Manhattan, When I Was Young by Mary Cantwell

Mary Cantwell’s Manhattan, When I Was Young is her memoir of the early years of her marriage and career in the 50’s and 60’s. I’m really fond of this particular time period and have read quite a few novels this year set during the 50’s (most of them Pym’s and Stewart’s) so was drawn to this account of a young woman’s mid-century love affair with Manhattan.

Mary is from a small, coastal town in Rhode Island and has always dreamed of making a life in the city. After she graduates from college she moves to Manhattan and lands a job at Mademoiselle magazine. Very shortly thereafter she marries her husband, B., and transitions from single career girl to wife and, eventually, mother. But her life is not at all like those of the television housewives so popular at the time. She and B. live in Greenwich Village and mingle with artists and intellectuals. Mary continues to work, even admittedly neglecting her children in order to give more time to her career and her social life.

“Maybe if it had not been so easy to walk out the door, I might have stayed at home. But if I had, I would have been unhappy, and not simply because a college education was going down a drain. To live in New York, to be part of New York, I had to work.”

The death of Mary’s father when she was in college dramatically affects her life, especially her marriage. A melancholy tone pervades this book because Mary is never satisfied, frequently depressed and can’t really connect with her husband. I had the sense that, though she lives in a majestic city, meets amazing people and has a lovely family, she is sleep walking through life. There is a murky quality to her writing that gives the impression that she is an unsettled person and almost revels in her instability. The conflict between wanting to please her husband and wanting to live life in her own thoughtful way causes her great turmoil and she clings to the memory of her father to give her some sense of security.

I finished this book just before starting The Tortoise and the Hare and, though very dissimilar in many ways, they share the theme of the search for identity. As in The Tortoise and the Hare, the end of Manhattan, When I Was Young arrives with the knowledge that the search will continue.

After working in fashion, Mary Cantwell sat on the editorial board of The New York Times for sixteen years. She wrote columns for the paper and continued writing about her love for New York. In the 90’s she published a trilogy of memoirs, of which Manhattan, When I Was Young is the second. I would like to read the other two, American Girl and Speaking with Strangers, to see the full range of her observant life. She died in 2000 and New York lost one of its most ardent admirers.

Have you read Mary Cantwell? Have you read any remarkable memoirs this year?

There’s still time to enter the giveaway for A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Click HERE to enter. The giveaway ends on Thursday, November 29 at midnight, Arizona time. I’ll announce the winner on Friday. Good luck!

8 thoughts on “Manhattan, When I Was Young by Mary Cantwell

  1. I love reading about people who move to New York in these years – though I envy them too, especially thsoe who get to work in publishing. I can’t remember ever hearing about Mary Cantwell, but I definitely want to look for this trilogy!


    1. I do too, Lisa! I found this book on a ‘Mad Men Reading List’ and it gives a great perspective of this time period from a woman’s viewpoint. I think the other two books will be fabulous.


  2. I’d never heard of Mary Cantwell before, sounds interesting though. I have read a remarkable memoir this year though. It was called Midnight Sun, Arctic Moon by Mary Albanese a fascinating woman who moves to Alaska to become a geologist in the 1970s. I thought it was a really inspirational read.


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