What to Drink During Prohibition

The Roaring Twenties were a strange confluence of the Puritan and libertine, perhaps best represented by Prohibition and the speakeasy night life it inspired. Many if not most of The New Yorker readers of the late 1920s were familiar with these establishments as well as with reliable bootleggers and rum runners. And for those of you following this blog we all know that “Tables for Two” columnist Lois “Lipstick” Long was THE voice of speakeasy and New York nightlife.

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May 29, 1926 cover by Stanley W. Reynolds.

I should point out here that Prohibition did not make consumption of alcohol illegal. The 18th Amendment prohibited the commercial manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages, but it did not prohibit their use.

So if you had a connection to a smuggler bringing whisky from Scotland via Canada, for example, you could enjoy a Scotch at home without too much trouble, although the prices could be high. “The Talk of the Town” editors regularly reported black market wine and liquor prices (I include an adjoining Julian de Miskey cartoon):

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Note the mention of pocket flasks, which were an important item in a purse or vest pocket when one went to a nightclub or restaurant, where White Rock or some other sparkling water was sold as a mixer for whatever you happened to bring with you. You see a lot of this type of advertisement in the Prohibition-era New Yorker:

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I’ll bet those grinning golfers have something in their bags besides clubs.

And then there were ads like these, which I find terribly sad:

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“The Talk of the Town” also commented on the recent visit of British writer Aldous Huxley, who told his New York hosts that he admired American writers Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson, and he also had praise for writer and critic H.L. Mencken, whom he likened to a farmer “of the better type:”

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Aldous Huxley in April 1926. (Bettman/Corbis)

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Other odds and ends from this issue…a clever drawing by Al Frueh for the “Profile” feature on New York Governor Al Smith:

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I include a photo of Al Smith for comparison:

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New York Gov. Al Smith (NY Daily News)

And this bit from “Of All Things,” complete with bad pun/racial slur:

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New Yorker readers in 1926 had little reason to believe that in a decade Mussolini would try to make good on his statement and join Hitler in the next world war.

Here’s a couple more ads from the issue that are signs of those times. Note the listing of Florida locations for those New Yorkers who were flocking to that new winter vacation destination:

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And this ad for an electric refrigerator…for those who could afford such newfangled things. The ice man was still plenty busy in 1926, but his days were numbered.

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And finally, a nod to springtime, and this excerpt of an illustration by Helen Hokinson for the “Talk” section:

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Next Time: After a Fashion…

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Nize & Not So Nize

This entry opens with a “Nize Baby” comic illustration by Milt Gross, since Milt’s book by the same title was advertised in the May 22 issue (featured later in this entry). I thought it better to begin with a bright comic than with a depressing image of NYC’s “The Tombs” prison, which was featured in the May 15 issue’s “Reporter at Large” piece written by Morris Markey.

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May 15 cover by Ronald McRae.

The somber, colloquial name of the prison was actually derived from a previous prison that had occupied the area, designed in a fashion that resembled an “Egyptian mausoleum.” The original Tombs (pictured below) was built in 1838:

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(daytoninmanhattan)

The first Tombs was notorious as a place of extreme cruelty–most of the prisoners were simply detainees awaiting their hearings and few had been convicted of actual crimes. Nevertheless some remained imprisoned for up to ten months in horrible conditions. The city’s answer to the problem was simply to demolish the prison in 1897 and replace it in 1902 with a Châteauesque-style structure. This was the prison to which Markey paid his visit:

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The prison (left) that replaced The Tombs connected to the 1892 Manhattan Criminal Courts Building with a “Bridge of Sighs” crossing four stories above Franklin Street.

The prison may have been an improvement over the original Tombs, but Markey nevertheless found it a gloomy place:

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Now on to something a bit cheerier. It is springtime in New York, after all:

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May 22, 1926 cover by Julian de Miskey.

“The Talk of the Town” briefly commented on Sinclair Lewis’s refusal to accept the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Arrowsmith. Lewis said he did not agree with contests where one book or author was praised over another. In the “Profile” section, Waldo Frank looked at the life of philosopher and education reformer John Dewey…through a jaded lens:

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The issue featured this advertisement for a new book by cartoonist Milt Gross. He was best known for his comic characters who spoke a Yiddish-inflected English dialogue.

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Gross is perhaps one of the first comic artists to publish (in 1930) what today we call a graphic novel–his pantomime tale He Done Her Wrong: The Great American Novel and Not a Word in It — No Music, Too. At nearly 300 pages, it was composed entirely of pen-and-ink cartoons.

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Cover for He Done Her Wrong (Wikipedia)

And The New Yorker took its usual blasé tone in reporting on the latest world news, namely Admiral Richard Byrd’s attempted flight over the North Pole.

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Pathe cameraman filming the Josephine Ford as it was being prepared for flight to the North Pole. (The Ohio State University Archives)

The New Yorker editors had some fun taking jabs at the New York Times for its sensational headlines regarding the event:

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And to close, the first of what would be a series of ads for Grebe radios, including the weird testimonials by Confucius and “Doctor Wu”…

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Next Time: What to Drink During Prohibition…

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Batter Up

The cover of the May 8, 1926 issue featured this Bauhaus-style rendering of a baseball player by Victor Bobritsky in anticipation of the 1926 season:

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After a terrible 1925 season (and Babe Ruth’s infamous stomach ache), in 1926 the New York Yankees would begin to form a batting lineup that would become known as “Murderers’ Row.” They won the AL pennant in 1926 (losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in a seven-game World Series) and in 1927 they would go 110-44 and sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. More on that when we actually get to 1927.

The May 8 issue offered more coverage of Spanish actress-singer Raquel Meller’s first-ever visit to America, which caused quite a sensation:

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Raquel Meller

Meller arrived in New York via the SS Leviathan, on which she apparently attempted to book a deluxe suite for her five Pekingese. After New York she also visited Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and Los Angeles, where she attracted the attention of Charlie Chaplin. Although Chaplin was unsuccessful in landing Meller as a co-star, he did incorporate the melody of her most famous song, La Violetera, as a major theme in his 1931 film City Lights.

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Meller’s visit landed her on the cover of the April 26, 1926 Time magazine. (Wikipedia)

Theodore Shane reviewed the film Brown of Harvard and pondered the accuracy of this portrayal of Harvard student life:

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(Wikipedia)

The issue also featured the latest attempt at mapmaking by John Held Jr:

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And this W.P. Trent cartoon with a common theme of early New Yorker issues: the comic imbalance of rich old men and their young mistresses:

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And finally, this advertisement in the May 8 issue caught my eye. Although cars crowded the streets of New York, they were still a recent enough invention to evoke the days of horse-drawn carriages. Even with all of the advances in automobiles in the late 20s, this landau-style Rolls Royce still exposed the driver to the weather, a design feature that signaled class, not practicality.

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Next Time: Nize & Not So Nize…

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The Circus Comes to Town

The Ringling Brothers Circus was in town, and The New Yorker marked the occasion with a profile of the surviving Ringlings, John and Charles. Writer Helena Huntington Smith noted that the brothers used a lowbrow profession to become multimillionaires, real estate kings (“They own “most of the west coast of Florida”) and even occasional patrons of the arts.

Speaking of lowbrow, circus freaks remained a big attraction in 1920s New York. Here is an image of the Ringling Brothers “Congress of Freaks” lineup from two years earlier, in 1924:

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Photograph by Edward Kelty, who took photos of the “Congress of Freaks” every year from 1924 to the mid 1930s.

The 1926 show at Madison Square Garden also featured elephants “dancing” the Charleston. One wonders how much these poor beasts were tortured:

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(Vintage Everyday)

And from the “Remember it’s 1926 Department,” we have this New Yorker obituary for famed Ringling circus freak Zip the Pinhead. Note that Zip was “owned” by a Captain O.K. White:

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Zip’s real name was William Henry Johnson. Thought to have been born with microcephaly (those with the condition were commonly called “pinheads), he might have merely possessed an oddly shaped head.

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Zip the pinhead (Wikipedia)

Audiences were often told that he was a wild man, or a missing link, and although it was assumed he was mentally deficient (the New Yorker article above suggested he had the mentality of a two-year-old child), Johnson’s sister said he could “converse like the average person, and with fair reasoning power.” She claimed his last words (he died at age 83) were, “Well, we fooled ’em for a long time, didn’t we?”

The New Yorker editors continued to marvel at the heights of new buildings, the latest being the Ritz Tower, which was to be the tallest residential building in the city:

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Here’s a postcard image of the Ritz Tower from the late 1920s. Note the airplane at left, added to emphasize the building’s height:

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At 41 stories and 541 feet, the Ritz was city’s tallest residential tower at the time. The tallest residential tower in NYC today is 432 Park Avenue. The 96-story tower is just shy of 1,400 feet:

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(Forbes)

Even taller residential towers are in the works.

Now, to end on a lighter note, a Whoops Sisters cartoon by Peter Arno–this is the first in which their trademark “Whoops” is uttered. Personally, I don’t find Arno’s Whoops Sisters all that funny. I guess you had to be there…

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and this “generation gap” observation by Helen Hokinson:

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Next Time: Batter Up

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That Sad Young Man

The “sad young man” in question was none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was profiled by John Chapin Mosher in the April 17, 1926 issue of The New Yorker.

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April 17, 1926 cover by Clayton Knight.

Mosher wrote that Scott believed he was “getting on in years,” even though he was only 29 years old and had recently published The Great Gatsby (which had received a brief, lukewarm review from The New Yorker in 1925). Mosher observed that the novelist and his wife, Zelda, famous on two continents and with money pouring in from the publication of This Side of Paradise, nevertheless complained of being broke:

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It was noted however that the couple had little financial sense:

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Mosher found Fitzgerald to be a grave, hardworking man, and seemed to sense the melancholy that would lead to madness (in Zelda’s case), alcoholism and an early grave (Fitzgerald would be dead in 14 years).

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Illustration of Fitzgerald by Victor De Pauw for the April 17 “Profile.”

In this issue we were also introduced to Peter Arno’s “Whoops Sisters,” although they are not yet identified here by that title:

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 9.22.43 AMAccording to New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin, “in 1925, The New Yorker published nine Arno drawings. In 1926, it ran seventy-two. The enormous jump was due to the wild success of two cartoon sisters Arno created: Pansy Smiff and Mrs. Abagail Flusser, otherwise known as The Whoops Sisters. The Sisters were not sweet little old ladies — they were naughty boisterous grinning “wink wink, nudge nudge” sweet little old ladies, their language laced with double entendres.”

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April 24, 1926 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

In the April 24, 1926 issue, the dyspeptic film critic Theodore Shane took aim at Cecil B. DeMille’ The Volga Boatman:

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VOLGA HOKUM…Elinor Fair and Victor Varconi in The Volga Boatman. (Virtual History)

Also in this issue, Al Frueh’s interpretation of New York’s social strata via the city’s Madison Avenue train stops:

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Near the theatre section, this illustration of famed Spanish singer and actress Raquel Meller, as rendered by Miguel Covarrubias:

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And a photo of Meller from the 1920s that looks like it could have been taken yesterday:

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An international star in the 1920s and 1930s, Meller appeared in several films and sang the original version of the well known song La Violetera.

Next Time: The Circus Comes to Town…

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Parisians & Puritans

In her latest dispatch from Paris, correspondent Janet “Genet” Flanner offered New Yorker readers a glimpse into the French mind, its fear of “Americanization” and its perception of America’s Puritanical attitudes behind Prohibition.

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April 3, 1926 cover by Rea Irvin.

All the more reason the French were bemused by reports that American and English citizens led the lists of reported drug raids in the City of Light…

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or that somehow Prohibition was a question of theological differences:

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The April 3, 1926 issue also offered up some curious advertisements. Aiming square at the grasping Anglophilia of New Yorker readers, here’s a pitch for a used Rolls Royce:

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And with the money left over from your savings on the used Rolls, you could buy this 47-foot cruiser from the American Car and Foundry Company:

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Moving along to the April 10, 1926 issue (cover designed by H.O. Hofman)…

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…I discovered this clever “map” by John Held Jr. For fans of “Boardwalk Empire” or other 1920s gangster-themed fare, Held’s map confirms it was no secret that Atlantic City was a major port for rum runners:

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Also on the theme of Prohibition, cartoonist James Daugherty (Jimmy the Ink) had some fun with New Yorker colleague Lois Long (aka “Lipstick”) by pairing her with New York’s top Prohibition prosecutor Emory Buckner in this unlikely scenerio:

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Note the lock on the fire hydrant. Padlocking restaurants and clubs suspected of selling alcohol was a favorite tactic of Buckner and his agents. Long famously took him task in her Oct. 31, 1925 “Tables for Two” column. You can read about it here in my previous post, “How Dry I Am.”

Next Time: The Great American Novelist…

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