The Last Summer

Winding down the last summer of the 1920s — an unusually hot one — one detects subtle changes in the New Yorker’s mood; weary from the decade-long party known as the Roaring Twenties, a bit more mature, and more confident in its voice thanks to the regular writings of James Thurber, E.B. White and Lois Long and copious cartoons and illustrations by such notables as Peter Arno and Helen Hokinson that gave the magazine a distinctively modern feel as it headed into the 1930s.

Aug. 10, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt; Aug. 17 cover by Peter Arno.

The exuberance associated with the rapidly changing skyline was still there, however, as the Aug. 17 “Talk of the Town” speculated on the race for the world’s tallest building. The article not only anticipated an architect’s sleight of hand, but also a Zeppelin docking station that in the end would top the world’s tallest building:

As it turned out, William Van Alen did not have to compete against himself, the commission for One Wall Street instead going to Ralph Walker, who would design a beautiful art deco landmark that, at 50 stories, would not vie for the title of the world’s tallest building. Unbeknownst to the New Yorker, and perhaps Van Alen, the challenger would instead be 40 Wall Street, which would hold the crown as world’s tallest for about a month. Thanks to some sleight of hand (see caption below) the Chrysler building would quickly surpass 40 Wall Street and hold the title for just eleven months, bested in the end by the Empire State Building (which would sport a “Zeppelin superstructure”).

COMPENSATING FOR SOMETHING?…40 Wall Street (left) vied with the Chrysler Building for the title of the world’s tallest building. The 927-foot 40 Wall Street would claim the title in late April 1930. One month later, the Chrysler building would sprout a needle-like spire (secretly constructed inside the building) bringing its total height to 1,046 feet. The builders of 40 Wall Street cried foul and claimed that their building contained the world’s highest usable floor, whereas the Chrysler’s spire was strictly ornamental and inaccessible. Less than a year later the point was made moot when the Empire State Building soared above them both. (Wikipedia/The Skyscraper Museum)
ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION…Clockwise, from top left, progression of designs for the Chrysler Building; the building’s architect, William Van Alen; drawing from Popular Science Monthly (Aug. 1930) revealed the inner workings of the spire’s clandestine construction; Zeppelin docking station for the Empire State Building as imagined in a composite (faked) photograph. At 1,250 feet, the wind-whipped mooring mast proved not only impractical, but downright dangerous. In September 1931 a dirigible briefly lashed itself to the mast in 40 mph winds, and two weeks later the Goodyear Blimp Columbia managed to deliver a stack of Evening Journals to a man stationed on the tower. Contrary to the faked photograph, no passengers ever transferred from the tower to a Zeppelin. (Skyscraper City/Wikipedia/NY Times)

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What, Me Worry?

The famously flamboyant New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker lived the easy life during his initial years as Hizzonner, riding a booming economy, partying with the rich and famous (while flaunting Prohibition laws), carousing with his mistress (Ziegfield dancer Betty Compton) and sleeping until noon. When reform-minded Fiorello La Guardia challenged Walker’s reelection bid in 1929, Walker left the dirty work to his Tammany Hall cronies and continued to charm the public, and the New Yorker. The Aug. 17 “Talk of the Town” observed:

IT’S EASY BEING ME…Mayor Jimmy Walker accompanied actress Colleen Moore to the October 1928 premiere of her latest film, Lilac Time. (konreioldnewyork.blogspot.com)
I HAVE MY EYE ON YOU…Reform-minded Fiorello La Guardia (right) detested Jimmy Walker and his Tammany cronies, but that wasn’t enough to get him elected in 1929. The Great Depression would soon turn the tables. (Wikipedia)

Howard Brubaker, in his Aug. 17 “Of All Things” column, suggested that La Guardia had a zero chance of getting elected. Just three years later, Walker would resign amid scandal and flee to Europe. La Guardia, on the other hand, would be elected to the first of his three terms as mayor in 1933, riding the wave of the New Deal.

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Peek-A-Boo

Politics might have been business as usual, but in the world of fashion the vampish hat styles associated with flappers were giving way to a new rolled-brim look that seemed to suggest an aviator’s helmet. In her Aug. 17 fashion column “On and Off the Avenue,” Lois Long reported:

FACING THE FUTURE…Vampish hats of 1928, pictured at top, gave way to the rolled-brim or flare look of 1929. (Images gleaned from magazine/catalog images posted on Pinterest)

Long seemed to welcome the idea that women should once again bare their foreheads…

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Twain Wreck

Jumping back to the Aug. 10 issue, “The Talk of the Town” reported on the possible remodeling or demolition of a house once occupied by Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. The house in question was a lavish old mansion built by Henry Brevoort, Jr. in 1834, at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street. Twain lived in the house from 1905 to 1908, and it was there that Twain’s biographer Albert Paine conducted interviews with the author and wrote the four-volume Mark Twain, a Biography; The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. When millionaires abandoned their Fifth Avenue mansions in the 1920s and high-rise apartments took their place, there was pressure to either convert an old mansion like the Breevoort house at 21 Fifth Avenue to apartments or demolish it altogether.

LOOKING GOOD AFTER A CENTURY…At left, Berenice Abbott took this photograph of No. 21 Fifth Avenue in 1935. At right, in a close-up shot from the same period, the 1924 plaque from the Greenwich Village Historical Society is visible on the side of the house. (Museum of the City of New York/Greenwich Village Historical Society)
A NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT…A proposed 1929 remodeling (left) moved the front door of the old Brevoort mansion to the center and lowered it to street level. At right, today the 1955 Brevoort apartment house occupies the site. (daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

The Greenwich Village Historical Society did what it could to save the house, and in 1924 affixed a bronze plaque to a side wall noting that both Twain and Washington Irving were once occupants. When the house was slated for demolition in 1954, the Society appealed to New Yorkers to raise the $70,000 needed to move the building, but only a fraction of that amount was secured. No. 21 was demolished in 1954 along with the rest of the houses on that block.

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Charles Edward Chambers was an American illustrator probably best known for his Chesterfield ads, although he also illustrated stories for a number of popular magazines from the early 1900s until his death in 1941. The Aug. 10 “Talk of the Town” looked in on his work with model Virginia Maurice:

QUICK…THROW THAT MAN A CIGARETTE!…Examples of Charles Edward Chambers’ Chesterfield ads from 1929 featuring model Virginia Maurice. Note that Maurice is wearing the latest “rolled brim” hat style in the upper image. (Pinterest)
HIS NONSMOKING SECTION…A 1919 Harper’s cover illustration by Charles Edward Chambers. (Wikipedia)

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Mama’s Boy

Lou Gehrig rivaled Babe Ruth as a top Murderer’s Row slugger for the 1929 Yankees, yet he couldn’t be more opposite in his lifestyle. A teetotaler and nonsmoker, Gehrig was completely devoted to mom (pictured below in 1927). Niven Busch Jr. submitted this profile of Gehrig for the Aug. 10 issue. Excerpts:

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After appearing as Al Jolson’s dying son in The Singing Fool (1928), the child actor Davey Lee returned to the screen for yet another Jolson weeper, 1929’s Say It With Songs. Once again portraying Jolson’s son—this time crippled and rendered dumb after being hit by a truck—he miraculously recovers at the end of the film. The New Yorker wasn’t having any of this sentimental treacle, especially served up for a second time…

LET’S PRAY FOR A BIG BOX OFFICE…Davey Lee and Al Jolson in Say It With Songs. (IMDB)

…and the magazine hoped for something a bit less somber from Jolson in the future, suggesting that he “give the tragic muse the air”…

In the same issue of the New Yorker, this advertisement touted Jolson’s recording of “Little Pal” from Say It With Songs (note the blackface image of Jolson—his unfortunate trademark back in the day)…

…happily, there were other movies that offered less schmaltzy diversions, including Norma Shearer’s comedy-drama The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, in which Shearer portrayed the jewel thief Fay Cheyney…

OH BASIL YOU ANIMAL…Theatre card for The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. (IMDB)

…often cast as a heavy in silent films, it was the “talkies” that made William Powell a star, his pleasant voice more suited to a hero or leading man than a villain. In The Greene Murder Case, Powell portrayed amateur detective Philo Vance, a role that he played in another 1929 release, The Canary Murder Case (originally filmed as a silent in 1928), both based on mystery novels by S.S. Van Dine. Powell would portray Philo Vance in three more films from 1930 to 1933 until he took on the role of another amateur detective, Nick Charles, in 1934’s The Thin Man (a role he would reprise five times from 1936 to 1947)…

WHODUNNIT? YOUDUNNIT!…William Powell as detective Philo Vance, Florence Eldridge as Sibella Greene, and Jean Arthur as Ada Greene in 1929’s The Greene Murder Case. (IMDB)
KEEPING IT QUIET…William Powell as Philo Vance and Louise Brooks as “the Canary,” a scheming nightclub singer, in The Canary Murder Case. Brooks was a huge star in the silent era and the iconic flapper. According to IMDB, the film was shot as a silent in 1928, but producers decided to rework it as a more profitable “talkie.” When Brooks refused to return from Germany (where she was filming Pandora’s Box) to dub the movie, Paramount spread the word that Brooks’ voice was not suited to sound film, although later productions made by Brooks proved this to be wrong. Actress Margaret Livingston ultimately supplied Brooks’ voice for Canary. 

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From Our Advertisers

We look at some advertisements from the August 17 issue, including this one from Past Blue Ribbon. Note that nowhere in the ad is the word “beer” used, this being a “near-beer” with less than 1% alcohol content by volume. In addition to making cheese (a Velveeta-like product), Pabst hoped to keep its company alive by selling this “brew” during the unusually hot summer of 1929…

…and with that blazing sun advertisers also promoted a number of face creams and powders to those “enjoying the sunny outdoor life,” including this two-page spread from Richard Hudnut and Poudre Le Débutclick to enlarge

…the outdoor life could also be enjoyed in a convertible Packard 640, a car that was a cut above a Lincoln or Cadillac, and was considered by some to be America’s answer to the Rolls Royce…

A 1929 Packard 640 Convertible. This particular model can be had today for about $130,000. (Hemmings Motor News)

…I found this ad in the back pages interesting for its crude design yet overt appeal to snobbishness with this haughty pair…

…and here is what the Park Lane looked like when it opened in 1924…

Circa 1924 advertisement from the Sargent lock and hardware company touting its fixtures in the new Park Lane hotel apartments. At right, circa 1924 image from The American Architect depicting the Park Lane’s dining room. The building is long gone, razed some time in the 1960s to make way for an office tower. (Pinterest)

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This week’s featured illustration is by Constantin Alajalov, who depicted a summer scene from the Southampton Beach Club…click to enlarge…

…our cartoonists from the Aug. 10 issue include Helen Hokinson, who looked at the challenges of Americans abroad…

I. Klein observed the changing mores of movie houses (a couple of “damns” were apparently uttered in the talking pictures of 1929)…

…and Leonard Dove offered up a double entendre of sorts…

…cartoons for the Aug. 17 issue included a peek behind the scenes at a motivational speaker courtesy Peter Arno

Kindl had some fun with the juxtaposition of a matron and a flapper hat…

…and for reference, the cloche hat called a “Scalawag” was featured in this ad by Knox in the March 30, 1929 New Yorker

Garrett Price portrayed the antics of an ungrateful trust fund brat, who probably did not have that million dollars after the market crash…

…and this fellow, depicted by Mary Petty, who doubtless would be less nonchalant come Oct. 28, or what we know as “Black Monday”…

Next Time: Hooray for Hollywood…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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