The Lights of Broadway

The lights of Broadway dazzled the editors of “The Talk of Town,” who commented on the changing displays that brightened The Great White Way.

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Cover of August 7, 1926 issue by Stanley W. Reynolds.

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.

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Broadway in the 1920s (emaze)

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:

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Daytime view of Times Square in the 1920s (tumblr)

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:

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The main concourse at Grand Central Terminal, 1929. (New York Transit Museum)

The Talk writers also added this lyrical observation of the traveling masses:

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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:

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Italian Premier Benito Mussolini (1883 - 1945) leaving for Tripoli, 13th May 1926. His nose is bandaged after an assassination attempt on 26th April by Violet Gibson, who shot him with a revolver at close range. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Italian Premier Benito Mussolini (before he started wearing the fascist uniform) leaving for Tripoli on May 13, 1926. His nose was bandaged after an assassination attempt on April 26 by a British woman, Violet Gibson, who shot him with a revolver at close range. She was ruled insane and deported to England (Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty)

Next Time: Talking Pictures…

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A Castle in Air

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.

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The July 31, 1926 cover by Victor Bobritsky offered its own commentary on the heat wave that gripped the city.
The State Capitol Building, Lincoln, With people in street clothes asleep on the lawn during hot days of the 1930's, Picture July 25, 1936
In case you were wondering, city folk (especially apartment dwellers) actually did sleep on the ground in the days before air conditioning. This photo was taken on July 25, 1936, on the lawn of the Nebraska State Capitol Building in Lincoln (Nebraska State Historical Society).

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:

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The “Chinese Library” in the apartment of Robert M. Catts atop the Park-Lexington Building. (halfpuddinghalfsauce.blogspot.com)
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Penthouse apartment of Robert M. Catts atop the Park-Lexington Building. (halfpuddinghalfsauce.blogspot.com)

It was the rooftop garden, however, that sent the editors into a swoon:

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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:

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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.”

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Illustration for the “Profile” by Johan Bull.

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:

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The magazine continued to have fun with the androgynous fashion trends of the Roaring Twenties. This appears to be an early Barbara Shermund cartoon:

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Next Time: The Lights of Broadway…

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Blowing Smoke

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.

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July 24, 1926 cover by Ralph Jester.

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:

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Now we call it “second-hand smoke” (History News Network)

Naturally, the editors of “The Talk of the Town” had something to say about all the fuss:

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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:

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This is among the earliest cigarette ads to feature endorsements from famous women. In 1927, Lucky Strike began collecting testimonials from female celebrity smokers, ranging from movie stars to celebrities. In this 1928 ad, Amelia Earhart endorses Lucky Strike. (Stanford School of Medicine)

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:

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According to New Yorker writer Eric Hatch, Peter DePaolo wore a white sweater and bow tie in the Atlantic City race. Here he is seen earlier that year following his victory at the Indianapolis 500. He was the first driver to complete the 500 miles in under five hours, and have an average speed of more than 100 mph. Since 1989, nine Indy races have finished in under three hours. In 2013 Tony Kanaan’s average speed exceeded 187 mph. (flickr)

And then there were Dave Lewis’s breeches…

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…and the wild stockings worn by the race’s starter, Fred Wagner:

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Illustrator Johan Bull offered his own observation about Wagner’s stockings, among other things:

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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:

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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.

Next Time: A Castle in Air…

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Good Old Summertime

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July 17, 1926 cover by Stanley W. Reynolds.

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).

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Rending of Bobby Jones for the “Profile” by illustrator Miguel Covarrubias.

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:

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Bobby Jones at the 1926 U.S. Open (golfspast.com)

And with the warm weather the tops were open on automobiles for both the rich:

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And the not-so-rich:

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And finally, Lois Long, fed up with reviewing restaurants, fires off a column about the sad state of drinking in America:

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Next Time: Blowing Smoke…

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Tarnished Tinseltown

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July 10, 1926 cover by Julian de Miskey.

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:

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Here’s the full illustration that was cut off above, because it’s worth a look:

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Later in the article Markey laid into the men in charge of the studios:

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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:

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Publicity still of Hollywood starlets Dorothy Sebastian and Joan Crawford (on a Santa Monica beach) most likely used to promote the 1928 film Our Dancing Daughters. (BBC)

Motion Picture magazine and others of this ilk were the US magazines of the 1920s:

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Rudolph Valentino on the cover of the September 1926 issue of Motion Picture magazine. (archive.org)

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:”

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And from “The  Talk of the Town:”

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Next Time: The Good Old Summertime…

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Wild & Woolly

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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 11.17.43 AMIt 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:

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(Vintage Dancer)

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.

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Claire Luce was a star attraction at the Ziegfeld Follies. Here Clarence F. Busch paints her portrait in an ostrich costume she wore for the Follies (Historical Ziegfeld Group)

Needless to say, Brackett found the Ziegfeld Follies as pointless as its imitator:

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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:

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A state-of-the-art garbage truck in 1920s NYC looked like this…

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(nyamcenterforhistory.org)

…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:

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(The New York Times)

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:

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Marlene Dietrich on Hollywood Street, Jan. 25, 1933. (New York Magazine)

Next Time: A Tarnished Tinseltown…

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Black Bottom & Other Scandals

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.

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June 26, 1926 cover by Julian de Miskey.

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.

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Actress Louise Brooks got her start in the Scandals and later the Ziegfeld Follies. Here she portrays the “Duchess of Sidebottom” in George White’s Scandals of 1924. By 1925 Brooks would have a movie contract with Paramount, and go on to become a popular star of the late silent era and gain fame as the iconic symbol of the flapper. (flickr)

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:

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The editors of “The Talk of the Town” were a bit skeptical of all the hype:

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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.

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Tom Patricola & Ann Pennington dance “The Black Bottom” in 1926 as Scandals producer George White looks on (Wikipedia)
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Ann Pennington “teaching” Felix the Cat how to dance “The Black Bottom.” Image scan from Photoplay magazine spread, January 1927.

“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:

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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:

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Elizabeth Bacon Custer in 1876, the year of the Battle at Little Bighorn (Nebraska State Historical Society)

The New Yorker editors continued to remark on the changing face of Fifth Avenue…

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…and on the progress of the city’s infrastructure improvements, as in this excerpt from a humorous piece by the Robert Benchley:

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New York Governor Al Smith and New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore shake hands at the state border inside the Holland Tunnel in 1926. (NY Daily News)

Next Time: Wild & Woolly…

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