to round out, that era: U-boats off the Long Island coast; Bundists in Yorkville; "dimouts" in the Polo Grounds; the bittersweet merriment at the Stage Door Canteen and the bizarre frivolity of the Copacabana; a city filled with troops - and troupes; rioting in Harlem; the "Normandie" aflame; European refugees and Fiorello La Guardia just about everywhere. As so many eyewitnesses to this facinating but largely forgotten chapter in New York's history leave the scene, Goldstein has brought it all back in pulsating neon.


Philip B. Kunhardt III, co-author of "Looking for Lincoln" and "Lincoln, LifeSize."

Richard Goldstein's "Helluva Town," like the hit show tune from the '40s that gave him the phrase, is brimful with affection for his native New York City. Through a series of fascinating vignettes in this tale of World War II New York, he introduces titans like La Guardia, Morgenthau, and Rockefeller, but also Sono Osato, a Japanese-American dancer whose father was among those swept into the internment camps, and Seymour Wittek, a Bronx Coastguarder who became eyewitness to a major threat to the Port of New York. Sailors, dockhands, artists, canteen workers, intellectuals, actors, Army men, and a myriad of others move through these pages, along with Ethel Merman, Moss Hart, Lillian Hellman, and Irving Berlin. As a fellow New Yorker, I reveled in the vistas into our shared history, and in an era of extrordinary human accomplishment.


In the signature number from the 1944 Broadway musical On the Town, three sailors heading out on a 24-hour search for love in wartime Manhattan sing "New York, New York, it’s a helluva town."

The Navy boys’ race against time mirrored the very real frenzy in the city that entertained three million servicemen on their way to an uncertain destiny.

This was a time when soldiers and sailors waiting to be shipped out, when defense-plant workers flush with cash, jammed the Broadway theaters, the Times Square movie houses with lavish stage shows, the nightclubs like the Latin Quarter and the Copacabana. It was a time when bobby-soxers rioted outside the Paramount in the crush to swoon over Frank Sinatra, a skinny but adored substitute for the boys who had gone to war.

Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II recalls the electricity of the wartime homefront while recounting the important role New York played in the national war effort and its emergence as the world capital at war’s end.

More than 800,000 New Yorkers went to war, and six of them received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, three of the citations bestowed posthumously.

The Port of New York became known as "Last Stop USA." While soldiers boarded troopships in the harbor, headed to Britain, the Brooklyn Navy Yard turned out battleships and aircraft carriers and repaired thousands of Allied vessels. Here, too, is the story of a wrenching winter’s night in 1942 when the famed French liner Normandie, undergoing conversion to a troopship, caught fire and capsized at her Manhattan pier, never to sail again.

Helluva Town recounts the pioneering experiments by émigré nuclear physicists at Columbia University leading to creation of the atomic bomb. It tells of the Navy officers and the pioneering Waves who trained on New York college campuses. It recalls the breaking of racial barriers at the Coast Guard boot camp in Brooklyn and the training films produced by the Army in Queens.

This is also a portrait of New York as a haven for thousands of refugees from Hitler, among them Europe’s leading scientists, artists and writers. New York healed as well: the Pfizer drug company of Brooklyn produced the penicillin accompanying the American infantrymen who invaded Normandy on D-Day.

On Broadway, the plays of Lillian Hellman, Robert Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson and John Steinbeck championed the democratic cause. Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army and Moss Hart’s Winged Victory paid tribute to the military with their all-servicemen casts; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Oklahoma!" hailed American optimism at a time of national testing; the Leonard Bernstein-Jerome Robbins production of On the Town introduced two iconic figures of American music and dance to the theater world. Broadway’s leading actors and actresses entertained servicemen at the Stage Door Canteen in midtown and at bases and hospitals around the world.

Helluva Town re-creates a time long before "9/​11" when New Yorkers felt vulnerable to a foreign foe. The city was labeled "Target Number One" if the Germans could send bombers into America’s skies or shell the coastline from U-boats. Some 400,000 New Yorkers served as air-raid wardens while antiaircraft guns ringed the city. The neon advertising signs in Times Square went dark. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia warned of terror from the skies. Calamity indeed arrived, but not at the hands of the Germans. On a summer’s day in 1945, an Army Air Forces bomber pilot fresh from combat became lost in rain and fog on a routine flight and crashed into the Empire State Building.

Here too are tales of the FBI chasing down Nazi spies in the city, Britain’s counter-espionage network housed in obscure offices in Rockefeller Center, and the Navy’s use of Mafia bosses to help avert German sabotage on the mob-run piers.

New Yorkers joined together to buy war bonds and donate blood, but racial and ethnic tensions simmered and finally burst. Longstanding racism and the indignities endured by New York’s black GIs in the training camps of the South spawned a riot that devastated Harlem in the summer of 1943. The German-American Bund, based in Manhattan’s Yorkville section, spewed anti-Semitism, and Irish-Catholic youth gangs attacked Jewish youngsters and vandalized synagogues while the police remained indifferent.

And this is the story of New York’s emergence as the power and glory of the world stage in the war’s aftermath, underlined when the newly created United Nations voted to establish its permanent headquarters astride the East River and a vast international airport arose in Queens.

Finally, a personal note.

In recalling life in the wartime city, and telling of its men and women who went to war, I was struck by the story of a particular GI. His name was Irving Strobing, he was from Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, and he was a radio operator in the Signal Corps. When he died in Durham, North Carolina, at age 77 in 1997, he made the obituary pages of The New York Times. His life over the previous three decades seemed ordinary enough: He worked for the Federal Aviation Agency and the Department of Agriculture before retiring. But the obit headline told another story: "Hero of Corregidor."

It was nearly five months since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and two months since General Douglas MacArthur fled the Philippines for Australia. In the tunnels of the rock called Corregidor, the remnants of the American forces under General Jonathan Wainwright were in the last throes of their holdout, waiting for the Japanese onslaught.

Their final words were tapped out on May 5, 1942, by Private Strobing, 22 years old and the son of a tailor.

"General Wainwright is a right guy and we are willing to go on for him, but shells were dropping all night, faster than hell. They are piling dead and wounded in our tunnel.

"My name Irving Strobing. Get this to my mother, Mrs. Minnie Strobing, 605 Barbey Street, Brooklyn, N.Y. They are to get along o.k. My love to Pa, Joe, Sue, Mac, Garry, Joy and Paul. God bless you and keep you."

Strobing’s radio message was picked up in Hawaii by an Army radio technician named Arnold Lappert, a Manhattan boy. Lappert relayed Strobing’s words to the American mainland, and they were printed in newspapers, touching the emotions of the homefront.

In September 1945, Strobing was released from a Japanese prison camp. A month later, Irving Strobing of Brooklyn and Arnold Lappert of Manhattan joined together to re-enact their connection in springtime 1942 at a Madison Square Garden pageant telling of the contributions American Jews had made in all the nation’s wars.

Strobing had graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and attended Brooklyn College for a year before entering the Army. I grew up in Brooklyn as well and I graduated from Jefferson in 1959. I, too, went on to Brooklyn College. I’m Class of 1963.

We were a generation apart. But I feel a kinship. And so a belated salute to Irving Strobing, to Arnold Lappert, and to all the men and women who left New York for the military training camps of America and their roles at home and abroad in the winning of the Second World War.

Selected Works

The fog-bound collision in the Atlantic that spawned the world’s greatest peacetime rescue at sea.
A 50th anniversary account of the battle that turned the tide of World War II.