Georgia on My Mind

Although artist Georgia O’Keeffe has long been celebrated for her desert imagery and interpretations of natural forms, during the 1920s her heart was very much in New York City.

July 6, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt.

And New York City was where it all began for O’Keeffe (1887-1986). In January 1916, the famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was shown a portfolio of charcoal drawings by O’Keeffe’s friend, Anita Pollitzer. Stieglitz was so impressed that he immediately made plans to exhibit the drawings—without O’Keeffe’s permission. The longtime art critic for the New Yorker, Robert Coates, told the story in the opening lines of his July 6 profile piece on the artist:

O’Keeffe moved from Texas to New York in 1918, and she and Stieglitz would marry in 1924, a marriage that would last until his death in 1946 (despite the fact he took a longtime lover, 22-year-old Dorothy Norman, in 1927).

TWO OF A KIND…Alfred Stieglitz, left, photographed by Paul Strand at Lake George, New York, in 1929. Exhausted and depressed, Stieglitz had retreated to the lake for the summer after learning that his exhibition space in the Anderson Galleries, which he called “The Room,” would be demolished along with the gallery building.  ∞  Center, a photo Stieglitz had attached to a July 10, 1929 letter to O’Keeffe, who had begun spending summers painting in New Mexico. Below the photograph he wrote, “I have destroyed 300 prints to-day. And much more literature. I haven’t the heart to destroy this…”    O’Keeffe in a 1929 photograph by Stieglitz, after her return from New Mexico. (aperture.org/Yale Beinecke Library/flashbak.com) click to enlarge

Following O’Keeffe’s first exhibition at the 291 gallery, Stieglitz established a firm hold over the display and sale of her work:

During the 1920s O’Keeffe found much inspiration on the streets of Manhattan, and particularly in the proximity of the Shelton Hotel, where she lived from 1925 to 1936. The Shelton, which opened in Midtown in 1924 as the tallest hotel in the world, provided a perfect vantage point for O’Keeffe to observe city life:

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER…Georgia O’Keeffe was captivated by her adopted city, particularly views from and around New York’s Shelton Hotel, where she lived from 1925 to 1936. Top row, from left: New York Street with Moon (1925)  ∞  New York Street No. 1 (1926)  ∞  Shelton Hotel New York No. 1 (1926)    The Shelton with Sunspots (1926)    East River From the Shelton (1926)  ||  Bottom row, from left: New York Night (1929)    Radiator Building – Night, New York (1927)    East River From the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel (1928)  ∞  Ritz Tower, Night (1928). (museothyssen.org/okeeffemuseum.org/curiator.com/virginia.edu/isak.typepad.com/ theartstack.com (2)/ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/artnet.com) click to enlarge

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During the early decades of the 20th century Martin Couney (1870-1950) was renowned for his baby incubator exhibits at various world’s fairs and for his long-standing display of incubating babies at New York’s Coney Island, wedged between the usual sideshow attractions of freaks and burlesques. Couney charged visitors 25 cents to view the infants (in order that their parents would not have to pay for their medical care). “The Talk of the Town” looked in on Couney…

I’M NOT A DOCTOR. I JUST PLAY ONE IN REAL LIFE…Clockwise, from top left, Incubator display building on Coney Island circa 1920s; Martin Couney with babies in undated photo; Couney’s early infant incubators in operation at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, 1898; the infant Beth Allen in a Coney Island incubator, 1941. (NPR/New York Public Library Digital Collections/Beth Allen)

Although many physicians at the time reviled Couney as a showman and a quack (he was most likely not a trained medical doctor), he nevertheless saved the lives of thousands of infants who would have died if left to the care of hospitals that were slow to catch on to this lifesaving device (they weren’t widely adopted until after Couney’s death in 1950). The “Talk” article credited Couney for saving “about six thousand lives.” Many of those babies went on to live long and healthy lives:

SEEING IS BELIEVING…Beth Allen (pictured, at left, in 2016, and as an infant in the photo montage above) was born three months premature in Brooklyn in 1941. Her mother initially rejected putting Beth in one of Couney’s Coney Island incubators, but her father persuaded Martin Couney to talk to his wife, who acquiesced. At right, Lucille Horn (pictured with daughter Barbara in 2015) was given little hope by doctors when she was born premature in 1920. The hospital staff told her father that they didn’t have a place for her, and that she had no chance of survival. Nevertheless, her father grabbed a blanket to wrap her in, hailed a taxicab and took her to Couney’s infant exhibit at Coney Island. Barely 2 pounds in 1920, she lived to age 96. (AP/NPR StoryCorps)

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The Electric Company

The 1920’s saw an explosion of labor-saving electric appliances, ranging from electric fans and irons to vacuum cleaners and refrigerators. The decade also saw a massive proliferation of electric lights, and the huge power plants that would be needed to keep everything running. “Talk” looked in on the Edison Company’s East River power plant to see how it all worked:

STILL HUMMING…Edison’s East River power plant (now ConEd), entered service in 1926 and is still in operation today (with a number of updates and additions over the years). At right, a 1920s view of the Broadway lights (newtownpentacle.com/Museum of the City of New York)

The opening of the Edison plant on the East River was a big deal in 1926. According to the ConEd website, “the six-story boilers installed at Fourteenth Street and East River were so large that a luncheon for nearly 100 people was served inside one of them before the renovated station went into operation… during the opening day ceremony in 1926, Queen Marie of Rumania flipped the switch to start the 100,000 horsepower turbine generator.”

“Talk” also offered some interesting insights into the plant’s complex operations, including an unusual storm warning system:

YOU GET THE IDEA…A Philadelphia Electric Company control room in the 1920s. New York’s was undoubtedly much larger. (IEEE Computer Society)

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From Our Advertisers

Fleischmann Yeast was a regular advertiser in the New Yorker for a good reason: Raoul Fleischmann (of the New York yeast and baking giant) hated the baking business but loved hanging out with the Algonquin Round Table crowd, which included New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. When the fledging magazine nearly went belly up in 1925, Fleischmann kicked in the money (and on a number of occasions thereafter) to keep it going. Hence the “free” advertising he received for his product, touted not as a baking aid, but rather as a cure for constipation and other intestinal turmoils. In this ad, a physician who “treated German Royalty” endorsed the generous consumption of yeast cakes…

…a  footnote on the Fleischmann ad: Dr. Kurt Henius (1882-1947) was a doctor of medicine and a professor on the Friedrich-Wilhelms (now Humboldt) University medicine faculty at the Charité hospital in Berlin, Germany. Because he was Jewish, he was dismissed from the university in 1935, and in 1939 he fled from the Nazis to safety in Luxembourg, where he died in 1947.

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During prohibition we see plenty of ads in the New Yorker for ginger ale and sparkling water, but this one for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer caught my eye. This is, of course, “near-beer,” with an alcohol content of 0.5%…

According to Forbes magazine, the few breweries that managed to survive during Prohibition made everything from ceramics and ice cream to the barely alcoholic near beer. Pabst also turned to making cheese, which was aged in the brewery’s ice cellars. The brand, “Pabst-ett,” was sold to Kraft in 1933 at the end of Prohibition…

(Courtesy Pabst Blue Ribbon)

…and this colorful ad comes courtesy of Texaco. Did you ever see two young people more enamored with petroleum products?…

…before we get to the comics, here is a two-page illustration in the July 6 issue by Constantin Alajalov (click to enlarge)…

…this peek into the world of trolley car conductors appears to be by Reginald Marsh

…and finally, Peter Arno revealed the thankless work of one stuntman…

Next Time: Not Your Grandpa’s Tammany…

 

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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