How Charles Shaw Felt About Things

Some people really do lead charmed lives: Take for example Charles Green Shaw. Born to wealth, he was a fixture in the glamorous social scene of Jazz Age New York, but was also a key player in its intellectual and artistic life. An accomplished author as well as a poet and illustrator, Shaw turned to painting in his late thirties and became a leading figure in the world of abstract art.

May 18, 1929 cover by Gardner Rea.

Shaw (1892-1974) was an early contributor to the New Yorker, penning more than 30 pieces for the magazine between 1925 and 1932, including three short contributions to the very first issue (Feb. 21, 1925). Here’s one of them:

That short piece anticipated a much longer entry by Shaw four years later—in the May 18, 1929 New Yorker—in a column titled “How I Feel About Things.” An excerpt…

YEAH & MEH…Charles Shaw liked Central Park at dusk; Amsterdam Avenue, not so much. (Time Freeze Photos/NYC Municipal Archives)
SOMETHING TO CHEW ON…Top left, Charles G. Shaw in 1945. Clockwise, from top right, Untitled Abstraction, 1943, oil on fiberboard; Wrigley’s, 1937, oil on canvas; photo of Wrigley’s gum package on top of a postcard image of New York City. On the back of the photo Shaw had written “idea for montage.” (Wrigley painting courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/other images from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

…one more excerpt from the Shaw column…

Shaw would contribute more columns to the New Yorker in this vein: four more titled “How I Feel About Things” (1929-1931) followed by “How I Look at Things in General” (1931), and his final two New Yorker columns (1931-1932), “Things I Have Never Liked.”

He also illustrated children’s books, including two by Margaret Wise Brown (of Goodnight Moon fame). In 1947, Shaw published It Looked Like Spilt Milk, a book that introduced children to abstract art. It remains in print and popular today.

SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS…Shaw provided illustrations for Margaret Wise Brown’s Black and White (1944) and The Winter Noisy Book (1947). (Harper)
STILL POPULAR…Shaw published It Looked Like Spilt Milk as a children’s introduction to abstract art. (Kinder Books)

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In the “Talk of the Town,” James Thurber looked at “high-living” trends among occupants atop the city’s newest skyscrapers, including developer Irwin Chanin:

CROWN JEWELS…The Chanin Building at 122 E. 42nd Street sports a distinctive crown that contains a wraparound terrace (now closed) at the 56th floor. A theater on the 50th and 51st floors, just below Irwin S. Chanin’s executive suite, was later converted into office space.(aviewoncities.com/untappedcities.com)
A THRONE IN THE SKY…The art deco bathroom in the 52nd floor executive suite of architect and real estate developer Irwin S. Chanin was designed by Jacques Delamarre. (Pinterest)
AERIAL GYMNASTICS…1930s postcard image of the Lincoln Building at 60 East 42nd. At right, the building’s rooftop gymnasium. (nyc-architecture.com/Tony Hisgett)

…Thurber continued his survey downtown in the financial district, and noted the proliferation of “lanterns” atop various skyscrapers…

ALL THE RAGE…”Lanterns” of various styles were popular toppers to Jazz Age skyscrapers. Above, the 24-story Consolidated Gas Building (now the Con Edison tower) by day and night. (Architect/Office for Metropolitan History/Michael Falco for The New York Times)
TRY TO TOP THIS…The distinctive lantern of the New York Central Building at 230 Park Avenue, now called the Helmsley Building  (andrewcusack.com/Wikipedia)

*  *  *

Waldorf Adieu, Part Two

For a second week “The Talk of the Town” led off with an item about the demise of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, this time attempting to put it into some perspective…

…and Charles Merz offered a lengthy account of the auctions that were already taking place at the hotel as everything from grand pianos (125 in all) to a nine-foot-tall, five-ton, bronze-and-mahogany clock either went on the block or into storage…

GOING, GOING…Illustration depicting an auction of items from the hotel. At right, the Waldorf’s nine-foot-tall, five-ton clock, shown here on display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. A gift from Queen Victoria, the clock was acquired after the fair by John Jacob Astor IV, builder of the Astoria part of the old Waldorf-Astoria. He had it placed near the old hotel’s Rose Room restaurant. (Museum of the City of New York/Wikimedia)
STILL TICKING…The clock as it appears today in the lobby of the new Waldorf-Astoria, which was completed in 1931. A gilded Statue of Liberty was added to the top of the clock in 1902, a gift from the French government. (Wikimedia/Elizabeth Doerr)

…Merz observed that although lavish tapestries, statuary, heavy furniture and other large items were up for sale, many buyers showed up merely to acquire a small memento…

IF THAT IS YOUR THING…Ornate furnishings (such as this French rococo-style furniture) were likely purchased at the auction by someone who actually had room for them. (Pinterest)

…Merz concluded that in the end, these “lesser treasures” will serve as props that will be handed down to the next generations, along with stories about the great and not-so-great who once slept or dined at the old hotel…

LAST DANCE…Workers emptying the old Waldorf-Astoria ballroom in 1929. (Library of Congress)

The May 18 issue featured yet another item on the Waldorf-Astoria — in “The Wayward Press” column, Robert Benchley (under the pseudonym “Guy Fawkes”) suggested that the story on the hotel’s demise had been milked for all it was worth….

 *  *  *

The Algonquin Wits

Speaking of milking a story, Alexander Woollcott playfully referenced his own material in the May 18 issue—indeed, quoting a profile he had written in the very same issue. Woollcott penned a humorous piece on friend and fellow Algonquin Round Table wit George S. Kaufman (caricature by Miguel Covarrubias). An excerpt:

…a bit later in the profile, Woollcott observed…

…a few pages later in the same issue, Woollcott offered more observations on his friend in his weekly “Shouts and Murmurs” column…quoting the above paragraph…

Kaufman would have his own say in 1939 with his hit play, The Man Who Came to Dinner (written with Moss Hart). The play’s main character, a cantankerous misanthrope named Sheridan Whiteside, was closely based on Woollcott.

SPARRING PARTNERS…George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott often matched wits around the famed Algonquin Round Table. (Pinterest)
OUT OF SORTS…The cantankerous misanthrope Sheridan Whiteside (a character based on Alexander Woollcott) was portrayed by Monty Woolley in the 1939 hit play, The Man Who Came to Dinner. The play was adapted into a 1942 movie with Woolley (left) reprising his role as Sheridan Whiteside. Playing opposite Woolley are Bette Davis (center) and Ann Sheridan. (oldhollywoodtimes.com)

What did Woollcott think of the treatment? According to an article featured in Story of the Week (Library of America), he loved it: “When the play went on its West Coast tour, he even stepped into the lead role, treating audiences to the sight of a celebrity acting as a satirical version of a character based on his own public persona. At the end of one performance, cheered on by repeated curtain calls, Woollcott riffed off one of his character’s signature lines from the play and announced to the audience that he planned to sue the authors for $150,000.”

Those were the days…

 *  *  *

Distracted Drivers

In his “Motors” column, Nicholas Trott described a new gadget that could bring new levels of pleasure (or danger) to the driving experience: the car radio:

The Transitone was probably the first production car radio in the U.S., and looked something like this (left image):

VACUUM TUBES are exposed under the dash of this car (left) outfitted with a Transitone radio. At right, a Crosley car radio from 1931. (radiomuseum.org)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

The makers of Pond’s cold creme continued to land endorsements from the landed gentry, this time from 30-year-old Lady Violet Astor (née Violet Mary Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, Dame of the Order of St. John), whose hair was described “as ripe as wheat,” her skin “pink and white as a hedge rose.” Okay, I’ll try a jar…

…and for more snob appeal, advertisements from American luxury carmaker Pierce-Arrow often featured messages that linked its cars to a lineage of earlier models, suggesting their automobiles had a well-bred, timeless quality (as opposed to the novelties found in cars driven by the plebeian classes). The caption reads: “Both people and Pierce-Arrows of the former day share with today’s group the distinguished quality of the patrician”…

…the makers of Glyco “Thymoline” also drew upon the past to make a point about their soap, stating that “the girl of yesteryear had plenty of protection under sun bonnets and parasols,” whereas today’s young woman boldly races off to play golf without even bothering to put up the windshield. She’ll need Glyco to scrub off the bugs, dust and bits of gravel that will likely kick up into her face…

…One thing you notice at the end of the 20’s is the proliferation of color ads in the New Yorker, some quite lavish including this appeal from Electrolux, which depicted all of the new apartments popping up around the city powered by their gas appliances…

…and we have another lovely rendering by Carl “Eric” Erickson urging readers to smoke Camel cigarettes…

…and this ad caught my eye for its depiction of a house in the future, namely the year 1949 — you land your personal airplane on the roof and relax in your dynamic, angular furniture while a robot butler shakes up cocktails for you and your top-hatted friend…

…the house in the ad somewhat resembles this 1929 drawing by Swiss-American architect William Lescaze

…we have another ad from Knox hatters (drawn by Rea Irvin) that featured an unfashionable, portly man (Napoleon B. Niblick) being snubbed by some Westchester toffs…

…our comics are provided by C.W. Anderson

…and Peter Arno

Next Time: Let Them Eat Cake…

 

 

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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