The best books if you’re delusional and want to pretend you live in 1940s Manhattan

Robert Trachtenberg Author Of Red-Blooded American Male: Photographs
By Robert Trachtenberg

Who am I?

Born and raised in Los Angeles, I’ve been obsessed with the romance and “bygone world” of Manhattan in the 40s and 50s since I was a kid. Working in bookstores through high school and college, I quickly gravitated towards The New Yorker magazine which introduced me to John Cheever, Irwin Shaw, and many wonderful authors. Whether it was books or magazines, I couldn’t imagine a more interesting career than working in the New York publishing world - until I went there for job interviews and heard how little they paid. Back in Los Angeles, I figured out how to join from afar without having to live with six roommates on the Lower East Side.

I wrote...

Red-Blooded American Male: Photographs

By Robert Trachtenberg,

Book cover of Red-Blooded American Male: Photographs

What is my book about?

From leading men to comedians, ballet dancers to quarterbacks, war veterans to Broadway veterans, Red-Blooded American Male features more than 100 imaginative, striking, and sexy portraits from award-winning photographer Robert Trachtenberg. Pithy captions about each shoot accompany the photographs, giving readers a peek behind the curtain of a famed portrait photographer’s creative process and his world-renowned photographs.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Stories of John Cheever

Why did I love this book?

Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, this is the gold standard - it doesn’t get any better than this. Cheever is to the short story what Edward Hopper is to painting: an absolute master at conveying the inner life of his characters, and to quote Philip Roth, “an enchanted realist.” I know many people say they don’t like short stories because there isn’t enough character/plot development, but these stories are like a beautifully engineered watch - everything you need is there.

By John Cheever,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Stories of John Cheever as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

John Cheever's Collected Stories explores the delicate psychological frameworks of 20th century suburbia.


This outstanding collection by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Cheever shows the power and range of one of the finest short story writers of the last century. Stories of love and of squalor, they include masterpieces such as 'The Swimmer' and 'Goodbye, My Brother' and date from the time of his honourable discharge from the Army at the end of the Second World War.

Book cover of Short Stories: Five Decades

Why did I love this book?

Like Cheever, Shaw was a fellow New Yorker contributor but his work is grittier than Cheever’s and was best summed up in The New York Times: “[Shaw] has a primitive skill possessed by very few sophisticated men.” Winner of two O. Henry awards, I would say he is the “meat and potatoes” short story master - but it’s Prime USDA.

By Irwin Shaw,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Short Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Featuring sixty-three stories spanning five decades, this superb collection-including "Girls in Their Summer Dresses," "Sailor Off the Bremen," and "The Eighty-Yard Run"-clearly illustrates why Shaw is considered one of America's finest short-story writers.

Book cover of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Why did I love this book?

Another Pulitzer Prize winner, but this time there’s nothing short about this story - it’s epic! To quote the flap: “A young escape artist and budding magician named Joe Kavalier arrives on the doorstep of his cousin, Sammy Clay. While the long shadow of Hitler falls across Europe, America is happily in thrall to the Golden Age of comic books, and in a distant corner of Brooklyn, Sammy is looking for a way to cash in on the craze. He finds the ideal partner in the aloof, artistically gifted Joe, and together they embark on an adventure that takes them deep into the heart of Manhattan, and the heart of old-fashioned American ambition.” A great, page-turning pleasure ride.

By Michael Chabon,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay' is a heart-wrenching story of escape, love and comic-book heroes set in Prague, New York and the Arctic - from the author of 'Wonder Boys'.

One night in 1939, Josef Kavalier shuffles into his cousin Sam Clay's cramped New York bedroom, his nerve-racking escape from Prague finally achieved. Little does he realise that this is the beginning of an extraordinary friendship and even more fruitful business partnership. Together, they create a comic strip called 'The Escapist', its superhero a Nazi-busting saviour who liberates the oppressed…

Book cover of Manhattan, When I Was Young

Why did I love this book?

This is an elegant, finely written memoir by a former writer and editor at Vogue, Mademoiselle and the New York Times that offers an interesting hook: her story is set in five different apartments in Manhattan as her life progresses from single working girl to professional and personal success and hardships including motherhood and divorce. If you’ve ever dreamed of working at a magazine in New York City - particularly during this golden period, then this is the book for you.

By Mary Cantwell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Manhattan, When I Was Young as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mary Cantwell arrived in Manhattan one summer in the early 1950s with $80, a portable typewriter, a wardrobe of unsuitable clothes, a copy of The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a boyfriend she was worried might be involved with the Communists and no idea how to live on her own. She moved to the Village because she had heard of it and worked at Mademoiselle because that was where the employment agency sent her.

In this evocative unflinching book Cantwell recalls the city she knew then by revisiting five apartments in which she lived. Her memoir vividly recreates both a…

Book cover of The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman

Why did I love this book?

I’m not going to lie: this is not for everyone. You really have to be interested - and conversant - in the cultural world of post-war Manhattan (and beyond) for this to sink in. Lerman, who was features editor at Vogue and editor at Vanity Fair among other jobs, was at the center of it all. I could name drop from the book for days, but trust me, everyone from Marlene Dietrich to William Faulkner were regular guests at his parties. More importantly, his position allowed him to champion the careers of artists in every field - writers, singers, painters, etc. An astute social critic, the book offers a dazzling look at a very specific time and place in American culture. Surprisingly, I found that passages regarding his adolescence to be among the most lyrical and moving.

By Leo Lerman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Grand Surprise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A remarkable life and a remarkable voice emerge from the journals, letters, and memoirs of Leo Lerman: writer, critic, editor at Condé Nast, and man about town at the center of New York’s artistic and social circles from the 1940s until his death in 1994.

Lerman’s contributions to the world of the arts were large and varied: he wrote on theater, dance, music, art, books, and movies for publications as diverse as Mademoiselle and The New York Times. He was features editor at Vogue and editor in chief of Vanity Fair. He launched careers and trends, exposing the American public…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Manhattan, cartoonists, and New York State?

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