When a “Love Letter to Manhattan” Topped the Book Charts

From a New York Times Inside the Best-Seller List column by Tina Jordan headlined “75 Years Ago, a ‘Love Letter to Manhattan’ Topped the Book Charts”:

Seventy-five years ago, Marcia Davenport’s “East Side, West Side” — “a love letter to Manhattan,” topped the fiction best-seller list. Published in late 1947, it sold 100,000 copies in its first month. “And not a book club selection, either,” marveled The Times.

“East Side, West Side,” about one week in the life of a rich, charming socialite with an unfaithful husband, was Davenport’s third novel, and it arrived five years after her second, “The Valley of Decision,” which had been a massive hit. Writing fiction was always a struggle for Davenport; her editor at Scribner’s, Max Perkins, once had to counsel her, “Just get it down on paper, and then we’ll see what to do with it.”

But “East Side, West Side” proved particularly challenging, probably because it was deeply autobiographical. As A. Scott Berg recounts in his 1978 book “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” Davenport was despondent when she finally turned in a draft: “I am just spitting with my head in my hands wondering where I can get a job as a cook.” In his editing note, Perkins told her she had written a good book but that, like most books, it needed serious revision: “Having borne the heat of the battle, you must not fail it now.”

“You make the work almost do itself,” she replied. “I have never been able to tell anything about it or whether it is a book at all, and I have to go along like a jackass in a hailstorm content that you can do the job.” She also informed her editor that she did not care to be published anywhere near another one of his authors, Ernest Hemingway: “This book is misery enough for me without having it steamrollered by Hem.”

Davenport once told the Book Review that she knew she wanted to be a writer from a very young age, adding, “I’m a guttersnipe. I’m a wharf rat. I was born in New York and I live overlooking the East River. I must live in the city or I can’t work.” She said that her husband, Russell Davenport, the managing editor of Fortune magazine, “once bribed me to live in the country by giving me a little lion,” which she named Kitty. After doting on Kitty for eight or nine months, at which point the animal was no longer “very good company,” she returned to the city.

She mused about what it meant to be happy. “Happiness must be incidental. If it comes along every once in a while, that’s fine. But how are you going to learn to punch the world in the nose just by being happy?”

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