Monday, May 26, 2008

Summer in the City

"Do you remember the best summer of your life?"

This was printed on the page before the title page of Marjorie Hart's charming memoir, Summer at Tiffany. In Ms. Hart's case, the best summer of her life was the summer of 1945, when she and her best friend, Marty, traveled from their Kappa sorority home at Iowa State to Manhattan in search of a job at a department store. After being turned down by such stores at Lord and Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman, the girls set their sights on Tiffany and Co. Thanks to the aid of an "important business reference" from Marty's father (that's to say, a VERY rich man who is a VIP customer at Tiffany's), the girls land jobs as pages and become the first women to ever work the sales floor at Tiffany's. (Back in those days, men worked the sales floor, but most of the men were off to war).

Hart writes with such an innocence and thrill--omygosh, I'm working at Tiffany's!--that you feel like you're right there with her. I must admit I was envious as she described the Bonwit Teller shirt dresses, shaded in Tiffany's trademark aqua, that she and Marty had to wear each day. She writes about the thrill of seeing Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli stop by on their honeymoon and recalls how happy Ms. Garland was to be there with her new husband. She writes about modeling earrings for the heir to the Woolworth fortune. She writes about her lessons in sniffing brandy, a lesson that a salesman in the china department taught her--on a luxe table setting in the china department--just as Charles Tiffany himself stops by for a visit. She writes about lunching at the Automat each day, carefully monitoring her budget so that they could pay the rent.

In between the innocent thrills of a twenty something Iowan discovering the big city for the first time, there are some serious moments. World War II is never far from Hart's mind, as she writes about her romance with a midshipman. She also writes about the excitement of being in Times Square on VJ day--the crowds, the confetti, and the joy that overflowed from everyone. She recalls the memory of a cousin who perished over the Pacific and its effect on her family.

Summer at Tiffany is a light read, but fortunately not too fluffy. Hart does a good job of balancing the thrills of discovering New York City with the seriousness and tragedy of World War II. I managed to finish the book in two hours and didn't put it down once. One of the reasons why I liked it so much was that it was a warm tribute to a New York City that once was--glamorous, a lot more innocent--and a New York City that, sadly, will never be again.

Somehow, this seemed to be a very fitting read for Memorial Day.

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