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.

The books I picked & why

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The Stories of John Cheever

By John Cheever,

Book cover of The Stories of John Cheever

Why 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.

Short Stories

By Irwin Shaw,

Book cover of Short Stories: Five Decades

Why 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.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

By Michael Chabon,

Book cover of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Why 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.

Manhattan, When I Was Young

By Mary Cantwell,

Book cover of Manhattan, When I Was Young

Why 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.

The Grand Surprise

By Leo Lerman,

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

Why 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Manhattan, comics, and 20th century?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Manhattan, comics, and 20th century.

Manhattan Explore 56 books about Manhattan
Comics Explore 121 books about comics
20Th Century Explore 696 books about 20th century

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950, This Beautiful Life, and Monster Island: A Zombie Novel if you like this list.