Gregory Kirschling
April 09, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Ghosts of 42nd Street

Current Status
In Season
Anthony Bianco

We gave it an A-

As Times Square turns 100 this month, two new books zap us through the ”lobster palaces,” burlesques, musical revues, roof gardens, ”grinder” movie houses, and porn shops that gave way to today’s Disneyfied, tourist-friendly corporate theme park. There’s rich American history here, and Ghosts, the better book, luxuriates in its unspooling. Bianco tells great stories about everyone from theater impresario Oscar Hammerstein, who invested $10,000 in a comic opera just to win a $100 bet, to smut king Richard Basciano, who created a peep-show emporium so big that not even the rise of video could kill it. Traub’s Playground hastily rushes through the history to get to the less-involving story of the square’s recent redevelopment. Both writers introduce Diamond Jim Brady, the triple-chinned Gilded Age fat cat who began eating with his tummy four inches from the table and didn’t stop until it touched, but only Bianco tells us — with showman’s aplomb — exactly what Brady ate for dinner: three dozen oysters, a dozen crabs, six lobsters, a steak (or two), a platter of French pastry, and a box of candy.

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