My personal preference sees me mostly sticking to fiction, but occasionally I like to learn a little more about a real person or true story that I find fascinating. For the fourth book on my reading challenge this year, I asked my friends to recommend a memoir or biography.
My friend Joel recommended "Summer at Tiffany" by Marjorie Hart, a memoir published in 2007 about living in New York City during the summer of 1945. He said of the book, "I picked it up out of curiosity, and it stuck with me because it was such a perfect window into a very specific time frame." I believe he even called it "short, but kind of magical."
Marjorie and her best friend and roommate happened to be the first females to work on the sales floor at Tiffany & Co. It was 1945, in the midst of World War II, and the two college girls from the Midwest took a summer off from the University of Iowa, saved money for train tickets by collecting Coke bottles, and headed east, landing summer jobs as pages at Tiffany's Fifth Avenue store. Pages delivered items from the sales counters to the repair and shipping departments, requested by the salesmen by a signal: a sharp rap of their diamond ring on the glass countertop.
Interestingly, we see a few historic events through Marjorie's eyes, but she doesn't pretend to be an historian documenting those moments. The events are relayed through the filter of a young girl's naivety and wonder, holding equal footing in the memoir with other events that held as much interest to her at the time. The parade celebrating General Eisenhower and the crash of a B-25 into the Empire State Building in a thick fog are written about in as much detail as seeing Judy Garland or Marlene Dietrich enter the Tiffany store or attending the dances at nearby Barnard College to meet midshipmen.
As it is a memoir, the true focus is on Marjorie, Marty, their friends, their summer flings, and their jobs. Readers will learn more about the fashions of the day and the effect the war had on those ("stocking stick" -- a sort of roll-on tan for the legs -- was a thing back then because nylons were not produced during the war but it was practically scandalous to go out with nude legs) than they will about anything regarding the war itself.
For the record, I am so entirely far from fashion-conscious that I know absolutely nothing about fashion from any era, so often times while reading this book I had to look up what a dress cut or style was, or a type of fabric she mentioned that I didn't know, so that I could gain a clearer picture of what she was describing. However, I was enrapt with the passages about the two seeing the ocean for the first time or being in the throng of people in Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945, when the official surrender of Japan was announced on the Times Tower screen -- which at that time was actually 15,000 lightbulbs on panels operated manually by two people.
Mostly, the memoir is worth reading for the time capsule aspect of it. Hart paints a picture of a Manhattan that no longer exists, with stores and technology that disappeared long ago and fashions that have yet to come back in style. Written 60 years after it all took place, Hart has transported herself back to that time so fully in the telling of it that it's easy to forget that it takes place in the past. Her author's voice is that of the same young college student leaving home for the first time, and it's wholly reminiscent of listening to a grandparent relay engaging stories of their youth -- when the time drops away from them and they remember those stories like yesterday, sending them into such a youthful reverie that they are less of a grandparent at that moment and more of a young peer, excitedly talking about their day with a friend.
Based on the title, it wasn't a book I probably would have picked out myself, but I am glad I read it. As Joel said, it's a fascinating portrait of a specific point in time, told from the perspective of an extraordinarily normal girl. Combined with the images from the end of WWII that most people have seared into their brains, it was easy to forget that I wasn't actually there while reading this book.