The New Yorker stepped out of its Manhattan offices at 25 West 45th Street and headed north to see what lay beyond 96th Street and Park Avenue, to “a land on to which realtors may not push.”
In the early to mid 20th century, 96th street represented a real dividing line across Park Avenue, separating Manhattan from the “frontier” to the north. Although developers have since breached this line (particularly beginning in the 1980s), back in 1928 it truly marked an end of sorts to Park Avenue—even the paving ran out by 102nd Street. The July 28, 1928 “Talk of the Town” observed:
Beyond 96th a vast pushcart market was discovered to be operating under the elevated railroad tracks, while further on toward the Harlem River there were factories, coal yards, and a shuttered theatre:
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Sport of Lords and Ladies
The New Yorker’s sportswriter John Tunis paid a visit to the 1928 Wimbledon tennis tournament, where he took in a scene that included several celebrities:
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From Our Advertisers
The July 28 issue included yet another Dr. Seuss-illustrated ad for Flit insecticide. No doubt Seuss would later regret such an illustration, as later in life he strongly opposed racism and supported environmental causes. He would publish his first children’s book—And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street—in 1937.
Also from the July 28 issue, a detail from a two-page illustration of baseball fans at the Polo Grounds by Constantin Alajalov, which appeared in “The Talk of the Town” section:
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From Our Advertisers, Part II:
Jumping back an issue, to July 21, 1928, we find tennis great (and sometime film actor) Big Bill Tilden hawking the toasted pleasures of Lucky Strike cigarettes on the magazine’s back cover:
As I’ve noted before, many New Yorker ads appealed to the Anglophilic pretensions of its striving readershship. This one below from Saks is a particularly egregious example…
…other social strivers could look to the example of these society matrons who picked up some spare cash shilling for Old Gold cigarettes…
I close with a couple of cartoons from the July 21 issue by Barbara Shermund and Peter Arno:
Lights of New York would be a forgettable film if not for the fact it was the world’s first 100 percent talking motion picture. Yes, it was a bad film, but…
…even the July 14, 1928 New Yorker had the foresight to note that the film was destined to be a “museum piece.” Despite the corny plot and bad acting, the magazine’s critic “O.C.” had to concede that the film offered proof that sound would improve the motion picture experience.
The Jazz Singer (1927) launched a “talkie revolution” that would culminate nine months later in Lights of New York, and by the end of 1929 Hollywood was almost exclusively making sound films. But studios still released silent films into the 1930s, since not every theatre in the country was wired for sound.
The New Yorker had been slow to embrace sound in motion pictures (see my previous posts). What helped to win them over was the further refinement of the Movietone process, in which the sound track was printed directly onto the film strip (The Jazz Singer used Vitaphone, which essentially synched a record player with a film and provided a sporadic rather than continuous sound track).
In the same issue, the New Yorker also predicted (in “The Talk of the Town”) that sound in movies would challenge actors whose voices weren’t as attractive as their screen images:
The New Yorker also noted that sound pictures would prove to a great “bonanza” to voice teachers:
Transition to sound in the late 1920s would later provide the theme for the 1952 musicalSingin’ In The Rain, in which Jean Hagen portrayed silent film star Lina Lamont, whose voice was ill-suited for talking pictures.
The New Yorker also noted that the advent of sound in motion pictures would put an end to many theatres operating on the vaudeville circuit:
In his regular column, “Of All Things,” Howard Brubaker gave his two cents about the new world of talking movies:
Paving Over Paradise
In the July 14 “Talk of the Town,” the New Yorker offered more bittersweet commentary on the city’s rapidly changing landscape. This time it was a famous stretch of lawns on West 23rd Street—London Terrace— that were being uprooted to make way for a massive new apartment block:
According to Tom Miller (writing for his blog Daytonian in Manhattan), Clement Moore, the writer to whom “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“The Night Before Christmas”) “had developed the block when he divided up his family estate, ‘Chelsea.’ On the 23rd Street block, in 1845, he commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis to design 36 elegant Greek Revival brownstone townhouses. The row was designed to appear as a single, uniform structure or ‘terrace’ (a design not lost on the New Yorker writer). Unusual for Manhattan, each had deep front yards planted with shrubbery and trees. He called his development ‘London Terrace.'”
By October 1929, writes Miller, “a few weeks before the collapse of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression, (developer Henry Mandel) had acquired and demolished all the structures on the enormous block of land. All except for Tillie Hart’s house. Tillie leased 429 West 23rd Street and, although her lease had legally expired, she refused to leave. Tillie fired a barrage of bricks and rocks at anyone who approached the sole-surviving house. A court battle ensued while she barricaded herself inside. Finally, just four days before Black Tuesday, sheriffs gained entry and moved all of Tillie Hart’s things onto the street. She held out one more night, sleeping on newspapers in her once-grand bedroom, then gave up. The following day her house was destroyed.”
Miller writes, “to describe the new London Terrace was to use superlatives. Consuming the entire city block, it was the largest apartment building in the world with 1,665 apartments. It boasted the largest swimming pool in the city – 75 feet by 35 feet, with mosaic walls and viewing balconies. Twenty-one stories above the street a “marine deck” was designed to mimic that of a luxury ocean liner. It had a fully-equipped gymnasium, a recreation club, a rooftop children’s play yard with professional supervisors, and a large dining room. The doormen were dressed as London bobbies.”
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In other diversions, I. Klein looked askew at the latest headlines, namely the big fight between Gene Tunney and Tom Heeney, one of the 20th century’s many “battles of the century”…
…while Helen Hokinson, on the other hand, offered some sketches of seafaring life…
…and looked in on the challenges of buying a hat…
…and then there was this two-page cartoon by Al Frueh, and its disturbing depiction of African “savages” (rendered in blackface?!)…click to enlarge
And to close, a cartoon by Leonard Dove…
…that referenced ads such as this one from the June 2, 1928 issue of the New Yorker… (click image to enlarge).
Ring Lardner is one of those 20th century American writers everyone has heard of but few have actually read. This is perhaps because he is often pigeonholed as a sportswriter rather than being remembered as a gifted satirist whose crisp writing style—often peppered with slang—influenced a generation of writers including Ernest Hemingway, who covered sports for his high school newspaper under the pseudonym “Ring Lardner.”
Lardner would contribute nearly two dozen pieces to the New Yorker beginning with this ditty in the April 18, 1925 issue—
—and ending with “Odd’s Bodkins,” published posthumously in the Oct. 7, 1933 issue (Lardner died at age 48 of a heart ailment on Sept. 25, 1933). In his satirical “Profiles” piece for the July 7, 1928 issue, Lardner had some fun with editor and playwright Beatrice Kaufman, who like Lardner existed within the orbit of the famed Algonquin Round Table but was not a regular member (however Beatrice’s husband, playwright and director George S. Kaufman, was a charter member).
The entire piece, including an illustration by Peter Arno, is below (click image to enlarge the text):
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One New Yorker writer who does stand the test of time is E.B. White, known to earlier generations for his many humorous contributions to the New Yorker and to later generations for his co-authorship of the English language reference The Elements of Style, and for his beloved children’s books including Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web (Charlotte’s Web was often voted as the top children’s novel in a survey of School Library Journal readers, and most recently in 2012—the 60th anniversary of its publication). In the July 7, 1928 issue the nature-loving White offered these tongue-in-cheek plant care instructions, arranged atop a cartoon by Alan Dunn:
Another cartoon in the July 7 issue by Garrett Price offered another perspective on an advertising come-on:
No doubt Price was referencing ads such as this one below by the American Tobacco Company in which actress and dancer Gilda Gray—who in the 1920s popularized a dance called the “shimmy”—announced her preference for pipe smokers:
And we close with this cartoon by Al Frueh, who demonstrated how fashion had freed the woman of the Roaring Twenties:
Interested in the history of New Yorker cartoons and cartoonists? Then I recommend you check out cartoonist Michael Maslin’s Inkspillwebsite for news on cartoonists and events. Another great site is Stephen Nadler’s Attempted Bloggery, which explores original art, auctions, obscurities and other angles of New Yorker cartoons and cartoonists.
A couple of my favorite Maslin cartoons (among many):
In the days before air conditioning, summertime city dwellers escaped the heat by fleeing to the countryside or the coast, or, if they lacked the time or the means, by taking their dining and dancing to one of Gotham’s breezy rooftop nightclubs.
In her column “Tables for Two,” nightlife correspondent Lois Long welcomed the addition of rooftop dining atop the St. Regis Hotel, which featured decor by the famed theatrical set designer and architect Joseph Urban:
Illustrations by Alice Harvey (in the July 7, 1928 issue) depicted diners and dancers on the St. Regis rooftop…
Long also fondly recalled a “comic waiter” who entertained patrons of another popular rooftop destination, The Cascades atop the Strand:
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The June 30 issue featured a Profile of cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein, who began her cosmetics empire with a dozen jars of face cream. Writer Jo Sterling described a businesswoman of limitless energy whose habits could be described as restless and haphazard but also revealed a woman of great generosity. Sterling noted that this woman of great wealth and a renowned collector of fine art and other rare objects preferred riding the bus to owning an automobile.
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Portents of War (to be continued…)
In the Roaring Twenties most believed the Great War was indeed the “War to End All Wars,” so when militarism was clearly on the rise in Shōwa Japan few took it seriously, including New Yorker cartoonist Al Fruh:
On the lighter side, Peter Arno offered up his take on a cinematic love scene:
The New Yorker kicked off the summer season with a trip down to Coney Island. “The Talk of the Town” took in the various sights and amusements at the famed Steeplechase and Luna parks.
Attractions at Steeplechase Park included everything from racing wooden horses to a “human billiard table.” Less jolly diversions included air jets that blew up women’s skirts and clowns who administered electric shocks to unsuspecting visitors (one more reason to fear them). And there was at least one racist game of skill…
Over at Luna Park there were more air holes to blow up women’s skirts and assorted freak shows. More wholesome entertainments included the famed Cyclone rollercoaster, which celebrated its 90th year of operation in 2017.
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The June 23 “Talk of the Town” also anticipated the construction of a new theatre to be developed by famed Austrian director/producer Max Reinhardt and designed by Austrian-American architect, illustrator and scenic designer Joseph Urban:
Unfortunately the market crash of 1929 put an end to the project, which would have looked like this had it been constructed:
Urban designed innovative sets for clients ranging from the Metropolitan Opera to the Ziegfeld Follies (he also designed a theatre for Ziegfeld in 1927, see below). Although he is noted as one of the originators of American Art Deco, most of his architectural work in the United States has been demolished.
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The New Yorker continued to struggle with the emergence of “talking pictures.” The critic “O.C.” found that the sound dialogue in The Lion and the Mouse did little to improve the picture:
The critic seemed to believe that sound pictures would take some time to catch on. Little did he know that Warner Brothers would announce later that summer (August 1928) that all of its films for the 1928-29 fiscal year would have sound. United Artists would make the same announcement in November 1928. In February 1929 Twentieth-Century Fox would make its final silent movie, and Columbia would release its last silent movie on April 1, 1929.
The New Yorker still found happiness at the movies through the likes of actress Colleen Moore, who made a sweet little film called Happiness Ahead.
Colleen Moore was one of the most famous stars of the silent era who popularized the bobbed haircut and flapper style. Personally, I’ve always considered Moore to be a more wholesome version of the flapper, in contrast to the more worldly Louise Brooks, another flapper icon of the Twenties.
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From Our Advertisers
Continuing our series on celebrity endorsements of Old Gold cigarettes, none other than the Little Tramp stepped up to take the blindfold test (along with a pile of cash, no doubt):
And if Old Gold is not to your taste, then why not enjoy the “toasted” pleasures of Lucky Strike? Actress Betty Compson found them indispensable when preparing for a big scene:
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And now for something that caught my eye in the June 23 issue…a bit of filler art that broke up some copy on page 34:
This particular illustration was also featured in one of the New Yorker’s earliest issues—March 21, 1925—in a two-part comic panel (below). I am puzzled why the New Yorker, flush with artistic talent by 1928, reused this illustration. Perhaps the layout editors figured since the readership was so small in March 1925, no one would notice.
And we leave with yet another look at some Jazz Age shenanigans, courtesy cartoonist Peter Arno:
Compared to Hollywood, cinema as an art form in the 1920s was more advanced in Europe, where filmmakers took a more mature, nuanced approach to movies; they focused less on money and more on exploring difficult social and historical issues. Trench warfare, genocide and famine have a way of doing that to you.
The contrast between the European avant-garde and Hollywood’s Tinseltown was not lost on the New Yorker’s film critics, who consistently lambasted American cinema while applauding nearly everything coming out of Europe, and especially the films produced by German and Russian directors. The critic “O.C.” used the Russians latest American release, The End of St. Petersburg, to drive home the point. He also chided those who dismissed the film as propaganda, a stance much in line with leftist intellectuals of the day who found inspiration in the Russian Revolution (and sometimes they looked the other way when things didn’t go so well in the Soviet experiment—1928 marked the beginning of the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year Plan. By 1934 it was estimated that almost 15 million people died from forced collectivization and famine).
The End of St. Petersburg was blatant propaganda, to be sure, but to this day it has been widely praised for its cinematic innovations. The story itself was fairly straightforward: A peasant goes to St. Petersburg looking for work, gets arrested for his involvement in a labor union and is subsequently sent to fight in the trenches of World War I. His experiences in the war solidify his commitment to revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist overlords. The New Yorker review:
The New Yorker reviewer suggested that a story used primarily to influence an audience—propaganda—was not necessarily a bad thing:
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Back in the New World, most of the talk in cinematic circles revolved around the excitement of “talking pictures.”
It seems that Fox Movietone newsreels really got things going with sound and whetted the audience appetites for more:
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Then There Was The Other Playwright…
Mae West, to be exact. My guess is her approach to the craft was a bit different than G.B. Shaw’s, and we can gather as much from these excerpts from the June 9 “Talk of the Town.” The piece discusses West’s rise to fame as the creator and star of the scandalous play Sex, and her unorthodox approach to rehearsals.
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Although many today would identify D.H. Lawrence as one of great English novelists of the 20th century, eighty years ago the New Yorker book critic Dorothy Parker described him as “very near to being first rate.”
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The makers of Old Gold cigarettes claimed to have scientific proof on their side with a series of ads in the New Yorker featuring endorsements by the rich and famous. This ad ran in the June 9 issue:
In the same issue was this cartoon by Al Frueh that took a poke at Old Gold’s marketing strategy…
…and Peter Arno offered this unique take on human vanity…
Talking pictures continued to be a theme in the June 16, 1928, issue of the NewYorker.
In his “Of All Things Column,” Howard Brubaker suggested that sound movies would spell the end of careers for some silent stars:
Although some actors struggled with the transition to sound, the reasons why some major stars faded with the advent of “talkies” are far more nuanced. In many cases, some stars packed it in because their careers had already peaked during the silent era, and both studios and audiences were looking for some fresh faces.
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Niven Busch, Jr. continued to explore the illicit bar scene in his recurring feature “Speakeasy Nights.” I include this excerpt because it described a rather clever facade devised by the owner of the “J.P. Speakeasy.”
Busch observed an interesting protocol for admittance into the speakeasy, including a typewritten message devised to throw off any would-be Prohibition officers:
From Our Advertisers…
This ad leaves a bad taste in your mouth no matter how you look at. Nothing like coating your mouth with Milk of Magnesia before lighting up that first fag of the day…
…and here we have another ad for Flit insecticide, courtesy of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.
And finally, a look at a Roaring Twenties wedding reception, courtesy cartoonist Garrett Price:
New Yorker writers in the 1920s by and large displayed a resistance to enthusiasm when they looked around at the changing the world, but when it came to advancements in aviation, they tended to drop the casual pose and get all dreamy-eyed.
Such was the case with even a clear-headed writer like Morris Markey, who in his “A Reporter at Large” column looked at our progress in aviation. Public interest in air travel grew dramatically after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 Atlantic crossing, as did the expansion of air mail and passenger service and the growth of private plane ownership. As Markey noted in this opening paragraph, for all the advances in American aviation, the Europeans were well ahead in establishing regular passenger service, as it has become “commonplace”:
To get some sense of European (and specifically German) aviation superiority, look no further than the Dornier Do-X, a massive seaplane developed by the Germans in the mid-1920s that began regular passenger service in July 1929. While America’s biggest planes could carry 12 to 18 passengers, the spacious and luxurious Dornier Do-X could comfortably seat 70 to 100 passengers and included a dining salon, smoking lounge and wet bar. A few months after its first flight the Do-X broke a world record by carrying 169 passengers—astonishing when one considers only 25 years had passed since the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.
Markey noted in his article the growing interest in commuter flights among business executives. What seemed like a high demand to Markey was an average of three commuter flights a day.
Markey also lamented New York’s lag in building up passenger service, especially when air travel was growing leaps and bounds in the Midwest and West, and especially in rival Chicago:
Markey also noted the modest number of planes in private hands, but expected private ownership to increase dramatically in the coming months:
Although Markey lamented the slow growth of New York aviation, he was nevertheless dazzled by the “ships” taking to the skies at Curtiss Field.
Jumping ahead a couple of years, New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno offered this view of passenger flight, the passengers in this case a bunch of silly toffs (April 12, 1930).
And back to the June 2, 1928 issue, we find this ad for Rolls Royce that offered a vision of a future airliner—in the year 1948. Since the artist had no clue what the future would hold, he conjured up this contraption that looked like a streamlined ark attached to a huge zeppelin.
And just for kicks (and contrast), this ad for Lincoln was all about tradition, except for the nice typographical flourish on the letter “L” —a definite nod to Bauhaus style.
And if you thought novelty in our gadgets is a fairly recent thing, check out these portable Kodak cameras that were available in five colors. From automobiles to typewriters, manufacturers in the 1920s were discovering that color distinguished their products and even drove demand (click image to enlarge).
Advertisers could also create demand by appealing to readers’ cravings for status. The following ad for a Lord and Burnham greenhouse is an especially egregious example of the use of status shaming to sell a product. Note how the foursome in the illustration, presumably all greenhouse owners, look at the man without a greenhouse as though he’s a child molester or worse.
Before Green Eggs and Ham
In 1928 ads for Flit insecticide began to appear in the New Yorker, illustrated by none other than Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. This is the first Flit ad to appear in the magazine, in the June 2, 1928 issue:
In the 1920s people didn’t seem too concerned about the toxicity of the products they used (for example, we’ve seen Lysol used as a feminine douche). Although the Flit ads aimed to be humorous, it still seems odd to imply that one might gargle with the insecticide. As we shall see, subsequent Flit ads will show the product being sprayed indiscriminately over food, children, pets etc.
Taking a Shot at the Babe
The cartoonist I. Klein had some fun with the hyperbole often attached to the athletic feats of the Sultan of Swat:
And finally, Peter Arno looked at murder among the upper classes: