Back to Business

Two weeks had passed since the “Black Tuesday” collapse of share prices on the New York Stock Exchange, but the New Yorker went about business as usual, E.B. White opening his “Notes and Comment” with a complaint — not about the economy — but about a marketing ploy that had New York University shilling magazines on behalf of Funk & Wagnalls.

Nov. 16, 1929 cover by Peter Arno. No doubt Arno drew inspiration from his own domestic situation (with wife and New Yorker columnist Lois Long and their infant daughter Patricia Arno).

White mocked the contents of a letter from NYU that promised a “free” education to subscribers of Funk & Wagnalls’ middlebrow Literary Digest. 

EASY-CHAIR EDUCATION…Founded in 1890 by Isaac Funk (of Funk & Wagnalls fame), the Literary Digest offered readers condensed articles from various American and European publications. The weekly magazine surpassed the one million circulation mark in 1927, but declined precipitously in 1936 after its famed (and usually reliable) presidential poll picked Alf Landon over FDR. It folded in 1938. (Pinterest)

White detailed how NYU’s director of public information promised untold riches to potential Literary Digest subscribers…

YOU CAN BE FAMOUS, FOR JUST PENNIES A DAY…E.B. White mocked an NYU letter that promoted its “hook-up” with the Literary Digest, wryly suggesting that recognition in NYU’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans was within reach of magazine subscribers. The photo above (circa 1935) shows the Hall of Fame’s colonnade, which half-encircled the university library (both designed by Stanford White) and housed 98 bronze busts. A financially strapped NYU sold its University Heights Campus, along with the Hall of Fame and library, to the City University of New York in 1973. (WPA photo via boweryboyshistory.com)

…and the not so subtle revelation that the “free” education came with a price:

Here’s Julian De Miskey’s illustration that accompanied White’s “Notes”…

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The Lighter Side of Bankruptcy

Evidence of the recent stock market crash was scant in the Nov. 16 issue, save for this blurb from Howard Brubaker

…and this short piece by Margaret Fishback, who took a characteristically lighthearted approach to the devastating news:

Fishback (1900-1985), a widely published poet and prose author from the late 1920s to the 1960s, was also a successful advertising copywriter for Macy’s and a number of other companies.

A WAY WITH WORDS…Margaret Fishback wrote a number of poetry and prose books, including Safe Conduct: When to Behave–and Why, a book of etiquette illustrated by the New Yorker’s Helen Hokinson. During the 1930s Fishback was reputed to be the world’s highest-paid female advertising copywriter. (necessaryfiction.com/Wikipedia)

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We Stand Corrected

A correction of sorts was offered by Robert Benchley (aka “Guy Fawkes”) regarding one of his recent “Wayward Press” columns, in which the fatal crash of famed aviator Wilmer Stultz’s stunt plane was misattributed to drunkenness:

Following the above intro, Benchley included this letter from a representative of the Roosevelt Flying Corporation, John McK. Stuart, in which Stuart explained the real reason for the pilot’s fatal crash, and the source of a vicious rumor:

The cause of the crash, as reported in the New York Times, was attributed to two young men who begged for a ride on Stultz’s stunt plane, a Waco Taperwing, in the early afternoon of July 1, 1929. An investigation of the wreckage found shoes from both passengers jammed under a bar connected to the rudder, rendering it inoperable. In his letter, Stuart explained:

Apparently Stultz’s passengers had braced themselves during stunt maneuvers by jamming their feet under the rudder bar. According to the Times, after a couple of rolling stunts the plane began to climb again from about 200 feet when it rotated nose down and plunged into the ground. Both passengers were killed instantly. Stultz died shortly thereafter at a Long Island hospital.

BRIEF FLIGHT THROUGH LIFE…Clockwise, from top left, Wilmer Stultz (1900-1929) in undated photo; coverage of the fatal crash in the July 2, 1929 New York Times; Stultz, Amelia Earhart, and Lou Gordon feted in front of City Hall, New York City, following their successful flight across the Atlantic in June 1928. Stultz was the pilot of the Fokker Trimotor “Friendship,” aboard which Earhart became the first woman passenger to cross the Atlantic by airplane. Gordon served as the flight’s on-board mechanic. (Boston Public Library/New York Times/Amazon)

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Cowardly Attack

The acclaimed English playwright and composer Noël Coward was much beloved by the New Yorker, so it pained Robert Benchley to write an unflattering review of Coward’s operetta, Bitter Sweet:

IN THE SOPRANO KEY…British musical star Evelyn Laye (1900-1996) played the leading role of Sari in Noël Coward’s Broadway production of Bitter Sweet. (From The Bygone)

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Hat Shop Heroine

Another operetta — Mlle. Modiste — was getting a Broadway revival at Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre. Its star, Fritzi Scheff (1879-1954), was the subject of a short profile penned by Alison Smith. The operetta, written expressly for Scheff, premiered on Broadway in 1905 at the Knickerbocker Theatre, and enjoyed many revivals. Smith found that after nearly 25 years, Scheff still embodied the role of the hat shop girl who dreamed of being an opera singer. An excerpt:

From left, Fritzi Scheff in Mlle. Modiste (1905); Al Frueh’s caricature of Scheff for the profile; Scheff circa 1910. (Wikipedia/IMDB)

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Best of Both Worlds

Although the Gothic style was quickly falling out of fashion in the age of Art Deco, architecture critic George S. Chappell found much to admire in Schultze & Weaver’s new Hotel Lexington, part of the hotel construction boom in New York’s Midtown:

STILL ATTACHED TO THE EARTH…The Lexington today, now a Marriott property, at 511 Lexington Avenue and 48th Street. (ohrllc.com)

Chappell also admired the “smart” new Stewart Building, calling it the perfect setting for “feminine luxuries”…

Sadly, the Stewart Company folded just months after the opening of its new building, an early victim of the Depression. Bonwit Teller took over the building in 1930 and stayed until 1979. It was demolished in 1980 to make way for Trump Tower.

BYGONE ELEGANCE…Stewart and Company’s metal and ceramic 5th Avenue entrance, detail, 1929; Stewart Millinery Shop, 1929 (image from Vogue); detail from ornamental frieze above the 8th story, 1929. The building was demolished in 1980 to make way for Trump Tower. Neither the frieze nor the ornate ironwork were saved. (Museum of the City of New York/Vogue via drivingfordeco.com)

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A Survivor’s Tale

The New Yorker hailed Soviet writer Valentine Kataev’s debut novel, The Embezzlers, as “the first hearty and sane laugh that has been heard over the noise of Russian propaganda.” Published in 1926 and translated into English in 1929, the novel was a satire of bureaucracy in the new Soviet state. Remarkably, Kataev (1897-1986) was able to write challenging, satirical works throughout his long life and career without running afoul of Soviet authorities, or falling victim to Stalin’s terror campaigns:

SATIRICAL SOVIET…Valentine Kataev circa 1930. His 1926 debut novel, The Embezzlers, was a satire of Soviet bureaucracy. (russkiymir.ru)

Another title receiving a favorable review, Is Sex Necessary? — a spoof of popular sex manuals and how-to books — was co-written by the New Yorker’s James Thurber and E.B. White, with illustrations provided by Thurber.

HE CAN DRAW, TOO…Although James Thurber had yet to publish one of his drawings in the New Yorker, the book Is Sex Necessary? featured 42 of them, including the illustration at right that demonstrated the male greeting posture, and below, the posture of a man who could not discern the difference between love and passion. (brainpickings.org)

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Old News

Writer (and later screenwriter) David Boehm temporarily took over the history column “That Was New York” from playwright Russell Crouse and contributed the first in a series of articles featuring clippings from 18th century newspapers (with illustration by Julian De Miskey):

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From Our Advertisers

The Depression was coming, but you wouldn’t know it by the ads that appeared in the Nov. 16 issue, which featured the latest in resort wear, and holiday fashions for the maid…

…the Jay Thorpe store assumed some readers had $1,250 to spare for this coat and muff (equivalent to about $18,000 today), while Udall and Ballou jewelers offered a brooch for $9,000 (or nearly $130,000 today)…

…Saks offered a “simple little tailored bag” for $5, although the one pictured in the ad would set you back $500 ($7,200 today)…

…in this clever ad for Kayser silk hosiery, illustrator Ian Oliver drew a shelf from negative space to allow the model some room to lean…

…makers of the Ronson cigarette lighter found a new use for their product, adapting it to serve as a perfume atomizer…I wonder how many women accidentally lit their hair on fire, or took a shot of perfume to the eyes when they wished to have a smoke…

…while you had the lighter handy, you could light up an Old Gold, and thanks to the lack of truth-in-advertising standards, you could do it believing that you were also warding off a winter cold…

…from the back pages we have these gems from Brunswick records, and Reuben’s restaurant, which featured written testimonials from famous clientele including the “It Girl” actress Clara Bow, cartoonist Harry Hershfield, and playwright Noël Coward

Dr. Seuss offered his latest take on the uses of Flit insecticide, here sprayed directly into a user’s face for maximum benefit…

…our cartoons come courtesy of Gardner Rea, who looked in on an act of charity…

Reginald Marsh illustrated a new use for broadcast radio…

Barbara Shermund put the “idle” in “idle rich”…

Garrett Price gave us this lovely illustration of a casual reader…

…and Helen Hokinson went shopping with one of her society women…

Next Time: A Glimpse of the Future…

 

 

 

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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