The lights of Broadway dazzled the editors of “The Talk of Town,” who commented on the changing displays that brightened The Great White Way.
Broadway hit its prime in the 1920s, when many old buildings originally used for housing or commercial interests became more valuable as places to hang brightly lit signs.
The “Talk” editors were more or less impressed by the displays. Despite their garishness, the Broadway lights were also a symbol of the youthful exuberance of Roaring Twenties New York:
The “Talk” editors sang the praises of the “aortic” Grand Central Station, which they dubbed a place of both dignity and efficiency that sorts a “surprisingly cheerful stream” of travelers with a certain rhythm, set in motion by an impassive gateman:
The Talk writers also added this lyrical observation of the traveling masses:
Talk also noted the recent travels of Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., who was an apparent heir to the Vanderbilt fortune until he shunned high society and was disinherited by his parents for becoming a journalist and newspaper publisher. The Talk segment noted that Vanderbilt had returned from travels in Europe, where among other things until he rubbed elbows the Italian dictator Mussolini and observed the curious habits of people under his fascist rule:
Withering under a July heat wave, The New Yorker editors turned their thoughts to the cooling breezes that could be found blowing across the penthouse garden of real estate developer Robert M. Catts.
Catts erected the 20-story Park-Lexington office building at 247 Park Avenue in 1922, topping the building with his own penthouse apartment. Located near Grand Central Station, the building was innovative in the way it was built directly over underground railroad tracks leading into the station. The editors of The New Yorker, however, were more impressed by what was on top:
It was the rooftop garden, however, that sent the editors into a swoon:
Before World War II the apartment would have other notable tenants who would succeed Catts, including the violinist Jascha Heifitz. The apartment, and the building beneath it, were demolished in 1963 along with the adjoining Grand Central Palace building, which was replaced in 1967 with 245 Park Avenue:
In other news, Arthur Robinson wrote a somewhat sympathetic profile of Babe Ruth, observing that Ruth’s “thousand and one failings are more than offset by his sheer likableness.”
Curiously, the Yankees were having a better year in 1926, but there was scant mention of baseball in the pages of The New Yorker, the magazine preferring to cover classier sports such as golf, polo, tennis and horse racing. Another sport of interest was yacht racing, with Eric Hatch covering the races at Larchmont augmented by Johan Bull’s illustrations:
The magazine continued to have fun with the androgynous fashion trends of the Roaring Twenties. This appears to be an early Barbara Shermund cartoon:
The Roaring Twenties were an age when many social norms were challenged, including gender roles. Stars such as Marlene Dietrich wore men’s clothing (see my post “Wild & Woolly), many women went to work (women in the workplace increased by 25 percent) and they smoked in public.
At first smoking in public was associated with the wild behavior of flappers, but thanks to American advertising know-how, things quickly changed. What helped spark that change was this controversial 1926 magazine and billboard advertisement:
Naturally, the editors of “The Talk of the Town” had something to say about all the fuss:
Give dubious credit to Chesterfield for cracking a barrier. And thanks to mass marketing, what was rare and shocking quickly became commonplace. Subsequent cigarette ads featured women who didn’t need a man to blow them any smoke; they were independent, successful and famous:
The editors of The New Yorker obviously loved cars and the advertising they attracted, so for the July 24 edition they dispatched a writer and an artist to the motor races at Atlantic City to record the momentous event. However, writer Eric Hatch seemed as interested in the attire of the drivers as in the race itself:
And then there were Dave Lewis’s breeches…
…and the wild stockings worn by the race’s starter, Fred Wagner:
Illustrator Johan Bull offered his own observation about Wagner’s stockings, among other things:
In a separate column in the magazine (simply titled “Motors”) Hatch marveled at the amazing new road to Jamaica (Queens) that featured four lanes, two in each direction, with drivers approaching breakneck speeds near 40 miles per hour:
As for speed, back then a basic car was a far cry from an Indy racer, and strained to do more than 45 mph. Luxury cars could go faster, but the quality of tires, brakes and roads were so poor that anyone exceeding 60 mph would likely blow a tire.
The glories of summertime filled the pages of the July 17, 1926 issue. The cover featured a stylish young couple enjoying a romantic evening on a moonlit lake, while the inside pages were filled with all sorts of outdoor activities ranging from dining and dancing to open air concerts and golf, lots of it.
There was a lengthy profile by Herbert Reed on golfing great Bobby Jones, a mere boy of 24 who competed as an amateur but often beat top pros such as Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen (in a few years Jones would help design the Augusta National Golf Club and co-found the Masters Tournament).
In “Sports of the Week,” Reed wrote about Jones’s second U.S. Open win, in Columbus, Ohio. Johan Bull offered this rendering of the runners-up:
And with the warm weather the tops were open on automobiles for both the rich:
And the not-so-rich:
And finally, Lois Long, fed up with reviewing restaurants, fires off a column about the sad state of drinking in America:
Although there are some good indie and foreign films being made these days, not to mention some decent stuff on cable and streaming services, we still have plenty of bland popcorn fare coming out of Hollywood that combines the worst of unscrupulous producers and their fawning writers and directors.
That’s how The New Yorker viewed Hollywood 90 years ago. Movie critic Theodore Shane weekly voiced his disappointment over American cinematic fare (while generally praising the work of European, and particularly German directors), and writer Morris Markey took the industry to task in the July 10, 1926 edition of the magazine, finding the whole lot of Hollywood to be a cesspool of mediocrity and dishonesty. It also didn’t help that Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers, was enforcing his morality code on the motion picture industry:
Here’s the full illustration that was cut off above, because it’s worth a look:
Later in the article Markey laid into the men in charge of the studios:
And if you think Paris Hilton or the Kardashians are recent phenomena, Markey also leveled scorn at the media, and gullible audiences, for supporting this tawdry spectacle:
Motion Picture magazine and others of this ilk were the US magazines of the 1920s:
And finally, a couple of bits for my “They Didn’t Know What Was Coming” department. Generally people were having too good of a time in the Roaring Twenties to take this fascism thing very seriously. From the section “Of All Things:”
Eugene Gise threw a beach party on the July 3, 1926 cover of The New Yorker with an explosion of color that was a departure from the somewhat spare covers of previous issues. It had been an unseasonably cool June, so folks were ready to frolic in the sun.
It should be noted that the woman in the foreground basking in the sun is most likely wearing a wool bathing suit. Although Jantzen was making suits you could actually swim in, these wool numbers were still the norm. As the website Vintage Dancer notes, “functionality in swimwear was not as important as fashion, so the prevailing theory was that wool would help keep you warm.” Check out this newspaper advertisement from 1926:
In the previous issue (June 26, 1926) theatre critic Charles Brackett looked at all the fuss over the opening of George White’s Scandals revue, so in this issue he gave the Ziegfeld Follies–the revue show that inspired the Scandals–its proper due.
Needless to say, Brackett found the Ziegfeld Follies as pointless as its imitator:
Moving on to other things, I found this tidbit in “The Talk of Town” interesting. Even 90 years ago city dwellers were complaining about having to sort their garbage:
A state-of-the-art garbage truck in 1920s NYC looked like this…
…and since the 1890s the city had employed street sweepers known as “White Wings” to keep things tidy, apparently even in the middle of traffic:
After decades of petticoats, the Roaring Twenties marked the beginning of androgynous fashion in America, with actress Marlene Dietrich leading the way in defying standards of femininity. Cartoonist Raymond Thayer took a humorous look at the trend in the July 3 issue:
The Roaring Twenties were all about fads and crazes, ranging from flagpole sitting to dances such as “The Shimmy,” “The Charleston,” or “The Black Bottom.” These dances were appropriated from Black culture, with many New Yorkers getting their first exposure in places such as Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.
The June 26, 1926 issue of The New Yorker was all abuzz over the Broadway debut of George White’s eighth annual Scandals. The Scandals were a long-running string of Broadway revues that ran from 1919-1939. Modelled after the Ziegfeld Follies, the Scandals launched the careers of many entertainers, including W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges, Rudy Vallée and Louise Brooks. Composer George Gershwin’s early work also appeared in the earliest editions of the show.
Like Flo Ziegfeld, George White must have been a master at marketing, since tickets for the Scandals opening sold for $55, which today would be the equivalent of about $725:
The editors of “The Talk of the Town” were a bit skeptical of all the hype:
The 1926 Scandals show featured “The Black Bottom,” danced by Ziegfeld Follies star Ann Pennington and Tom Patricola. In this dance-crazed era, “The Black Bottom” became a national phenomenon and even surpassed “The Charleston” in popularity.
“The Black Bottom” was popularized in New York by the 1924 Harlem stage show show Dinaah. Although the dance moves originated in New Orleans in the early 20th century, Jelly Roll Morton gave it a name when he wrote Black Bottom Stomp in 1925, referring to Detroit’s Black Bottom district.
In typical fashion, The New Yorker was less than impressed with the spectacle. In his theatre review column, Charles Brackett made this observation:
On to other things, “The Talk of the Town” also featured this curious note about George Custer’s widow, reminding us that 1926 was a very long time ago. Here are excerpts:
The New Yorker editors continued to remark on the changing face of Fifth Avenue…
…and on the progress of the city’s infrastructure improvements, as in this excerpt from a humorous piece by the Robert Benchley:
The sad world of “taxi dancers” was explored by Maxwell Bodenheim in the June 12, 1926 edition of The New Yorker.
Bodenheim visited a “cheap Broadway dance hall” populated by taxi-dancers and their patrons. It worked something like this: A male patron would buy dance tickets for ten cents apiece, and for each ticket a chosen “hostess-partner” would dance with him for the length of a single song.
He also described the pathetic strutting and preening rituals of both dancers and patrons:
A couple of other bits from the issue: An interesting headline for the profile of NYC Fire Chief John Kenlon…
…and this advertisement for apartments at 1035 Fifth Avenue. I thought the ad was interesting because children are rarely featured in The New Yorker. In case you are wondering about their social class, these are children living on posh Fifth Avenue, and that’s a nurse-maid, not mother, chasing behind them in nearby Central Park.
On to the June 19th issue, and a couple more items of interest…
As I’ve noted before, a common theme of the early New Yorker’s cartoons was the comic imbalance of rich old men and their young mistresses. This time Rea Irvin explores the subject with this terrific illustration:
My last post (“After a Fashion”), featured the June 5, 1926 issue and Lois Long’s account of her visit to Coney Island. I also noted that she would soon become the wife of cartoonist Peter Arno. Perhaps they visited the park together, because this is the cartoon Arno submitted for the June 19 issue:
Fashion advertising in the early New Yorker can tell you a lot about the mood of the city’s smart set. As I’ve observed before, the magazine’s advertisements were rife with Anglo- and Francophile messaging, but they also reveal much about our changing times. A good example is the upscale retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, which these days uses the tagline “Authentic American clothing since 1892.”
In its early days, A&F was known as an elite outfitter of sporting and excursion goods, supplying aspiring country squires with expensive shotguns, fishing rods and the clothing and kit necessary for successful and stylish expeditions beyond the drawing room:
The company went bankrupt in 1976 and operated through mail order until 1988, when the The Limited clothing chain bought the name and operation and turned the focus to the young adult market:
Over the past couple of decades there’s been a lot of criticism regarding the abundance of A&L ads featuring shirtless, white men and the corresponding dearth of minority models. The newer ads feature a lot less skin and a sprinkling of minorities, but the product line is still a far cry from the one offered in 1926. Except for the elitist part.
As for other purveyors of fine fashion in the pages of The New Yorker, B. Altman made this stylish pitch for its line of bathing suits:
And here’s an advertisement for Croydon Cravats, featuring the ubiquitous Father’s Day necktie:
As for fashion in the comics, this drawing by I. Klein found humor in the multicultural appeal of the summer straw hat:
African Americans in the early New Yorker were nearly always depicted in minstrel-style blackface, and Jewish immigrants (such as the one Klein depicted at right) rarely lacked the Orthodox beard. Such is the case in this Peter Arno illustration where cultures clash rather than mix:
And let’s check in with the New Yorker’s fashion critic (and Arno’s soon-to-be wife) Lois “Lipstick” Long, who slummed with the Proles at Coney Island:
Finally, given the terrible circumstances in the Middle East and especially Syria, this small item in “Of All Things” is both timely and prescient: