America's Town Square

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In 1935, many years before Katie Couric put her blessing on the place, the estimable Gertrude Stein laid eyes on the spanking-new Rockefeller Center. She planted herself on the Fifth Avenue side, gazed down toward the RCA Building and, in that singular way of hers, pronounced the view "the most beautiful thing I have ever seen ever seen ever seen."

Stand in the same spot today, and what can you do but agree agree agree? Let's concede that the place could use a few more outdoor cafes and trees. But outside of Central Park, Rockefeller Center is the handsomest great space in New York City and, for that matter, in the U.S. In an era when the public realm barely gets even lip service anymore, it is proof that the profit motive and the general good can coexist, that beauty can lie down with the beast and give birth to grandeur, civility and ordinary sunlit life.

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Which is part of what makes Great Fortune (Viking; 512 pages) great reading. More than just a supremely entertaining book, Daniel Okrent's cartwheeling account of how Rock Center came together is indispensable for anyone looking for reason to believe — and who isn't? — that we can pull off the same miracle where the World Trade Center stood. What we learn from Okrent, a former editor of LIFE magazine, is how a group of mismatched and combustible characters could make the thing happen. It didn't require much. All they had to do was undertake a project that would have stumped the pharaohs, fight like pit vipers, face down the Depression, fend off naysayers on all sides and still produce what Okrent calls an "aesthetic, commercial, and — there's no other word for it — emotional success."

When the Center got under way, nobody was predicting any such thing. The Rockefeller who built the place was not John D., the great, striding patriarch, but John Jr., his self-minimizing son. Ultra-prudent, teetotaling and possessing what Okrent calls a "clenched psyche," Junior — almost everybody called him that or, worse, Mr. Junior — nonetheless managed to launch the massive Rockefeller philanthropic operations. And when his advisers talked him into leasing 11 acres in midtown Manhattan, a deal that required paying $3.6 million a year in rent to Columbia University, he unflinchingly initiated the largest construction project in American history to increase the value of his new holdings.

Next to him, the major figure behind the Center was the great architect Raymond Hood, linchpin of the design team. Brilliant, charming and not infrequently pixilated, Hood was one of the pioneers in the transition from Gothic Revival and Beaux Arts skyscrapers to the sleek, mostly unadorned towers of the 1930s. Did Junior want his new buildings crowned with arcades, wreaths and maybe a nice pergola? You bet he did. But Hood, who died before the Center was completed, gave him, with the RCA Building, a modern masterpiece that Rockefeller never fully comprehended.

Okrent adroitly retells the famous story of young Nelson Rockefeller's run-in with Diego Rivera, the Mexican artist whose mural for the lobby of the RCA Building — a dreadful kitsch effulgence, by the way — was demolished on Nelson's orders after Rivera slipped in a portrait of Lenin. Okrent is also supremely funny on the subject of S.L. (Roxy) Rothafel, creator of superabundant picture palaces along Broadway, those Moorish-boorish Odeons, who was the man chosen to guide development of Radio City Music Hall. Once he was in the job, fate teamed Roxy with Deskey — Donald Deskey, the great evangel of Art Deco who had won a competition to design the Music Hall. Dedicated to all things Moderne, Deskey is the man who saved us from Rothafel's stated dream for the Music Hall: "Portuguese Rococo."

The whole of Rockefeller Center could easily have ended that way — badly. What makes Great Fortune such a delightful story? Incredibly enough, it all went great.