The organizers of the 1939 New York City World’s Fair were always talking about the success of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893. It’s easy to imagine first-time author James Mauro pitching Twilight At The World Of Tomorrow in the same way, hoping to replicate the formula that made Erik Larson’s Devil In The White City a bestseller. Unfortunately, both projects proved inferior to their predecessors.
Mauro mimics Larson’s style, taking a novelistic approach to the work of non-fiction. Just as Devil In The White City focused on the stories of two men, architect Daniel Burnham and serial killer H.H. Holmes, Twilight At The World Of Tomorrow focuses on Albert Einstein and the fair’s president, Grover Whalen. But while Larson’s stories were strongly intertwined, the connection between Mauro’s is tenuous at best. Einstein spoke at the fair’s opening day and visited the event a few times, but most of the material on him details his exile from Nazi Germany and his recommendations that America begin researching atomic weapons. While some of this material is engaging, it has nothing to do with the dominant subject.
The sections devoted to Whalen are significantly stronger. The former New York City police commissioner was an early public-relations guru who became totally committed to the fair. His efforts included personally persuading Mussolini and Stalin to sponsor major pavilions as a way to force other European nations to follow suit, even as Europe was poised on the brink of World War II.
But overall, the book can’t stand up to Devil In The White City. Mauro does solid work in presenting the quirky characters involved with the New York Fair, like megalomaniac parks commissioner Robert Moses, and showing off the strange nature of an event where royalty and world-renowned scientists shared space with peep shows. But even when writing about bomb threats, explosions, and the feeling of dread as Hitler’s armies swept across Europe, Mauro fails to actually produce a sense of suspense or excitement. He gets bogged down in dull minutiae, providing daily weather reports and repeatedly describing rain melodramatically as a sign of bad news to come. In fact, any prediction that came remotely true is described as prophetic, even when it was nestled in amid a multitude of incorrect predictions about what “the world of tomorrow” would look like.
Whalen wanted the Fair to be a truly magical experience, but world events, budgets, and perceptions about New York made it a financial failure. While there’s plenty of strong content in Twilight At The World of Tomorrow, weak writing keeps it from being anything more than mundane.