The Ordeal of Michael Arlen

The March 28 “Talk of the Town” ponders “what sort of paces a visiting literary lion may be expected to put through.”

The “literary lion” in question was writer Michael Arlen, who was planning his escape from New York  by reserving a cabin on the Olympic for its April 18 sailing: “It is expected that very few of his writing compatriots in London will venture America-wards after he reports on the ritual to which he was subjected.” The “ritual,” it seems, was Arlen’s constant exposure to various literary hangers-on and assorted socialites.

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March 28, 1925 cover by Ray Rohn (New Yorker Digital Archive)

Arlen’s real name was Dikran Kouyoumdjian, an Armenian writer transplanted to England who was most famous for his satirical romances set in English smart society. He also wrote psychological thrillers, including The Gentleman from America, filmed in 1956 (the year Arlen died) as a television episode for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He was well known in New York and London society, a dandy who resembled many of the characters he portrayed in his novels.

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Arlen in 1925 (Bettmann/Corbis)

Returning to the “ritual,” Arlen received “the reasonably constant chaperonage, at tea time, of John Farrar” (editor of the literary magazine The Bookman) who took it upon himself to add Arlen’s publishing interests to his duties (Farrar would go on to found the publishing house of Farrar & Rinehart, and later Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

“Talk” also noted that Arlen was “admitted into the game known as meeting Miss Elsie de Wolfe.”

A bit more about Miss de Wolfe: In the September 14, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear observed that “Interior design as a profession was invented by Elsie de Wolfe.” A prominent figure in New York, Paris, and London society, de Wolfe was also an American stage actress and author of the bestselling 1913 book, The House in Good Taste.

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Elsie de Wolfe in 1925 (Architectural Digest)

During Arlen’s first two weeks in America, de Wolfe arranged no less than three formal gatherings, each with the purpose of introducing the author to herself. “Talk” also reported that Arlen was invited to a costume party given by Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, for which Paramount Studios producer Jesse Lasky “gracefully supplied (Arlen) with a gypsy costume.” It was noted that Lasky was there to arrange some movie work with Arlen to occur later in the fall, when the author would return to New York to attend the opening of the Broadway play The Green Hat, based on the 1924 book that made him famous.

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Pola Negri in the 1920s (doctor macro.com)

Arlen was then to depart for Hollywood to “adjust his ideas into adequate scenario form for Miss Pola Negri.” Negri was a Polish stage and screen star world famous for her roles as a femme fatale. Her personal life often made headlines in the gossip magazines of the day, fueled by a series of love affairs that included Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. Negri would not land the female lead for The Green Hat; it would eventually go to Greta Garbo in a 1928 film titled A Woman of Affairs.

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Greta Garbo and  John Gilbert in A Woman of Affairs (1928), a silent film based on The Green Hat. (ggarbo.weebly.com)

“Talk” reported that “ Mr. Arlen, early in his American visit learned a piece of social usage that has stood him in good stead. This has involved, upon introduction to any stranger, his saying rapidly “Didn’t I meet you at tea?” whereupon the gratified stranger murmurs yes and has become a friend for life. This stratagem is said to have suggested itself to Mr. Arlen when he noticed that the average number of guests at teas in his honor was around two hundred.” The columnist noted that “that this business of becoming a friend for life” was a bit of literary exaggeration, and in reality the magazine:

has seldom seen such atrocious behavior and lack of fundamental good manners as has characterized a large proportion of the people who have been brought forward to met Mr. Arlen. Seemingly ignoring the fact that there was no law compelling their attendance at a function in Mr. Arlen’s honor, ever so many persons have come to his parties with an axe rather awkwardly concealed behind them.

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John McGraw (howstuffworks)

The “Profile” in issue featured John McGraw and proclaimed that he “is baseball…the incarnation of the national sport.” The piece was titled “Mr. Muggsy,” a nickname reportedly detested by McGraw because, as the magazine observed, “it is so perfectly descriptive.”

At the time of the writing, McGraw was manager and part-owner of the New York (baseball) Giants. He still holds the record for the most wins of a manager in the National League.

The issue also featured a humorous column by Frank Sullivan, which took aim at the complexity (and likely graft) of taxicab fares. The caption reads: The Taxicab System is Simple to Any Man with a Master’s Degree.

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The April 4 Issue, the “gypsy-themed party” continues…

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April 4, 1925, cover by Ilonka Karasz (New Yorker Digital Archive)

The following week’s issue of “The Talk of Town” (April 4) offered more details regarding the “gypsy-themed costume party” given by Mrs. William Randolph Hearst at the Hotel Ritz-Carlton and attended by Michael Arlen.

The party was in honor of Ambassador Alexander Pollock Moore’s departure to his Spanish post (he left the post later that year and served as ambassador to Peru in 1928-29. He died at age 63 in 1930).

The item noted that the widower Moore (his wife, famed stage actress Lillian Russell, died in 1922) during an earlier Condé Nast event for the “theatrical and literary world,” never rose from his chair without scattering to the winds a dozen or more ingénues who had been draping themselves around him…”

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The tented ceiling and glittering chandeliers of the Ritz-Carlton’s Crystal Room. The hotel at 46th and Madison opened in 1911 and was torn down just 40 years later, in 1951.

“Talk” shared accounts from the New York American and the New York Mirror that described the Ritz’s famous Crystal Room as decorated to resemble a “gypsy camp,” complete with organ grinder and monkey wandering through the crowd.

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A much thinner W.C. Fields of the vaudeville circuit, here in a still from the movie Sally of the Sawdust (1925) (Film Forum)

Entertainment at the event featured a cabaret with vaudevillian W.C. Fields, who apparently “gazed at his distinguished audience and allowed his thoughts to play with the wealth of juggleable material that confronted him.”

Finally, “Of All Things” noted that “The Turks are said to be mobilizing a hundred thousand men in an effort to affect the Mosul boundary decision but, despite this display of force, we have every confidence that right and justice and Christian civilization will prevail and the British will get their oil.”

The League of Nations awarded Mosul to Iraq, and to the British a 25-year mandate over Iraq (at this writing Mosul is firmly under the control of the Islamic State).

“Books” looked at Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil and suggested that it is not “A-One Maugham.” It also mentioned the New Yorker’s own Alexander Woollcott and his The Story of Irving Berlin, described as “uncommonly pleasant reading.”

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David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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