‘Once in a Great City’ looks under hood of early 1960s Motor City
David Maraniss was born in Detroit — in 1949, at Women’s (now Hutzel) Hospital — but he didn’t think of himself as a Detroiter. The author and Washington Post associate editor was, after all, only 7 and a half years old when his family moved away.
He remembers living in an apartment on Dexter and taking the bus to the Fisher YMCA to swim in the pool. He knows that the current iteration of Vernor’s ginger ale no longer fizzes through your nose the way it used to, and he still has family here. But he spent more of his formative years in Wisconsin than Michigan.
Then in 2011, watching the Super Bowl with his wife, Maraniss saw the Chrysler 200 “Imported from Detroit” commercial featuring Eminem. Seeing those billowing smokestacks, the Fox Theatre marquee, Eminem’s stoic mug and the Selected of God choir made the Pulitzer Prize winner choke up, to his surprise.
“Something about the images of the Fox Theatre and the black gospel choir stirred something deep inside me,” said Maraniss, 66. “I wasn’t even thinking about Detroit at that moment. Once it struck that chord, I thought I should think more about why it did. That’s when I started thinking about writing the book.”
The book, Maraniss’ latest, is “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story” (Simon & Schuster, $32.50), out this week. Maraniss’ previous books include biographies of President Barack Obama, former president Bill Clinton and Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.
The book is a sprawling 375 pages of narrative that focuses on the city from the fall of 1962 to the spring of 1964, eighteen months when Motown was churning out hit records and the Mustang was in the clay model stage at Ford Motor Co. The city’s young, charismatic mayor, Jerome P. Cavanagh, was honing a bid for the Olympics, and after the recession of the late ’50s, the auto industry was back.
“I chose a specific time period when I knew Motown would be part of the story, and I was hoping the Mustang would be as well,” Maraniss said. “Then I found that in one week in 1962, the Detroit Auto Show opened and the first Motortown Revue went on the road, so I could get two of my threads going at the same time.”
Another milestone from 1963 was the famed Walk to Freedom in June, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. walked down Woodward arm in arm with Cavanagh, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Aretha’s father) and United Auto Workers chief Walter Reuther. President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his “Great Society” speech in May in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan’s Class of 1964 commencement, declaring of Detroit, “this city and its people are a herald of hope in America. Prosperity in America must begin here in Detroit.”
Detroit may have been on an upswing, but there were inklings of trouble. Maraniss writes about a report by Wayne State University sociologists released in February 1963 that predicted the city would lose a quarter of its 1960 population by the end of the decade, and that “productive taxpayers” were exiting the city.
“I started out wanting to honor Detroit with what was going on with the creative energy and Motown and civil rights and (UAW president) Walter Reuther, but unavoidably I saw the shadows,” Maraniss said. “They didn’t take me totally by surprise.”
Those shadows became a dramatic undercurrent to the narrative, although the story doesn’t lead, inevitably, to the city’s 21st century bankruptcy woes. Maraniss is more interested in the complex sociology of the city, with its auto industry wealth and racial divisions, its musical creativity and ethnic enclaves.
Boom and bust
The book starts its narrative in November 1962, when Detroit’s “grand motor palace,” the Ford Rotunda, burned down on the same day police and federal agents raided the Gotham Hotel, a hotbed of illegal gambling on John R that happened to be black Detroit’s elite hotel. The Gotham was razed in August of ’63 for a hospital parking lot.
Coincidentally, the Flame Show Bar closed in November 1963, the same month the Motortown Revue was selling out at the Fox Theatre. It was at the Flame that Berry Gordy’s sisters worked the photo concession and where Gordy first saw Billie Holiday and other acts. The club was so important, the lifeblood of Detroit’s vibrant ‘40s and ‘50s music scene, that as Maraniss writes, it could be described as “giving birth” to Motown.
Maraniss was in and out of Detroit and Ann Arbor often over the past few years, doing research at UM’s Bentley Library, the Detroit Public Library and Wayne State’s Reuther, among other places. He enjoyed the quiet, dusty research days as much as he did the livelier assignments; having Martha Reeves break into song in the middle of their interview, or chatting with Motown founder Gordy in the poolhouse of his luxe Bel Air mansion in Los Angeles.
Maraniss recalled that although it was an incredibly pleasant day, with the temperature in the 70s, Gordy was wearing a wool sweater and a stocking cap. “I found him in his own way, if not charming ... he didn’t put me off.”
Some of the more interesting narrative threads in the book involve the relationships between well-known Detroiters such as Henry Ford II and Reuther. Ford insisted on visiting Reuther at his UAW office in his first days as Ford president, to the dismay of his executives, and although their political views were different, the two were cordial.
Maraniss also delves into the reasons why Cavanagh’s police commissioner, George Edwards, raided the Gotham Hotel and was so determined to expose the cozy relationship between several Detroit Lions and mobsters (the NFL ended up suspending Alex Karras of the Lions for a year).
Surprises in store
There were other surprises for the author in his research.
“Some things surprised me because I hadn’t studied them before,” Maraniss said. “The fact that Detroit had the largest NAACP chapter in the country. And I didn’t know anything about Aretha’s dad (the Rev. C.L. Franklin), I didn’t know he was involved in civil rights. I didn’t know anything about (police commissioner) George Edwards.”
And while the story of the Mustang, and the hostile interplay between Ford division vice president and general manager Lee Iacocca and his CEO, Ford, was well-documented, Maraniss dug into the role the Detroit office of ad agency J. Walter Thompson played in the pony car development.
Maraniss also goes deep on the internal strife in the Detroit civil rights movement, writing about the breach between the NAACP and the black establishment, which aligned itself with King and nonviolence against the more militant segments of the local movement. Many on the more radical edge didn’t want to march side by side with white liberals such as Reuther and Cavanagh, and Maraniss writes that even the Rev. Franklin had to be coaxed to let Reuther be in the front line of the Walk to Freedom.
The author also shows how the long-forgotten shooting death of a black prostitute, Cynthia Scott, that summer at the hands of Detroit police stirred anger in the black community. When ordered into a police car, according to the official report, Scott pulled a knife and wounded an officer, then ran away. After lunging at the officer again and running, she was shot. Shooting a fleeing suspect was routine, and the officer wasn’t charged. But Commissioner Edwards’ long record of good relations with the black community started to unravel.
One of the most enduring questions about Detroit is why the city was such a creative powerhouse over the years. Motown’s Martha Reeves credits her Detroit public school music teacher, but Maraniss also credits Grinnell’s, the long-defunct music retailer.
Grinnell’s offered “a variety of flexible rental and purchase plans,” Maraniss wrote.
Detroit’s working-class families, many of them black, could afford pianos — by the week, anyway — and most lived in single-family homes, which could accommodate the instrument.
While there have been many books written about Detroit, Maraniss thought there was room for one more. “I was obsessed with it. My bigger books take three to three and a half years, and I don’t want to devote that much time to something I don’t care about.”
What he found on his many research trips — frequently staying at the Inn on Ferry Street — was a city of incredible beauty that was often empty.
“With every visit I could feel a bit more energy,” Maraniss said. “That said, the structural problems remain enormous, if not intractable, and the recovery can never be called a success unless there are jobs and houses for the backbone of the city, the working middle class.”
Author in Detroit
David Maraniss, author of “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story,” will be speaking and signing books at two metro Detroit events coming up.
11 a.m. Saturday Oct. 3 at the Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward, Detroit.
12 noon Oct. 19 at the Metro Detroit Book & Author Luncheon, Burton Manor, 27777 Schoolcraft, Livonia. To buy a $40 ticket (which includes lunch) call (586) 685-5750, or go to www.bookandauthor.info.