One of my most vivid childhood memories is of riding in a red-and-yellow DeSoto Skyview taxi along the old West Side Highway in Manhattan in the early 1940s past the burnt-out hulk of the S.S. Normandie heeled over in its slip at Pier 88. The exquisite art deco French liner had caught fire while being refitted as a World War II American troop ship. Later, I saw the Swedish motorship Gripsholm, now ferrying exchanged prisoners of war, moored in the Hudson. I remember grocery shopping with my mother clutching booklets of tiny colorful ration stamps and waking up to go to school at 7 a.m. in total darkness because it was actually 5 a.m.—“War Time” had pushed the clock back two hours to create more daylight at the end of the workday. And hearing Edward R. Murrow on the radio intoning, “This is London,” in the rubble of the blitz.
The war years were grim, even for New York families without men fighting overseas. The supermarket shelves and meat cases were half empty (although good customers could occasionally score contraband lamb chops slipped discreetly into shopping bags by compliant butchers). The streetlights were dim, the cars were old, newspapers thin, every tinfoil cigarette wrapper or rubber band scavenged for the war effort. Hordes of ragamuffins mobbed candy stores on rumors that unobtainable frozen Milky Way bars might be on sale. In Washington Heights, where I grew up, clutches of murmurous refugees from Hitler would gather on the Jewish High Holy Days at a fence facing west over the Hudson—a makeshift Wailing Wall.