Body and Soul

After completing a major in French in just three years, 19-year-old Libby Holman became the youngest woman to graduate from the University of Cincinnati in 1923. But it was her unique style of torch-singing — a trademark throaty mumble — that would launch a career on Broadway and a life of seemingly endless scandal.

Nov. 8, 1930 cover by Sue Williams.

After performing in the The Greenwich Village Follies, Holman (1904 – 1971) landed her first big role in 1925 in the Rodgers and Hart production of Garrick Gaieties. But it was a signature song, “Moanin’ Low,” from Clifton Webb’s The Little Show that would make her a star. When Three’s a Crowd (by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz) opened at the Selwyn Theater on October 15, 1930, Holman was well-known to audiences not only for her voice but also for her unconventional lifestyle.

Three’s a Crowd proved to be a hit for Holman, and it gave her another hit song, “Body and Soul,” which was banned from the radio for “obscenity” but nevertheless became one of the year’s most popular songs. So popular, in fact, that it was recorded by Holman as well as by fellow torch singer Helen Morgan and Ziegfeld star Ruth Etting. This was the age of the Great American Songbook, when the song itself, and not necessarily its performer, reigned supreme. So when sheet music was distributed from a popular stage show, any number of entertainers would record it.

NAME THAT TUNE…From top to bottom, Helen Morgan, Ruth Etting and Libby Holman all recorded versions of “Body and Soul,” but Holman would make it one of her signature numbers. (YouTube/ruthetting.com/Wikipedia)

…for the hoofers, there were also a couple of dance versions of “Body and Soul” created by bandleaders Ozzie Nelson and Leo Reisman

GOOD BEAT, EASY TO DANCE TO…Bandleaders Ozzie Nelson and Leo Reisman recorded dance versions of “Body and Soul.” (YouTube)

Openly bisexual, Holman partied hard and swore like a sailor, and during her life she would lose one husband in a suspected murder (Holman herself was briefly a suspect) and another to suicide. She would take her own life in 1971. You can read more about Holman’s colorful, tragic life in the Jewish Women’s Archive.

We temporarily skip to the next issue of the New Yorker (Nov. 15, 1930), which featured Holman in a “Talk of the Town” brief, and some insight into her unique singing style. An excerpt:

The same issue also featured this drawing of the “Three’s a Crowd” cast by Al Frueh in the theater review section:

and finally, a publicity photo of the cast from 1930-31:

A FUN CROWD…Clifton Webb, Libby Holman and Fred Allen in Three’s a Crowd. At right, undated publicity photo of Holman. (performerstuff.com)

*  *  *

Horsin’ Around

The National Horse Show was a major event on New York’s social calendar, first held at the original Madison Square Garden in 1883 before moving to the second Madison Square Garden in 1890 and again to the third Madison Square Garden in 1926. This account in the Nov. 8, 1930 New Yorker noted how the horse show’s patrician air contrasted with the rodeo held at MSG the previous week.

NOT FOR GOAT-ROPERS, THIS…The coaching parade on display at the 1927 National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden. (National Sporting Library & Museum)
SOON WE’LL BE FIGHTING EACH OTHER…The National Horse Show began including a military competition in 1925. This photo from the Nov. 6, 1930 New York Times featured some international guests at the 1930 show. (NY TIMES)

Along with the above photo, the Times included this partial lists of guests to the Horse Show Luncheon, a who’s who of New York society. Indeed, the National Horse Show’s 1887 directory provided the basis for the first New York Social Register.

DRESSING UP FOR THE HORSES…Champion horsewoman Mary Elizabeth Whitney (left) with actors Loretta Young and William Powell at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, Nov. 5, 1937. Standing behind Mary Elizabeth is her husband, Jock Whitney, a noted ambassador, art collector, philanthropist and investor. (Christian Anderson Collection)
HIGH STEPPIN’…After a brief stint in Florida, the National Horse Show moved to Kentucky in 2011. Perhaps a tad less formal, it nevertheless remains an important society event. Above, noted horsewoman Misdee Wrigley Miller rides World Grand Champion Grande Gil at the 2012 National Horse Show. (Doug Shiflet)

 *  *  *

A Lesson in Poetry 

In a casual for the Nov. 8 issue, E.B. White instructed readers on how to “Tell a Major Poet From a Minor Poet.” An excerpt.

And in his “Notes and Comment,” White suggested that criticism of the press was a major no-no for a sitting U.S. President:

Christmas shopping suggestions began to trickle into Lois Long’s section on fashion, house and home, including this bit of advice that reminds us just how distant 1930 is from our own time:

 *  *  *

Film critic John Mosher took in the latest offering from silent film star Harold Lloyd, who was making his second foray into the talkies with his portrayal of a hapless shoe salesman in Feet First

NICE TEETH…Theater card for 1930’s Feet First featuring Barbara Kent and Harold Lloyd. (IMDB)
GETTING A LEG UP…Top, Harold Lloyd practices the art of shoe salesmanship with a pair of dummy legs in Feet First; below, Lloyd once again finds himself in a precarious situation high above a city street. (IMDB)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

The National Horse Show was on the minds of several advertisers in the New Yorker, including these fashion merchants targeting the patrician set…

…speaking of the well-heeled, with winter approaching travel agencies enticed those with means to take a steamer through the Panama Canal to California, or for the more adventurous, a three-continent tour package…

…and of course Hawaii beckoned snowbirds, who could make their way across the Lower 48 by train and then hop a boat to the islands…

…the makers of Chesterfield cigarettes were on board with the travel theme…

…while the folks at Marlboro stuck with their dopey handwriting and jingle contests to push their smokes…

…as the luxury market grew ever tighter in the Depression, the sellers of finer things sought to distinguish their wares from competitors. L.P. Hollander kicked off a series of wordy ads regarding the provenance of their hats, gloves and other accessories (in short, they ain’t cheap copies)…

…no doubt the folks at L.P. Hollander were looking down their noses at the likes of Russeks, which offered copies of Lucien Lelong gowns. Apparently old Lucien was okay with this, as this “Radiogram” purportedly attests…

…Lucien pops again in another ad, this one for his perfume line…

…and for reference, here’s a photo of Monsieur Lelong, circa 1940…

…on to our cartoonists, the Nov. 8 issue featured these great spot illustrations by Constantin Alajalov, the first, running along the bottom of “The Talk of the Town,” referenced the horse show at Madison Square Garden…

Alice Harvey listened in on a radio soap…

William Crawford Galbraith found some admirers of art…

Barbara Shermund continued to share her sharp observations of parlor hijinks…

Garrett Price illustrated the challenges of modern design…

…and we end with Peter Arno, and a stomach-turning moment…

Next Time: The High Place…

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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