Fear of Flying

The early New Yorker loved two things about modern life — college football and air travel. Tragedy would bring them together on the last day of March 1931.

April 11, 1931 cover by Peter Arno. A brilliant cover, contrasting the skinny, lightly clad runner with one of Arno’s stock characters from the Taft era —  a millionaire with a walrus mustache.

The New Yorker’s sportswriter John Tunis was especially keen on Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame football team, which played an annual rivalry game against Army at Yankee Stadium. Tunis’s colleague, E.B. White, was the flying enthusiast, never missing a chance to hop aboard a plane and marvel at the scene far below. In the Nov. 30, 1929 issue, White was eager to join passengers on a test of the Fokker F-32, and suggested that flying was becoming so routine that one could be blasé about its risks:

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?…Title card from a silent Paramount newsreel reporting on a November 1929 test flight of the Fokker F-32 at Teterboro, possibly the same flight enjoyed by E.B. White. At right, a celebration of the plane’s arrival in Los Angeles. (YouTube/petersonfield.org)

All of that exuberance came crashing down in a Kansas wheat field on March 31, 1931. It was Rockne’s fame — which the New Yorker and countless other magazines and newspapers helped to spread — that put the coach on a TWA flight to Hollywood, where director Russell Mack was filming The Spirit of Notre Dame. Rockne stopped in Kansas City, where he visited his two oldest sons, before boarding a Fokker F-10 destined for Los Angeles. About an hour after takeoff one of the airplane’s wings broke to pieces, sending Rockne and seven others to their deaths.

(University of Notre Dame) click image to enlarge

The accident rattled E.B. White. In his April 11, 1931 “Notes and Comment,” White pondered the eulogies Rockne received from President Herbert Hoover and others, calling into question the fame a college football coach could attain while achievements of college faculty go unheralded. White also seemed to have lost some of his faith in the progress of aviation, suggesting that the autogiro (a cross between an airplane and a helicopter) might be the safest way to proceed into the future:

Knute Rockne, in undated photo. (University of Notre Dame)

Ironically, it was thanks to Rockne’s fame that the aviation industry began to get serious about safety. A public outcry over the crash led to sweeping changes in everything from design to crash investigation, changes that have made flying one of the safest forms of transportation today.

SAFETY FIRST…The crash that claimed the life of Knute Rockne resulted in a public outcry for greater safety in the air. This article in the July 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics suggested parachutes for passengers and for the plane itself. (modernmechanix.com)

As for the cause of crash, it was determined that the plywood covering one of the Fokker F-10’s wings had separated from the wing’s supporting structure — the wing had been bonded together with a water-based glue that likely deteriorated as the result of rainwater seeping into the wing.

Unfortunately, the investigation into the crash was hampered by souvenir-seekers, who carried away most of the large parts of the plane even before the bodies were removed. So much for honest Midwestern values, at least in this case.

(clickamericana.com)

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Give My Regards

Back in Manhattan, Dorothy Parker was writing a eulogy of her own, bidding farewell to her interim role as theater critic. Parker subbed for Robert Benchley during his extended European vacation, and often noted that it was just her luck  to be stuck with a string of plays that likely comprised one of Broadway’s worst spring line-ups.

In an earlier column Parker had alluded to the fact that Benchley was in Europe, no doubt staying part of the time with their mutual friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy, at their fashionable “Villa America” at Cap d’Antibes on the French Riviera.

SIGHT FOR SORE EYES…Dorothy Parker was glad to have her old friend Robert Benchley back at the theater desk, she having endured a “rotten time” reviewing a long string of bad plays. (dorothy parker.com)

Hopeful to review at least one play of redeeming value before her friend returned, Parker was to be sorely disappointed as evidenced in her final review column. Of the terribly dated Getting Married, a play written by George Barnard Shaw way back in 1908, Parker was more afraid of Getting Bored, especially when Helen Westley (portraying Mrs. George Collins) entered the stage to deliver a 15-minute monologue…

Things got no better with the second play Parker reviewed, Lady Beyond the Moon, a “dull, silly, dirty play” that was frequently interrupted by various sounds from the restless audience — “comments, titters and lip-noises…” The play must have been terrible, because it closed after just fifteen performances.

As for the third play Parker reviewed, the misnamed Right of Happiness, the audience had every excuse “for displayed impatience,” yet conducted itself “like a group of little lambs.” Right of Happiness, observed Parker, “fittingly concluded the horrible little pre-Easter season…” The play closed after just eleven performances.

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Turning Up the Heat

If anyone thought he had a right to happiness it would have been New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, who was preparing to face a grilling from Judge Samuel Seabury. Walker loved the nightlife and left most of his duties to a bunch of Tammany Hall cronies whose activities drew the attention of reformers like Seabury and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his “A Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey observed:

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Walking Tall

Raymond Hood (1881-1934) might have been short in stature, but he stood tall among the architects of some of New York’s most iconic skyscrapers — Rockefeller Plaza, American Radiator, Daily News, McGraw Hill (Sadly, both his career and his life were cut short when he died in 1934 at age 53 from complications related to rheumatoid arthritis). Allene Talmey, a former reporter for the New York World and managing editor of Conde Naste’s original Vanity Fair, gave Hood his due (see brief excerpt) in a New Yorker profile, with a portrait by Cyrus Baldridge:

LANDMARKS…The 1931 McGraw-Hill Building and the 1929-30 Daily News Building. (MCNY/Wikipedia)
And of course, Hood’s 30 Rock. I took this last December before everything shut down.

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From Our Advertisers

Speaking of big and tall, Al Smith and his gang took out this full page ad to announce the availability of office rentals in the world’s tallest building. Thanks to the Depression, only 23 percent of the available space in the Empire State Building was rented out in its first year. Thankfully, the building was also an instant tourist attraction, with one million people each paying a dollar to ride elevators to the observation decks in 1931, matching what the owners made in rent that year…

…for those who could afford more than a dollar ride up the Empire State’s elevators, the cooling breezes of coastal California beckoned…

…those with even greater means and leisure time could hop on a boat to Europe…note that you could still cruise on the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship…also note that the illustration of the posh couple was rendered by Helen Wills (1905-1998), better known at the time as the top women’s tennis player in the world…

HELEN, MEET HELEN…American tennis star Helen Wills in 1932, and a self-portrait from the same year. Wills was the world’s top women’s tennis player for nine of the years between 1927 and 1938. She played tennis into her 80s, and sketched and painted all of her life. (Wikipedia/invaluable.com)

…Guess who’s coming to dinner?…hopefully not William Seabrook, who had just released his latest book on his adventures as an explorer…in Jungle Ways, Seabrook devoted an entire section to cannibalism in the French Sudan and how to cook human flesh; apparently he tried some himself…but then again by most accounts he was a weird dude who dabbled in occultism and possibly believed in zombies…Seabrook’s 1929 book, The Magic Island, is credited with introducing the concept of zombies to popular culture…

…speaking of weird, an ad for Michelsen’s “Bay Rum” body rub…

…when Marlboro cigarettes were introduced in the mid-1920s, they were marketed as “luxury” cigarettes and sold mostly at resorts and hotels. In the late 1920s, however, they were marketed as a “lady’s cigarette,” with ads in the New Yorker featuring handwriting and penmanship contests to promote the brand. This ad from November 1930 featured the “second prize” winner of their amateur copywriting contest…

…it appears marketing tactics changed a bit in 1931…still the dopey contest, but instead of real photos of winners, like the schoolmarmish “Miss Dorothy Shepherd” above, this ad featured a rather tawdry image of a model, more gun moll than schoolmarm…

…on to our cartoonists…Ralph Barton, who was with the New Yorker from Day One, had been increasing his contributions to the magazine after a notable absence from spring 1929 to summer 1930…beset by manic-depression, he would take his own life in May 1931, so what we are seeing are Barton’s last bursts of creativity before his tragic end, reviving old favorites like “The Graphic Section”…

Barbara Shermund entertained with some parlor room chatter…

Leonard Dove looked in on a couple of frisky old duffers…

William Crawford Galbraith, and a crashing bore…

John Held Jr gave us one of his “naughty” engravings…

…and two by our dear Helen Hokinson, stuck in traffic…

…and enjoying cake and ice cream, with a dab of culture…

Next Time: An Unmarried Woman…

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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