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Manhattan, When I Was Young
by Mary Cantwell
Houghton Mifflin Company, $22.00
Mary Cantwell's second book, Manhattan, When I Was Young, invites readers into Cantwell's Manhattan life not as visitors, but to experience its fullness with all their senses. With intricate details this memoir recreates a vivid picture of New York that will draw poignant memories from any New Yorker and leave others hungering for its vitality.
Cantwell describes life in the hub of the city, Greenwich Village, and her own transformation into a "Villager". After years in the city, two children bring a need for more space, and perhaps a departure from Cantwell's loved terrain, "but giving up Greenwich village would have meant giving up not only its sweet, seedy, streets but a certain self-image. B. and I were villagers; we bore a noble heritage."
The book centers on Cantwell's search for her place in New York; this search opens up her own life and all of New York for the reader's eye. Like Cantwell, readers finds themselves wanting to know what makes New York what it is "Maybe it's different if you were born here. Maybe then you are deaf to the buzzing and the beating of wings. But I had come from out of town, and to me New York was a hive. You could not just live here. You had to be somebody, do something it didn't matter what. You were not part of the city unless you were on a bus or a subway and on you way to an office or a factory or a schoolroom."
The memoir is structured around the transformation of Cantwell from her small-town-Rhode-Island-reared self, to a University of Connecticut graduate thrust into the roar of a city that in 1953 welcomed her with open arms. Cantwell begins each section of the book with a new apartment, and a new segment of her New York existence.
Cantwell goes from an entry level position at Mademoiselle, to copy editor at Vogue, to managing editor at Mademoiselle, and finally to the editorial board of the New York Times. As she climbs the ladder of the publishing world her memoir brings us along to fashion shows, to Paris and Jerusalem on business, to consciousness raising groups in the '60s and religious fanatic retreats in the '70s. It is a whirlwind trip, which Cantwell successfully carries on with compelling insights into her own life, and the society that surrounds her.
Cantwell's portraits of her coworkers in the magazine world are particularly powerful. Through her career we get to know the editors who ruled the fashion world, their failings, and their habits. With one line, descriptions scattered throughout, Cantwell is able to satisfy all we need to know of these women who put lipstick on before talking to a man on the phone. She tells us of her editor-in-chief, "the morning after her red-faced, old New York husband's sudden death, she came to the office and sat at her desk, a red pencil in hand. Nobody interrupted her; we knew she was holding a wake in what was more surely her home than the big apartment on upper Fifth Avenue in which, we still believed, her house keeper ironed her stockings every morning."
Cantwell in these profiles and her own also manages to confront the career versus traditional lifestyle expectations of a woman in those years. We watch her win struggles, and we glimpse the attitudes towards working mothers in an office dominated by women. "I might have stayed at home. But if I had, I would have been unhappy, and not simply because a college education was going down a drain. To live in New York, to be part of New York, I had to work." And work she did, in one of the few atmospheres that accepted pregnant women, "a pregnant editor was a common place at mademoiselle trundling her belly in and out of meetings, saving up her vacation days so she would get paid for the few weeks she was home with the newborn."
Cantwell's candor--her open honesty letting us become party to the most intimate details of her life, hopes and dreams--makes her life emerge with a wonderful fullness. The problem with the memoir, and with Cantwell's own life, is her marriage. It is described from a postdivorce viewpoint and is thus colored throughout as a negative relationship. From the start we await its collapse and wondering at Cantwell's constancy. And unfortunately Cantwell is unable to carry her memoir much beyond her ruined marriage. She succumbs to the plague of so many women's autobiographies, not exploring the importance of her own life once the man has left the scene.
Cantwell's direct voice recreates a life, and a society which is quite easily visualized. Her difficulties are well worth recounting as her strong desires and emotions elevate her story beyond the scope of her own life, and make her experiences a reality to be learned from by her readers.
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