In The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa refers to “that most absurd of emotions, retrospective jealousy.” He’s talking about sexual jealousy; in the way of new lovers, a young woman finds herself bitterly resenting her fiancé’s old flames, real and suspected. But the phrase has wider application. I’d guess most of us have experienced a longing for past times, places, eras, that bordered on resentful. Possibility and idealism and cheap rents—it all comes together to burnish just about any time but our own.
Romanticizing is the easiest thing in the world. Sometimes it seems like our current brand of nostalgia doesn’t take skill or imagination, just a modicum of dissatisfaction, a sketchy grasp of history, and enough brain space to remember your last pass around the fishbowl. Very pernicious, too; if you don’t watch yourself, you wake up one day and you’re Christopher Reeve in Somewhere in Time. (Well, okay, that’s an extreme case.)
I tell myself this. And yet, sometimes, you are reading Arthur Schwartz’s magisterial New York City Food and you come across this description, by Ruth Gordon, of a night on the town in the twenties, and there is nothing for it but to give in.
For a really swell night out in the Twenties you’d probably start out at an elegant place like the Crystal Room in the old Ritz-Carlton on Madison Avenue. Oh, did they have wonderful food there. You ordered à la carte of course. Anything you wanted. You’d start off with the oysters, then you’d have a lovely soup with croutons on the side. Then, if you were truly eleganza, you’d have some fish, and then you’d have the game, if it was in season. (That was Fanny Brice’s great restaurant line—“Give me anything, as long as it’s out of season.”) Or you’d have the gigot—which was a big thing all by itself. Nobody thought too much about salad. Salad, in those days, was lobster salad or chicken salad. And the desserts were paradise—Baked Alaska and profiteroles! Nobody cared about diets. Everybody ate chocolates and cakes and whipped cream. Adele Astaire, a friend of mine, had a chocolate soda every day of her life, as I did for the most part, and once I said to her, “Why don’t we ever get fat?” She said, “We are just fortunate that we are blessed with poor assimilation.” I don’t know what she meant by that, but it’s true that we ate anything that we wanted to and we certainly did not get fat.
After a lovely late dinner at the Crystal Room you’d go over to Harry Richmond’s Wigwam Club. Of course it was during Prohibition so you’d have to order something like Chicken à la King just to hold the table, but actually you were there just to have more illegal drinks. Depending on how you felt at two or three in the morning, you’d make your way up to Harlem and go to Small’s Paradise or The Savoy to hear the great bands. Then you might have a snack at one of the little Harlem bistros where you would eat what we now identify as “soul food.” At seven or eight in the morning you’d arrive at Reuben’s, which was on Fifty-eighth Street between Fifth and Madison, where you would have breakfast. And everybody who was anybody was always there.
Going out in the Twenties was so glamorous, so dazzling. Everybody was beautiful and everybody was sexy and nobody was economical. If you weren’t glamorous and beautiful you stayed home. But the whole idea was to have money, to be striking. Nobody was concerned about being cultured or being talented.
Friends have suggested we try to replicate this evening, but I don’t think it can be done. After all, we’d have to do far too much thinking, and that has a way of ruining these things. Anyway, I don’t think I’d be much good at an evening like that. It sounds exhausting and gut-busting, and “the idea of having money” notwithstanding, even time travel, magic, and inter-war prices wouldn’t stand me that kind of spree.
Besides, a laundry list of restaurants and addresses misses the point. What’s appealing about this quote is not just the Rabelaisian night she describes; it’s the fact of an old woman remembering something as perfect. Of knowing what it is to never want to be anywhere else—or at least thinking you do. Doesn’t that seem wonderful? Nostalgia for nostalgia! That’s dangerous, for sure. Or at least absurd.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.