A Glimpse of the Future

Just nine days after the stock market crash, three women opened a new museum on Fifth Avenue that would play a major role in defining the type of city that would emerge from the other side of the Depression and World War II.

Nov. 23, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt.

These visionary women would borrow works from modernists of the past century — the post-impressionists —  to stage the first-ever exhibit of the Museum of Modern Art. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, along with her friends Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, had rented six rooms on the 12th floor of the Heckscher Building, and on Nov. 7, 1929, they opened the doors to the museum’s first exhibition, simply titled Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh. The New Yorker’s art critic Murdock Pemberton was on hand for the opening:

THE FOUNDERS…Mary Sullivan, Lillie Bliss and Abby Rockefeller, known socially as “the daring ladies,” founded the Museum of Modern Art in 1929. (virginiafitzgerald.blogspot.com/MoMA)
OLD AND NEW…The 12th floor of the Heckscher Building (now called the Crown Building) at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street served as the first location of the Museum of Modern Art. The 1921 building was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the same architects who designed Grand Central Terminal. Note in the foreground the rooftop of the Vanderbilt mansion, demolished in 1926 to make way for the Bergdorf Goodman department store; at right, a page from the new museum’s brochure. (Museum of the City of New York/MoMA)

The gallery rooms in the Heckscher were modest — although Abby’s husband was John D. Rockefeller Jr., she had to find funding on her own (he was opposed to the museum, and to modern art). In his review, Pemberton noted the “inferiority complex” that had already set in at the new museum, which took a preemptive swipe at the Met in its pamphlet (pictured above):

AMBITIOUS…Although the museum was small and had no curatorial departments, MoMA produced a 157-page exhibition catalogue for its first show. (Image and text courtesy MoMA)
MODEST BEGINNINGS…MoMA’s first gallery spaces on the 12th floor of the Heckscher Building were indeed modest, as these photos of the first exhibition attest. (MoMA)
HOW THEY LOOKED IN COLOR…Works featured in MoMA’s first exhibition included The Bedroom (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh, and Pines and Rocks (c. 1897), by Paul Cézanne. (Art Institute of Chicago/MoMA)

Pemberton attempted to set MoMA straight regarding the Met’s reputation:

HOME AT LAST…After moving three times over the course of ten years, the Museum of Modern Art finally found a permanent home in Midtown in 1939. Although Abby Rockefeller’s husband, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was initially opposed to the museum, he eventually came around and donated the land for the 1939 museum (designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone) and became one of the museum’s biggest supporters. (MoMA)

Less than three years later, the museum would point to the world to come in 1932’s Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock. The exhibition showcased an emerging architectural style that would dominate the New York skyline in the postwar years.

Top, model of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye from MoMA’s 1932 Modern Architecture: International Exhibition; below, model and photographs of works by Walter Gropius. Both architects would have major influences on the postwar New York skyline. (MoMA)

A footnote: The Museum of Modern Art hosts a remarkable website that features photographs of 4,875 exhibitions (plus images of catalogs and other materials) from 1929 to the present.

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That’s Entertainment?

Theater critic Robert Benchley was looking for something to take his mind off the economic collapse, but he wasn’t finding it on Broadway. He found the drama Veneer to be depressing, and apparently so did a lot of other theatergoers; it closed the next month after just 31 performances at the Sam Harris Theatre:

NO LAUGHS HERE, EITHER…Joanna Roos and Osgood Perkins during a 1930 performance of the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya at the Cort Theatre. Roos was also in 1929’s Veneer, and she was singled out for praise by critic Robert Benchley, who otherwise found the play depressing. (New York Public Library)

Benchley also found little cheer in the play Cross Roads, which also closed the next month after just 28 performances at the Morosco Theatre:

FOR CRYING OUT LOUD…Actress Sylvia Sidney bawled out her lines in Cross Roads. (Photoplay, 1932)

Benchley finally found something to laugh about at the Alvin Theatre, which featured the musical comedy Heads Up! Tellingly, it ran much longer than its more somber competition: 144 performances…

CLOWNS…Victor Moore, left, and Ray Bolger delivered comic relief in Heads Up! Both actors provided much-needed levity on the Broadway stage during the Depression. (movie-mine.com/Pinterest)

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Ideas for a Post-Crash Christmas

Creighton Peet (1899-1977) was best known as an author of books for young people with titles ranging from Mike the Cat (1934) to How Things Work (1941). A regular contributor to the New Yorker from 1925 to 1957, in the Nov. 23 issue Peet offered up some suggestions for a post-crash Christmas in a short piece titled “Helpful Hints for Marginaires.” An excerpt:

The recent market crash was also on the mind of Howard Brubaker. In his weekly column, “Of All Things,” he looked for divine guidance…

CAN YOU PUT IN A GOOD WORD? James Cannon Jr. was a bishop of the southern Methodist Church and a relentless advocate of Prohibition. (encyclopediavirginia.org)

…in the wake of recent elections, Brubaker also made this observation about voting rights in the South…

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Solace of the Silver Screen

Americans would turn to the movies for a much-needed distraction from their economic woes, and critic John Mosher found a couple of mild diversions starring Greta Garbo and Clara Bow

MUM’S THE WORD…Greta Garbo and Lew Ayres in The Kiss. The film was a rare silent in the new age of the talkies (although it did feature a Movietone orchestral score and sound effects). Audiences would have to wait until 1930’s Anna Christie to hear the voice of Garbo. (IMDB)
PLEASE PASS THE BITTERS, DEAR…Greta Garbo and Anders Randolf trapped in a loveless marriage in The Kiss. (IMDB)

For a few laughs, moviegoers could check out Clara Bow’s second talkie, The Saturday Night Kid. A sex symbol of the Roaring Twenties, Bow’s career began to wane with the advent of the talkies and the onset of the Depression. Her kind would be eclipsed by a new type of sex symbol — the platinum blonde — embodied by the likes of Jean Harlow, who also appeared in The Saturday Night Kid, her first credited role…

SIBLING RIVALRY…Sisters Mayme (Clara Bow) and Janie (Jean Arthur) vie for the affections of next door neighbor William (James Hall) in a scene from The Saturday Night Kid. (doctormacro.com)
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER…Jean Arthur, Clara Bow, Jean Harlow and Leone Lane in a publicity photo for The Saturday Night Kid. (IMDB)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with a couple of ads featured on back-to-back pages of products that no longer exist — the first promotes the use of Ethyl gasoline to increase performance and eliminate engine knock. Ethyl (tetraethyl lead) — a big contributor to soil, air and water lead pollution — was removed from gasoline beginning in the 1970s…the Marmon Motor Car Company introduced a more affordable (under $1,000) car to New Yorker readers in 1929, but it was too late for the struggling company, which due to the Depression folded in 1933…

…this seems an unusual ad for the New Yorker, but then again perhaps the White Company hoped to reach well-heeled readers who were also owners of companies in need of such things, although it is doubtful a lot of truck-buying was taking place after the crash…

…the 1920s are considered a golden age for American road-building, but if you wanted to travel across country, the national highway system was limited to just a few, mostly two-lane routes…

…with their frayed nerves, folks were doubtless smoking like chimneys…the makers of Fatima cigarettes acknowledged the pain felt by the market crash, while nevertheless justifying the higher cost of their brand…

…the holiday season was fast-approaching, and Bergdorf Goodman was ready to set the mood…

…on the lower end of the scale, the California Fruit Growers offered up this dandy “juice extractor” as the gift to delight a loved one (with illustration by Don Herold)…

…I suppose given its quasi-medicinal (digestif) qualities, Cointreau was able to sell their product at 6% alcohol content to dry Americans (although the full- strength Cointreau, not legally available to Americans, was rated at 40%)…at right, another back page ad from Reuben’s restaurant, with more handwritten endorsements from stars including singer Helen Kane (Boop-Boop-a-Doop), cartoonist Rube Goldberg, and Paramount Studio co-founder Jesse Lasky

Helen Hokinson’s society women were featured in two separate ads in the Nov. 23 issue…

…and the folks at Frigidare got an extra plug thanks to Leonard Dove

Lois Long’s “On and Off the Avenue” column began to grow in length as the holiday season approached, peppered with spot drawings including these two by Julian De Miskey and Barbara Shermund

…and I. Klein offered his own take on the holiday shopping scene…

Rea Irvin reprised his folk-satirical approach to life at the Coolidge house…

John Reynolds found more humor in the clash of cultures…

Helen Hokinson contributed this very modern rendering of writer’s block…

…and Peter Arno looked in on the challenges of commuting…

…and a quick note regarding a recent issue of the New Yorker (Dec. 3, 2018)…the cover featured a reprint of a Matias Santoyo cover from April 2, 1927…very cool…

Next Time: Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Writer…

 

 

 

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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