Prophet of Doom

The October 1929 stock market crash took most people by surprise, but one man, Roger Babson, knew all along it was coming…thanks to Sir Isaac Newton

Feb. 15, 1930 cover by Peter Arno.

Babson (1875-1967) is perhaps best known today as the man who predicted the market crash and the Great Depression that followed. He employed an economic assessment tool called the “Babsonchart” that was based on Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the Feb. 15, 1929 “Profile” (titled “Prophet of Doom”) Henry Pringle tried to make sense of this eccentric businessman, who would go on to wage war against gravity itself:

TOLD YOU SO…Illustration by Hugo Gellert for the profile on Roger Babson, who famously predicted the stock market crash; at right, Babson circa 1930. (Gravity Research Foundation)
BIG THINKER…Roger Babson dedicates the world’s largest spinning globe at Babson College in 1955; at right, the globe as it appears today. Founded by Babson in 1919, Babson College is often ranked as the most prestigious entrepreneurship college in the U.S. (babson.edu/Wikipedia)

Pringle concluded his profile on a confused note, wondering if his subject — a product of sober New England stock — could possibly be a socialist in disguise…

In any case, it is difficult to assign Babson to any one category. Some considered him a genius and visionary, while others thought him a crackpot, particularly in the late 1940s when, following the death of a grandson by drowning, he began to wage war against gravity itself. In 1948 essay “Gravity – Our Enemy Number One,” he wrote: “Broken hips and other broken bones as well as numerous circulatory, intestinal and other internal troubles are directly due to the people’s inability to counteract Gravity at a critical moment.”

That same year Babson founded the Gravity Research Foundation to expedite the discovery of a “gravity shield.” The foundation is still in operation, but rather than seeking to block gravity it works to better understand it. It continues to hold an annual essay prize contest — remarkably, five of its winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in physics. The essay contest’s 1971 winner was none other than physicist Stephen Hawking.

ROCK STAR…Clockwise, from top left: Roger Babson at home with a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton; Babson was the Prohibition Party’s candidate for President of the United States in 1940; Babson provided charitable assistance to unemployed stonecutters in Gloucester, Mass., during the Great Depression, commissioning them to carve inspirational inscriptions on more than 20 boulders near the abandoned settlement of Dogtown. (centennial.babson.edu/Wikipedia)

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An Imperfect Romance

Born in the midst of the Jazz Age, it would seem that the New Yorker would have been a perfect fit for the most prominent chronicler of that era, F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it was mostly not to be: Fitzgerald would publish just two poems and three humorous shorts in the New Yorker between 1929 and 1937, including “Salesmanship in the Champs-Élysées” in Feb. 15 issue.

In all fairness, the New Yorker wasn’t exactly enamored of the young author. In its book review section for the May 23, 1925 issue, the magazine singled out three books for review, the first (and longest) review was devoted to James Boyd’s historical novel Drums. This was followed by a brief review of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the reviewer writing that the book revived his interest in the author but “not in a Byronic promise he probably never had,” and referred to the character of Jay Gatsby as “a good deal of a nut.”

The following year Fitzgerald was the subject of a New Yorker profile titled “That Sad Young Man.” In the magazine’s March 12, 2017 issue, Erin Overbey and Joshua Rothman note that the profile (by John Mosher) would be called “snarky” in today’s lingo. They also point out that “Fitzgerald, for his part, appeared to take a rather snobbish view of Harold Ross’s new publication, referring to the short stories he published in it as “hors d’oeuvres.”

With that, here is one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “hors d’oeuvres” … “Salesmanship in the Champs-Élysées.”

SOUR GRAPES…The Champs-Elysées in 1929; F. Scott Fitzgerald with his daughter, Scottie, and wife Zelda in Paris in 1925. Despite being products of the Jazz Age, the author and the New Yorker were mostly at odds. In a letter to his daughter, Scottie, Fitzgerald advised that she expand her knowledge of literature “instead of skimming Life + The New Yorker.”  (fr.wikibooks.org/AP)

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The Empire-less State

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White pondered the possibilities of a large lot at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street previously occupied by the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Although construction of the Empire State Building would soon commence at the site, White mused about other possibilities…

LIGHT THERE BE LIGHT…E.B. White found the newly excavated space at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street (former site of the Waldorf-Astoria) to be a refreshing change. It would be short-lived, as the first beams of the Empire State Building would begin to rise from the site in March 1930. (NYPL Digital Gallery)

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Westminster People Show

Although it’s now customary to retire Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show winners, back in 1930 a wire terrier called Pendley Calling of Blarney won Best of Show in 1930 and won the title again the following year. Alice Frankforter was on hand for the event, but found the people at the show every bit as diverting as the animals. Some excerpts…

DOGGONE FUN…The 1932 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden, NYC. (westminsterkennelclub.org)

REIGN OF TERRIER…Wire Fox Terrier Pendley Calling of Blarney, left, won back-to-back Westminster Kennel Club Best of Show titles in 1930-31. At right, King’s Best of Show win in February 2019 made him the 15th Wire Fox Terrier in Westminster history to earn the top prize. Terriers are by far the winningest breed at Westminster. (aka.org)

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Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Robert Benchley struck a pre-emptive pose in his review of a new Broadway play titled Rebound — written by his good friend (and fellow Algonquin Round Table alumnus) Donald Ogden Stewart (1894-1980) — and responded to “a chorus of yawps” that accused him of log-rolling…

A FRIEND INDEED…Robert Benchley (right) said his friendship with playwright and screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart (left) had no influence over his review of Stewart’s latest play, Rebound. It seems Benchley was in safe territory here, since Stewart’s output was generally high in quality. Indeed, in 1940 Stewart would win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the The Philadelphia Story.

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Georgia On His Mind

The opening of the Museum of Modern Art in late 1929 had a profound effect on the New Yorker’s art critic Murdock Pemberton. In the beginning he dismissed the museum as just another place for the old money crowd to throw parties, but with the opening of its third exhibition, “Painting in Paris” — which featured an extensive display of the works of French modernists — Pemberton began to come around to the idea that this new MoMA was a place to see groundbreaking works of art. In his Feb. 15 column Pemberton looked beyond France for signs of talented modernists in the States, and found only one who stood out — Georgia O’Keeffe.

MOD COUPLE…Clockwise, from left, Alfred Stieglitz attached this photograph to a letter for Georgia O’Keeffe, dated July 10, 1929; Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition of Paintings (1919-1934), at Stieglitz’s An American Place gallery, 1935; O’Keeffe’s Trees at Glorieta, New Mexico, 1929. (Beinecke Library, Yale/Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation)

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From Our Advertisers

Just as hemlines were dropping after the stock market crash, so were the brims of women’s hats — the flapper caps of the 1920s now sprouted droopy ears…

…this ad for Chase and Sanborn coffee featured a weirdly distended image of the writer and humorist Irvin Cobb

…Cobb as he actually appeared, circa 1930…

(talesofmytery.blogspot.com)

…G. Washington coffee, on the other hand, continued to draw from the New Yorker’s stable of cartoonists, including Garrett Price, for its illustrated ads…

…I was surprised to see this ad for two reasons: I wasn’t aware floss was in common use 90 years ago, or that it once came in the handle of a toothbrush…

…and then we have this sad little back page ad (just above a tiny ad for piano lessons) promoting Peggy Joyce’s ghostwritten “tell all” — Men, Marriage and Me. A former Ziegfeld girl and occasional actress who cultivated fame for fame’s sake, Joyce (1893-1957) was mostly known for her six marriages and extravagant lifestyle. By feeding the media a steady stream of scandals and other adventures (she often received reporters in her bedroom, dressed in a see-through negligee) she remained in the celebrity spotlight throughout the 1920s…

Peggy Joyce in 1923; cover of the first edition of her “tell all” — Men, Marriage and Me. Celebrated in the 1920’s as a swinging golddigger, her fame quickly evaporated into the mists of the Great Depression. (Wikipedia/Abe Books)

…speaking of celebrity, advertisers were so eager for endorsements of the famous that even “Mrs. Ring Lardner” (Ellis Abbott) got a piece of the action…

…as travel by airplane became more fashionable, automobile manufacturers increasingly paired their products with flying machines…

…for those who wished to stay on the ground, the Pickwick-Greyhound bus system featured “Nite Coaches” with 14 sleeping compartments (for 28 passengers), hot and cold water in each compartment, and hot meals served by stewards…

…on to our comics, I. Klein illustrated the excitement of heavyweight boxing…

Perry Barlow paid a visit to a writer and his dimwitted visitor…

Helen Hokinson looked in on a prep school dance…

Barbara Shermund demonstrated the finer points of beauty…

…and we end with Peter Arno, and one woman’s plan for a costume party…

Next Time: Five Years in the Making…

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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