cover image GREAT FORTUNE: The Epic of Rockefeller Center

GREAT FORTUNE: The Epic of Rockefeller Center

Daniel Okrent, . . Viking, $29.95 (512pp) ISBN 978-0-670-03169-6

Just as Okrent's Nine Innings beautifully telescoped all of baseball into a single game in 1982 between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Baltimore Orioles, so the former Life editor and Time Inc. executive finds in the creation of Rockefeller Center a good deal of New York and many of the contradictions in American life as the country worked to emerge from the Depression. Built for profit on a run-down stretch of midtown between Fifth and Sixth Avenues called the Upper Estate—myriad lots that underwriter John D. Rockefeller Jr. slowly and inexorably leveraged into an available whole—the seven-year project was second only to the WPA in temporary job creation, though as Okrent shows, the project was far from worker-centered. While one of its originally intended (and abandoned) roles was to provide a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, the sprawling complex came to house a hydra-headed media center anchored by NBC, RKO and RCA, yet saw its gorgeous Center Theatre torn down in 1954 (though Radio City Music Hall and the Rainbow Room remain). But the real stories here come from individual contributions to the huge project, from Junior (and his six children) to hired-artist Georgia O'Keeffe and her apparently abusive photographer-gallerist husband, Alfred Stieglitz; the Roxyettes and the Glee Club singers; engineer O.B. Hanson (inventor of "studio audiences"); and Ray Hood (who ascends from radiator-cover designer to architect of the "Radiator Building"). That the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition began during construction in 1931 as a "modest balsam" decorated by site workers with cranberries, "garlands of paper and... a few tin cans" is just one of thousands of details (including the famous commissioning and destruction of Diego Rivera's murals) that make this magisterial account, itself seven years in the making, fascinating and immediate. (Oct.)