The month of February 1926 must have been miserable in New York City. A massive blizzard made a mess of the streets, which were then topped by a soot-laden smog. The smog was the result of homes and businesses burning soft coal, which produced far more smoke than the hard variety (which was in short supply).
The photo above, from the Daily News archive, shows a chaotic scene on Orchard Street (Manhattan’s Lower East Side) after the storm.
As could be expected, The New Yorker editors tried their best to make light of the situation, although they couldn’t resist making a racist remark regarding the effects of soot on the population. It is also interesting to note that the word “smoggy” was considered by the editors to be a relatively new term:
Al Frueh showed us how the toffs dealt with the situation…
…and Fifth Avenue was not the best place for a fashionable stroll…
No doubt the foul weather contributed to the mood of the writers and critics at The New Yorker, who reacted rather sourly to the much ballyhooed Feb. 17, 1926 debut of young Marion Talley at the Metropolitan Opera. At the tender age of 19, she was the youngest prima donna to sing at the Metropolitan Opera at that time.
In his “A Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey scoffed at the hype and small-town boosterism that accompanied the young singer from rural Missouri:
Talley’s debut performance was as Gilda, the daughter of the title character in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. The Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, hoped Talley’s debut would be low-key and not overshadow the production. However, a delegation of two hundred leading citizens of Kansas City, including the mayor, arrived via a special train for the event.
Adding to the chaos, a noisy telegraph machine was set up backstage so Talley’s father could send dispatches to the Associated Press.
Talley’s swift rise to fame would be followed by a relatively quick return to obscurity. After appearing in seven productions at the Met, her contract was not renewed for the 1929 season.
Now that I have your attention (at least the dog lovers anyway; and yes, there is a dog-related item if you read on), it is worth mentioning that the Feb. 20, 1926 issue of The New Yorker marked the first anniversary of the magazine, and in what would become an annual tradition, the magazine reprinted the original Rea Irvin cover from its first issue.
The magazine nearly went belly up during the summer of 1925, but a new marketing campaign, along with noticeably better content, put the magazine firmly in the black as it looked to its second year.
In “The Talk of the Town,” the editors couldn’t help but boast about their prosperity, albeit in a winking manner:
Jimmy the Ink (James Daugherty) marked the anniversary with this drawing…
…and Corey Ford, who contributed more than twenty satirical house ads for the magazine under the title, “The Making of the Magazine,” returned to form in this issue with a recollection of the magazine’s imagined past (a device The Onion employs to great effect):
The magazine’s prosperity was evident not only in its talented stable of writers and illustrators, but also in its pages crammed with advertising. As I’ve noted before, much of the advertising is directed at the Anglo- and Franco-phile tastes of the magazine’s readers. For example, this ad from Studebaker suggesting a connection to British royalty:
Continuing on the theme of royalty, none other than Her Royal Highness, “La Princesse Genevieve” gave her nod to Produits Bertie skin cream (joining the ranks of other royal and society women who hawked moisturizers, cold creams and even cigarettes in those days…)
Royal endorsements were not limited to France and England, as none other than the Maharajah de Kapurthala put his seal of approval on Melachrino cigarettes in an ad featured on the inside back cover…
The issue was filled with car ads, appearing in the wake of January’s 26th Annual National Automobile Show at the Grand Central Palace. But the latest spectacle was the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at the new Madison Square Garden, with the Terrier Group once again taking the top prize. The “Talk” editors offered this observation on Westminster:
An advertisement from Bonwit Teller even got into the spirit of the thing…
From my How Times Have Changed department, this ad from Guaranty Trust:
And finally, a detail from a center-page illustration by Rea Irvin depicting the result of a blizzard that blanketed the city in February 1926:
In reading all of these past issues of The New Yorker (a year’s worth, as of this post) one writer in particular jumps from the pages: Lois Long.
Perhaps it was her irreverent, high-spirited style and her fearless forays into any topic. She was the most modern of the New Yorker writers, developing a style that communicated directly to the reader as a confidant.
Her output was also impressive, writing about nightlife in “Tables for Two” under the pseudonym “Lipstick” and also about fashion in “One and Off the Avenue.” In his autobiography, Point of Departure, colleague Ralph Ingersoll wrote that Long “did a wheel-horse job of pulling The New Yorker through its first years,” with an “almost infinite capacity for being childishly delighted” while also possessing a “native shrewdness, an ability to keep her head.”
Long was in rare form in the Feb. 13, 1926 issue, offering a comprehensive list of evening entertainments for everyone from a flapper to an aristocrat. Here’s the entire column:
According to Long, if you were an aristocrat, or a “rapacious visitor” wishing to rubberneck at the rich and famous, The Colony restaurant was a good choice for the dinner hour.
The Colony, which began as a speakeasy in the early 1920s, was one of the places to be seen in New York for many decades. According to the blog Lost Past Remembered, “there was a Colony ‘crowd’ that included Hollywood royalty Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, and Joan Crawford as well as the real deal ––The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were great fans (as were assorted bankers, brokers, wheeler dealers and gangsters and socialites).”
In those days you could display your status by where you were seated at The Colony. In later years the place was frequented by the likes of Jackie O and her sister Lee Radziwill. Writer Truman Capote, who enjoyed a special back table under a TV set, reportedly wept when the restaurant closed in 1971.
On to a less glamorous subject, “The Talk of the Town” made note of the extension of traffic lights in the city:
In 1926 traffic lights were still something of a novelty in New York, which didn’t install its first traffic light until 1920.
According to the New York Times (May 16, 2014), the first permanent traffic lights in New York went up in 1920, a gift from millionaire physician Dr. John A. Harriss who was fascinated by street conditions. His design “was a homely wooden shed on a latticework of steel, from which a police officer changed signals, allowing one to two minutes for each direction. Although the meanings we attach to red and green now seem like the natural order of things, in 1920 green meant Fifth Avenue traffic was to stop so crosstown traffic could proceed; white meant go. Most crosstown streets and Fifth Avenue were still two-way.”
The signals were so popular that in 1922 “the Fifth Avenue Association gave the city, at a cost of $126,000, a new set of signals, seven ornate bronze 23-foot-high towers (designed by Joseph H. Freedlander) placed at intersections along Fifth from 14th to 57th Streets.”
Within a few years it was determined that the towers were blocking the roadway, so in 1929 Freedlander was “called back to design a new two-light traffic signal, also bronze, to be placed on the corners. These were topped by statues of Mercury and lasted until 1964. A few of the Mercury statues have survived, but Freedlander’s 1922 towers have completely vanished.”
Skipping ahead a few issues, this Hulett advertisement from the March 20, 1926 issue features a drawing of the Freelander signal:
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Although F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby received a brief, dismissive review from the magazine in 1925, a stage adaptation of the novel was received favorably by theatre critic Gilbert W. Gabriel:
In the movies, critic Theodore Shane gushed over a new film by Robert Flaherty, famed director of Nanook of the North. This time around Flaherty turned his lens on a Polynesian paradise in Moana:
And to wrap things up, a drawing by Einer Nerman of German soprano Frieda Hempel…
And this advertisement exhorting readers to stay at the Hotel Majestic. The hotel, built in 1894, would fall to a wrecking ball in 1929, just three years after this ad appeared:
Coney Island was famous for its side-show freak exhibits, but from 1925 to 1969 Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in Times Square brought the show to the heart of Manhattan.
In addition to sword swallowers, tattooed ladies and other human oddities (the famous Zip the Pinhead did a short stint there), there was also Professor Heckler’s Flea Circus, which operated in the basement. It indeed featured real fleas attached by very thin wires to miniature chariots, merry-go-rounds and the like.
The New Yorker mentioned Hubert’s in this brief “Talk of the Town” item:
These days it seems a bit strange that women covered in tattoos were once considered sideshow oddities. Among the more famous was Stella Grassman, who worked as a “Tattooed Lady” in the late 1920’s in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and also appeared at Hubert’s. Stella and her husband, Deafy (pictured below) owned a tattoo shop on the Bowery.
And then there was Professor Heckler’s Flea Circus, depicted below (the “fleas” enlarged 700 times, and obviously embellished) in a feature on Prof. Heckler in the March 1930 issue of Modern Mechanics:
The entrance to Hubert’s, photo undated, but probably from the early 1950’s:
After Hubert’s closed it became just another porno peep show, a ubiquitous sight on Times Square until the city began a “clean up” of the area in the 1990s.
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Profiles examined the life and work of playwright Eugene O’Neil, and in the “Critique” section Gilbert W. Gabriel (who sometimes wrote under the pseudonym Golly-Wogg) gave a strong review of O’Neill’s The Great God Brown, writing that the play represented “some of the finest writing of his lifetime.”
I should note here that Gabriel had replaced Herman J. Mankiewicz as drama critic following HJM’s firing by editor Harold Ross in January of 1926. Ross, miffed by Mankiewicz’s interest in Hollywood, famously fired “Mank” by telegram (Mankiewicz would go on to a successful career as a screenwriter on such films as Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz).
Finally, an interesting take in “Talk of the Town” on book censorship of the day:
Hard to believe that many of these books were considered lurid in their day, and were much sought after. Now you can buy practically anything, but then again, so few people read anymore these days.
“Talk” ended with this helpful advice on current cocktail recipes (remember we are in the midst of Prohibition). The “Titantic,” with six parts gin, seems deadly indeed:
What is “Nuxated Iron” you ask? It was sold as a performing enhancing iron supplement in the early 20th century, endorsed by such athletes as boxer Jack Dempsey and baseball’s Ty Cobb. The blog Peterboriana explains it thus:
“Nuxated Iron” pills, as endorsed by Dempsey, were, obviously, iron supplements. As for the “nuxated” part of it, that refers to nux vomica, a deadly substance better known as strychnine (i.e. rat poison). Fortunately, the stuff being hawked…actually contained very little strychnine, and not much iron either. It was comparatively useless as a performance-enhancing drug, but would not kill you unless you took a lot of it.
So if the Titanic’s six parts gin don’t get you first, maybe the Nuxated Iron will.
Writer and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes apparently wasn’t so put off by The New Yorker’s scathing review of his play, The Wisecrackers (Dec. 26, 1925) that he couldn’t continue writing for the magazine. In the Jan. 30, 1926 issue he offered an interesting essay on the particular appeal of Cuba. Titled “Annexation is the Best Policy,” it is an interesting read given the current reopening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S.
Given that Seldes penned his article about 30 years before the Cuban revolution, he offers some interesting insights into the independent character of the island nation and, perhaps inadvertently, also reveals American attitudes that helped to fuel the revolutionary fire. Seldes writes “the fact that Cuba has never been officially Americanized is supposed to be proof of our innate idealism; to me it seems more like a proof of the lack of imagination which ran through the whole McKinley period. To have taken the Philippines and passed up Cuba–how incredibly naive!” He goes on to observe that the total lack of “peaceful penetration” is proof that the island “will cling to its character no matter how many Americans do their worst.” Here is the entire article, interspersed with vintage images:
Also in the issue was profile of the life of silent film star Harold Lloyd. The writer R. E. Sherwood marveled at how a man from small town Nebraska became one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars and was even building a home in Beverly Hills for the staggering sum of $1 million.
In his “Of All Things” Column, Howard Brubaker made note of the following:
Neither Brubaker, nor Hubble for that matter, could have ever imagined that in 64 years a telescope bearing Hubble’s name would be launched into space and resolve a number of long-standing problems in astronomy.
To close, a couple of advertisements from the front section of the magazine. Now we know what youth wear at smart tea dances…
As if covering the nightclub scene and the fashion set wasn’t enough, Lois (“Lipstick”) Long found the time to attend the National Automobile Show at the Grand Central Palace and offer her insights and criticisms on the latest in automotive design.
The show featured more than 500 new models, bigger and more powerful cars mounted on new-fangled balloon tires. There were also cheaper cars available–GM introduced the Pontiac line to appeal to the mass market, and other manufacturers lowered their prices in an effort to lure customers. Visitors packed the show despite the fact that the city streets were already hopelessly clogged with traffic and navigating them was difficult and often perilous. Al Frueh offered his take on the traffic situation with a little doodle in “The Talk of the Town” section (featured above).
Lois Long gave readers her usual straightforward assessment of the show (her Danish pastry metaphor in the first paragraph is spot on). Note her list of American car companies, many of which are long gone:
“The Talk of Town” editors were bemused over the news that artist Maxfield Parrish had received “a check in six figures” following his first-ever exhibition. It was reported that Parrish received $80,000 (roughly equivalent to $1 million today) for a single painting, which the editors suggested made him “the highest paid artist living.” They also wondered “if he gets amusement out of being the highest paid painter,” since Parrish was known for wanting to be left alone, and until recently was “not well off” because no one “could persuade him to the sell the pictures with which he lined his house.”
In a previous issue (Dec. 12, 1925), New Yorker art critic Murdock Pemberton wrote a dismissive critique of the young Parrish’s work and noted that the artist was largely glorified in American advertising and not in serious art circles. This was followed by another “Talk” item in which the editors sneered at the trade calendar market that fed the popularity of artists like Parrish:
And to close, this message (illustrated by Peter Arno) from Miltiades Egyptian cigarettes. Apparently they empower you to call your non-smoking friend “fatso.”