Under the Boardwalk

Kay Boyle was thirty and still cutting her teeth as a writer and political activist when the New Yorker published her short story “Black Boy,” told through an unnamed narrator who recalls a childhood visit to the seaside.

May 14, 1930 cover by Bela Dankovsky.

The narrator remembers the days when she rode her horse along the beach while her grandfather watched from a rolling chair, pushed along the boardwalk by various young Black boys. In the following excerpts, the grandfather asks one of the boys for his name, but is it clear he doesn’t really want to get to know him, and through his teasing suggests he isn’t even worthy of an identity. Later in the story the girl befriends the boy, who dwells beneath the boardwalk and dreams of a better life. When the grandfather learns of this budding friendship, he warns about the possibility of harm coming from the boy (two excerpts):

THE LONG, CHAOTIC LIFE of writer and activist Kay Boyle (1902–1992) ranged from fights against racism and fascism in the 1930s to protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and against nuclear weapons into the 1990s. (1941 photograph by George Platt Lynes, courtesy The Kay Boyle Papers, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University)

The final paragraphs describe how the girl falls from her horse, and the shocking consequences of the boy coming to her aid.

SEPARATE AND NOT EQUAL…Kay Boyle employed a boardwalk setting in her 1932 short story “Black Boy” to underscore the stark divisions between races in American society. Clockwise, from top left, a 1914 postcard from Atlantic City; on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, circa 1905; sheet music for a popular 1905 song; a dour-looking group being pushed along the Atlantic City Boardwalk, circa 1905. (seesaw.typepad.com/bygonely.com/reddit.com)

 *  *  *

Potemkin Park

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White questioned the need, and appropriateness, of a wood and plaster Federal Hall replica in Bryant Park, which at the time was a neglected patch of land behind the New York Public Library and a favorite spot for the city’s homeless, their numbers rapidly growing during one of the worst years of the Depression (unemployment hovered near 25 percent).

To add insult to injury, the area around the replica was fenced off and required an admission fee of 25 cents. White commented:

ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION…This flimsy Federal Hall replica erected in Bryant Park in 1932 symbolized some of the problems that beset New York City in one of the worst years of the Depression. Under Mayor Jimmy Walker, the committee in charge of the replica was filled with corrupt Tammany cronies who quickly depleted the committee’s funds. It is no surprise that the replica was unpopular, especially with its admission fee of 25 cents, roughly equivalent to $5 today (consider that sales clerks in 1932, if they were lucky to have a job, earned perhaps $15 a week). (Museum of the City of New York)

 *  *  *

Intermural Murals

Art critic Murdock Pemberton approached the Museum of Modern Art’s newest exhibition of American muralists with a bit of suspicion, although he was correct in surmising that the Rockefeller Center was shopping for muralists, but as we now know it was not an American, but a Mexican artist (Diego Rivera) who would enter that scene and stir things up.

Among other works, MoMA visitors viewed Ben Shahn’s study for a three-part composition titled “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti”…

(MoMA)

…and a work by the New Yorker’s own Reginald Marsh titled “Post-War America”…

(MoMA)

 *  *  *

Boop’s Boo-Boo

We return to E.B. White and his musings regarding actress and singer Helen Kane (1904–1966), who filed a $250,000 (equivalent to nearly $5 million in 2021) infringement lawsuit against cartoonist Max Fleischer and Paramount Studios, claiming that the popular Betty Boop character was based on Kane’s personality and image.

BOOP SCOOP…Comparison between Helen Kane and the cartoon star Betty Boop was published in Photoplay’s April 1932 issue, one month before Kane’s lawsuit was filed. The suit was settled two years later, the court finding insufficient evidence to support Kane’s claim. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

From Rags to Rackets

Lois Long lived at the center of the 1920s speakeasy scene, but while she partied she also kept a critical eye on her surroundings, and when she later moved on to fashion criticism (“On And Off The Avenue”) she maintained the same combination of enthusiasm and shrewdness as she took aim at the “lusty fellows of the fashion rackets”…

JUST BROWSING, THANKS…Lois Long kept a skeptical eye on the New York fashion “racket” in the 1930s. Above, an unidentified model sporting a red velvet ensemble during a fashion show in 1933. (New York Daily News)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

We begin with yet another insecticide-themed cartoon from Dr. Seuss, this time using the experimental medium of television to get his point across…

…R.J. Reynolds continued to push their Camels on the growing market of women smokers, here mixing their product with a basket of fruit to suggest freshness and vitality…

…the folks at B. Altman touted their new outdoor furniture line, placing it in a setting available to a very select few New Yorkers…

…we kick off the cartoons with Peter Arno at his best…

Alice Harvey gave voice to one woman’s thoughts on children…

Leonard Dove found spirits dwelling among dusty bones…

James Thurber gave us his take on the housewife eating bonbons trope…I’m not suggesting that Thurber was the first to illustrate this stereotype, but I’m not finding any references to housewives and bonbons predating the 1950s…something for a dissertation out there, if it hasn’t already been done…

William Steig continued his exploration into the world of the Small Fry, offering up a rare image of baseball in the early New Yorker

…and we close the May 14 issue with I. Klein, and one sidewalk salesman looking for a bonafide endorsement…

…on to May 21, 1932…

May 21, 1932 cover by Helen Hokinson.

…where we find E.B. White sharing his thoughts on the Lindbergh kidnapping and its tragic result…

BAD NEWS ON THE DOORSTEP…News of the death of Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s kidnapped baby transfixed the country in the spring of 1932. (New York Times)

 *  *  *

No Immaculate Conception, This

It must have been hard to be Lewis Mumford, so knowledgable in the arts, architecture and city planning, and yet rather helpless in encouraging thoughtful growth in a place that spouted buildings like mushrooms and paved roads (thanks to Robert Moses) almost as fast as cars could drive across them. These excerpts offer some of Mumford’s thoughts on the matter:

For Mumford’s second point, he soundly denounced a plan to place an obelisk in Battery Park. The 1929 proposal called for an 800-foot obelisk at the junction of Broadway and Greenwich Street:

OVER COMPENSATING, PERHAPS…Designed by architect Eric Gugler, the proposed granite obelisk for Battery Park would have been windowless, 80 feet square at its base and rising to a height of 800 feet. Thankfully it was never, ahem, “erected.” (NYC Urbanism @nycurbanism) 

Mumford also addressed the matter of the Central Park Zoo, and its proposed relocation:

Happily for Mumford, and for former Gov. Al Smith (see caption), the zoo would be revitalized and remain in Central Park.

MIRACLES OF MOSES…Although Lewis Mumford would often be at odds with the powerful park commissioner Robert Moses, it was Moses who ensured that the Central Park Zoo would remain in the park. The remodeled zoo opened with great fanfare on December 2, 1934, and Moses’ old friend and political mentor Al Smith was designated honorary zookeeper. Smith, who lived just across from the zoo at 820 Fifth Avenue, visited almost daily. Structured as a quadrangle with a sea lion pool at its center, the Central Park Zoo is pictured above in August 1942. (nycgovparks.org)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Many advertisers played to the Anglophilic tendencies of New Yorker readers, particular ones selling garments to the sporting gentry who aped their British cousins in such pursuits as polo and dressage…here we have “play clothes” from the menswear company Rogers Peet…

…and this swell get-up (below) from Henri Bendel…both Peet and Bendel were well-known in the 1930s. Cole Porter even referred to both companies in his songs…here is the refrain from “I Introduced” (from the 1919 show Hitchy-Koo):

…”I presented Mister Peet to Mister Rogers”…

and even more famously Porter wrote these lines in his 1934 song “You’re the Top”:

…”You’re a Bendel Bonnet / a Shakespeare Sonnet”…

…Rogers Peet closed its doors in the 1980s, and Bendel folded in 2019…

…even during the Depression, almost anyone could spring for a ten-cent bar of Lux soap, and over the years it was famous for its splashy ads (two-page spreads in the New Yorker were common) and dozens of celebrity endorsements…Lux isn’t as dominant in the U.S. today, but it remains a major international brand, now sold and marketed by the British multinational Unilever, especially in Asia…back to 1932, the Lux ad below featured Lupe Velez — known as “The Mexican Spitfire,” she was a big star in the 30s but is perhaps best known today for her sad, tragic death in 1944…the Lux ad also displayed the Aber Twins — a Ziegfeld act that featured Arlene and Charlene Aber who weren’t really twins but sisters born 18 months apart…

…if you lived in New York in the 1920s and early 30s you probably would have known about the sometime artist/designer Don Dickerman and his themed Greenwich Village restaurants — especially The Pirate’s Den — which inspired this line of highball glasses (yeah, Prohibition was still around, but who cared?)…sadly these glasses didn’t help save The Pirate’s Den, which thanks to the Depression went bankrupt in 1932…

…speaking of Prohibition, Anheuser-Busch took advantage of laws that allowed for the production of near-beer containing one-half percent alcohol…

…if you couldn’t drink you could still eat to your heart’s content, that is if you were this fat cat and not some starving fellow in a bread line…

…on to our cartoons, Helen Hokinson took us pet shopping…

Garrett Price offered up a stereotype in a courtroom setting…

…and reminiscent of humor in the vein of Ralph Barton, Rea Irvin launched a series of the world’s “beauty spots”…

Next Time: A Visit to Minskyville…

 

High Anxiety

The New Yorker profiled authors, composers, civic and world leaders and other notables in its early years, but every so often it would turn the spotlight on a member of the working class.

May 7, 1932 cover by William Steig, the first of 117 covers he would contribute to the magazine over his long life and career.

“The Man With The Squeegee,” a profile written by journalist (and later, playwright) Russel Crouse, detailed the life and work of Stanley Norris, a son of Polish immigrants who daily defied death as a window cleaner on Manhattan’s skyscrapers.

Profile illustration by Hugo Gellert

Below is an excerpt that includes a couple of Norris’ harrowing experiences high above the city streets:

LOOK MA, NO HANDS!…Just two leather straps separate this brave window washer from oblivion in March 1936; a lone worker confronts his task in 1935; window washers in 1930; window washers on the 34th street side of the building, January 1932. There are 6,400 windows on the Empire State Building, and each worker averaged 76 panes per day. (retronaut.com/cnn/considerable.com/reddit)

During the 1930s one out of every 200 window cleaners in New York City fell to their deaths annually. In the previous decade, more than 80 fell to their deaths. In another excerpt, Norris recalled one of those unfortunate deaths.

 *  *  *

Vintage Whines

E.B. White enjoyed both wine and spirits, but like many of his fellow Americans he was growing sick and tired of Prohibition, and in his “Notes and Comment” looked abroad for a better way to live.

White concluded the entry with this observation…

…which referenced the sad grape “bricks” folks could order by mail…

Grape growers sold these bricks with a warning that they were not to be used for fermentation — a warning that kept them within the law. Naturally both seller and consumer understood that the end product would likely be something stronger than grape juice.

(vinepair.com)

Where White did procure his cocktails is revealed later in “Notes” — he tells us of an encounter with a night-club host while out walking with his wife, Katharine White, and toddler Joel.

SOMETIMES E.B. JOINED THEM…Katharine White taking baby Joel for a stroll with the White’s beloved Scotty Daisy in New York City, 1931. (brainpickings.org)

 *  *  *

News Stooges

In “The Wayward Press” column, Robert Benchley (writing under the pseudonym Guy Fawkes) took the newspapers to task for their tasteless reporting on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and their general sullying of a once proud profession (Benchley himself was an experienced journalist):

TRAGEDY SELLS…The kidnapping of Charles and Ann Lindbergh’s infant son, Charles Jr., dominated headlines across the country in the spring of 1932. This March 3 edition of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Evening Independent ran this headline just two days after the boy’s disappearance. The body of Charles Jr. was found on May 12, 1932. (Pinterest)

 *  *  *

Rising Stars

The pre-Code drama So Big!, based on Edna Ferber’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, featured two iconic Hollywood actors, but in 1932 only one of them, Barbara Stanwyck, was a bankable star. The film also featured the soon-to-be-famous Bette Davis, who had a much smaller role but was nevertheless grateful to be cast in a prestigious Barbara Stanwyck film. For critic John Mosher, the film proved to be a breakout role for Stanwyck.

SO BIG!…Barbara Stanwyck (left) was a marquee attraction in 1932, but Bette Davis would soon emerge as another major star in the Warner Brothers universe. (IMDB)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Clothes spun from cotton have been around for thousands of years, but this B. Altman advertisement suggests they were relatively novel for summer wear, at least among the upper orders. Both men and women wore wool bathing suits up until the 1930s, so perhaps there was something new about this cool, casual material…

…no doubt the landed gentry helped keep the Davey Tree Surgeons in business during the Depression, but in those lean times it didn’t hurt to reach out to those with modest means…

…they did something right, because this 141-year-old company still thrives today, the ninth-largest employee-owned company in the U.S…

…launched in 1906, the RMS Mauretania was beloved for her Edwardian elegance and style, but as sleeker ships came into service in 1930, the Mauretania was removed from Atlantic crossings and relegated to running shorter cruises from New York to Nova Scotia and Bermuda…

OLD RELIABLE…The RMS Mauretania was the world’s largest and fastest ship after it left the Port of Liverpool in 1906. The liner was scrapped in 1935-37, much to the dismay of many of its former passengers, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Wikipedia)

…with Mother’s Day around the corner, one company suggested a silver cigarette box as a suitable gift…

…on to our cartoons, Otto Soglow marked the upcoming holiday with this choreographed group…

Denys Wortman gave us another side of motherhood…

…other women were busy organizing political gatherings, per Garrett Price

…and Helen Hokinson

James Thurber gave us a dog in distress…

Robert Day illustrated the dilemma of two bootleggers…

…and Barbara Shermund takes us out…

Next Time: Under the Boardwalk…