2007-10-10 / Book Review

'The End of the Innocence' Captures '64 World's Fair Era


The End of the Innocence: The 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, by Lawrence R. Samuel, Syracuse University Press, 2007, cloth, $29.95, 7 x 10, 256 pages, 55 photographs, notes, index. W hether the 1964-65 World's Fair was a success or a failure depends on who is doing the evaluating. For many people, the exposition that finally led to the transformation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Valley of Ashes" into Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and brought both Michelangelo's Pieta and the Belgian waffle to America was at once an introduction to and a confirmation of an America that would continue to lead the world in innovations, inventions and standard of living. For others, the fair was an exercise in blatant consumerism and capitalism at its crassest. One thing is certain, according to Lawrence R. Samuel in his The End of the Innocence: The 1964- 1965 New York World's Fair, the fair's effects on the world, both for the 52 million people who walked through its gates and the billions more who did not, continue today, 42 years after it closed for the last time.

Samuel offers a thought-provoking portrait of the fair and the cultural climate that surrounded it. He counters critics' assessments of the fair as the "ugly duckling" of global expositions by pointng out the lasting effects it has had on America and the world.

Opening five months after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, the fair allowed millions to celebrate international brotherhood while the conflict in Vietnam came to a boil. The fair was perhaps the last time so many from so far could gather to praise harmony while ignoring cruel realities on such a gargantuan scale. This World's Fair glorified the postwar American dream of limitless optimism even as a counterculture of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll came into being. It could rightly be called the last gasp of that dream, underlining the appropriateness of the title The End of the Innocence.

The End of the Innocence emphasizes the dichotomy that permeates any retelling of the story of the 1964-65 World's Fair. As a business enterprise, the fair lost money, Samuel says, overcharged exhibitors and offended the intellectual and aesthetic elite. But the popular memory of the fair was an experience that most visitors found "thoroughly enjoyable if not enthralling" and sparked imaginations and reshaped people's vision of the world. Given this two-sided aspect of the fair, The End of the Innocence tells the story of the fair in two ways. "Peace Through Understanding", Part I, is a chronological history of the fair from early 1958, when the concept first came into being, to the demolition of most of the buildings in 1966. Its three chapters, "The Greatest Event In History", "Heigh Ho, Ho Hum" and "Second Time Around" examine "the who, what and why of the Fair", according to Samuel's Introduction and give "a broad overview of the dynamics leading up to the event in season one and in season two". In Part II, "Tomorrow Begins Today", Samuel in three more chapters, "The House of Good Taste", "Global Holiday" and "Sermons from Science", "traces the history of the fair thematically, focusing on its commercialism, national and international identity and emphasis on science, technology and the future".

It is, of course, impossible to compile a history of the 1964-65 World's Fair without mentioning Robert Moses. "Although his World's Fair may very well have put an end to his already damaged career, Robert Moses, as usual, is no doubt having the last laugh in the big construction site in the sky," reads the first sentence of Samuel's final chapter, appropriately titled "Conclusion". Moses' ultimate purpose was turning the valley of ashes into a "dream park" for the citizens of New York City, and the 1964-65 World's Fair, even more than its 1939-40 predecessor, was instrumental in his achieving that goal. Moses, according to Samuel, used both World's Fairs as "a massive, long-term public works program to beautify a big, ugly chunk of Queens". Samuel also points out that Moses may have been right in his assertion that critics don't know anything- " or maybe it's that they simply know too much". The fair's critics, then and now, have focused on "its profoundly conservative tone; overabundance of kitschy, over-the-top commercialism; and absence of many European nations". Samuels, who as a child was taken to the fair by his parents and thoroughly enjoyed it, nevertheless gives an honest and cleareyed look at the most regrettable aspect of the fair: "that more progressive ideas and activities were not allowed to penetrate Moses's [sic] safe bubble in Queens". According to Samuel, "the Fair's real failure was that it fell short of its full potential to educate people about the world around them by not embracing a wider range of human expression, especially that of youth culture and African Americans".

Samuel notes, however, that the experiences of the individuals who visited the fair "were not only joyous at the time but often left a deep, lasting impact for the rest of their lives". As for the children who visited the fair, "it also planted a seed of the possibility to achieve great things. It may be safe to say that some of baby boomers' überachievement ethos that hit full stride in the 1980s is a result of their visit or visits to the Fair". And while Flushing Meadows- Corona Park may not rival its more well publicized Manhattan counterpart, Central Park, in beauty or grandeur, nor does it bear the name of its creator, "who knows," Samuel says, "maybe in another hundred years it will do both. Stranger things have certainly happened in Flushing Meadows."

The End of the Innocence is a scholarly, well-researched tome with extensive notes that is nevertheless accessible, entertaining, and informative. The book is richly illustrated with 55 contemporary photographs that were taken by one Bill Cotter and are candids that capture some of the real fair experiences, rather than commissioned photos that now fill archives and in many cases appear staged and artificial. Samuel also notes that almost all sources cited date from the era of the fair and do not include many subsequent memories and reflections. "Although I'm as big a fan of oral history as anyone, I felt it was important to capture events as they occurred for accuracy's sake," he says. He has succeeded: the book provides a fascinating glimpse of a way of life that existed for some people 45 years ago, a way of life that ended for everyone after the fair closed in October 1965 and the era known as the Sixties truly began.

The only error we saw in reviewing this book is the misspelling of the name of John Connor, Secretary of the Interior under President Lyndon Johnson, evidence that Samuel, whose seven other books include Pledging Allegiance: American Identity and the Bond Drive of World War II and Television Advertising and the American Dream, is a serious scholar who possesses the admirable quality of keeping his mind on his work. While The End of the Innocence is definitely written by an academic for an audience of serious students of New York City and cultural history, its lively tone and absence of pretentiousness make it worth a look from anyone who wants to learn about an era that those who lived during it thought would never end.

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