Perhaps no decade was more transformative to New York City than the 1920s. From the loosening of social mores to countless technological advances, the city was a very different place as it entered the last year of the Roaring Twenties.
Vestiges of the 19th century were quickly erased during the decade as old neighborhoods and stately mansions gave way to massive apartment blocks and towering skyscrapers. Such was the fate of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, its Victorian lavishness out of style in a streamlined age. Writing under the pen name T-Square, New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell commented on the planned demolition of the old* Waldorf-Astoria Hotel:
*Although outdated in appearance, the hotel was little more than 30 years old in 1929.
Chappell wrote that the prime building site was slated to be occupied by a 50-story office building…
…but as it turned out, Floyd Brown was unable to make the final payments on the property, so he sold his claim to the bank. John J. Raskob, a wealthy finance executive and chair of the National Democratic Committee, joined with entrepreneur Pierre du Pont and former New York Governor Al Smith (who lost his bid for the U.S. Presidency in 1928) to buy the property. They had much bigger plans than Floyd Brown: In August 1929 they announced their plan to build the tallest building in the world — what would become the Empire State Building.
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The Jan. 5 issue featured a lengthy review of the 29th Annual National Automobile Show at Grand Central Palace, as well as numerous advertisements by auto manufacturers hoping to entice New Yorker readers with their latest models.
Promoters of the event touted the addition of a grand staircase to Grand Central’s mezzanine level that would ease access to both levels of the show:
As I mentioned, the Jan. 5 issue was filled with car ads, mostly from long-gone automobile manufacturers. A constant in all of these ads is their appeal to New York’s chic, smart set. Here’s a sampling of a few of them: (click ads to enlarge):
Hupmobile was a successful car company that began its decline in the late 1920s precisely because it turned its back on buyers of medium-priced cars and went after what it perceived to be the more lucrative luxury buyer (see ad above). Hupmobile went out of business in 1939 (after briefly joining forces with Graham-Paige, which also went under that year).
Cartoonist Leonard Dove found humor derived from these very class distinctions when he visited the auto show:
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The Game, Served Up Cold
In other diversions from the Jan. 5 issue, Niven Busch Jr. attended the hockey game between the New York Rangers and the New York Americans at Madison Square Garden, noting famous faces in the crowd including Finnish track star Paavo Nurmi and American track star Joie Ray. Also noted were Tex Rickard, builder of Madison Square and founder of the Rangers, ex-football star and businessman Col. Harry Hammond, and film star Alice Brady.
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From our non-automobile advertisers, another installment of a Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) ad for Flit insecticide (this is the first instance — at least in the Flit ads— in which Geisel signs his art as “Dr. S” instead of “Seuss”).
And another cartoon from the Jan. 5 issue, courtesy Gardner Rea:
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In the rush of the recent holidays I missed an item from the Dec. 22, 1928 issue — namely, art critic Murdock Pemberton’s tongue cheek review (in “The Art Galleries” column) of cartoonist Peter Arno’s December 1928 exhibition of drawings at the Valentine Gallery:
Here are two Arno drawings that were featured in the Valentine exhibition (click to enlarge):
I’ve been writing this blog for nearly three years, and during that stretch have managed to cover more than 200 issues of the New Yorker, or about the first four years of the magazine.
The amount of young talent on display in those early issues is truly astounding, from writers such as E.B. White, Dorothy Parker and James Thurber (writer and cartoonist) to illustrators and cartoonists including Peter Arno, Rea Irvin, Helen Hokinson, Miguel Covarrubias and Ilonka Karasz, to name just a few.Among the contributing artists was Abe Birnbaum, who illustrated more than 150 covers for the New Yorker from the 1940s to 1970s. One of his earliest contributions to the magazine was this illustration for the “Profile” section in the Dec. 22 issue:
Canadian artist Shelley Davies writes in her blog that Birnbaum “charmingly captured some of life’s quieter moments with a deft eye.” In addition to the New Yorker, Birnbaum illustrated numerous covers for Stage and Arts In America, and won a Caldecott Award in 1954 for his children’s book, Green Eyes.
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A couple of select advertisements from the Dec. 22 reveal what retailers knew, or thought they knew, about the magazine’s readership. Franklin & Simon, seeking perhaps to broaden their market for furs, suggested that even a stylish French woman might prefer a fur fashioned as a modest “sports wrap”…
…as for the guys, Saks appealed to the anglophilia that apparently was rife among New York’s smart set. Check out the ridiculous hat gracing the noggin of this young dandy…
Well-heeled readers who could afford to flee the New York winter were targeted by these various enticements in the Dec. 22 issue (this is a collage of select ads found in the back pages of the issue):
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Hello Down There
Writing about New Yorker humor derived from class distinctions, Ben Yagoda (About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, p. 63) noted a series of cartoons by Otto Soglow that began with this one in the Dec. 22, 1928 issue and continued through thirty installments that ran to early 1930, when the workers, Joe and Bill, finally emerged from the manhole:
This running gag, according to Yagoda, “came from the conceit that the laborers spoke with the same assumptions and in the same catchphrases as those with ‘higher’ places in society.”
Also from the Dec. 22 issue, this terrific cartoon by Leonard Dove that showed a bookish man who had accidentally entered the wrong type of book-making establishment:
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The Girl Who Wouldn’t Grow Up
Maude Adams was a major Broadway star in the early years of the 20th century. Appearing in more than 25 productions from 1888 to 1916, she was most famous for her portrayal of Peter Pan in the Broadway production of Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. She performed that role first in 1905-06 and again in 1912 and 1915. The highest-paid performer of her day, at her peak she earned more than $1 million a year, a staggering sum more than a century ago. James Thurber, writing in the Dec. 29 “Talk of the Town,” reported that after a decade-long absence from the stage, Adams was planning a comeback as a director:
Thurber also noted that Adams was working with General Electric in the development of color photography. According to the Trivia Library, it has been suggested that her motivation might have been a wish to appear in a color film version of Peter Pan. She eventually returned to acting in the 1930s, with occasional appearances in regional productions of Shakespeare plays.
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A Lukewarm Welcome to 1929
The Dec. 29 New Yorker opened with these lamentations for the last issue of 1928. At least it appears that one could obtain a decent bottle of French champagne to toast the New Year:
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The Passing of a Poet
The Dec. 29 issue featured something unprecedented in the New Yorker up to that point: the reprinting of an entire piece previously featured in the magazine. In this case, it was in tribute to the sudden passing of poet and author Elinor Wylie:
It is no wonder that the New Yorker had such affection for Wylie, for she was as colorful a personality as could be found in 1920s literary circles. A Columbia University Press bio notes that “she was famous during her life almost as much for her ethereal beauty and personality as for her melodious, sensuous poetry.” Born to a socially prominent family and trained for a life in society, she instead became notorious for her multiple marriages and love affairs. She also suffered from extremely high blood pressure that gave her unbearable migraines.
Wylie died on Dec. 16, 1928, while going over a typescript of her poetry collection, Angels and Earthly Creatures, with her estranged third husband, William Rose Benét. According toKaren Stein (in the Dictionary of Literary Biography), Wylie, while picking up a volume of John Donne’s poems, asked Benét for a glass of water. When he returned with it, she reportedly walked toward him and murmured, “Is that all it is?,” and fell to the floor, dead of a stroke. She was 43.
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Age of Innocence
The Dec. 29 theatre review section featured this illustration by Al Frueh of Katharine Cornell in the Empire Theatre’s production of The Age of Innocence:
And below, a studio portrait of Cornell from the same play:
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Before Baby Snooks
Although it was still a few years before singer and actress Fanny Brice would make her radio debut as the bratty toddler named “Snooks,” she was already well-known to New York audiences for her work in the Ziegfeld Follies (beginning in 1910). In its Dec. 29 issue the New Yorker favorably reviewed Brice’s first motion picture, My Man, which included musical scenes with Vitaphone sound:
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Let’s Get Physical
Even 90 years ago some folks (or at least some New Yorkers) resolved to get healthy and hit the gym in the New Year. In this ad, McGovern’s Gymnasium announced it was ready for them:
And to close out 1928, a cartoon from John Reehill…
Like many publications, there are defining moments in the New Yorker’s history that make the magazine what it is today.
In a post more than two years ago I wrote about Ellin Mackay’s pivotal essay, “Why We Go To Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains.” The debutante daughter of a multi-millionaire (who threatened to disinherit her due to her romance with Irving Berlin), Mackay explained that modern women were abandoning social matchmaking in favor of the more egalitarian night club scene. Mackay’s essay provided a huge boost to the struggling New Yorker, which had dipped to less than 3,000 subscribers in August 1925. A more recent post, “A Bird’s Eye View,” noted how a short story by Thyra Samter Winslow opened the door to serious fiction in the magazine.
The Dec. 8, 1928 issue was significant for a cartoon by Carl Rose that appeared on the bottom of page 27:
It remains one of the New Yorker’s most famous cartoons, and for good reason. In his book About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, Ben Yagoda writes that the cartoon (drawn by Rose, with spinach line provided by E.B. White) “was picking up on something in the culture: it was a moment when the air reverberated with the sound of speech.” Yagoda notes that although “the cartoons led the way,” the magazine has always been filled with the sound of voices in “The Talk of the Town.” Naturalistic rendering of speech could also be found under the heading of such features as “Overheard,” which ran from 1927-1929 and included such contributors as the young writer John O’Hara.
Another New Yorker contributor whose work resounded with the sound of speech, Robert Benchley, received some kind words from the magazine on his latest book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or David Copperfield:
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Appearing at the Civic Repertory Theatre (founded by actress Eva Le Gallienne in 1926) was Alla Nazimova and Eva herself in Anton Chekov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard. Al Frueh offered this sketch for the theatre review section.
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From Our Advertisers
Advertisements from the Dec. 8 issue offered this study in contrasts…a “modern” take on the holidays by Wanamaker’s, featuring the unfortunately titled “Psycho-Gifts for Christmas”…
…versus the staid offerings of Brooks Brothers on the following page…
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On to the Dec. 15 issue, we find the New Yorker enjoying the debut of the Ziegfeld Follies latest revue…
…the show “Whoopee” at the New Amsterdam, featuring Eddie Cantor:
And lest you think audiences were flocking to only see Eddie Cantor…
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On to less glamorous pursuits, the New Yorker also paid a visit to the new “Fish Wing” at the Museum of Natural History, as recounted in “Talk of the Town.” A brief excerpt:
From Our Advertisers…
…comes this house ad from the New Yorker itself, promoting its first-ever Album:
Chris Wheeler has gathered all of the albums at this site.
As we sweep up the tinsel and wrappings from another holiday season, let’s take a look back at 1928 and see what the New York “smart set” wished for under the Christmas tree.
We’ll start with the outlandish, namely this advertisement from Kurzman furriers on Fifth Avenue, which offered just two rare chinchilla coats for sale, one for $45K and the other for a mere $20K. That would be roughly equivalent to $630K and $280K in 2017 dollars. Oh Santa baby…
If you didn’t get the chinchilla, you could have asked for a Glycine Swiss watch, a gift “whose smartness reflects your taste”… and is “the supreme adornment of the patrician wrist.”
The New Yorker was filled with such ads that appealed to class pretensions, but thankfully the editorial side of the magazine mostly tweaked those pretensions, including this Nov. 24 cartoon by John Elmore:
In the following issue (Dec. 1), Elmore also contributed this unsigned cartoon (thanks to Michael Maslin’s invaluable Ink Spill blog for the identification):
Back to the ads for Nov. 24, Kolster Radio continued its series featuring illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, this one borrowing from his familiar themes featuring gold-diggers and sugar daddies…
…and 56-year-old stage and silent film actress Fannie Ward offered proof that lighting up a Lucky could keep you slim and youthful. Whether or not she actually smoked the things, Ward was indeed best known for her seemingly ageless appearance.
Our comics from Nov. 24 issue are courtesy of Arno…
…and Helen Hokinson…
We continue our Christmas wish list with the Dec. 1, 1928 issue…
Regarding gifts for her, how about some fine French perfume, “originally created for the exclusive use of one of the present Nobility of France” (apparently a person descended from the line that managed to keep their heads attached to their necks)…
…and for him, the ubiquitous Christmas necktie, with a choice of patterns that would still serve him well in 2018…
Your “smoking friends” would doubtless have appreciated a rum-infused rumidor, available in a variety of finishes and sizes…
…or you could choose from the sundries offered up by Abercrombie & Fitch (bookends appeared to be a popular item)…
…and finally, for that special, anal-retentive someone on your list, “Fabrikoid” covers would keep his or her periodicals neat and tidy (note the New Yorker is conspicuously missing here).
Note: Fabrikoid “was one of DuPont’s first non-explosives products. Produced by coating fabric with nitrocellulose (yep, basically the same flammable stuff silent films were printed on) and marketed as artificial leather, Fabrikoid was widely used in upholstery, luggage and bookbindings during the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Fabrikoid became the preferred material for automobile convertible tops and seat covers” (text from www2.dupont.com).
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Despite the holidays, there was still news to be reported. The Nov. 24 issue profiled violinist Fritz Kreisler, while the Dec. 1 edition featured a profile of Harpo Marx, written by his fellow Algonquin Round Tabler Alexander Woollcott. Two brief excerpts:
In this next excerpt, it is interesting to note that Woollcott couldn’t see ahead to the huge success in film that awaited Harpo Marx and his brothers. Just eight months after Woollcott’s profile, the Marx Brothers would premiere their first film, The Cocoanuts, and continue to draw on material from their vaudeville and Broadway days to produce a string a comedy hits throughout the 1930s and 40s.
In other news from the Dec. 1 issue, Frank Sullivan grumbled about the recent election of President Herbert Hoover and the state of politics in general, echoing the general sentiment of his New Yorker colleagues in dismissing the national elections as little more than silly sideshow. Two excerpts:
The New Yorker was less pessimistic when it came to the changing skyline, and was almost giddy at times about the latest technology seemingly transforming the city overnight. This time it was the gilded New York Life Insurance tower, and its impressive pneumatic tube system:
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And to close, some more holiday offerings, this time for the kiddies, from Macy’s Department Store, as reported by writer Bertram Bloch: