Ride of the Century

Train travel in the U.S. was at the height of its glory in the late 1920s—you could hop on train in New York City and travel to virtually anywhere in the country, even to some of the remotest towns in America’s vast hinterlands.

July 27, 1929 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

The New Yorker’s managing editor, Ralph Ingersoll (1900-1985) writing in “The Talk of Town,” climbed aboard the locomotives of outbound 20th Century and an inbound Empire State trains to survey the latest technology in rail travel. What one gleans from reading this account is how much this mode of travel has declined (in the U.S.) over the past 90 years:

ROMANCE OF THE RAILS…Clockwise, from top left: Hudson locomotives served the Century and Empire State express trains; silent film star Gloria Swanson waves farewell from the observation platform as the Century pulls out of Grand Central during the 1920s; lounge car on the 20th Century Limited during the 1920s; the 20th Century ready to depart Grand Central, circa 1930. (steamlocomotive.com/newyorksocialdiary.com/cruiselinehistory.com)

In terms of speed and safety, it seems little has changed since 1929, and perhaps things have actually gotten worse…

CELEBRATED LINE…The 20th Century was widely celebrated in popular culture through the 1950s. Five years after Ingersoll’s article, Howard Hawks directed the screwball comedy, 20th Century. Clockwise, from top left, the film’s stars, Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in a scene from the film; the stars pose for a publicity shot; with director Hawks along with some of the cast and crew. (austinfilm.org/greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com)

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From 1928 until his death in 1950, the journalist Alva Johnston (1888-1950) wrote on a diverse range of topics for the New Yorker, including this “Reporter at Large” piece on the proliferation of barrooms in private residences, hidden from the prying eyes of Prohibition agents and sometimes furnished with the bits and pieces that once graced some of New York’s finest watering holes, including the famed Hoffman House:

POPULAR WATERING HOLE…Clockwise, from top left: The Hoffman House Hotel at Madison Square in 1885; the Hoffman House bar, which prominently displayed William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting Nymphs and Satyr. According to Alva Johnston’s article, the painting was the second-most popular decorative motif in New York’s finer drinking establishments; artist’s rendering of the barroom; and Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr. (Museum of the City of New York/Wikipedia)

Johnston noted the clever tricks homeowners used to conceal their secret bars:

DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER…Alva Johnston described how one library’s walls “had literature on one side, gin and rye on the other.” (Huffington Post)

Johnston concluded his piece on an ironic note, pointing out that the finest cocktail sets could be obtained at Kresge department stores, which were owned by one of the biggest supporters of Prohibition, S.S. Kresge:

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The Sound of Peggy Wood

The Brooklyn-born Peggy Wood (1892-1978) made her stage debut in 1910 and was an established Broadway star before she made her first talking picture, Wonder of Women (a film believed to be lost). A member of the Algonquin Round Table, she was well acquainted with the New Yorker crowd. And the magazine in turn was very impressed with her acting talents, even if the picture she was in proved a bit of a downer:

RECOGNIZE HER NOW?…Clockwise, from top left: theatre card for the 1929 film, Wonder of Women; Leila Hyams and Lewis Stone in a tender moment from the film (for some reason Stone was romantically paired with much younger women in several films around that time); Peggy Wood in the 1920s; Wood as Mother Abbess in 1965’s The Sound of Music; Stone and Wood in a scene from Wonder of Women, with child actor Wally Albright, who was four years old at the time. With his waifish demeanor and curly hair, Albright was highly sought after in films needing a cute kid. He appeared in seven films in 1929 alone. In the 1930s he would appear in several Our Gang/Little Rascal shorts, and would pop up in bit roles through the 1940s and early 50s. Unlike so many other child stars, he seems to have led a normal adult life. He won the Men’s National Track and Ski Championship in 1957, and later started a successful trucking firm. (IMDB/Pinterest)

…the review continued, suggesting that Wood’s acting alone carried the picture…

…if you weren’t into weepers like Wonder of Women, you could have instead checked out The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu at the Rialto Theatre…

LIKE A SIDESHOW ACT…New York’s Rialto Theatre donned a masked front and door entry wrappers for the premiere of The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu; promotional poster; Jean Arthur and Warner Oland in the film. Oland was not the least bit Asian. A Swedish-American actor, his work in the hit film led to three more Fu Manchu movies. Oland would then go on to play another Asian character, Charlie Chan, in a string of popular movies in the 1930s until his death in 1938. (cinematreasures.org)

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Just Sad

Yet another note in “Talk of the Town” describing the plight of African Americans in segregated America, without a hint of empathy:

Potters Field on Hart Island, New York, circa 1890. (Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

Last week B. Altman offered rugged coats for those brave souls riding in rumble seats. This week Altman rolled out some stylish wear for the enterprising pilot of 1929…

…and while you were up there, you could calm those nerves with a Chesterfield (a two-page ad that appeared regularly in the New Yorker)…

,,,back on the ground, the makers of Most toothpaste reminded readers to brush those tobacco stains off their teeth, apparently even while they’re smoking…

…here is another sampling of drawings by Garrett Price, rendered after a recent trip to Paris…

…our cartoons come from Leonard Dove (note the backward signature)…

…here we have A. Edwin Macon’s take on modern furniture…

Helen Hokinson looked in on a visit to an eye doctor…

Perry Barlow’s take on the wonders of radio…

Rea Irvin depicted how timing is everything in an ice delivery…

…and Peter Arno peeked in on habits of the idle rich…

Next Time: The Art of Peace…

 

 

 

 

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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