Model Citizens

Above: Modeling agency founder John Robert Powers poses with participants of a fashion queen contest at the 1939 New York World's Fair. (NYPL)

John Robert Powers was a household name in the 1930s, founder of one of the world’s first modeling agencies—he supplied countless advertisers with mostly female models, some moving on to Hollywood careers.

April 21, 1934 cover by Abner Dean.

Writing for “A Reporter at Large” under the title “Perfect 36,” frequent New Yorker short story contributor Nancy Hale (1908 –1988) looked into the mysteries behind the fabled “John Powers Book” and its collection of sophisticated models.

TYPING BOOK…John Robert Powers (1892–1977) wrote a bestselling 1941 book, The Powers Girls, that told “the story of models and modeling and the natural steps by which attractive girls are created,” organizing various models by type; at right, a page from the book featuring Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Gibbons—despite her Alabama roots, she was described by Powers as being “The Urban Type.” (Wikipedia/

Hale was given a tour by a company representative who described the types of women the Powers company represented, noting the successes of women who landed in major cigarette ads or went on to become Hollywood stars:

SMOKE AND MIRRORS…Clockwise, from top left: Powers model Janice Jarratt (in a 1934 publicity photo from her only film, Kid Millions), who for a time was known as the “Lucky Strike Girl” as well as the “most photographed woman in the world”; Jarratt offering a Lucky to a nervous young man in a 1935 ad; Powers model Ethelyn Holt in a publicity photo for the Billy Rose Theatre; Holt in a 1933 ad for Camel cigarettes. (MGM/NPR/NYPL/

A number of Hollywood stars got their start or were discovered through their work with Powers, who himself was a sometime actor and the subject of a 1943 musical comedy, The Powers Girl.

POWER STARS…Former Powers models turned Hollywood stars included, from left, Norma Shearer, Frederic March and Kay Francis. (TCM/TMDB)

A note about the author, Nancy Hale: A brilliant short story writer, Hale published her first short story in The New Yorker in 1929 (when she was just 21) and would publish more than eighty stories in the magazine through 1969—she holds the record for the most stories in the magazine in a single year, publishing twelve between July 1954 and July 1955. New Yorker editor William Maxwell regarded Hale’s writing technique as “flawless.”

PROLIFIC…Nancy Hale published more than a hundred short stories in her lifetime, ten of which were recipients of an O. Henry Prize. Writer Joanne O’Leary (London Review of Books) notes that Hale also worked for Vogue (where she “pinch-hit as a model”) and became the first female news reporter at the New York Times. Above left, Hale in an undated photo; at right, Hale photographed in 1936 for Harper’s Bazaar. (Nancy Hale Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College)

* * *

Tat For Tat

Alva Johnston explored the world of “tattooed people” in his second installment of a three-part profile series titled “Sideshow People”…

MARKED FOR LIFE…Alva Johnston noted such celebrated tattooed ladies as Mae Vandermark (left, circa 1920s), and Lady Viola, pictured at right with tattoo artist Fred Clark, 1930s. (Vintage Everyday)
INKSLINGER…Charlie Wagner, a tattoo artist who lived from 1875 to 1953, is considered one of the kings of American tattooing. Practicing his art in New York’s Bowery, he not only developed an influential art style; he invented new machinery that helped spread the art of modern tattooing. (

 * * *

Bloody Satisfying

Film critic John Mosher declared David O. Selznick’s production Viva Villa! to be “thoroughly satisfying”—with a screenplay by Ben Hecht and starring actor Wallace Beery as Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, the film was considered violent and bloody by 1934 standards.

REVOLUTIONARY…Clockwise, from top left, Pancho Villa (Wallace Beery) finds himself attracted to a benefactor’s sister (Fay Wray); MGM film poster; Beery with Katherine DeMille (who was Cecil B. DeMille’s adopted daughter) and Stuart Erwin; Beery striking a pose on the set of Viva Villa! (IMDB)

Mosher found some of the film’s violence to be startling. Being one the last Pre-Code films, censors would start clamping down on such scenes in the coming years.

MAKE SURE YOU GET MY GOOD SIDE…Pancho Villa (Wallace Beery) faces a firing squad before receiving a last-minute reprieve in Viva Villa! (IMDB)

 * * *

From Our Advertisers

MGM took out a full-page ad to tout the success of Viva Villa and other MGM “hits”…

…note the bottom left hand corner of the MGM ad—a cartoon by Otto Soglow promoting the upcoming film Hollywood Party, a star-studded comedy musical featuring Laurel & Hardy, Jimmy Durante, Lupe Velez and Mickey Mouse

…those looking for a different kind of entertainment could have been enticed by this lavish center-page spread from German ocean liner companies…they were inviting Americans to Oberammergau, Germany to witness the “only performances of the Passion Play until 1940″…the play was usually performed every ten years (years ending in the digit zero) but in 1934 a special performance was supported by the Nazi Party…incidentally, the 1940 play was cancelled due to World War II…

…the same German-American shipping companies also advertised an African cruise…with some racist imagery…

…perhaps you wanted to go to Europe on a ship with fewer Nazis on board…in that case you could grab a berth on a ship with the United States Lines, and hang out with these stiffs…

…the makers of Old Gold referenced a previous ad featuring Jimmy Durante with a new spot starring actor/comedian Eddie Cantor…both ads depicted impressionable young women admiring the smoking wisdom of older men…

…for reference, the creepy Durante ad…

…the famous “Call for Philip Morris” advertising campaign began during World War I, but in 1933 Johnny Roventini, a bellhop at the Hotel New Yorker, would become the living symbol of the cigarette brand…

…by contrast, Frankfort Distilleries showed us an image of man who would not represent them, namely Jed Clampett…

…Chevrolet continued its rebranding campaign, positioning itself as an affordable choice that was nevertheless favored by the posh set…

…who would rather be driving a Packard, here appealing to the nostalgic sensibilities of old-timers who had the means to afford one…

…on to our cartoons, and some “Small Fry” baseball from William Steig

…an unusual captioned cartoon (from George Price) featured in the opening “Goings On About Town” section…

Syd Hoff gave us an alarmed matron confronting the unthinkable…a doorman as a son-in-law…

…we haven’t seen Izzy Klein’s work in awhile—understandable, as he was busy in his career as an animator––in 1934 he worked on films for Van Beuren Studios (Rainbow Parade Cartoons) and in 1936 he would move to Disney’s Silly Symphonies

Paul Manship’s Prometheus at Rockefeller Center is iconic today, but when it was installed in 1934 it puzzled more than a few onlookers, including Robert Day

…and we close with James Thurber, and a turn of events in his “war”…

Next Time: Lord of the Apes…

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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