The Road to 1931

The New Yorker entered its sixth year in 1931, and despite the deepening Depression managed to stay afloat and even gain new subscribers. Perhaps more than ever folks needed that weekly dose of levity the magazine ably supplied.

Rea Irvin rang out the old and welcomed the new with back-to-back covers for the Dec. 27, 1930 and Jan. 3, 1931 issues. The second cover commemorated the New York Auto Salon, mentioned later in this blog entry.

That isn’t to say the magazine’s contributors donned rose-colored glasses. Rather, they commiserated with their fellow Americans:

CRANKY COUPLETS…Ogden Nash lent his droll verse to the nation’s economic woes. In 1931, while working as an editor at Doubleday, Nash submitted a number of poems to the New Yorker and spent three months working on the magazine’s editorial staff. (poeticous.com)

Over the course of 1930 many Americans, including Ogden Nash, woke to the fact that their business and political leaders were ill-suited to lift them out of the economic mess, and were likely responsible for it in the first place. At the top of the list was President Herbert Hoover, who was profiled in the New Yorker in three installments beginning with the Dec. 27 issue. This brief excerpt gives you a glimpse into a very different White House 89 years ago:

The first installment of the profile was accompanied by a Cyrus Baldridge portrait of the president (left), but the final two installments featured a less-than-flattering Abe Birnbaum rendering that first appeared in the New Yorker in the March 2, 1929 issue:

*  *  *

Vorse Was a Force

Social critic, labor activist and novelist Mary Heaton Vorse (1874–1966) was no fan of Herbert Hoover or wealthy business tycoons, and in the first decades of the 20th century joined with Lincoln Steffens and other muckraking journalists in advocating for social reform. Vorse, however, also had a background in fiction writing and in observational pieces like the one below (excerpts) in which she commented on the rustic old ladies she found everywhere in the city:

FOR THE CAUSE…Mary Heaton Vorse (left) with fellow activists preparing to leave on a relief expedition to aid striking Kentucky miners, 1932. At right, a 1925 drawing of Vorse by Hugo Gellert. (nysut.org/Smithsonian)

 *  *  *

The Mystic

Before the Beatles made the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi a famed Transcendental Meditation guru in the 1960s, there was George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a Russian/Greek/Armenian spiritual teacher of the “Fourth Way,” which promised a path to a higher state of consciousness and full human potential. Gurdjieff also enjoyed living in a French chateau and taking trips to New York to share his wisdom with eager Americans, including famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “The Talk of the Town” had these observations on the visiting mystic:

HE COULD SEE THINGS…George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, in an undated photo.

 *  *  *

Sunny Days

Forget about financial woes or spiritual dilemmas. What are you going to wear next summer? Fashion writer Lois Long (“On and Off the Avenue”) asked the question and looked to the south for some answers:

…numerous ads peppered the Dec. 27 issue urging Manhattan’s snowbirds to dress appropriately for the warmer climes…

…and operators of “PlaneTrains” promised to get them there as quickly as possible…

…and if you were headed to Cuba you could stay at the brand new National Hotel…

…here’s what it looked like three years ago when I was in Havana…I can guarantee you the hotel service was WAY better in 1931…

…whether home or abroad, New Yorkers were celebrating the New Year by “dancing to the melodies of Old Vienna” and smoking like chimneys…

…a popular New Year’s Eve destination was the The Roosevelt Hotel, where Guy Lombardo’s orchestra helped ring in the New Year from 1929 (radio’s first nationwide New Year’s Eve broadcast) to 1959…

I stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel in late December, and found Lombardo still presiding over the bar…

…we also find New Year’s revelry in the cartoons, with Mary Petty

Izzy Klein

Otto Soglow...

…and Leonard Dove

…and for those who stayed home, we have this scene of domestic bliss from Don Herold

 *  *  *

On to the Jan. 3, 1931 issue, we have Howard Brubaker (“Of All Things”) waxing sour on the state of the economy…

…so what a better way to cheer up than to look at shiny new cars, especially the ones almost no one could afford? The New Yorker paid another visit to the New York Automobile Salon at the Grand Central Palace…

…according to the article, 1931 was “a streamline year,” and leading the way was the REO motor car company, which despite its innovative ways would drop its car line altogether in 1936 — a casualty of the Depression…

FLOWING FENDERS…The 1931 REO Royale was a trendsetter, introducing streamlining designs. The Great Depression would cause REO to abandon the manufacture of automobiles in 1936. (historicvehicle.org)

…over at the Chrysler Building, which served as that corporation’s headquarters from 1930 until the mid-1950s, new cars were on display on the building’s first two floors…

CATHEDRAL OF CARS…The first two floors of the Chrysler Building served as an auto showroom during the building’s first decade. (Wikipedia/thewelcomeblog.com)

…we segue to our advertisements, many from car companies touting their displays at the New York Automobile Salon. Like REO, Marmon was noted for various innovations, including the introduction of the rear-view mirror. It also manufactured a stunning 16-cylinder automobile that was on display at the 1931 Salon. But also like REO, the Depression proved too much for Marmon, and it was defunct by 1933…

SLEEK…The 1931 Marmon Sixteen. (RM Auctions)

…another car company that would fall to the Depression was the luxury brand Pierce Arrow. Without a lower-priced car in its lineup to provide cash flow, the company ceased operation by 1938…

…by contrast, the Chrysler Corporation had several low-priced models to help it survive the lean years and enable it to produce its luxury model, the Imperial…

ANOTHER FIRST…Chrysler was also known for its innovative ways. A custom version of the Chrysler Imperial Eight included a dictaphone. (hemmings.com)

…the Hudson Motor Car Company is long gone, but in 1930 it was the third largest carmaker after Ford and Chevrolet, and instead of luxury it touted the affordability of its cars, especially its low-priced Essex line, priced $1,000 less than its predecessor from ten years earlier. The $595 Essex would be comparable to a $9,000 to $10,000 car today (by comparison, the 1931 Marmon or Imperial would set you back somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000, roughly equivalent to a $46,000 – $78,000 range today)…

…so let’s say the Depression has wiped you out and you can’t even afford an Essex…well you could try to “smoke your way back to normalcy”…

…or be like this pair, who seem content with their Chesterfields…

…of course the movies were another means of escape from the cruel world, and Paramount’s Publix Theatres promised plenty of sex to ease troubled minds…

PRE-CODE WORLD…During a brief period of the early sound era, many films used both sex and violence to attract audiences to theaters. The Publix Theatres ad above implied that these three films had plenty of sex, or “it” — clockwise, from top left, Fredric March ran around in his skivvies in The Royal Family of Broadway (1930); Mary Brian and Ina Claire portrayed acting sisters Gwen and Julie Cavendish in The Royal Family of Broadway; David Manners and Ruth Chatterton shared an embrace in The Right to Love (1930); and Marlene Dietrich lured a schoolmaster into a life of madness and despair in The Blue Angel (1929-30).

…and we close with our cartoonists…Reginald Marsh heralded the new year with this two-page spread depicting the heavens glorifying dental hygiene…

Leonard Dove inked two cartoons featuring table talk…

E. McNerney continued the New Yorker tradition of cartoons featuring rich old men and their gold diggers…

Gardner Rea pondered the value of kitsch in a regal setting…

A.S. Foster looked in on a crowd of John Does at a speakeasy…

…and Lillian Reed took us shopping with a very specific request…

Next Time: Requiem For the Flapper…

 

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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