Reviewed by Amy Gruzesky
Having never lived in New York City, the only thing I knew of The Dakota apartment building on the city’s Upper West Side was that it was the site of the brutal shooting death of famous musician John Lennon in 1980, and honestly, I thought that the book might actually center around that. However, Life at the Dakota was originally written before the murder took place, and it traces The Dakota’s history right back to its very beginnings in the 1880s. It is achieving a bit of a resurgence in popularity now due to the fact that (at the time of this review) it is available free on both Amazon’s Audible and Kindle Unlimited subscribers. That is how I originally came across it, and being a bit of both a history buff and a lover of all things New York (from an outsider/visitor point of view), I had to read it.
The book starts out describing 19th century Manhattan and the changes that were taking place there economically, socially, culturally, and architecturally. You learn within the first chapter that many considered The Dakota to be a folly that was destined to fail. It was too big, and it was a luxury apartment house that was being built too far out of the center of the city at the time. Many laughed at Edward Clarke, the millionaire who undertook this new project, and it is obvious no one at the time thought the building would last very long.
Fast forward more than 100 years later, and the building is not only still there, but has been home over the years to an eclectic and interesting mix of the rich and famous. It was also the setting for the film Rosemary’s Baby, and home to Lauren Bacall and Roberta Flack.
Even though I didn’t know some of the characters (i.e., Dakota residents) introduced in this book, I found it to be an interesting and engrossing read, providing a wealth of information on one of our nation’s most famous cities, as well as a study of the city’s socioeconomic makeup, its ever-evolving history and politics, and a treasure trove of details that makes you feel you are getting a very rare and intimate glimpse not only into the Dakota’s residents, but into the heart of New York itself.
The only thing I wished the book had was some more modern history. It was published in 1979, a year before Lennon’s murder, so there are not many contemporary celebrities mentioned, and I’m sure there are some current notable tenants that readers would love to learn about. But don’t let that stop you.
Life at The Dakota gives the reader a coveted inside glimpse into the ever-evolving animal that is Manhattan society in a most interesting way, through the brick-and-mortar place in which those who make up the ranks of the rich and famous live.
The artful integration of the city’s history and the story of the neighborhood surrounding The Dakota into these stories provides even more interest for readers, making this a book that lovers of both fiction and non-fiction will enjoy.