Age of the Talkies

The Oct. 15, 1927 issue featured the premiere of the film The Jazz Singer. Although the New Yorker found the story a bit dull, it also recognized that the film’s use of sound marked a significant turning point in the short history of cinema.

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October 15, 1927 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

The Jazz Singer was not the first film to employ sound, but as the New Yorker review pointed out, it was the first to effectively use synchronized sound (the industry standard Vitaphone technique) in a way that improved the motion picture.

The film featured only two minutes worth of sound dialogue, so most of the spoken lines were still presented on intertitle cards commonly used in silent films. But it was Al Jolson’s recorded voice, belting out popular tunes including “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” that really wowed audiences. At the end of the film Jolson himself appeared on stage before an audience “clapping and bellowing with joy”…

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IT SINGS! IT TALKS!!!…Al Jolson as Jack Robin and Eugenie Besserer as his mother, Sara Rabinowitz, in The Jazz Singer. One attendee at the premiere recalled that when Jolson and Besserer began their dialogue scene, “the audience became hysterical.” (wired.com)

It is interesting that as early as 1927, and even with the relatively crude sound of Vitaphone, the New Yorker was already predicting the advent of a new kind of star (and the decline of the stage actor)…

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BLACK TIE EVENT…A Vitaphone projection setup at a 1926 demonstration. Western Electric engineer E. B. Craft, left, is holding a soundtrack disc, which was essentially a phonograph record. The turntable, on a thick tripod base, is at lower center. (Wikipedia)

As for the movie itself, well, there was Jolson, beloved by many. Perhaps it’s the sound quality, or the 89 years of changing tastes, but I cannot for life of me understand what audiences (or the New Yorker) saw that was so appealing about Al Jolson as a performer.

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THAT WAS THEN…Al Jolson as Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer. Although performing in blackface is considered racist today, Jolson’s use of blackface was integral to the film in that it was tied to Jack’s own Jewish heritage and his struggle for identity. Of course that doesn’t make it any less offensive today. (theredlist)

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Absent-minded Ambassador

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” offered some curious observations about the new ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow.

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SON-IN-LAW…Aviator Charles Lindbergh would marry Dwight Morrow’s daughter, Anne, in 1929. in this photo from 1931 are, from left, Charles Lindbergh, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Elisabeth Morrow, and Dwight Morrow.

Morrow has been widely hailed as a brilliant ambassador with a keen intellect. The New Yorker, however, offered some additional perspective on the man:

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Flight of Fancy

In the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight, the New Yorker (and the rest of the country) continued its fascination with air travel, which at this point was confined to military and commercial pilots, stunt flyers and the well-to-do.

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The Fokker F.VII pictured above is likely the same plane or very similar to the one owned by Texas oilman William Denning. The interior depicted below is also similar to what is described in the New Yorker article. (aviation-history.com)

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RIP Isadora Duncan

The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, wrote of the funeral of famed modern dancer Isadora Duncan in her column, “Letter from Paris.” Duncan was killed in a freak accident on the night of Sept. 14, 1927 when her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels of the car in which she was riding, breaking her neck.

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Isadora Duncan (ati.com)

Other items of note from the Oct. 15 issue, E.B. White contributed this ditty…

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…and Corey Ford, who gave the fictional Eustace Tilley his persona, wrote of Tilley’s feat crossing Broadway in a parody of adventure stories popular at the time. An excerpt:

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And finally, Peter Arno explored childhood angst among the smart set:

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Next Time: Electric Wonders…

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The Ephemeral City

Continuing to explore the Oct. 8, 1927 issue, the New Yorker editors were taking into account the rapid changes around the bustling heart of the city, Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street and Park Avenue.

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EDIFICE…The New York Central Building (now the Helmsley Building) was built in 1929 to span Park Avenue near Grand Central Terminal. The unique design allowed Park Avenue to pass through the building, connect to a divided aerial highway around Grand Central Terminal to 42nd Street, and then back to street level. (skyscrapercity.com)

Their subject was the New York Central Building, which was slated to become  the tallest structure in the great “Terminal City” complex.

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The New Yorker commented that the new building would “remove a section from the sky.” Just 34 years later, in 1963, more sky would be removed when the massive Pan Am Building would open at 200 Park Avenue and dwarf the New York Central Building.

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NEW KID ON THE BLOCK…The once-massive New York Central Building seemed to shrink in the shadow of the Pan Am (now Met Life) building. (skyscrapercity.com/NY Times)

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In the same issue the New Yorker lauded the opening of the Savoy-Plaza Hotel, which overlooked Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street.

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GRAND TRIO…The Savoy-Plaza (center) sits grandly between the Sherry-Netherland, left, and the Plaza Hotel (partial, at right) in 1928. (openbuildings.com)

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SHE’S STILL THERE…The “nude lady in the fountain” in front of the Savoy-Plaza is Karl Bitter’s Abundance, which sits atop the Pulitzer Fountain. (Museum of the City of New York/Wikipedia)

Harry Black, the owner of the nearby Plaza Hotel, built the Savoy-Plaza on a site previously occupied by the old Savoy Hotel (built in 1890). The Savoy-Plaza, designed by McKim, Mead & White, was intended to serve as a newer and less stuffy companion to the older Plaza Hotel.

Lois Long paid a visit to the new Savoy-Plaza and offered these observations in Oct. 15 issue’s “Tables for Two”…

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GLORY DAYS…Lena Horne performs at a lounge in the Savoy-Plaza Hotel in late 1942. (Michael Ochs)
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STUNT DOUBLE…Season Two of the AMC series Mad Men featured Don and Betty Draper celebrating Valentine’s Day in a Savoy-Plaza lounge. Standing in for the long-gone Savoy-Plaza was the Millennium Biltmore in Los Angeles. (la.curbed.com)

In 1958 the Savoy-Plaza was sold to Hilton Hotels and renamed the Savoy Hilton. Hilton sold the hotel to investors in May 1962. In August 1964, the hotel’s planned demolition was announced amid significant public outcry and protests. The hotel remained open during the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair, but was demolished by early 1966. It was replaced in 1968 with the General Motors Building.

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DOWN IN FRONT…the Sherry-Netherland and Savoy Plaza Hotels in 1929 (left). At right, the same view today. (Getty/Wikimedia)

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On Oct. 8, 1927 Lois Long revived her “Tables for Two” column after a summer hiatus. She had married her New Yorker colleague Peter Arno in August, and no doubt was returning from a honeymoon. Maintaining her ruse that she was single and possibly middle-aged and writing under her pen name, Lipstick, Long referred to her absence as a “vacation”…

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And finally…in the Oct. 8 issue this advertisement from Saks appeared opposite “The Talk of the Town.” In those high times before the market crash some folks apparently had the means to to buy a Russian sable for prices ranging from $19,500 to $55,000–the equivalent range today would be roughly $261,000 to $735,000…

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Next Time: Age of the Talkies…

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Wits of the Round Table

Two big voices from the famed Algonquin Round Table were prominently featured in the Oct. 1 and Oct. 8, 1927 issues of the New Yorker–journalist and champion of the underdog Heywood Broun wrote his own “Profile” under the title, “The Rabbit That Bit the Bulldog,” and Dorothy Parker served up biting satire in “Arrangement in Black and White,” a clever exposé of racism among the fashionably “open-minded” upper classes.

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October 1, 1927 cover by Gardner Rea.

The Rabbit That Bit the Bulldog

Hiding under the signature “R.A.”, Heywood Broun was merciless as his own profiler, describing himself as a coward, hypochondriac, and a slob (there is truth to the latter, however, as friends often likened him to “an unmade bed”).

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Broun cut his teeth in journalism as a sportswriter and war correspondent. In 1921 he went to work for the New York World, where he penned his popular syndicated column “It Seems to Me.” Broun’s New Yorker “Profile” was written after he was fired from the World following a disagreement with his editor over his critical commentary on the sentencing of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Broun would move on to The Nation, where he would write a regular column, “It Seems to Heywood Broun,” that would offer criticism on a number of topics including his former employer, the World.

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IN HIS ELEMENT…Heywood Broun at work, circa 1930. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

The New Yorker profile included this caricature by Peter Arno…

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…a portrayal Broun claimed was inaccurate due to his “habitual stoop,” among other faults…

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…and he mused about his future with the Nation, and how that august publication would square with his various foibles…

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…and as for his personal appearance and habits, Broun weighed in thusly…

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Broun married social activist Ruth Hale in 1917. A son born the following year, Heywood Hale Broun, would have a long and successful career as an author, sportswriter, commentator and actor.

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The Long Count

Oddly, the New Yorker had little to say about the famous Chicago rematch between heavyweight boxers Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, which Tunney won after the controversial “long count.” The fight took place under new rules that gave a fallen fighter 10 seconds to rise to his feet, but the count would not begin until his opponent moved to a neutral corner.

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DAZED AND CONFUSED…Referee Dave Barry motions Jack Dempsey to a neutral corner before he begins his count. Tunney got back up and went on to win the fight. (Chicago Tribune archive photo)

Although Tunney dominated the fight, Dempsey unleashed a flurry in the seventh round that knocked Tunney to the canvas–it was the first time in Tunney’s career that he’d been knocked down. Instead of going immediately to a neutral corner, Dempsey just stood and observed his opponent for several seconds until finally retreating. Those extra seconds proved just enough time to allow Tunney to return to his feet and eventually win the bout. To one observer quoted in “The Talk of Town,” those extra seconds really dragged…

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From the Ad Department

We feature this advertisement for Faultless Nobelt Pajamas. Apparently these special PJs had some sort of newfangled rubber elastic band…

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…an this cartoon from the Oct. 1 issue featured Helen Hokinson’s ditsy, plump society women at New York’s Fashion Week…

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Dorothy Takes On the Snobs

In the Oct. 8 issue, our other Round Table wit, Dorothy Parker, took aim at the less savory aspects of society women in her short fiction piece, “Arrangement in Black and White.”

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October 8, 1927 cover by Rea Irvin.

Parker began her piece by introducing us to a woman who enters a party wearing a wreath of “pink velvet poppies” in her golden hair. In short order she asks the party’s host to “pretty please” introduce her to the party’s guest of honor, an African American singer named Walter Williams.

The woman with the pink velvet poppies goes on to tell her host that she came to the party alone because her husband, Burton, preferred not to socialize with “colored people”–but she however was “simply crazy” about some of them. “They’re just like children–just as easy-going, and always singing and laughing and everything.” Before she met the singer she observed to the host:

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The woman with the pink velvet poppies meets the singer Walter Williams, as illustrated by Peter Arno.

Then the woman with the pink velvet poppies meets Walter Williams:

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She continues to patronize the guest of honor, then notices a stage actress at the party:

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Finally, the host guides the woman with the pink velvet poppies away from Walter Williams…

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BITING WIT…Dorothy Parker in the 1920s.

We will see more of Dorothy Parker in issues to come as she continues to take aim at the hollow, pretentious, hypocritical, self-absorbed snobs of the Jazz Age and beyond.

Baseball’s Lament

The Oct. 1 and 8 issues covered yacht racing, polo, tennis, golf and college football, but still no baseball. The 1927 New York Yankees would be one of the greatest teams of all time, but as the World Series commenced all we got from the New Yorker was a personality profile of Yankees manager Miller Huggins in the Oct. 8 issue (with a drawing by Reginald Marsh)…screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-1-24-05-pm

…and this advertisement for “Sport Glasses” for those attending the World Series…

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Perhaps the New Yorker had no one on staff who could competently write about baseball. The strangest reference to the game was this article about polo, but for some reason it was illustrated with baseball images. Perhaps the editors felt sheepish about their lack of baseball coverage, and offered these illustrations as a token acknowledgement…

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At any rate, we end with this cartoon by Julien de Miskey, who like his colleagues explored the comic richness of wealthy old men paired with their young mistresses…

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Next Time: The Ephemeral City…

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Flapper Fitness

Lois Long stepped off her fashion beat to check out a new fitness salon on East 49th Street that used a combination of spa treatments, exercise and body shaming to get women into shape.

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September 24, 1927 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

Operated by a “Miss Marjorie Dork,” the salon offered a comprehensive and “rather sweeping program of making a new and perfect woman of you.” Long observed…

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BEFORE ANTIBIOTICS…Hollywood film star Dorothy Sebastian undergoing treatment for bronchial congestion with a sun-ray lamp at MGM studios, circa 1930. (GPA/Getty)

…and what gym would be complete without large placards shaming you for gaining weight or growing old?…

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…or an array of newfangled electric gadgets one could use to melt away those extra pounds…

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RIDE THOSE POUNDS AWAY… A mechanical bucking bronco used as part of an exercise class held by American Olympic squad coach Aileen Allen in Pasadena, California in 1928. (Bettmann/Corbis)
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TABLE EXERCISES…A woman tones up in the privacy of her home with a personal vibrating motor machine in 1928. (Getty Images)
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ON THE BOARDWALK…Treadmill technology has advanced since the 1920s. It’s hard to believe anyone actually worked out in Mary Janes, but there it is. (Daily Mail)

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Another One Bites the Dust

The New Yorker bid farewell to yet another familiar landmark, the old Van Buren Place at No. 21 West 14th Street. Four stories high and five bays wide, the 1845 mansion was considered the height of early Victorian taste.

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According to the blog Daytonian in Manhattan, in the 19th century the Van Buren estate had a large garden that extended through the block to 15th St., and in the rear included a conservatory, a stable, arbors, dove cotes “and remnants of the farm life—chicken coops and a cow or two.”

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REMNANT OF THE PAST…The old Van Buren Place (center) with its garden to the left. (Museum of the City of New York)

The August 7, 1927 issue of The New York Times reported that the mansion, erected “when all that section north of Washington Square was occupied principally by estates and truck farms, has finally succumbed to the march of improvements and will be demolished to make way for a theatre and office building.” The New Yorker managed to get one last look via “a hole in the fence”…

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I don’t know if either a theatre or office building was ever erected on the site, but this is what stands there today:

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GREAT WALL…The Van Buren estate site as it appears today. (daytoninmanhattan)

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Chill Out With Sanka

Santa decaffeinated coffee was first marketed in the U.S. in 1923, but was only sold at two Sanka coffee houses in New York. The company made a big retail push in 1927, including sponsored broadcasts under various titles including the Sanka After-Dinner Hour on WEAF radio in New York. At least until the 1980s if you wanted a decaffeinated coffee you simply ordered a “Sanka.” According to a Wikipedia entry, the bright orange color of the Sanka can was so easily identifiable to consumers that even today a restaurant’s decaf coffee pot might sport a bright orange handle–the direct result of the public’s association of the color orange with Sanka, no matter which brand of coffee is actually served.

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Our cartoon from the Sept. 24 issue comes from Alan Dunn, who explored the topic of the birds and bees among the posh set…

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Next Time: Wits of the Round Table…

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The Thurber Effect

We’ve looked at a number of artists and writers who were instrumental in giving the New Yorker its unique look and voice, but few were more influential than James Thurber, who contributed some of the New Yorker’s most memorable writings (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) as well as some of its most enduring cartoons and illustrations.

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September 17, 1927 cover by Julian de Miskey.

In fact, Thurber’s art is so ingrained in the New Yorker’s culture that the magazine goes to great lengths to preserve some of his office wall drawings, which move along with the magazine each time it relocates. On his website Ink Spill, New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin writes “When you move, it’s always reassuring unboxing something you love from the old place and setting it down in the new place.”

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ICONS…Thurber’s wall drawings installed in the New Yorker offices at One World Trade Center (Ink Spill)

In 1991, when the New Yorker prepared to leave its longtime home at 25 West 43rd Street (where Thurber originally doodled on a plaster wall), conservators carved several drawings from the wall and mounted them in protective glass. The drawings were eventually installed at the magazine’s new offices across the street at 20 West 43rd St. They were moved again when the New Yorker relocated to 4 Times Square in 1999 and then once more in 2015 to their current location at One World Trade Center.

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NEW YORKER GIANTS…E.B. White and James Thurber in 1929. The two would share an office and become good friends. In 1929 they would collaborate on a best-selling book spoof, Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do. (xroads.virginia.edu)

Thurber joined the New Yorker staff in 1927, sharing an office “the size of a hall bedroom” with E. B. White, who had joined the magazine about a year earlier. According to Jon Michaud (in a June 2, 2010 New Yorker article), Thurber arrived at The New Yorker from Columbus, Ohio, via Paris, France, and a brief stint at the New York Evening Post. “Six months after he was hired, Thurber was transferred to the ‘Talk of the Town,’ where he found his feet as a reporter and did for that department what White did for ‘Notes and Comment’—he gave it an identity and a tone, which can still be heard in the magazine today.” This included introducing the convention of using the first person plural in “Talk” items.

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James Thurber in undated photo. (thefamouspeople.com)

His contribution to the Sept. 17, 1927 issue was not anonymous, however, as Thurber prominently signed his entire name–James Grover Thurber–at the end of a humorous essay, “Polo In The Home.” An excerpt:

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People in Glass Houses

Writing in her “About the House” column, Muriel Draper examined new uses for glass in modern design and concluded that houses built of glass rather than stone belonged to a distant future.

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Well, Muriel was almost right. Philip Johnson built his famous Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1949. Muriel Draper died in 1952. I assume she visited the house or at least knew of it, since she and Johnson were in New York social orbits that often aligned, especially around the Harvard modernists.

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PASS THE WINDEX…Architect Philip Johnson’s famed Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. (connecticutmag.com)

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So Much For Golf

The Sept 17 issue also featured a profile of golfer Glenna Collett. Writer Niven Busch began by describing how Collett’s physical appearance compared with other women golfers and athletes. Yes, it was 1927. Title IX was still 45 years away. Here are the first two paragraphs, and an illustration for the profile by Johan Bull:

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I CAN GOLF, TOO…Golfer Glenna Collett in the late 1920s. (alchetron)

On the topic of physical appearance, it is interesting compare the above photograph of Collett with a rendering used in this 1925 Elgin watch ad (from another magazine). It looks nothing like Collett, not to mention the golf club she is holding would barely reach her knees let alone the ground.

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LOOK FAMILIAR?…The illustration for this advertisement is by James Montgomery Flagg, who in 1917 created the iconic “I Want You” Uncle Sam illustration for the U.S. Army. (Period Paper)

Finally, another look at the changing cityscape in this cartoon by H.O. Hoffman:

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Next Time: Flapper Fitness…

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