Born into wealth, the son of Lily Herf, who dies of a stroke when Jimmy is a boy. He is taken in by his aunt and uncle, who try to groom him for financial success, but he rebels and turns to journalism, through which he grows into a radical bristling with anger at capitalist injustice. Hopelessly in love with Ellen, he finally marries her during World War I.
When we first meet her, she is a newborn baby: Ellen Thatcher. Later she becomes Ellen Oglethorpe, then Ellen Herf, and finally Ellen Baldwin. Her friends and acquaintances call her by a variety of names: Ellie, Elaine, Helena, and, yes, Ellen. The daughter of businessman Ed Thatcher, she is close to her father as a child, and seems to search for a father figure in the numerous men with whom she has affairs. A successful actress, she abruptly quits the stage. Though loved by more men than she can count, the only one she seems to truly love in return is Stan Emery, whose baby she has and raises with Jimmy.
Ellen and Jimmy's son. His biological father is Stan Emery.
Son of a wealthy businessman, Stan is a rebellious Harvard student who drinks as if there were no tomorrow. He impulsively marries a girl named Pearline and, in a drunken stupor, dies in a fire.
Father of Ellen, whom he loves dearly. A stolid businessman, Ed believes in carving out his own success, in slowly pulling himself to the top. He shies away from risk. At the same time, he is embarrassed by his lack of wealth, his mediocrity, and at one point fantasizes about a swarm of dollar bills flying over the city.
Ellen's mother. She does not seem to love her daughter, nor her husband for that matter. Sickly, often bed-ridden, constantly angry.
A struggling lawyer who climbs his way to the district attorney's office and finally to a mayoral race. At heart an idealist, Baldwin becomes a Reform candidate by the novel's end, turning his back on Gus McNeil and other reactionary friends of his. Like Jimmy, he is deeply in love with Ellen, and finally wins her hand in marriage after his divorce with his long-estranged wife Cecily.
A milkman when we first meet him, Gus is hit by a train car and wins a good deal of money in the resulting suit (largely thanks to Baldwin, who impulsively takes on the case). He enters the political arena and tries to persuade Baldwin to run for office. It is a slap in his face when Baldwin begins his own campaign -- on a Reform ticket.
Gus's wife. She and Baldwin have a short-lived affair early in the novel.
An architect and a great admirer of Stanford White's, Phil Sandbourne is full of ideas for his city, including a method of easily making colored tile. A romantic and an idealist, Phil is hit by a car and severely injured when he catches the gaze of a girl passing by in a taxicab.
Once called the Wizard of Wall Street and the King of the Curb because of his success on the market, Joe Harland is now a middle-aged drunkard, reduced to begging family members for change.
Jimmy's uncle. Dies in the influenza epidemic.
Jimmy's aunt, Lily's sister.
Jimmy's cousin, Maisie later marries Jack Cunningham.
Maisie's brother, James is, in contrast to his cousin Jimmy, deeply concerned with material wealth and social success. After returning from World War I -- calling it a "great war while it lasted" -- he quickly gets a job at a bank and works his way up the ladder.
A publicist for Famous Players, Jack marries Maisie. James distrusts him at first, but soon enough accepts him as a profitable connection for the family.
A sergeant in World War I, Joe O'Keefe is involved in workers' politics in the city, and laments the lack of jobs for returning veterans.
Another World War I veteran, Dutch sinks to such levels of poverty that he decides to resort to crime when he reads of a successful hold-up in the paper.
Dutch Robertson's girlfriend.
A young Jewish girl who drifts from man to man. Thrown out of her home by her mother, for having picketed in a workers' strike.
Anna's boyfriend. A radical, a believer in the impending Revolution, Elmer convinces her to partake in the garment workers' strike.
George Baldwin's estranged wife. Though Baldwin leaps into one affair after another, it takes years before Cecily finally agrees to a divorce.
An aspiring actress, Ruth is in a relationship with Jimmy when we first meet her -- though what exactly that "relationship" consists of is never entirely clear. She befriends Ellen and envies her great success on the stage -- success which continually eludes the unlucky Ruth.
Weepy and barely articulate, Cassandra is another of Ellen's friends. She often unloads her romantic troubles on Ellen, though never intending any harm; she is at heart an innocent, and wants desperately to believe in the purity of love.
The corrupt head of an import and export firm.
An associate of Blackhead's, who defies him on grounds of "a citizen's duty."
A young man from the country who enters New York with hopes of making a living and escaping his rural past (he killed his abusive father, we learn). All his dreams meet with failure, and he ends his life by jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Blackhead's devoted daughter.
A French sailor, Emile quits the service -- and France itself, so to speak -- and makes a home in New York. Though a recurrent character early in the novel, Emile does not make any significant appearances after he begins to live with Madame Rigaud, the owner of a delicatessen and also from France.
A friend of Emile's and a fellow sailor with a leg of cork, Congo Jake makes a massive amount of money during Prohibition through bootlegging. When we last meet him he is "Armand Duval," a wealthy Park Avenue gentleman, married to Nevada Jones.
Another creature of the theater, Nevada has an affair with Baldwin, then turns her attention to Tony Hunter, with whom she performs in vaudeville routines, then finally becomes Congo/Duval's wife. Spiteful of many of the men in her life, she is a high-spirited and highly sexed individual.
Tortured by his homosexuality, Tony Hunter, an actor, struggles to rid himself of his "problem" through psychoanalysis. For a time, the procedures seem to work, and Tony begins to live and perform with Nevada Jones. Soon enough, however, he suffers a nervous collapse, at which point Nevada promptly leaves him.
The willful and thick-accented French owner of a delicatessen and confiteserie, Rigaud wins the affection of the young Emile.
Stan Emery's wife. An innocent girl, Pearline earnestly believes in her husband's ambition, and that his days of drinking and doing little else will soon be over.
Ellen's first husband, whom she refers to as Jojo. A respectable man, he puts up with many of Ellen's infedilities, before finally erupting outside Stan Emery's apartment window in a drunken furor.
A friend of Ellen's and her professional consultant. He seems to be an agent at first, then declares his ambitions of producing. Whatever his particular role, he is a crucial behind-the-scenes presence in Ellen's life, helping her rise to the top of the New York theater world.
Jimmy's mother -- a wealthy, beautiful, but fragile and sickly woman. She dies of a stroke while Jimmy is still a boy, recalling Dos Passos's mother's own death.
Claims to be Jack Cunningham's legal wife -- which creates a minor scandal, when Jack asks Maisie for her hand, but one that is quickly dispelled.
Manhattan Transfer Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Manhattan Transfer is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
This book is one of the best I've ever read, and yes, it is a masterpiece. Dos Passos easily transitions from one section to the next so well that you barely recognize the changing landscape of New York. His descriptions are sometimes...