Unfit to Print

The journalist and screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote the “Reporter at Large” column for the early New Yorker, and for the April 30, 1927 issue took aim at the shoddy coverage of the Ruth Snyder murder trial at the Long Island City Courthouse.

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April 30, 1927 cover by Carl Rose.

Hecht was appalled by the media’s use of celebrity “experts” to cover the trial, which only served to sensationalize and trivialize the proceedings:

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Ben Hecht

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The Ruth Snyder trial dominated headlines in 1927. A housewife from Queens, Snyder began an affair in 1925 with Henry Judd Gray, a married corset salesman. After she persuaded her husband, Albert Snyder, to purchase life insurance, she enlisted Gray’s help to murder her husband. On March 20, 1927 the couple garrotted Albert Snyder (after bludgeoning him with a sash weight) and then staged the murder scene to look like a burglary.

The trial was covered by such figures as former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Peggy Hopkins Joyce, the radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, movie director D. W. Griffith, author Damon Runyon, popular philosopher Will Durant, and James M. Cain, a crime reporter who went on to write Double Indemnity, which was later made into a major Hollywood movie. Hecht (who would go on to co-write a hugely successful play about newspaper reporters, The Front Page) would have none of this celebrity circus. Some excerpts:

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Ruth Snyder would not be acquitted (or live to write reviews), but instead would go to Sing Sing’s electric chair on Jan. 12, 1928. The 32-year-old Snyder would go to the chair first, followed shortly thereafter by her former lover and accomplice, 35-year-old Henry Judd Gray. The pair had sealed each other’s fate: During the trial, Snyder and Gray had turned on each other, contending the other was responsible for killing Albert Snyder.

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BUSTED…Ruth Snyder in custody and behind bars at the Queens County Jail. (Getty)
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END OF THE LINE…Mugshots of Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray taken at Sing Sing Prison following their conviction. (Lloyd Sealy Library, CUNY)
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NATIONAL SENSATION…The cover of Jan. 13, 1928, issue of the New York Daily News. Although photographs of the execution were not allowed, photographer Tom Howard took this now-famous photo of Snyder at the moment of her execution with the aid of a miniature camera strapped to his ankle. (newseum.org)

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On to a lighter topic…The Sherry-Netherland Hotel has graced the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 59th Street since 1927, and when it was built it was the tallest apartment-hotel in New York City.

The building was nearing completion when around 8 pm on April 12, 1927, fire broke out on wood plank scaffolding surrounding the top floors. Firefighters responded only to find they lacked water pressure to fight the blaze.

According to the New York Times (“The Night a Hotel Turned Into a Torch,” Nov. 15, 2012), the fire was watched by hundreds of thousands, and “the windows of the Plaza Hotel across the street were ‘black with people’; every front room was engaged, either by news organizations or for spontaneous parties to watch the fire.”

Planks tumbled to the street for hours, and The Times said one “sailed in a crazy parabola” and crashed against the Savoy-Plaza, also nearly finished; occasionally minor collapses of the scaffolding turned the picturesque top into a “lofty Roman candle.” The crowds on the street could feel the heat on their faces, and the roar and crackle of the fire could be heard for blocks around. The fire burned itself out around midnight.

Oddly, the New Yorker had little to say about the fire, mentioning it only in passing in this “Talk of the Town” item:

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HOT TIME IN THE CITY…In 1927 the Sherry-Netherland caught on fire, creating what The New York Times called “the best show of the season.” The newspaper ran this photo (left), retouching it for contrast (NYT). At right, the hotel as it appears today (Wikipedia)

An interesting side note…at the time of the Sherry-Netherland’s construction, the nearby Vanderbilt mansion was being demolished. Carved limestone panels from the mansion’s porte-cochere as well as ornamental frieze roundels were salvaged and installed in the Sherry-Netherland’s lobby.

Hollywood movies continued to disappoint New Yorker critics, including Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic The King of Kings.

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screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-12-59-22-pmFinally, a couple of advertisements from the April 30 issue. It was spring, and time to hit the links…

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…and New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno plugged his new book featuring the Whoops Sisters:

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Next time: Those Restless Natives…

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Published by

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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