The History of Riley and the Roaring Twenties: Homecomings

Independence, only about ten miles east of downtown Kansas City, remains a delightful place that could be the model for an American small town of sentimental legend. It is easy to imagine the O’Neal bookstore on Maple Street, near the court house and the old town jail that once housed men like Frank James and William C. Quantrill. A few blocks away is the long-time home of Harry and Bess Truman, which offers fascinating tours. The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum is nearby.

Cornelius plainly had a major crush on New York City, as do so many others. New York in the twenties must have been especially magical: the novel doesn’t nearly describe all that was going on in the city in that lively decade. Cornelius doesn’t even mention the Harlem Renaissance, or the explosion in Art Deco art and architecture, or the world of silent movies, dominated then by New York as Hollywood was just coming into its own. He barely touches on the theater scene, where Eugene O’Neill produced masterpieces while George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin plied their trade, or the sports scene, with Babe Ruth saving baseball after the Black Sox scandal and dashing heroes like Bill Tilden, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange dominating their sports and touring the nightclubs. When you add in the things that are described by Cornelius (the birth of the modern Mafia, Prohibition and bootlegging, the Algonquin Round Table, the newspaper scene, the rise to global prominence of Wall Street finance, the reaction to the Lindbergh flight, the speakeasies and nightclubs), the notion that all these people and activities were concentrated on one island, only twenty-four miles long, is dazzling.

 Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944) was a journalist, writer and humorist, originally from Paducah, Kentucky. He wrote for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. One of Cobb’s better-known pieces is called Speaking of Operations.

 Arnold Rothstein’s history is well known and generally consistent with the summary provided by Cornelius. He was born into a respected Orthodox Jewish family in Manhattan on January 17, 1882. From early on, he rebelled against the strict morality of his parents and the demands of formal education. He preferred the streets, especially the world of gambling. He became well known in New York after winning a marathon session at John McGraw’s pool hall. He had a keen head for odds and excelled in games of chance. Over the years he owned a casino in Saratoga and real estate interests on Long Island, both of which failed and cost him great sums of money. As Cornelius describes, he was famous for flashing a big wad of cash, which earned him the nickname the Big Bankroll. He popularized the “floating crap game.” He was widely suspected to have been the mastermind behind fixing the 1919 World Series, although he always denied it and he may have been telling the truth.

 Lindy’s came to be called Mindy’s in Damon Runyon’s stories. The delicatessens in New York that currently call themselves Lindy’s are not related, other than in the desire to profit from the name.  The original Lindy’s was founded by Leo Lindermann in 1921. It was located at 1626 Broadway, between 49th and 50th Street, in the heart of the Times Square theater district. The original Lindy’s closed in 1957. While Cornelius shows little respect for the cuisine at Lindy’s, it must be said that the cheesecake there was legendary.

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