Volume 79, Number 12 | Aug. 26 - Sept. 1, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Text and captions by John B. Manbeck
Turner Publishing (Nashville, TN, August 2009)
216 pages; $39.95

Book cover photo ccourtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library
Key figures gathered on the Brooklyn anchorage (1878)

Wanna buy (a book about) The Brooklyn Bridge?

New book of old pictures enriches, sans coffee table

By Jerry Tallmer

On page 27 of a new book of old pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge, there is a photograph that might pull you up short, shock you and blow you away.

For just that tiny instant, you may think you’re staring at the front facade of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France — with two high-arched medieval cutouts for windows. But no, this is in fact the New York end of the Brooklyn Bridge under spiky, thorny construction circa 1874, linked only by steel cables to the much similar Brooklyn end, or tower, slightly to the right across the river in the background.

Suddenly, looking at this image, I remember the only time I ever met Samuel Beckett: one night in Paris in 1964, with the Nobel prizewinner to be, warmed up on the red wine of the workman’s restaurant he had chosen, magically educating me at some length on the genius of Viollet le-Duc, the architect who had restored Notre Dame and much else of that era.

Okay, back to Brooklyn. To my mind, the Brooklyn Bridge is not, as it’s so often labeled, “The Eighth Wonder of the Modern World,” it’s the First Wonder, bar none, come one come all.

It is my own cathedral and always has been — particularly in those years when that very bridge was not much more than a stone’s throw from where I was toiling on South Street for the New York Post.

It was in one of those years, 1983 (the bridge’s centennial) that there occurred a huge heart-stopping fireworks display, along the BB and its support cables and up and down the river, to put to shame the few scanty fireworks photos in the book at hand.

The book is “Historic Photos of the Brooklyn Bridge.”

It is — indubitably — a coffee-table book, but can serve a useful service as such if people pick it up and leaf through who know nothing whatsoever about this First Wonder of our present world. It may set them wanting more. And worrying.

Because David McCullough, who gave us the brilliant real book about that wonder, “The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge” (Simon & Schuster, 1972) — is today telling us via Internet that the very existence of the BB is now in grave hazard; like the giant Buddhas the Taliban blew up in Afghanistan.

Nor does this book of photographs more than barely mention (and thank) Ken Burns for his superlative 1981 documentary film, “Brooklyn Bridge,” crafted in large part out of McCullough’s masterwork, with McCullough himself as narrator and starring the voice of Julie Harris as Emily Roebling — riding across the bridge on opening day, May 24, 1883, with a white rooster on her lap. Some 150,000 people walked across it along with her.

But here’s what you do get in “Historic Photos of the Brooklyn Bridge”:

A photo of the head and shoulders of John Roebling, the Prussian-born engineer and steel-cable manufacturer who had the whole dazzling idea of a vast suspension bridge (longest in the then world) across the East River.

A photo of John Roebling’s son Washington Roebling, a battlefield hero at Gettysburg who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and who a few short years later took over when his father died in 1869 of an injury incurred early in the construction of the bridge.

Add ironies: Washington Roebling himself was knocked off the job — for good — by a crippling case of the bends (caisson disease) also incurred at (or deep under) the bridge. For the remainder of the construction, he can only stare out at it from a window (we look out that same window via photo) some blocks away on Columbia Heights, while his wife Emily takes over as de facto chief engineer for the duration of the great project.

And Emily? We get her portrait too, of course, one you have seen many times before — a smiling powder puff around a core of steel.

Photos, photos, drawings, engravings; the great bridge itself, in every phase of construction including a cover illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of five workmen with painting gear in hand, clinging like flies to a spider’s web of cables high, high over the East River. It reminds me of nothing so much as Margaret Bourke White’s daring shots of men in space atop the Empire State Building during the construction of that amazing project at the start of the 1930s.

Another: Master mechanic E. Frank Farrington, waving his hat with his right hand, to the (unseen) mob below, while his left hand clings to the attachment of the swing-seat he’s riding, like s tiny cable car, from one tower to another — to prove how safe it is!

Another: A drawing of the bridge’s first jumper, a certain Robert Odlum, when in 1885 he drops to his death from high over the ferry and sailboats that are paying no attention whatsoever far below — as in Auden’s great poem, Musee des Beaux Arts.

In fact, the book in its entirety is a chronicle of overlapping, contrasting modes of transportation: sail, steam, side paddle, horse and wagon, cable car, railroad, automobile, subway train, and of course the good old, bad old, human foot.

One more: A movie poster for “It Happened in Brooklyn” (Sinatra, Lawson, Grayson, Durante, 1947) autographed by the film’s songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne.

What you do not get in “Historic Photos of the Brooklyn Bridge”:

Any paintings whatsoever of a subject hundreds of superlative artists have addressed, from Joseph Stella to Andy Warhol to LeRoy Neiman and on up and down. Not to mention poets from Hart Crane to Marianne Moore to Vladimir Mayakovsky to Jack Kerouac and on up and down.

Any photography credits whatsoever (except one passing reference to Lewis Hine). This is the real crime in a book like this.

Still and all, a cathedral is a cathedral. When you turn to page 27, prepare to blink.

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