Comrade Alex

If folks thought things were bad in Depression-era America, they could ponder the famine-ravaged masses in the Soviet Union…

Dec. 24, 1932 cover by Rea Irvin.

…not that Alexander Woollcott seemed to notice or care all that much. In the autumn of 1932 he traveled to Moscow to check out some Russian theater and enjoy the fine food and drink provided by his friend Walter Duranty, Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. In his “Shouts and Murmurs” column…

…Woollcott reflected on his Moscow visit, his humor at odds with the stark reality  all around him…

ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM…Alexander Woollcott (left) was amused by the stares of starving Russians he encountered with his substantial bulk on the streets on Moscow; Walter Duranty (1884–1957), Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times, played host to his old friend Woollcott.(Pinterest/Daily Mail)

Woollcott wrote of “spindle-shanked kids” singing cheerless songs about tractor production, recounted a conversation with a hungry moppet at a boot factory, and noted the “appreciative grin” he received from a teenager who both envied and admired his girth:

PERHAPS A SIDE TRIP TO UKRAINE?…Starved peasants on a street in Kharkiv, 1933. Millions of Ukrainians died during Stalin’s enforced famine. (Wikipedia) 

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Happier Thoughts

The Dec. 24 issue marked the beginning of a New Yorker tradition: Frank Sullivan’s annual holiday poem, “Greetings, Friends!” Writing for the Dec. 17, 2009 issue of the New Yorker (“Behind the Writing: “Greetings, Friends!”) Jenna Krajeski observes that “as far as holiday poems go, ‘Greetings, Friends!’…is as much an acknowledgment of the season as a noting of the times.” Frank Sullivan faithfully continued the tradition until 1974; after his death in 1976, New Yorker editor William Shawn asked Roger Angell to take over the writing of the poem. In 2012 Angell passed the duty along to Ian Frazier, the magazine’s current Yuletide bard.

CHEERFUL BUNCH…The holiday poem “Greetings, Friends!” has been a New Yorker tradition since 1932. It was originated by Frank Sullivan (left) and carried on by Roger Angell (center) and Ian Frazier. (hillcountryobserver.com/latimes.com/gf.org)

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Waxing Poetic, Part II

In the Dec. 17, 1932 issue humorist and poet Arthur Guiterman penned this petition to Acting Mayor Joseph McKee on behalf of the city’s statues…

…to which Mayor McKee replied in the Dec. 24 issue:

DUELING POETS…Acting New York Mayor Joseph McKee (left) rarely smiled in photographs, but he seems to have been a person of good humor in his poetic reply to Arthur Guiterman. Both photos are from 1932. (Wikipedia/credo.library.umass.edu)

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From Our Advertisers

New York’s fashion merchandisers continued to tout their latest copies of Paris styles such as this “Poppy Dress” from Lord & Taylor…

…Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy Theatre announced their grand openings…

…Radio City featuring a cavalcade of stars along with the “Roxyettes” (soon to be renamed “Rockettes”) while the RKO Roxy presented the pre-Code romantic comedy The Animal Kingdom

LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS…It was winter, and the Depression was still on, but there were bright spots to be found on the stage at the opening of Radio City Music Hall and on the screen at the RKO Roxy; at right, Ann Harding, Leslie Howard and Myrna Loy in The Animal Kingdom. (Pinterest/IMDB)

…the folks at R.J. Reynolds challenged smokers to “leave” their product, if they cared to, knowing full well they were hooking new smokers by the thousands every day…

…we ring in the New Year with some hijinks from James Thurber

…and this unlikely dispatch from a New York police officer via Peter Arno

…ringing in the year with Harry Brown’s Dec. 31 cover…

Dec. 31, 1932 cover by Harry Brown.

…and Alexander Woollcott’s continuing account of his visit to Moscow, where he was shown the town by his friend Walter Duranty. In this excerpt, Woollcott makes a rare political observation regarding his friend: “Except for a few such men from Mars as Walter Duranty, all visitors might be roughly divided into two classes: those who come here hoping to see the Communist scheme succeed, and those who come here hoping to see it fail.”

For the record, Duranty has been widely criticized, especially since the 1950s, for his failure to report on the 1932-33 famine (which claimed as many as 7 million lives) and for covering up other atrocities of the Stalin regime. In the 1990s there were even calls to revoke Duranty’s 1932 Pulitzer Prize, which was awarded for his reporting on the Soviet Union.

GOOD & PLENTY…Walter Duranty (center, seated) at a dinner party in his Moscow apartment.

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Rocky Theme

As Rockefeller Center prepared to open its doors to its first buildings (there would be 14 in all) American playwright and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood  penned this hymn to the “Citadel of Static”…

STANDING TALL…American playwright and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood, one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, was moved to verse by the opening of Rockefeller Center’s first buildings. At left, Rockefeller Center in 1933. (Wikipedia)

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Oh Chute

In 1929 Geoffrey Hellman secured a position with the New Yorker as a writer for “The Talk of Town” and also contributed a number of profiles, including this one about a parachute stunt-jumper named Joe Crane. Here is the opening paragraph and an illustation by Abe Birnbaum:

On Feb. 18, 1932, Joe Crane amazed crowds at Roosevelt Field with double parachute descent, in which he opened a second parachute through the first. If you are wondering, Crane died in 1968…of natural causes.

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From Our Advertisers

Illustrator Howard Chandler Christy (1872-1952) is best remembered for his patriotic poster designs of World War I, which might explain why this fellow looks a bit outdated…

…Christy also originated the popular “Christy Girl,” the embodiment of the ideal American woman in the early 1900s (note the Christy Girl’s resemblance to the woman in the ad above)…

A “Christy Girl,” from 1906.

…speaking of ideal, imagine a movie featuring this trinity of actors: John, Ethel and Lionel BarrymoreJohn Mosher will give us his review in Jan. 7 issue…

…the Lyric Theatre saw its glory years during the 1920s when it hosted stage shows featuring such talents as The Marx Brothers, Fred and Adele Astaire and a young Cole Porter, who hit it big in 1929 with Fifty Million Frenchmen…the 1930s, however, saw the Lyric’s fortunes diminish and in another year it would be converted into a movie house…also note the influence of Italian Futurists in this ad for an Italian theater troupe…

…and there’s also a futuristic bent to this Garrett Price cartoon, which steers more in a Kandinsky direction…

…cartoonists were also finding inspiration in the magazine’s advertising, Pond’s cold cream providing the spark for Alain (aka Daniel Brustlein)…

…for reference, a Pond’s ad from 1933 comparing Lady Diana Manners complexion to her former visage, circa 1924…

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence, was banned for obscenity in the United States in 1929, but Helen Hokinson’s enterprising librarian was still able to deliver the goods…

…on the other hand, it is doubtful George Price’s sales clerk will also deliver…

…a great one by James Thurber, with more detail than his usual spare line…

…and we say goodbye to 1932 with Alain, and a New Year’s Eve party with some familiar faces…

Next Time: Modernism Lite…

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.

3 thoughts on “Comrade Alex”

  1. Woollcott expanded upon his Moscow reportage in While Rome Burns, one of his surprisingly few book-length collections. He attended a performance of Hamlet with Shostakovich’s utterly un-Shakespearean incidental music (Op. 32).

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