The Prohibition Portia

Despite Prohibition, booze flowed freely in 1928 New York thanks to bootleggers and lax enforcement by everyone from cops to judges. One major exception was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1921 to 1929 who among other things handled cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act.

Oct. 20, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajálov.

Although Willebrandt herself enjoyed the occasional drink (she was personally opposed to prohibition), she was nevertheless serious about enforcing the law, and rather than chasing small-time bootleggers or padlocking speakeasies, she targeted the big-time operators.

How Willebrandt fits into this blog entry can be found in Lois Long’s “Table for Two” column in the Oct. 20, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, in which Long described the current state of affairs of Manhattan’s nightlife, including the departure of boozy torch singer Helen Morgan from the speakeasy scene for Flo Ziegfeld’s late-night Broadway revue, the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic:

WELL-KNOWN TO THE POLICE…Helen Morgan started singing in Chicago speakeasies in the early 1920s, where she defined the look of the torch singer, including the draped-over-the-piano pose, which was her signature. (amanandamouse.blogspot.com)

Morgan, who at the time was also starring in Broadway’s Show Boat, had been arrested the previous December for violation of liquor laws at her own popular nightclub, Chez Morgan. She would not return to performing in nightclubs until after the repeal of Prohibition.

Long also looked in on the popular Harlem nightclubs, where the dance music was “throbbier than ever.”

HOPPING IN HARLEM…Lois Long wrote that you couldn’t get near the popular Small’s (left) on a Saturday night, while Connie’s Inn (right) offered a new show that was “as torrid as ever.” (harlemworldmag.com, New York Public Library)

There was a sober undercurrent to all of this merry-making, namely Willebrandt’s determined efforts to go after the big bootlegging operations that were fueling all of this mirth. Long wrote:

PROHIBITION PORTIA…At left, Mabel Walker Willebrandt being sworn in as U.S. Assistant Attorney General in 1921. At right, Willebrandt on the cover of Time magazine, August 26, 1929. (legallegacy.wordpress.com)

Willebrandt decried the political interference and the incompetence (or corruption) of public officials who undermined the enforcement of the Volstead Act, and even fired a number of prosecutors. As her office also oversaw the enforcement of tax laws, she developed the strategy for prosecuting major crime bosses for income tax evasion. It was an approach that would finally put the famed Chicago gangster Al Capone behind bars in 1931.

Lois Long’s mention of Willebrandt was doubtless due to the 1928 presidential campaign, during which Willebrandt openly campaigned for the “dry” candidate, Republican Herbert Hoover, over the “wet” Al Smith, who referred to Willebrandt as “The Prohibition Portia.” Smith was referencing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which the play’s heroine, Portia, outwits the merchant Shylock in a court case by referring to the exact language of the law.

Jim Dandy

New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was well-known for his taste in clothes (as well as for the nightlife), so E.B. White (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) decided to pay a visit to the mayor’s personal tailor to see how the “royal garments” were created. Excerpts:

CLOTHES HORSE…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was a well-known dandy and a familiar face at Manhattan nightclubs. Rarely seen at City Hall, Walker used the lavish Casino nightclub in Central Park as his unofficial headquarters. (uptowndandy.blogspot.com)

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In one of my recent entries (The Tastemakers, posted Nov. 28) I noted how Prohibition had driven some advertisers to absurd lengths, including manufacturers of non-alcoholic beverages who appealed to the refined tastes (and snobbishness) usually associated with fine wines (see Clicquot Club ad below). Gag writer Arthur H. Folwell had some fun with such pretensions:

Speaking of refinement, when was the last time you saw someone dressed like this at a hockey game?

Before they graced the silver screen, the Marx Brothers were one of Broadway’s biggest draws, including their 1928 hit “Animal Crackers,” advertised in the back pages of the Oct. 20 New Yorker.

Our cartoons are courtesy Peter Arno, who looked in on a Hollywood movie set…

…and Gardner Rea, who rendered a scenario for an upper class emergency…

Next Time: Lighter Than Air…

 

 

 

 

 

A Bird’s Eye View

The New Yorker’s E.B. White was an aviation enthusiast who rhapsodized about his flights into the clouds, but also had prescience to see the darker side of this modern thrill ride.

October 6, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

Writing in the “Reporter at Large” column for the Oct. 6, 1928 issue, White described his visit to Curtiss Field, where he inquired about a pilot who could fly him over New York City. He was told someone named Bill would take him up.

EARLY BIRD…This Fairchild FC-2 Cabin Monoplane, with strut-supported wing, was probably similar to the plane E.B. White rode in his flight over New York City. (Quora)

After a half hour wait, a man in a gray felt hat and sack suit offered White a cigarette and said, “You want to fly over New York?” Although the man didn’t look like a pilot, White followed him to a “little cabin monoplane.” Without saying another word the man took the plane up into the air, much to White’s surprise:

FLYBOY…E.B. White (left) with friend and New Yorker colleague James Thurber in 1929. (University of Virginia)

White described the various sites from 800 feet up, including Coney Island, a view at once beautiful and foreboding…

AMUSING SIGHT…Aerial view of Coney Island in 1920. (Pinterest)

…and the thrill of the approaching city skyline as his plane soared up the Bay toward Manhattan:

Lower Manhattan looking northeast from the Bay in July 1927. This is approximately the view described by E.B. White as his plane approached Manhattan. (Favrify.com)
A closer view of lower Manhattan as it would have appeared to E.B. White on his 1928 flight over New York City. (Fairchild Aerial Survey photo, 1928)

Once over the city, White could not help but contain his exuberance, soaring high above the towering spires and teeming crowds below:

And yet as I noted earlier, his observations were tinged with melancholy and foreboding. In describing his flight over Coney Island, for example, White concluded that “the world in general seems sadly beautiful, it is so soon to be gone entirely.”

Perhaps he referred to the rapid changes seen daily in the city during the 1920s, when nothing seemed permanent. Or did this bird’s eye view suggest something else to White? Twenty years later, in his 1948 essay “Here is New York,” White would write:

A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

Unlike 1928, White had the hindsight of World War II, of entire cities leveled by waves of heavy bombers, or in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just a single bomb. The foreshadowing of 9/11 is contained in his words as well.

Back on the ground at Curtiss Field, White would finally learn the identity of the man who didn’t look like a pilot, but had just flown him over the city:

Another Vantage Point

With buildings rising ever higher in Manhattan, you could get a pretty good view of the surrounding city by taking an elevator to the rooftop of the latest skyscraper. The Oct. 6 “Talk of the Town” found a good perch atop the 680-foot-tall Chanin building on the southwestern corner of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street.

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP…The Chanin Building at Lexington and 42nd. Sloan & Robertson Architects, 1928. (Favrify.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Something you never see in the New Yorker anymore, or in most magazines for that matter, are ads promoting various brands of gasoline. This one touts the benefits of Tydol, produced by the (now defunct) Tide Water Oil Company of New York:

For our Oct. 6 cartoon, here is one of Rea Irvin’s occasional multi-panel, two-page comic spreads, this one exploring the ordeal of a man who couldn’t think of the word for a type of natural plastic used in the 1920s (click to enlarge image):

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On to the Oct. 13 issue, the New Yorker continued its stubborn refusal to report on baseball in its sports section, even though the Yankees were in the process of taking their second consecutive World Series title with a 4-0 sweep over the favored St. Louis Cardinals.

October 13, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The magazine did, however, mention the game in the Oct. 13, 1928 “Talk of the Town” — not on how it was played, but rather on how the championship money was distributed among players and assistants:

Money matters in the game of sport were more informal 90 years ago, with players themselves divvying up money to other players, trainers, mascots and batboys. For example, in 1927 Yankees batboy Eddie Bennett received $700 for the one-eighth World Series share voted him by the team. This sum earned over the four days of the series nearly equalled a batboy’s pay for a full year.

GOOD LUCK CHARM…Yankee batboy Eddie Bennett in the 1920s. Although a spinal injury as an infant left him hunchbacked, Bennett would serve as Yankee batboy for 12-years — a period that would include seven pennants and four World Series titles. (sabr.org)

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Although European-inspired modern furniture was all the rage among certain members of the New York smart set, writer Joseph Fulling Fishman (best known for his writing on contemporary prison conditions) offered a dissenting view in the Oct. 13 edition. An excerpt:

In the art review section, critic Murdock Pemberton also seemed a bit perplexed by modern design, in this case by the work of Ukrainian-born avant-garde artist Alexander Archipenko. His Archipentura was an electronic machine that displayed pre-loaded images of a female undressing by rolling painted canvas through a complex system of sprockets and belts. He intended the machine “to do for painting what the motion picture did for photography.” Pemberton observed:

THINK DIFFERENTLY…Alexander Archipenko (right, circa 1920), intended his intended his Archipentura machine (pictured in front and side views) “to do for painting what the motion picture did for photography.” (Wikipedia/Archipenko Foundation)

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From Our Oct. 13 Advertisers

Yet another endorsement for cigarettes from the posh set. This time Melachrino Cigarettes got in on the action with this endorsement by Augusta Barney Harriman.

For our cartoon, Peter Arno once again looked in on the mannerisms of the upper class, contrasting a lithe young flapper with the imposing presence of a battle-axe. Note how the young woman uses the archaic British “mater” in reference to her mother…

Next Time: The Prohibition Portia…

The Tastemakers

Modernism in interior design gained a wider audience in the 1920s thanks in part to a series of major exhibitions sponsored by some of New York City’s leading department stores.

Sept. 29, 1928 cover by Rea Irvin.

Although the New Yorker continued to feature advertisements for traditional styles of furniture, such as this one from the Sept. 22, 1928 issue…

…it was clear that the appetites of the city’s younger “smart set” were being whetted by retailers such as Macy’s, who in May 1927 hosted an “Exposition of Art in Trade” that included 100 exhibitors of modern European and American silver, pottery, books, textiles and furniture. The following spring Macy’s hosted the “International Exposition of Art in Industry,” where more than 250,000 visitors saw the work of more than 300 exhibitors from six countries. (This blog’s opening photo features a 1928 sideboard by Kem Weber, one of the exhibitors at Macy’s 1928 show. Photo courtesy Cooper Hewitt Collection).

TRENDSETTERS…R. H. Macy & Co. hosted the International Exposition of Art in Industry in the spring of 1928. At right, an interior scene at the exposition, with a chair designed by Walter Von Nessen. (socalarchhistory.blogspot.com/wright20.com)

Macy’s inspired other exhibitions by such retailers as Wanamaker’s, Abraham & Straus, Frederick Loeser, Lord & Taylor, and B. Altman & Co., which advertised its “20th Century Taste in the New Expression of the Arts in Home Furnishings” in the Sept. 29, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:

Writer Bertram Bloch reviewed the exhibit in the Oct. 6 issue. Although he suggested that he had some “hard, cruel things” to say about the show, overall he believed it something not to be missed. Excerpts:

THE SMART LOOK…B. Altman & Company showcased designs including, clockwise, from upper left, a dining room by Charles B. Falls; a conversation room by Steele Savage; a bedroom by Charles B. Falls; and a salon section by Dominique. (Art Institute of Chicago)
FADED GLORY…Clockwise, from upper left, The B. Altman flagship store at 34th Street and 5th Avenue and a closer view of the front entrance in 1915; closed in 1989, the flagship store is now used by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, among other tenants. The mahogany-paneled Fifth Avenue foyer survives intact, however the exterior looks a bit hosed-down, with the Ionic capitals removed from the columns as well as the lintels that banded the windows and the cornice on top. (Museum of the City of New York/daytoninmanhattan)

While on the topic of modern furniture, Ilonka Karasz, who painted a total of 186 New Yorker covers from 1924 to 1973, showcased her own furniture designs (along with other artists from the American Designers’ Gallery), at an exhibition the following month.

NEW YORKER COVER ARTIST Ilonka Karasz designed this dining room for the American Designers Gallery Exhibition in October 1928.  (Art Institute of Chicago)

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The Singing Fool

The New Yorker generally detested the introduction of sound in motion pictures, but for some reason didn’t mind it so much when Al Jolson opened his mouth. This time he followed up his blackface performance in The Jazz Singer with another blackface routine in The Singing Fool. E.B. White wrote about the film’s big opening in “The Talk of the Town”…

…and in the magazine’s film review section, yet more praise for Jolson, whose singing apparently compensated for the mediocre dialogue:

SERVED WITH A SIDE OF HAM…One of a series of promo slides for The Singing Fool, featuring Al Jolson, child actor Davey Lee, and the saccharine lyrics for Sonny Boy, said to be the first pop record to sell more than million copies. (nitrateville.com)
THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT…Theatre lobby card for 1928’s The Singing Fool. (IMDB)

The Sept. 29 issue illustrates the dichotomy in how the New Yorker depicted African Americans in the 1920s. Blacks in the magazine’s cartoons and illustrations were often portrayed as minstrel characters, picaninnies or mammies. However, a serious artist like Paul Robeson received a much different treatment. Indeed, the magazine shamed the racism of a fictional character in Dorothy Parker’s short story “Arrangement in Black and White” (Oct. 8, 1927), in which a wealthy, white woman condescends to a black singer who might well have been modeled after Robeson. The journalist and author Mildred Gilman profiled Robeson in the very same issue that praised Jolson’s tired blackface routine. An excerpt, accompanied by a Hugo Gellert illustration:

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Next Time Wear a Disguise

The newlywed Gene Tunney (also newly retired from boxing) was spending some time in Europe, probably hoping to get a break from the adoring crowds back in the States. Upon entering a French café with his friend, the author Thornton Wilder, he soon discovered that adoring crowds awaited him on the other side of the pond, as related by the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet “Genêt” Flanner:

NOWHERE TO HIDE…Gene Tunney during a visit to Paris in 1930. (Getty)

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From Our Advertisers

Although by 1928 Americans (and particularly New Yorkers) were flouting Prohibition laws, alcoholic beverages still could not be legally produced or marketed (except for “religious” or “medicinal” purposes). Advertisers, however, found clever ways to market non-alcoholic beverages like ginger ale with the allure of liquor or fine wine. But then again, few were actually drinking straight ginger ale…

And if you formerly grew grapes for winemaking, what’s preventing you from selling unpasteurized grape juice that remains free from fermentation “as long as the factory seal remains unbroken”…? Also, note the not-so-subtle cocktail shaker at the top left of the photo:

And for our cartoons, Barbara Shermund explored the modern ways of love…

…while Peter Arno continued probing the comic imbalance of rich old men and their young mistresses…

Next Time: A Bird’s Eye View…

 

 

This Thing Called Baseball

In the early years of the New Yorker, baseball as a sport was almost entirely ignored by the magazine, which otherwise gave exhaustive coverage to polo, yacht racing, tennis, and golf. There were also articles on badminton, rowing, and even auto racing, and college football received a lot of enthusiastic ink. But none for baseball. With the Sept. 22, 1928 issue I think I finally understand why.

Sept. 22, 1928 issue by Adolph K. Kronengold.

It has to do with the New Yorker’s parochial view of the world, so aptly illustrated by Saul Steinberg on the magazine’s March 29, 1976 cover, in which anything beyond the Hudson was essentially terra incognita:

A lot of New York Yankee fans came from “out there,” according to James Thurber in a “Talk of the Town” segment titled “Peanuts and Crackerjack.” Thurber wrote of his experience at a pennant race game between the Yankees and the Philadelphia A’s. The game of baseball was described as something for the out-of-towners who were “a bit mad,” a mass spectacle in which the game itself was of minor importance. In short, it wasn’t cool to be a Yankees fan if you counted yourself among Manhattan’s smart set:

This “Talk” item was written when the Yankees were on the verge of winning their second consecutive World Series championship over the favored St. Louis Cardinals. The 1928 team featured the famed “Murderer’s Row” lineup with the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In all, nine players from the ’28 team would be elected to the Hall of Fame, a major league record. But as of the Sept. 22 issue neither the 1927 or ’28 Yankees merited a line in the New Yorker’s sports pages.

ONE FOR THE OUT-OF TOWNERS…The Yankees’ Earle Combs leads off with base hit against the Philadelphia A’s in a key AL pennant race game on Sept. 9, 1928. A record crowd of 85,265 attended the game, won by the Yankees, who gained half-game lead over the A’s with the victory. (baseballhistorycomesalive.com)

Thurber wrote that one could learn much about those in attendance at the game by the way they received Yankee star Babe Ruth:

Thurber proved his point about out-of-towners by noting the origin of license plates in the “army of parked cars” outside of the stadium. He also noted the appearance in the game of an ancient Ty Cobb, who hit a weak fly ball while a few old-time fans looked on in reverence:

A GAME WAS PLAYED, TOO…Babe Ruth celebrated the Yankees 1928 World Series win by dressing as a cowboy and riding the hood of a car. To the left is fellow slugger Lou Gehrig. (sbnation.com)
WHERE YOU COULD READ ALL ABOUT IT…The Oct. 10, 1928 edition of the Daily News splashed its front page with photographs of the Yankee’s triumphant title win. (Getty)

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An Eye-dropping Art Collector

The Sept. 22 issue A.H. Shaw profiled “De Medici in Merion” Dr. Albert Barnes, who made his fortune by developing in 1901 (with German chemist Hermann Hille) a silver nitrate-based antiseptic marketed as Argyrol. In the days before antibiotics, Argyrol was used to treat eye infections and prevent newborn infant blindness caused by gonorrhea. The profile featured this rather fearsome illustration by Hugo Gellert:

The lengthy piece detailed Barnes’ coming of age, and how his promotion of Argyrol helped bankroll his famed art collection. A brief excerpt:

IT FUELED A FORTUNE…Invented in 1901, Argyrol eye drops would finance one of the world’s greatest private art collections. Although was no longer marketed in U.S. after 1996, it is still available today, as seen at right in this Vietnamese product. (todocoleccion / ydvn.net)
HMMM, THAT LOOKS FAMILIAR…Henri Matisse views his 1917 painting The Music Lesson during a 1933 visit to the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion Township, near Philadelphia. (The Morgan Library & Museum)
HE LIKED DOGS, TOO…Dr. Albert Barnes and his dog Fidèle with Matisse’s Red Madras Headdress, in 1942. (Barnes Foundation Archives)

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A One-eyed Monster Comes to Life

It’s always interesting to note the mentions of emerging technology in the early New Yorker, including this bit in Howard Brubaker’s column “Of All Things” about the successful broadcast of a “radio-television play.” Brubaker mused about what this new invention might called:

The first television broadcast in July 1928 was not exactly must-see TV. For two hours a day, General Electric’s experimental station W2XB broadcast the image of a 13-inch paper mache Felix the Cat, simply rotating on a turntable.

THE DAYS BEFORE VIAGRA ADS…A 13-inch Felix the Cat figure (top) was used to test an early television broadcast from General Electric’s experimental station W2XB in Schenectady, N.Y. Rotating on a record player turntable, the Felix figure was broadcast using a mechanical scanning disk, and was received as a 2-inch high image (below left) on an electronic kinescope. At bottom right, a 1928 television from General Electric that received alternating sound and picture. (NBC / Imgur / tvhistory.tv)

Then on September 11, 1928, W2XB (with WGY radio providing audio) broadcast a 40-minute one-act melodrama, The Queen’s Messenger. Northern State University’s Larry Wild writes that because TV screens were so small, only an actor’s face or hands could be shown. “The play had only two characters. A female Russian spy and a British Diplomatic Courier. Four actors were used. Two for the character’s faces, and two for their hands.”

The Queen’s Messenger was the first television drama, received by 3-inch televisions (most likely similar to the General Electric Octagon TV set pictured at left) that were set up in various places in the New York City area. At right, actors on the set of The Queen’s Messenger. The crude, flickering image marked the beginning of a revolution. (General Electric)

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From Our Advertisers

Advertisers were always looking for clever angles to capture the attention of the New Yorker’s upscale readers, including the use of subtle and not-so-subtle racist cues to get their points across. Two examples from the Sept. 22 issue have the makers of Oshkosh trunks helpfully pointing out that their product is not intended for African “natives”…

…or the folks from Longchamps restaurants, who depict the joyless life of a blubber-eating Eskimo as an appropriate juxtaposition to the succulent delicacies awaiting readers at their five New York locations:

We might associate rumble seats with the carefree joys of the Roaring Twenties, but in reality passengers in these jump seats received little protection from the elements (or flying gravel), and the ride was no doubt jarring atop the rear axle. No wonder you needed a special coat:

Our cartoons for Sept. 22 include this whimsy from Gardner Rea

…and this cartoon by Al Frueh, which depicts the deserted surroundings of the Flatiron Building on Yom Kippur. Robert Mankoff, who served as the New Yorker’s cartoon editor from 1997 to 2017, observed in the Cartoon Desk (Sept. 26, 2012) that “the rapid growth of Jewish-owned businesses in New York made the cartoon relevant in a way that it’s not today. Through modern, politically correct eyes, the cartoon may seem anti-Semitic, but I don’t see it that way. It just depicts the reality of those times, exaggerated for comic effect.”

Next Time: The Tastemakers…

 

Mussolini’s Romance Novel

About a decade before he joined the Nazis in spreading the madness of war across the European continent, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini penned a historical novel about a love affair between a Catholic cardinal and his beautiful mistress. Despite the premise, it was not exactly a Harlequin Romance.

Sept. 8, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey. Sept. 15, 1928 cover by Peter Arno. (click to enlarge)

Although many perceived Mussolini as nothing more than a thug, or even a clown when he styled himself as Il Duce, Mussolini thought himself an intellectual, and as a younger man sometimes worked as a journalist and essayist. That was also when he wrote his one and only novel, The Cardinal’s Mistress (1909), serialized in the socialist newspaper Il Popolo under the original title Claudia Particella, l’Amante del Cardinale: Grande Romanzo dei Tempi del Cardinale Emanuel Madruzzo. When it was translated into English in 1928, the distasteful task of reviewing the book (in the Sept. 15, 1928 issue) fell to Dorothy Parker. She began thusly:

In all fairness, Parker did ask for it. She went on to write “On the memorable day that The Cardinal’s Mistress arrived in the office of this lucky magazine, I was the girl who pled, ‘Please, teacher, may I have it to take home with me? Honest, I don’t want a cent of money for reviewing it. I’ll do it free of charge; I’ll even pay handsomely for the privilege.’ Well, of course, they wouldn’t hear a word of that – or at least I hope to heaven they didn’t – but I got the book. I had all sorts of happy plans about it. I was going to have a lot of fun. I was going to kid what you Americans call the tripe (les tripes) out of it. At last, I thought, had come my big chance to show up this guy Mussolini. A regular Roman holiday, that’s what it was going to be.” But it didn’t quite turn out that way:

Alfred Armstrong, writing for Oddbooks (oddbooks.co.uk) describes The Cardinal’s Mistress as a story about a historical figure, Emanuel Madruzzo, Cardinal of Trent, his mistress Claudia Particella, “and the unhappy course of their love affair.” Armstrong notes that the book was written rather carelessly, with a wandering plot that suggests Mussolini’s only interest in the characters was to place them in a historical setting that provided “an excuse for lengthy anti-clerical rants, and to portray the lust, vengefulness and murderousness of their adversaries.”

Although she could not make heads nor tails out of the book, it did stir Parker’s imagination enough to conjure up an insult for the “old Duce.”

WHERE IS THE LOVE?…Cover of the 1928 translation of The Cardinal’s Mistress, an anti-clerical rant thinly disguised as a love story. At right, Benito Mussolini in 1928. (Amazon/waralbum.ru)

For good measure, I’ll toss in this New Yorker comic by Mary Petty that appeared a few weeks later in the Oct. 20, 1928 issue:

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The Sound Stays in the Picture

Gilbert Seldes joined the chorus of voices at the New Yorker who decried the advent of sound in motion pictures, particularly when sound was used as a gimmick rather than as an enhancement to the production. So when Paramount’s Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor put their hands (and their sounds) on Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece The Patriot, Seldes decided he’d had enough of this “talkie” nonsense, taking on the producers in a special feature in the Sept. 15 issue titled “The Old Believers:”

New Yorker artist Hugo Gellert paid his own respects to The Patriot with this illustration in the theatre review section of the Sept. 15, 1928 issue.

Following his opening salvo, Seldes told readers why the film was important, how it revived his faith in movies and even in the possibility of intelligence and taste among the masses:

PERNICIOUS INTERFERENCE…Critic Gilbert Seldes took aim at Paramount execs Adolph Zukor, far left, and Jesse Lasky, center, for mucking up Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot with unnecessary sound effects. All photos circa 1922. (Wikipedia)

As for the taste and intelligence of producers, that was another matter. Seldes concluded his piece by laying into Zukor and Lasky for their “pernicious interference” with the masterpiece:

Seldes was so disheartened that he wondered if movies, as an imaginative and intelligent art form, would be dead in 10 years.

Seldes was wrong about the death of good movies, but ironically his beloved Patriot would not live on, and would disappear into the land of lost films. There are a few pieces in a UCLA archive, but no negative or set of complete reels are known to exist.

WHY YOU NAUGHTY OLD CZAR…Florence Vidor as Countess Ostermann and Emil Jannings as Czar Paul I in The Patriot. Nominated for five Oscars, the film would win in the “Best Writing” category at the 1930 Academy Awards.(mubi.com)

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Before He Was Kooky and Ooky

The child actor Jackie Coogan was the focus of a lengthy “Talk of the Town” piece (written by Alva Johnston and E. B. White) that looked in on the life and habits of the young film star, best known for his role in Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 film classic The Kid.

Coogan was one of the first child stars in film history, earning an estimated $3 to $4 million (roughly more than $50 million in today’s dollars). “Talk” found the 13-year-old star in his dressing room, reading a theatrical newspaper:

The New Yorker couldn’t resist mentioning that the magazine itself proved to be an inspiration to the boy and his father:

As one of the first child stars Coogan also broke some tough ground for other child actors to follow. In early 1935 Jackie’s father, John Henry Coogan, Jr., was killed in a car accident. John Henry conservatively managed Jackie’s assets, but after his death John Henry’s widow, Lillian and her new husband Arthur Bernstein (who was the family lawyer), squandered most of Jackie’s fortune on fur coats, diamonds and expensive cars. Jackie Coogan sued them in 1938, but after legal expenses was only able to recover a mere $126,000 of his earnings. One good outcome was California’s enactment in 1939 of the first known legal protection for the earnings of child performers. The California Child Actor’s Bill, sometimes called the “Coogan Act,” required employers of child actors to set aside 15% of their earnings in a trust.

Jackie Coogan would go on to perform in mostly supporting roles and would marry four times, most famously to actress Betty Grable from 1937 to 1939. He gained renewed fame in the 1960s by portraying Uncle Fester in the Addams Family TV series.

VARIETY ACT…Clockwise, from left: Publicity photo from Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 movie The Kid, featuring 6-year-old Jackie Coogan; Jackie on a 1928 visit to Berlin with his mother Lillian and father John Henry Coogan, Jr.; Jackie as Uncle Fester in TV’s The Addams Family, 1966. (Wikiwand/Wikimedia)

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From Our Advertisers

A mixed bag from the Sept. 15 issue, including this strip of ads near the back of the magazine that indicate not all New Yorker readers were as well-heeled as those who were targeted by the splashier, full-page ads in the magazine’s front section…

…and yet another endorsement for Old Gold cigarettes, this time from the Duchess of Sutherland, who joined fellow blue bloods in the blindfold test:

Nothing like profiting from the misery of others. In this ad, James McCreery & Company offered up rugs from “old Turkish families” who were “forced to sell their rare rugs and jewels in order to exist.” They weren’t cheap: the rug pictured was offered for $3,250, more than $45,000 in today’s buying power.

The “famous stage beauty” and early silent film star Billie Burke (who was married to Florenz Ziegfeld of “Follies” fame) shilled for Cutex nail polish…

…and 11 years later would portray Glinda the Good Witch of the North in the movie musical The Wizard of Oz.

Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch (cinemagumbo)

Now for the our comics, Peter Arno from the Sept. 8 issue…

And in the Sept 15 issue, W.P. Trent looks in on a homey café that moonlights as a speakeasy…

…and back to Peter Arno, who looks in on toffs slumming at Coney Island…

Next Time: This Thing Called Baseball…

 

Dorothy Parker Goes to the Movies

Dorothy Parker turned her jaded eye to the latest big thing — talking pictures — and in the Sept. 1, 1928 issue she joined her New Yorker colleagues in a collective yawn at the technology that was dramatically transforming cinema.

Sept. 1, 1928 cover by Helen Hokinson.

In a feature titled “Out of the Silence,” Parker mused about the changes facing former silent stars…

…and seemed unconvinced that the talking pictures, at least to date, were any real improvement over the silents, including a performance by her Algonquin Round Table pal and New Yorker colleague Robert Benchley, who seemed but a talking simulacrum:

HIS SCREEN VERSION…Robert Benchley delivers his comedy sketch The Treasurer’s Report in a short 1928 Movietone film. Benchley portrayed a nervous assistant treasurer struggling to present an organization’s yearly report. (YouTube screen shot)

Parker attended a matinee at a jam-packed Warner Theatre, where folks paid a dollar apiece for standing room only to witness a series of shorts and a feature-length film, all presented with sound:


One of the shorts featured a performance by female impersonator George Francis Peduzzi, known professionally as Karyl Norman, “The Creole Fashion Plate,” followed by a performance from violinist Albert Spaulding:

WHAT A DRAG…Dorothy Parker was underwhelmed by Karyl Norman’s performance in a Vitaphone short. He is pictured here in a 1924 publicity photo, dressed as “The Creole Fashion Plate.” (queermusicheritage.com)

What Parker was subjecting herself to was the Vitaphone Varieties, described by North Carolina Museum of Art film curator Laura Boyes as “the last gasps of vaudeville.”

Boyes writes that many vaudevillians stepped off the stage to immortalize their acts on film in the early days of the talkies. They were produced in Brooklyn between 1927 and 1929 using the Vitaphone method (large recorded discs synchronized with the film) “at a time when the major studios hoped that the talkies were just a passing fad.” She notes that “talkies would eventually put this style of theater completely out of business, and Vitaphone shorts literally became the place where Vaudeville went to die. Many of the people in these short films were obscure at the time, and they are doubly obscure now.”

As for the main feature, The Terror, the only terror Parker felt was the fear of being bored to death:

SOUND AND FURY, SIGNIFYING NOTHING…Dorothy Parker found The Terror to be unexciting, its sound effects a “racket.” But for the record, it was the first all-talking horror film. (IMDB)

Parker concluded that “talking pictures are marvels of invention,” but “a bad show is a bad show, synchronize it how you will.”

Coming of Age in Samoa

Social critic and humorist Baird Leonard took the honors as book reviewer for the Sept. 1 issue, offering a brief, humorous endorsement of Margaret Mead’s landmark Coming of Age in Samoa, in which the famed anthropologist explored the link between culture and psychosexual development among the island’s adolescents. Leonard found much to like about the book, and particularly Mead’s observations on the separation of youth from adult activities in Samoan culture (it would enhance his bridge-playing enjoyment):

GOING NATIVE…Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926. (Library of Congress).

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Writer Cameron Rogers profiled American sculptor Paul Manship, who was an important contributor to Art Deco style, and is perhaps best known for his iconic Prometheus sculpture at Rockefeller Center in New York. Rogers made these closing observations about Manship, noting that the artist’s success netted him about $60,000 a year — close to $850,000 today (These days, someone like showman/artist Jeff Koons, who makes giant shiny balloon animal sculptures, among other things, has a net worth of at least $100 million).

PROMETHEUS, gilded cast bronze by Paul Manship, 1934, at Rockefeller Center. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

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From Our Advertisers

I find it interesting when one magazine advertises in another, especially when an older magazine like the Outlook (founded in 1893) advertises in an upstart like the New Yorker. But then again, the publishers of the Outlook were looking to breathe new life into their stodgy journal, and what better way than to announce that their “conservative girl” was now a modern, grown-up woman with a new Jazz Age look and an attitude to match. And it was no coincidence that they hired the New Yorker’s Rea Irvin to illustrate their point.

OUTLOOK magazine was first published as The Christian Union in 1870, changing its name to Outlook in 1893 when it shifted its focus from religious subjects to social and political issues. The magazine folded in 1935. (Pinterest)

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Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who continued to explore the lighter moments of New York night life…

Next Time: Mussolini’s Romance Novel…

 

Hit of the Century

NINETY YEARS AGO, when former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur sat down to write The Front Page, they might have sensed they had a Broadway hit in the making, but probably had no idea their play would still grace a Broadway stage well into the 21st century.

August 25, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

The Front Page made a big splash on the Great White Way when it premiered on August 14, 1928 at Times Square Theatre. Featuring a story about tabloid newspaper reporters on the police beat, the play’s wisecracking, rapid-fire dialogue (which would become a staple of Hollywood’s screwball comedies), was a big hit with audiences, and with E.B. White, who reviewed the play in the Aug. 25, 1928 New Yorker:

DREAM TEAM…The Front Page was written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht (left) and Charles MacArthur (center) and produced by Jed Harris (at right, in a 1928 photo used on the cover of Time magazine). Hecht, an occasional New Yorker contributor, would go on to a successful career as a screenwriter, director, producer and playwright. Like Hecht, screenwriter/playwright MacArthur was friends with members of the Algonquin Round Table. He was married to actress Helen Hayes, with whom he adopted a son, James MacArthur (“Danno” on TV’s Hawaii 5-0). Harris was responsible for some of Broadway’s most successful productions in the ’20s and ’30s including Uncle Vanya, Our Town and The Crucible. (IMDB, Kentucky Digital Library, Time)
TROUBLE IN WINDY CITY…Set entirely in a dingy press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building, The Front Page featured reporters who passed the time playing poker and exchanging wisecracks—until a convicted killer escapes jail and makes things lively. Worried about his chances for re-election, the crooked Mayor, played by George Barbier, far left, confronts three reporters — Murphy (Willard Robertson), Endicott (Allen Jenkins), and McCue (William Foran). In the background is Claude Cooper, as the crooked Sheriff Hartman. (Theatre Magazine, August 1928) 

White was so taken by the play, in fact, that he found it to be nearly perfect, like a scientific instrument of exacting precision. And considering how many times the play has been adapted to stage and screen (most recently on Broadway in 2016), he was probably right. It still plays pretty well after all these years:

WISE GUYS…Promotional photographs of Osgood Perkins as Walter Burns (left) and Lee Tracy as Hildy Johnson in the 1928 Broadway production of The Front Page. (Theatre Magazine, August 1928) 
ENTER, STAGE RIGHT…Escaped prisoner Earl Williams (George Leach) surprises reporter Hildy Johnson (Lee Tracy) in The Front Page. (Theatre Magazine, August 1928) 

The play was restaged four more times on Broadway — 1946, 1969, 1986 and 2016 — the 2016 production starred Nathan Lane as Walter Burns, John Slattery as Hildy Johnson and John Goodman as Sheriff Hartman. Film adaptions included The Front Page in 1931 and His Girl Friday (directed by Howard Hawks) in 1940 — the latter added a twist to the play by changing the Hildy character to a woman, played by Rosalind Russell as the ex-wife of Walter Burns (Cary Grant). The play returned to the big screen in 1974 as The Front Page, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon as Hildy and Walter Matthau as Walter Burns.

Still Some Fight Left in Him

Although boxer Gene Tunney had retired from the ring, he was still making headlines fighting off a different foe: the paparazzi.

Tunney’s engagement to Connecticut socialite and Carnegie heiress Polly Lauder was front-page news across the country, and photographers were eager to capture a photo of the couple, who up until the announcement had enjoyed a mostly secret romance. James Thurber, writing for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” described the couple’s attempts to elude a persistent press:

MAYBE IT’S QUIETER OVER HERE…21-year-old Polly Lauder Tunney and 31-year-old Gene Tunney after marrying in Rome on Oct. 3, 1928. The marriage would last 50 years. (NY Times)

In September 1928 the couple took separate trips to Rome and married in a small ceremony on Oct. 3. Unfortunately, they attracted the attentions of Rome’s original paparazzi: According to the New York Times “the scene after the wedding looked mighty like a riot as clothes were torn and cameras smashed in a melee of photographers jostling to capture images of the couple.”

After traveling in Europe they returned to the U.S. and made their home in North Stamford, Connecticut, where they restored an 18th century farmhouse and raised Hereford cattle and sheep. They would be married 50 years until Tunney’s death at age 81 in 1978. Polly continued to live at her home in Stamford until her death in 2008 at age 100.

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Dorothy Recuperates

Dorothy Parker’s “Constant Reader” signature at the end of the book review section was absent during part of the summer of 1928 as she was recuperating from an appendectomy. Fortunately her rapier wit remained intact when she returned in the Aug. 25 issue…

Dorothy Parker in 1928 (natedsanders.com)

…where she found the strength to skewer The Lion Tamer, the latest novel by romance writer E.M. Hull:

I’D RATHER BE IN SURGERY…E.M. Hull’s The Lion Tamer. Dodd, Mead and Co. 1928. (yesterdaysgallery.com)

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Long Before Starbucks

If you were a New Yorker in the 1920s, this cartoon by Rea Irvin would make perfect sense, because nearly everyone knew that Alice Foote MacDougall was the queen of New York’s coffee scene, a one-woman Starbucks of her day.

According to Jan Whitaker, writing for the blog Restaurant-ing Through History, MacDougall kept a carefully crafted persona. In numerous magazine stories crafted by her publicity agent, “she was widely known as the poor widow with three children who built a coffee wholesaling and restaurant empire on $38.”

MacDougall was actually from a distinguished New York City family, and her coffee wholesaling career began in 1909 after her husband’s death. Whitaker writes: “In the 1920s she was said to be the only woman expert in coffee grading and blending in the U.S. She opened her first eating place, The Little Coffee Shop, in Grand Central Station in New York in December 1919. Waffles were the specialty in her homey café which was decorated with a plate rail and shelves holding decorative china. (Evidently tips were good, because MacDougall had the nerve to charge her waitresses $10 a day to work there.) By 1927 she had signed a $1 million lease for her fifth coffee house, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street. Her places became known for their Italian-Spanish scene setting. The reason, she said, was that it provided a way to disguise long, narrow spaces.”

BEANS TO RICHES…Alice Foote MacDougall, ca. 1910. At right, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street, in the late 1920s. (restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com)
TIN GOLD…Canisters of Alice Foote MacDougall’s famed coffee, ca. 1927. (ruby lane.com)

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The Friendly Skies

E.B. White made another appearance in the Aug. 25 issue, this time with a poem describing his recent flight from London to Paris aboard an Imperial Airways trimotor biplane. If White seems to rhapsodize a bit here (especially to jaded fliers of the 21st century), it is understandable, considering that White’s flight to France was only 25 years removed from the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. It was still something miraculous:

TOP, the Imperial Airways “Calcutta” trimotor flying boat on the Mediterranean, 1928. Below, the “Calcutta” moored on the River Thames in 1928. (Claude Boullevraye de Passillé / AP)

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Missing the Boys of Summer

The New Yorker continued to ignore the sport of baseball in its pages, even though it enthusiastically covered almost everything else: college football, hockey, tennis, golf, lacrosse, polo, rowing and yacht racing. Strange because the New York Yankees had one of the winningest lineups in baseball (Murderer’s Row, with sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig), had won the 1927 World Series, and were poised to win it again in 1928. Unless I missed something, the first mention of baseball in the 1928 New Yorker was this bit in Howard Brubaker’s Aug. 25 “Of All Things” column:

The Yankees would sweep the favored St. Louis Cardinals in the ’28 World Series.

From Our Advertisers

This creepy advertisement from the Aug. 25 issue comes courtesy of the Clark Lighting Company. The tagline, “Clark Always Works,” has a double meaning, the ad copy suggesting that a woman is so simple (described here as a “little minx”) that she will be captivated by the very flick of a lighter:

Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who was making light of a diet fad from the late 19th and early 20th century (hence the woman’s age and dress) made famous by Horace Fletcher, who was known as the “Great Masticator” for his diet that involved chewing each mouthful of food a minimum of 100 times. The cartoon’s caption reads: “Now masticate, Ermyne!”

Next Time: Dorothy Parker Goes to the Movies…