All That Glitters Is Not Gold

We first encountered critic Lewis Mumford in the June 30, 1931 issue of the New Yorker when he roundly excoriated plans for Rockefeller Center. The Nov. 14 issue once again found him in a surly mood, this time regarding the decorative arts and how they had been poorly displayed at the otherwise esteemed Metropolitan Museum.

Nov. 14, 1931 cover by B.H. Jackson.

To say that Mumford was displeased with the Met’s decorative arts exhibition would be an understatement:

BED, BATH AND BEYOND…Let’s just say Lewis Mumford probably needed a stiff drink after strolling through the Met’s latest displays of the decorative arts. (Library of Congress)
PAST IMPERFECT…Norman Bel Geddes was known for his theatrical, futuristic visions of streamlined everything, but the radio he exhibited at the Met was more Queen Victoria’s speed in Mumford’s view. (Pinterest)

Mumford pondered this sudden decline: was it the Depression, or just a streak of bad taste? And what could be done with the purveyors of bad taste, short of shooting them? Let’s read on…

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET…Mumford suggested that Macy’s International Exposition of Art in Industry in the late 1920’s had more vision than the Met’s 1931 offering. Above, living room furniture designed by Houbert et Petit exhibited in a showroom during the 1928 “International Exposition of Art in Industry” at Macy’s department store. (Library of Congress)
LESS THAN A PRETTY FACE?…The streamlined form of Norman Bel Geddes’ “House of Tomorrow” probably wowed a few readers of Ladies home Journal in April 1931, but critic Lewis Mumford was likely not among them, as he often criticized Bel Geddes for his theatricality at the expense of good taste and functionality (see first excerpt above). Mumford was especially critical of Bel Geddes’ glorification of the automobile and the highway at the expense of livable cities. (Pinterest)

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Peter, We Have Your Back

When your colleague has a play made from his book, and it closes after just seven performances, what can you say, especially if you are theater critic for the New Yorker? Well, here is what Robert Benchley did:

THAT’S SHOW BIZ…Here Goes The Bride, based on a Peter Arno book, closed after just seven performances. However, as a cartoonist, Arno was at the top of his game. (Britannica/Ebay)

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Depression? Who needs it? If you had the means, and didn’t lose your shirt in the 1929 crash, you could get away from it all and book passage to the Bahamas, where you could drink legally, soak up some sun, and forget about those lengthening bread lines you occasionally glanced from the window of your town car…

…well, that bootleg gin was a mind eraser…

Helen Hokinson continued to offer her cartooning skills to the folks at Frigidaire…

…on to our cartoons, the George Washington Bridge drew the envy of some out-of-towners, as illustrated by Garrett Price

…nearly 90 years ago folks were almost as nuts about college football as they are now, except for Perry Barlow’s lone dowager, who would rather be sitting in her parlor with a cup of tea…

Gardner Rea explored the wonders of heredity…

Otto Soglow’s Little King employed a guard ready for any emergency…

Barbara Shermund gave us an artist with a god complex…

James Thurber continued to probe the nuances of the sexes…

Peter Arno sketched this two-page spread with the caption: J.G’s a card all right when he gets to New York

…and from the mouth of babes, we have these observations of the underworld from Chon Day

…and Denys Wortman

On to the Nov. 21 issue, which featured the last in a series of eleven covers Helen Hokinson contributed to the New Yorker in 1931. The covers featured one of Hokinson’s “Best Girls” — a plump, wealthy, society woman — on an around-the-world cruise, which began with the March 2 issue and ended on Nov. 21 with a stop at the customs office, and a nosy customs officer…

Nov. 21, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Bread & Circuses

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White reported on a recent editorial in the Columbia Spectator, that university’s student newspaper, which took issue with the professionalization and “furtive hypocrisy” of college football (if only they could see us now). White observed:

In 1931, Columbia was a football power, and the Ivy League was a big-time conference. To the editors of the Spectator, this was not a point of pride, which they made clear in this 89-year-old editorial that could have been written yesterday:

Clippings from Columbia Spectator Archive
JUST GETTING MY KICKS…1931 press photo of Columbia University football star Ralph Hewitt, who still holds the school record for the longest field goal — a 53-yarder he dropped kicked in a 1930 upset victory over Cornell. Hewitt went on to coach high school sports.

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Sorry, Charlie

William “Billy” Haines was a popular actor during the 1920s and early 30s a top-five box-office star from 1928 to 1932, portraying arrogant but likable characters in a string of pictures that ended abruptly when Haines refused to deny his homosexuality and was cut loose by MGM. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on Haines at his Santa Barbara home, where he entertained a mysterious visitor:

THE INTERIOR LIFE…The stylish actor William Haines in a 1926 publicity shot taken at his Hollywood home. Haines would abandon acting in the 1930s and take up a successful career as an interior designer. (Photofest)

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Coveted Coiffeur

Speaking of stylish, writer Bessie Breuer wrote an admiring profile of Polish hairdresser Antoine (aka Antoni Cierplikowski), considered the world’s first celebrity hairdresser. The opening paragraph:

A CUT ABOVE…In 1914 famed hairdresser Antoine (aka Antoni Cierplikowski) invented the “shingle cut” (at left, sported by actress Louise Brooks in the 1920s), which was all the rage during the Roaring Twenties. (Pinterest)

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The Look of Relief

In “The Talk of the Town” E.B. White noted that a familiar face was gracing advertisements for President Herbert Hoover’s Unemployment Relief Agency:

I NEVER FORGET A FACE…E.B. White referred to this ad featuring an unnamed woman who had a familiar look about her. (period

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More His Style

We return again to Lewis Mumford, this time cheered by the sight of the new Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea, designed by Cory & Cory. An excerpt from “The Sky Line” column:

THAT’S MORE LIKE IT…Lewis Mumford praised the striking effect of the Starrett-Lehigh Building’s alternating bands of brick, concrete and steel. (Atlas of Places)

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The Chump

John Mosher was neither moved nor charmed by the appearance of little Jackie Cooper in The Champ, a tearjerker story of an alcoholic ex-boxer (Wallace Beery) struggling to provide for his son. He did, however, appreciate the boy’s ability to carry “on his little shoulders a heavy and tedious and lengthy story.”

BUMMER…John Mosher had little to like about King Vidor’s The Champ, featuring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. Mosher was no doubt a bit dismayed when Beery received an Academy Award for his performance. (IMDB)

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A Wishful Christmas List

It was that time of the year when the New Yorker began running its lengthy features on possible gifts for Christmas. This excerpt caught my eye for what might have been possible in 1931 — buying a photographic print directly from Berenice Abbott or Nickolas Muray:

NO LUMP OF COAL, THIS…In 1931 it might have been quite possible to buy this print directly from photographer Berenice Abbott. Barclay Street, Hoboken Ferry 1931, is in MoMA’s photography collection.

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From Our Advertisers

It has been well-established in previous posts that Anglophilia ran rampant among New York’s smart set, and this advertisement from Saks provides everything we need to underscore the point…

…and the top hat mades another appearance in this spot for Lucky Strike, featuring an endorsement from actor Edmund Lowe...

…our cartoons featured a song-less songbird courtesy of Perry Barlow

…and from James Thurber, another creature with little appetite for song, let alone wine and women…

William Steig brought us back to the bleachers with another nonconformist…

Gluyas Williams gave us this sad sack all alone in the crowd…

Richard Decker sought to bring order to this court…

…and we end with Carl Rose, and this two-page cartoon illustrating a dicey parking challenge…

Next Time: Yankee Doodles…


The Tragic Pose

In an age of toe-tapping musicals and screwball comedies — which served to distract from the grim realities of the Great Depression — one playwright was content to continue mining the deep veins of tragedy and pessimism than ran through the 1930s.

Nov. 7, 1931 cover by Margaret Schloeman.

A Chekhovian realistEugene O’Neill (1888 – 1953) had yet to write his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night, but in 1931 he was already well established as America’s preeminent playwright. When his naturalistic Mourning Becomes Electra hit the Guild Theatre stage, New Yorker theatre critic Robert Benchley had little doubt about O’Neill’s greatness as a playwright, even if he wasn’t so sure about the play itself:

O’Neill’s tragic pose was borne from childhood, the son of an alcoholic father and a mother who became addicted to morphine after his difficult birth. His older brother, Jamie, would drink himself to death. It doesn’t end there. O’Neill’s own  two sons would commit suicide, and he would disown his remaining daughter, Oona O’Neill, when at age 18 she married silent film star Charlie Chaplin, 36 years her senior. An odd footnote: Chaplin was best friends with Ralph Barton, a cartoonist for the early New Yorker who took his own life after Eugene O’Neill married Barton’s ex, Carlotta Monterey. To close the loop, O’Neill and Monterey had a mess of a marriage between his alcoholism and her addiction to sedatives. No wonder the man rarely smiled.

WRONG MEDS, MY DEAR…Christine Mannon (Alla Nazimova) recoils from her husband, Ezra (Lee Baker) after giving him a poison that he mistakes for his heart medicine. At right, Christine and her daughter, Lavinia (Alice Brady), await the return of Ezra from battle. All three actors were part of the original cast of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, which was a retelling of Oresteia by Aeschylus. (
FAMILIAR FACE…Eugene O’Neill made his third appearance on the cover of Time magazine for the Nov. 2, 1931 issue. He made a total of four appearances on the magazine’s cover (1924, 1928, 1931 and 1946). At right, cover of Guild Theatre program. (Time/Pinterest)
SAY CHEESE…Eugene O’Neill wore his familiar scowl in this undated portrait with his third (and final) wife, stage and film actress Carlotta Monterey. (

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Go West, William

When Mae West announced she was going to present a modern version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and play the part of Lady Macbeth, Wolcott Gibbs went to work on possible scenarios for such a production. Here is one of them:

LADIES MACBETH?…Actually, only two of these women made the cut to play Lady Macbeth. Gladys Cooper (center) appeared as Lady Macbeth in a 1935 production at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre that lasted barely a month. The following year Edna Thomas (right) portrayed Lady Macbeth in a Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth with an all-Black cast. Orson Welles adapted and directed the production, which was staged at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre. It became a box office and critical sensation.

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Those Hats Again

And now to E.B. White, who once again explored the mysteries of the Empress hat:

TAKE THIS, MR. LIPPMANN…Thelma Todd wearing an Empress Eugénie hat in the 1932 comedy Speak Easily. (Wikipedia)

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Rah, Rah, Sis Boom Bah

And so, in a city with one of the most storied teams in Major League Baseball, the New Yorker continued to ignore that sport as it gushed over college football, John Tunis even going the extra mile to check out homecoming at Ohio State.

HOMECOMING ROYALTY…THE Ohio State football team went 6-3 in 1931, but they blanked Navy 20-0 in their homecoming game. (

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Boxing Brainiac

Several times before in this blog we have encountered boxing great Gene Tunney and his taste for the literary life. E.B. White gave us the latest on the Champ in “The Talk of the Town”…

THE FINER THINGS…Heavyweight Boxing Champion Gene Tunney, left, discusses things that don’t involve hitting people with writer George Bernard Shaw during a 1929 vacation to Brioni. (AP)

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From Our Advertisers

It’s the Depression, Prohibition is still in force (kind of), so what’s a body to do to blow off some steam? Well, you could take up smoking, every waking moment, at least when it came to this guy…

…and these were the days when tobacco companies offered competing claims about the health benefits of their cigarettes (weight loss, calmer nerves etc.). So the folks at Listerine, who were all about keeping you safe from nasty mouth germs, launched a cigarette of their own, which was “taking the country by storm,” at least in their estimation…

…and I throw this in to give you an idea of how far cigarette companies would go, and how folks would respond in the early 1930s…at left is a 1932 advertisement from the back cover of Popular Mechanics, telling us that “Everybody” is deeply inhaling their product…of course people became addicted, including this young woman (right) featured in a 1931 Popular Science news item who managed to smoke and read a book while reducing her figure…

…back to the New Yorker ads from the Nov. 7 issue, here is one that offered a “scientific” way to remove nicotine from cigarettes, allowing only “pure tobacco” to enter your pink lungs…

…and now a couple of lovely color ads for Houbigant cosmetics…

…and our friends at Alcoa, diligently working to convince Americans that aluminum furniture was the modern way to keep your house “in step” with the times…

…and finally, RCA Victor was offering an early version of the LP record, so you wouldn’t have to stop necking to turn the damn record…

…on to our cartoons, we begin with Gardner Rea

…John Reehill gave us a lover who probably watched too many romance movies…

…contrasting with this fellow illustrated by Carl Rose, who doesn’t lift a finger to find some romance…

…and while we are on the subject of love, here is a modern twist offered by Barbara Shermund

William Crawford Galbraith gave us a far more detached view of the game of love…

…while Helen Hokinson found an attraction of a different sort with one of her “girls”…

Alan Dunn looked in on the baking business, industrial-sized…

…and we end with Richard Decker, and the price of war…

Next Time: All That Glitters Is Not Gold