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A Landmark Tale Brought Vividly to Life

The Buffalo News
Sunday, October 5, 2003


Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center
By Daniel Okrent
512 pages, $29.95

To many minds, Rockefeller Center is the epitome of everything Manhattan: ice skating and gargantuan Christmas trees, cocktails at the Rainbow Room, and the Radio City Music Hall, resplendent with Art Deco style and Rockette gaudiness.

To many of the minds that accidentally birthed and built the thing, it was the most beautiful landmark they never wanted to see.

From the start, "Great Fortune," Daniel Okrent's ambitious take on the history of Rockefeller Center, promises not just a great story about a famous building, but a stone-and-steel prism through which to see the history of New York, as well as its large assortment of moguls, visionaries and countless extras, all of which seemingly had a hand in Fifth Avenue's most prime piece of real estate.

Okrent's suitably ambitious take on the center succeeds on that and many other levels: it makes 433 pages seem like barely enough room to do its story justice (the remaining 80 pages of extensive index show a monumental effort to do so); it brings life to a number of lesser-known but just as fascinating people as the various Rockefellers involved; and it makes those of us unfamiliar with the particulars of Gotham's history feel like we've been living in the Village for ages -- no small feat, that.

From the start, the land that would eventually house Rockefeller Center was an unpromising commodity. It started life as a hilly, rock-strewn garden that New York State bought out of kindness and then passed on to Columbia College. It sat untapped until President Nicholas Murray Butler -- a professional acquaintance of the wealthy whom Theodore Roosevelt deemed "an aggressive and violent ass" -- saw future leasing revenues from rich folks looking to secure their neighborhood from encroaching gin mills and brothels.

At the same time, Otto Kahn was attempting to drag a number of rich and stubborn mules into a new opera house, and John D. Rockefeller Jr. was stepping into what was perhaps the longest shadow ever cast on a man. Okrent takes a particular interest in Junior, who, even after his dedicated service to the family's philanthropic ventures, would forever live up to his nickname.

"Though at Brown he struggled to escape from the prison of his shyness -- he did take up dancing, a pastime he would enjoy the rest of his life -- Junior nonetheless could not loose the knots of habit or the chafing bonds of family expectation. His Baptist mores constrained him, and his instinct for frugality struck others as penury. It did not help that he continued to record every expenditure, even of pennies, in the little accounts book he carried with him at all times, or that he once was seen struggling to separate a pair of stamps that had been glued together."

Mark Twain, a frequent visitor to Junior's imposing office at 26 Broadway, has the best line: "a plain, simple, earnest, sincere, honest, well-meaning, commonplace person, destitute of originality or any suggestion of it."

Okrent has an uncanny ability to weave extensive mini-biographies, lessons in architecture and vivid reconstructions into a seamless yarn, and has a deft understanding of the overlapping circles of wealth, business and social chatter that made the boroughs go 'round. It's not just for show, either; the place started as an opera house, morphed into a dozen variations on an office park, and drew to it nearly every character on the city's and world's stage -- Benito Mussolini, Pablo Picasso and Georgia O'Keefe, to name a few.

One could accuse Okrent of being a bit too fascinated with the architects working behind the scenes, and indeed he follows many of them from birth to Paris to death. But in an age where Art Deco landmarks are rapidly faltering and architects are often consigned to spacing trees outside big retail boxes, a trip back to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with the drunken, down-and-out genius Raymond Hood is a needed reminder of the value of the oft-hidden artform.

Junior was often amazed at how his offer to build an opera house morphed into a multimillion dollar staple of the city's skyline. Okrent takes a similarly plain-on-its-face tale and spins it into a towering feat of vivid history, one that, like the center itself, has something to appeal to almost any taste.

Kevin Purdy is a News financial reporter.