Remembering when Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich shopped at the famous jewelry store
Summer at Tiffany. By Marjorie Hart. Morrow, 258 pp., $14.95.
By Janice Harayda
This lovely memoir is a gardenia on the lapel of this summer’s nonfiction. Marjorie Hart grew up in a Midwestern town so small that she “had no idea what street I’d lived on until years after I had finished college.” But in the summer of 1945 she and a sorority sister at the University of Iowa set out, like Dorothy and Toto, for New York City, determined to find work as salesgirls. Turned down by Lord & Taylor, they talked their way into jobs as the first female pages at Tiffany & Co., which couldn’t hire enough men because of World War II.
That alone might have been a story, but there was more to it. Hart started work at the jewelry store at a shimmering moment. New York was still reeling from the euphoria brought on by the end of the war in Europe and would soon erupt again when the Japanese surrendered. The air was full of Chanel No. 5, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and Walter Winchell’s radio broadcasts. Hart was there for all of it and restores to it some of the romance that has leached through overexposure out of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s great photo “V-J Day Sailor and Nurse.” (That picture doesn’t show you, as her book does, people ripping up their telephone books and tossing them out windows). Hart tells charming stories of seeing Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich a Tiffany’s, falling in love with a midshipman who bought her a gardenia at Jack Dempsey’s Broadway bar, and rushing to try to see a plane that had crashed into the Empire State Building.
But Summer at Tiffany is equally memorable for its loving account of the last time Americans stood united in joy, not sorrow over an assassination or terrorist attack. Some people must still find it hard to stay dry-eyed when they remember the day the Queen Mary hove into the New York harbor carrying thousands of soldiers returning from Europe who, as they streamed down the gangplank, were greeted by a band playing “Don’t Fence Me In.”
Best line: Hart’s account of waiting in Times Square for the announcement of the end of the war in the Pacific on the electric ribbon of news circling Times Tower:
“Suddenly, at three minutes after seven, the big screen went dark. The crowd seemed to pause momentarily in anticipation. When the lights came on the screen read:
“***OFFICIAL***TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPANESE SURRENDER
“A thunderous roar rose from the crowd. Church bells pealed, air-raid sirens wailed, cars honked, tugboats tooted, firecrackers explored and people cheered as confetti and paper fell from the windows. Near me, an old man threw his cane in the air.
“An army private kissed every girl he could find. Including me. Streams of tears ran down the cheeks of an elderly woman as she watched the words circling the tower.”
Worst line: Hart’s enthusiasm for New York sometimes leads to lines like, “We had to be the luckiest girls in town to be part of the Tiffany family and watch the curtain open to the toniest display of jewelry in the world.” These may be too sugary for some tastes but are believable in context and, given the cynicism of so many recent memoirs, even refreshing.
Recommendation? A good choice for reading groups looking for light reading that’s more intelligent than all the bad novels that publishers hurl at us at in the summer. At $14.95, the hardcover edition costs less than many paperbacks. Summer at Tiffany could also be an excellent gift for someone who remembers World War II, possibly in its large-print edition (HarperLuxe, $14.95, paperback).
Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Summer at Tifanny appeared in the post directly before this one on July 2, 2007.
Caveat lector: Hart creates some composite characters and compresses some timelines. Partly because she acknowledges these up front and much more directly than many authors do, these devices don’t undermine her overall credibility, though you can sometimes see the seams of stitched-together events.
Editor: Jennifer Pooley
Published: April 2007
Furthermore: Hart, now in her 80s, is a professional cellist and former chair of the Fine Arts Department at the University of San Diego. She belongs to Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, which figures in this book.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.