The Jollity Building by the journalist A. J. Liebling is a fascinating examination of New York City’s history from below, by looking at one community between Forty-second street and fifty-second street in Manhattan known as the Telephone Booth Indians, a population of hucksters (“in what my Marxian friends would call a state of pre-primary acquisition”). The emphasis on “telephone booth” comes from the necessity of each member to have access to public phones for their lives. “The Telephone Booth Indians are nomads who have no attained the stage of culture in which they carry their own shelter. Like the hermit crab, the Telephone Booth Indian, before beginning operations, must find a habitation abandoned by some other creature, and in his case this is always a telephone booth.” (412)
The Jollity Building really seems to read like a history from way, way below, or perhaps what we can call a history from the gutter. It almost required a journalist to tell this story. Historians, focused on documents and official narratives, would tend to miss people like the mobile Telephone Booth Indians. But they seem to us, through Leibling’s account, to be entirely necessary to a full understanding of how the city worked politically, economically, and socially.
The book is made up of four stories. The first is about Izzy Yereshevsky, from Jewish peasant blood, who owned a cigar store on Forty-ninth street. Now, while Izzy himself seems legitimate (even refusing to drink and working all day), he is surrounded by a large population of more marginal people who are absolutely dependent on the cigar store as a center of their lives. Izzy offers credit (by accepting bad checks), helps book bets, and provides a neighborhood center of sorts. “The I. & Y. is also a free employment agency for hat-check and cigarette girls who meet concessionaries there. On winter nights, too, a few bedraggled ladies without escort come in to warm their feet.” (418) Places like Izzy’s cigar shop are the most important institutions for the working poor of the city.
The next story called “Tummler” is about Hymie Katz, a more suspicious figure from the neighborhood. He runs horse race betting establishments, clubs, whiskey wholesaling and other businesses crucial to the area but unlike Izzy lacked some of the legitimacy, partially because he constantly changed what he was doing. One club he ran made $250,000 in fourteen months. His social life is no more stable. As an unmarried man, Hymie is free to focus on his entrepreneurial activities. His clubs suggest a sort of capitalism from below, they are even capitalized from the gutter, so to speak. “All Hymie needs to open a night club is an idea and a loan of fifty dollars.” (421)
The next story is a closer look at the “Jollity Building” itself and the Telephone Booth Indian schemers. “A Telephone Booth Indian on the hunt often tells a prospective investor to call him at a certain hour in the afternoon, giving the victim the number of the phone in one of the booths. The Indian implies, of course, that it is a private line. Then the Indian has to hang in the booth until the fellow calls. To hang, in Indian language, means to loiter.” (432) This scheme requires them to sit all day in the lobbies so they become a conspicuous part of the neighborhood life. Inside the building there is a rich cultural life as well, as many tenants teach singing or dancing lessons, while others promote entertainers. The “Jollity Building” is really a history of entrepreneurial capitalism from below.
The final part of this short book, called “Yea Verily” moves our gaze up a bit, but we still find ourselves in the realm of scheming. It is about “Colonel John R. Stingo” who wrote articles for the New York Enquirer. He is a con-artist on a slightly larger scale than the Telephone Booth Indians. Liebling wrote about him in another work (The Honest Rainmaker). We see in some of Liebling’s other works (most notably The Press) that he was suspicious of journalism, but in this work it is hard to know for sure if Liebling is not playing a con on us (I suspect all journalism is the same, despite its desire for objectivity). Liebling had a history of falsifying names in stories himself. Stingo wrote on horse racing. Bear in mind, all of these stories were written and published separately before coming together in The Jollity Building. I think he wanted us to see the Telephone Booth Indians and Stingo as playing similar games. However, it ends with a rather interesting perspective on the role of truth in journalism (or any writing). “So I think the story is essentially, or in its entails, true, which is what counts.” (552) In this, Liebling suggests that the journalism may often replace deeper truths with banal truths.
Another theme of the work is that the institutions that matter to the people are not the institutions that are typically deemed important. A building lobby, a cigar store, the pub, a night club, a gossip-laden newspaper all played important roles for the people Liebling looked at in this work, perhaps much more important roles than the police stations, schools, or government offices that tend to be the center of attention of newspaper writers.