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.
The passing of Schultz, the head of New York’s claque, was noted in “The Talk in Town” for May 9, 1925. A “claque” is simply a group of people hired to either applaud or heckle a performer, usually in theater or opera, but in the case of Schultz (he was only known by his surname) his claques were known for being heavy handed.
“Talk” continued its reporting on the comings and goings of the writer Dikran Kouyoumdjian, better known by his pen name, Michael Arlen. Exhausted from a busy social schedule (“no visitor has been so lionized since the Prince of Wales”), Arlen had retreated to Farmington to work on a play.
With Madison Square Garden slated for demolition, it was reported that the Diana figure atop MSG’s Italianate tower was to be relocated to the NYU campus. “Talk” noted that the Diana was the only nude ever completed by famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The statue is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a copy is in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At the time, the NYU campus was largely based on a design by Stanford White, also the architect of the soon-to-be demolished Madison Square Garden. “Talk” noted that although the manner of White’s death put him “in a poor light among his puritanical countrymen,” many “courageous men” including Saint-Gaudens strongly defended White as a kind, unselfish and loyal friend.
Let’s step back about twenty years for bit more on Stanford White: He was a founding partner of the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White. Although many considered him witty, kind, and generous, he also had the reputation of a middle-aged serial seducer of teenage girls. White’s desire for Evelyn Nesbit, a popular chorus girl and model, would be his undoing.
On June 25, 1906, White attended a premiere performance of Mam’zelle Champagne at a garden theatre he had designed on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden. Ironically, during the show’s finale, “I Could Love A Million Girls”, Nesbit’s jealous husband, Harry Thaw, shot White three times, point blank.
It was reported that the initial reaction from the crowd was cheerful, since elaborate party tricks were common among the upper classes of New York society. Hysteria would however ensue.
Thaw would be found not guilty by reason of insanity, and would be plagued by mental illness until his death in 1947. Nesbit, who was present at the theatre the night of the shooting, would eventually divorce Thaw. She would go on to a modest career in vaudeville, film and even burlesque (when she was in her fifties). She moved on to a quieter life after World War II and died in 1967 at age 82.
“Profile” examined the life of “Ashcan School” painter George Luks, while this blurb in “Of All Things” gave us a glimpse of things to come:
On a lighter note, we end with comic commentary on the Liquor Commission’s attempt to lock out patrons of New York’s speakeasies:
In the last post we briefly looked at changes that were coming to Fifth Avenue as it made a transition from a place of high society residences to high society commercial interests.
The May 2, 1925 “Talk of the Town” noted that “New York is no longer the beginning and ending of all things social,” as Fifth Avenue town houses were rapidly disappearing as more of the wealthy elite were building country estates in Tuxedo, Newport or Long Island.
For those remaining in the city, the trend was toward smaller dwellings that didn’t require large staffs, including apartments in locations such as the new Sutton Place.
There were some hold-outs, including Charles Schwab. Although he kept a suite at the Ritz and his wife lived in a “palatial” residence in Loretta, Penn., he nevertheless employed “a full staff of servants” at the “great gray pile with the quaint statue of a steel puddler on the lawn.” This 75-room “pile,” constructed 1902-1906, occupied an entire block between West End Avenue and the Riverside Drive, Seventy-third and Seventy-fourth streets.
Schwab made his fortune in steel, and was the first president of the U.S. Steel Corporation (He was not related to Charles R. Schwab, founder of the Charles Schwab Corporation, but was the grandfather of Charles R. Schwab the discount broker). After Schwab died in 1939, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia turned down a proposal to make the mansion the official mayoral residence, considering it too grandiose. It was torn down in 1948 and replaced by the Schwab House, an 18-story apartment building.
“Talk” also reported that one of old society’s grand gathering places, the Astor mansion at 840 Fifth Avenue, was being made available for various charity events that charged ten dollars for a peek at the Astor ballroom, although it was reported most of the visitors were more interested in the dining room than “in the scene of so many brilliant cotillions, of Ward McAllister’s arrogance toward dowagers and of Mrs. William Astor’s imperial rule of a society arbitrarily exclusive.”
The death of famed portrait painter John Singer Sargent was noted in both the “Talk” and “Art” sections, while a feature titled “The New Conquistadors” poked fun at the Babbitt-like promoters of the Florida real-estate boom:
“Profiles” noted the passing of Sam Drebin, referred to as the “Fighting Jew.” Written by screenwriter William Slavens McNutt, the piece noted the pat irony of Drebin’s death—that a man who braved untold hazards and fought with more than a dozen armies should die “in the stuffy quiet of a doctor’s office when an assistant gave him medicine from the wrong bottle.”
For all the sophistication of the early New Yorker magazine, attitudes toward various racial groups, especially blacks, was sadly in concert with the times. The section “When Nights Are Bold” mentions a minstrel performance at the Club Alabam by Johnny Hudgins, noting that the entertainer is “as funny as ever, but the rest of the outfit automatically catalogues itself under ‘fast moving brown skin.’ If you are interested in gold teeth, you’ll find some dressy sets there.”
Hudgins was both a vaudeville performer and part of the Harlem Renaissance. He developed blackface pantomime routines with a jazz trumpet soloist who played vocal-sounding “wah-wah” effects with a plunger mute while Hudgins mouthed the words and performed a comic dance. Fans called him “The Wah-Wah Man.” The French hailed him as the “colored Charlie Chaplin” when he performed in the Parisian Revue Negre that also featured Josephine Baker. Hudgins died in 1990 at age 94.
African-Americans, however, were not the only ethnic group to singled out for stereotypical depictions, as this title art from the recurring poetry feature “Lyrics from the Pekinese” suggests:
From the very first issues The New Yorker kept an eye on the city’s dramatically changing skyline as old landmarks fell and skyscrapers soared. R. W. Sexton was the magazine’s early architecture critic (to be followed by notables included Lewis Mumford and Paul Goldberger).
In the section “The Sky-Line,” Sexton wrote about the planned demolition of Madison Square Garden (it was the second facility to bear the name; today’s MSG is the fourth) and how critics, including foreign visitors, often taunted New Yorkers about their “rabid commercialism.”
Sexton wrote that the criticism is deserved to an extent, but noted that a structure can only be fine from an architectural standpoint if its value is both artistic and practical.
Such an attitude would see the erasure of many landmarks, and in some cases whole neighborhoods when Robert Moses entered the picture.
It was also the attitude that led to the destruction in 1963 of one of the world’s architectural wonders—Penn Station—an act that finally prompted New Yorkers to push for preservation laws.
Sexton suggested that “the finest building in New York” was the Shelton Hotel, a building “designed for modern New York, and looks neither to Italy nor to France for it inspiration and example.”
He said the same applied to Raymond Hood’s American Radiator building (opened in 1924). When the Gothic style is employed, Shelton suggested that Bush building on 42nd Street is the finest adaption of the style to a skyscraper.
Shelton concludes that the “set-back laws” for buildings (which prevented tall buildings from blocking all of the light from the street) actually helped to further develop a unique architectural style for the city.
Still standing at 130-132 West 42nd Street, the Bush building, designed by architect Harvey Wiley Corbett and constructed from 1916-18, was notable for its role in the evolution of Times Square and of New York skyscrapers after the 1916 Zoning Resolution.
Advertising was picking up a bit, as we see on the final page of the issue.
It will be a while until we see beer and liquor ads. However, the spate of sparkling water ads in the early, prohibition-era issues suggests that readers were not being encouraged to drink more water, but rather to use it as a mixer for bathtub gin or whatever they could get their hands on in those so called dry years.
“The Talk of the Town” opened with musings on the “banqueting” ritual practiced by various celebrities in Manhattan, in this case the silent film stars Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, and Tom Mix.
The magazine noted that “Banquets are given upon a star’s departure and upon return, and each succeeding one must be bigger and better than ever.” Even the star of silent Westerns, Tom Mix, had a dinner in his honor when he visited the city with his fourth wife, Victoria Forde. “Talk” made this observation:
True, this cowpuncher, who sets fashion by wearing wine-colored evening clothes and with overcoats rimmed with brown leather for morning wear, did not elect to outdo Pola Negri. His was a modest affair held in the Hotel Astor, at which, however, Mrs. Mix was able to display the discomforts of being wealthy by having such an armful of glistening bracelets as made necessary treatment by a masseuse of muscles lamed by bearing such weight of jewels.
In Pola Negri’s case, a bon voyage banquet was given at the Ritz-Carlton (she was headed to Europe) and among the guests were the familiar faces of writer Michael Arlen and movie producer Jesse Lasky, who announced that Arlen would be writing “special stories” to be used as screen vehicles for Negri.
As for Gloria Swanson (returned from France, more on that below) she was “in the happy position of having a contract for one more year with the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, whose officials are greatly concerned lest Cecil B. DeMille wean from them their popular actress.” To ensure Swanson’s happiness, Lasky and Adolph Zukor hosted a banquet and dance in her honor at Park Lane. It was reported that Swanson “was signally honored” when she entered the room to greet her 300 guests:
The lights were turned off as she took her seat; a spotlight was thrown on her shingled head, and the orchestra struck up her new national anthem, “La Marseillaise”…Girls in Marie Antoinette costumes wended their way among the tables, passing around Napoleonic paper hats, singularly appropriate for the gentlemen who wore them.
“Talk” also offered the latest observations from the magazine’s “Prohibition Authority” regarding the Coast Guard’s inability to stem the flow of Scotch whisky into the city: “Human nature is frail and large operators can afford to offer rewards far above Government pay, all for a little blindness.” Despite a Coast Guard effort to stop smugglers, Scotch remained “plentiful and reasonably priced.”
Other “Talk” items of note: “King” Babe Ruth, after eating his “fourth breakfast porterhouse and a rough train ride,” fell ill in Asheville, N.C. (he was taken to the hotel on a stretcher, clad in pink pajamas he insisted on wearing)…The Bronxville Golf Club “decided to go stag,” and bar women from membership…Noting that New Yorkers treat their city’s landmarks with amazing indifference, it was announced that the Brevoort Mansion was to be torn down. It was described as “a huge brownstone pile, of stern aspect. It looks like a mausoleum.”
When Henry Breevort Jr. built the mansion at Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street in 1834, it marked the beginning of the transformation of Fifth Avenue from a rutted road into the destination for old and new money alike. According to the excellent blog No Place For Normal: New York, in the 1860s Fifth Avenue’s growing renown as the “axis of elegance” was enhanced by the opening of Central Park in 1859 and by fortunes fattened by Civil War contracts.
Then during the last several decades of the 19th century, known as the “Gilded Age,” brownstone mansions like Breevort’s were supplanted by ornate French chateau-style mansions, and “a flocking of Old and New Money alike to the Upper Avenue,” which came to be known as “Millionaires Row” (and famously known for the social wars between the Astors and Vanderbilts among others).
The early 20th century saw Fifth Avenue transformed from a place of elegant mansions to a place of elegant hotels and stores. The first years of The New Yorker would witness this transformation as one mansion after another fell to the commercial interests of the booming 1920s.
“Profile” examined the life of Samuel Goldwyn, “The Celluloid Prince,” whose rule of life was that “in order to live, is not to let live…(this) means outstripping the other fellow by any means possible that does not land one in jail.” His rise from a glove maker to fame and fortune began around 1915 after he “saw a picture show and saw himself a millionaire simultaneously. He took his vision to Jesse Lasky, his brother-in-law, who was a vaudeville man at the time.” In ten years time “a man without background, without education…by sheer urge of some divine spark within him, he was able to build up that colossal enterprise at Culver City.”
Listings in the “Goings On” section (subtitled The New Yorker’s conscientious calendar of events worth while) included George Gershwin’s Lady Be Good at the Liberty Theatre, with the brother-sister dancing team Fred and Adele Astaire. Movies playing included Grass at the Criterion (“Remarkable film panorama of a primitive Persian tribe on its migration in search of food”).
And in continuing Gloria Swanson news, it was noted that Swanson was appearing in a new moving picture, Madame Sans-Gêne, playing the role of “the Napoleonic lady of historical romance. Color—and real Parisian backgrounds.”
According to the site A Lost Film, Swanson took the role to “get away from Hollywood’s frivolous roles in which she felt her talent was under-used and she was little else than a clothes horse.” The lavish production, filmed at various French locations including Fontainebleau and Compiègne, was said to be Swanson’s favorite film. Although the film was released in both the U.S. and France, it is now lost, save for a snippet from the film’s trailer.
“Sports” offered this observation about the pantomime routine of Altrock and Schacht at a baseball game between Washington and New York (see clip at right).
Al Schacht’s ability to mimic other players from the coaching lines, and his comedy routines with fellow Washington coach Nick Altrock, earned him the nickname of “The Clown Prince of Baseball.”
If only the writer knew the extent to which his absurd suggestions would one day come true (and then some) in today’s jumbotron-dominated ballparks.
Ruth, as we know, did not play. By the Babe’s standards, it would prove to be a bad year for him, appearing in fewer than 100 games and batting .290. Somehow, though, this overweight wreck of a man still managed to score 25 home runs that year.
The plight of “The Gentleman Bandit” Gerald Chapman was recounted in the April 18 “Talk of the Town,” pitting the sensibilities of urbane New Yorkers against Connecticut Yankee morality.
The New Yorker noted that many of Gotham’s citizens were sympathetic to Chapman, who during the previous year had murdered a police officer during a crime spree in Connecticut.
The magazine suggested that Chapman—who grew up on the Lower East Side and had a long history of bootlegging and other crimes—had been sentenced to death by a Connecticut judge and jury because they hated all things associated with New York City:
You do not have to go so far as Dubuque to find a definite hatred of New York and things from New York. In Connecticut there is a very lively detestation of the loud and happy neighbor down the Sound. People from New York, to mention only one Connecticut grievance, rush through the tidy little Yankee State in week-end automobile parties, which break the Sabbath and the speed laws. This breeds no great affection.
Chapman was America’s first “celebrity gangster,” and the first to be dubbed “Public Enemy Number One” by the press. He was executed by hanging a year later, on April 6, 1926. A full account of Chapman’s life can be found here.
The magazine continued its habit of William Randolph Hearst-watching, noting that the famed publisher seemed headed for retirement at his San Simeon estate in California:
Mr. Hearst retires to San Simeon and its vast acres, with only the expense accounts of his editors whom he sends for to worry about. He is not a young man,–he is sixty-two,–and he feels that his time to play has arrived…
In other news, invitations to the new Embassy Club (695 Fifth Avenue) of New York were being extended “to a selected list of persons; that is to say, to most persons owning town residences not situated in Brownsville or the Bronx.” It was further observed “when the Embassy Club opens formally, it is believed that Mr. Michael Arlen (subject of my post “The Ordeal of Michael Arlen”) will be invited to attend, if he survives Hollywood.”
Note: The Embassy Club location is now more or less occupied by Bottega Veneta. It’s hard to tell with all of the changes to the facades on the streetscape. It is, however just around the corner from the St. Regis Hotel, which became home to the King Cole Bar and its famous Mayfield Parrish mural in 1932 (See my blog on “A Dry Manhattan” for more about the mural).
The “Profile” featured Alfred Stieglitz, noting the famed photographer’s “ruthless self-direction” in his pursuit of the truth. “His life is a dynamic gesture, as of Life itself, trying to find out what Life is.”
This issue features The New Yorker’s first automobile ad, from the bygone Pierce Arrow automobile company. Pierce Arrow would be a frequent early advertiser, soon to be joined by other car manufacturers in the magazine’s pages. But not just yet. As I’ve noted before, advertising (and editorial content) in these first issues is scant, and so it is no surprise that the magazine is barely limping along during these precarious months.
Many of the advertisements are more of this variety…
And then we have this gem on the inside back cover. Perhaps the only time a church will ever advertise in The New Yorker. Then again, we shall see…
The April 11, 1925 issue of The New Yorker is a bit of a hodgepodge, which is true of most of the early issues that are pretty spotty in terms of content. Much of the writing is heavily embellished with cheeky asides, wordplay and the like.
I should note at this point that although I am reading every page of every issue, including ads, what I represent here is what catches my eye and appeals to my particular sensibilities. It is by no means a comprehensive survey. Nevertheless, I hope that my selections give you a good sense of the content of the magazine, and the context of the times and places where the action occurs.
“Talk of Town” opened with rumors of a baby at the Coolidge White House, which proved unfounded. There was also a brief item noting that silent film star Gloria Swanson (who will be prominent in the early issues) was back in the states with her husband, the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraie (the marriage ended in 1931, when the Marquis married actress Constance Bennett).
“Talk” also mentioned that a long anticipated boxing match between Harry Wills and Jack Dempsey had hit a snag with the state athletic commissioner.
Boxing historians consider Wills one of the most egregious victims of the “color line” drawn by white heavyweight champions. Wills fought for more than twenty years (1911–1932), was ranked a No. 1 challenger for the throne, but was denied the opportunity to vie for the title. He spent six years (1920–1926) trying to land a title fight with Dempsey, who was willing to fight Wills but backed out when he did not receive a $100,000 guarantee from a boxing promoter. Wills filed suit for breach of contract, leading the athletic commissioner to bar Dempsey from competing in the state (Dempsey would later lose in points to Gene Tunney in a Philadelphia bout).
“Talk” offered a brief item on a “new religion” making the rounds, run by A. E. Orage. It noted that he was a disciple of Gurdjieff (and I should add both are offspring of Madame Blatavsky’s Theosophical Society) who “took New York by storm” the previous year. “Talk” said Orage offered classes “in which he intensifies the soul for $10 a month.”
The issue also marked the first appearance of darkly-themed woodcuts on various Victorian subjects by John Held Jr. He is perhaps even more famous for his variety of illustrations throughout the 1920s that captured the flapper era, and no doubt why he is still known for his work today.
“Profile” featured famed birth control rights advocate Margaret Sanger in a piece titled “The Child Who Was Mother to a Woman.” Although “Profile” mentioned her great cause, it was largely focused on her defiance of authority, her championing of free speech (which she inherited from her father, a carver of tombstones), and of her ability as a small, timid woman to overcome the fear of speaking in public.
In this issue we are treated to Miguel Covarrubias drawings of contemporary celebrities:
The “Motion Pictures” section noted the following: “Texas Guinan, Hard Hearted Hannah and the gals of the El Fey Club (recently padlocked, see my entry “A Dry Manhattan”) moved over to the Famous Players Astoria studios the other day to lend the right color to Allan Dwan’s production, “Night Life in New York.”…unless the censors cut the scenes, Kansas, Iowa and other inland points can glimpse how Manhattan spends its evenings when it isn’t trying to get Havana or Oakland on the radio.”
Famous Players Astoria studios (originally Famous Players-Lasky) was located near the Broadway theatre district. Two Marx Brothers films–The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930)–were filmed there. Although Lasky’s Paramount moved the studio operations to California in 1932, the Astoria location continued to thrive, used first by the U.S. Army (beginning in 1942) to make indoctrination films and later by other studios and networks to make everything from music videos, to films (Goodfellas) to television programs (Sesame Street).
The “Motion Pictures” section also mentioned that German director F. W. Murnau (perhaps most famous today for the original 1922 Nosferatu) was coming over to direct. The New Yorker observed that “he the most distinguished screen newcomer since Ernst Lubitsch came over.”
German actors and directors featured prominently in early New Yorker reviews. They were drawn to America by artistic opportunity, however. Later actors and directors (and other artists) would come over to flee Nazi persecution.
But then again, readers of the April 11, 1925 issue don’t know that yet.
The March 28 “Talk of the Town” ponders “what sort of paces a visiting literary lion may be expected to put through.”
The “literary lion” in question was writer Michael Arlen, who was planning his escape from New York by reserving a cabin on the Olympic for its April 18 sailing: “It is expected that very few of his writing compatriots in London will venture America-wards after he reports on the ritual to which he was subjected.” The “ritual,” it seems, was Arlen’s constant exposure to various literary hangers-on and assorted socialites.
Arlen’s real name was Dikran Kouyoumdjian, an Armenian writer transplanted to England who was most famous for his satirical romances set in English smart society. He also wrote psychological thrillers, including The Gentleman from America, filmed in 1956 (the year Arlen died) as a television episode for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He was well known in New York and London society, a dandy who resembled many of the characters he portrayed in his novels.
Returning to the “ritual,” Arlen received “the reasonably constant chaperonage, at tea time, of John Farrar” (editor of the literary magazine The Bookman) who took it upon himself to add Arlen’s publishing interests to his duties (Farrar would go on to found the publishing house of Farrar & Rinehart, and later Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
“Talk” also noted that Arlen was “admitted into the game known as meeting Miss Elsie de Wolfe.”
A bit more about Miss de Wolfe: In the September 14, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear observed that “Interior design as a profession was invented by Elsie de Wolfe.” A prominent figure in New York, Paris, and London society, de Wolfe was also an American stage actress and author of the bestselling 1913 book, The House in Good Taste.
During Arlen’s first two weeks in America, de Wolfe arranged no less than three formal gatherings, each with the purpose of introducing the author to herself. “Talk” also reported that Arlen was invited to a costume party given by Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, for which Paramount Studios producer Jesse Lasky “gracefully supplied (Arlen) with a gypsy costume.” It was noted that Lasky was there to arrange some movie work with Arlen to occur later in the fall, when the author would return to New York to attend the opening of the Broadway play The Green Hat, based on the 1924 book that made him famous.
Arlen was then to depart for Hollywood to “adjust his ideas into adequate scenario form for Miss Pola Negri.” Negri was a Polish stage and screen star world famous for her roles as a femme fatale. Her personal life often made headlines in the gossip magazines of the day, fueled by a series of love affairs that included Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. Negri would not land the female lead for The Green Hat; it would eventually go to Greta Garbo in a 1928 film titled A Woman of Affairs.
“Talk” reported that “ Mr. Arlen, early in his American visit learned a piece of social usage that has stood him in good stead. This has involved, upon introduction to any stranger, his saying rapidly “Didn’t I meet you at tea?” whereupon the gratified stranger murmurs yes and has become a friend for life. This stratagem is said to have suggested itself to Mr. Arlen when he noticed that the average number of guests at teas in his honor was around two hundred.” The columnist noted that “that this business of becoming a friend for life” was a bit of literary exaggeration, and in reality the magazine:
has seldom seen such atrocious behavior and lack of fundamental good manners as has characterized a large proportion of the people who have been brought forward to met Mr. Arlen. Seemingly ignoring the fact that there was no law compelling their attendance at a function in Mr. Arlen’s honor, ever so many persons have come to his parties with an axe rather awkwardly concealed behind them.
The “Profile” in issue featured John McGraw and proclaimed that he “is baseball…the incarnation of the national sport.” The piece was titled “Mr. Muggsy,” a nickname reportedly detested by McGraw because, as the magazine observed, “it is so perfectly descriptive.”
At the time of the writing, McGraw was manager and part-owner of the New York (baseball) Giants. He still holds the record for the most wins of a manager in the National League.
The issue also featured a humorous column by Frank Sullivan, which took aim at the complexity (and likely graft) of taxicab fares. The caption reads: The Taxicab System is Simple to Any Man with a Master’s Degree.
The April 4 Issue, the “gypsy-themed party” continues…
The following week’s issue of “The Talk of Town” (April 4) offered more details regarding the “gypsy-themed costume party” given by Mrs. William Randolph Hearst at the Hotel Ritz-Carlton and attended by Michael Arlen.
The party was in honor of Ambassador Alexander Pollock Moore’s departure to his Spanish post (he left the post later that year and served as ambassador to Peru in 1928-29. He died at age 63 in 1930).
The item noted that the widower Moore (his wife, famed stage actress Lillian Russell, died in 1922) during an earlier Condé Nast event for the “theatrical and literary world,” never rose from his chair without scattering to the winds a dozen or more ingénues who had been draping themselves around him…”
“Talk” shared accounts from the New York American and the New York Mirror that described the Ritz’s famous Crystal Room as decorated to resemble a “gypsy camp,” complete with organ grinder and monkey wandering through the crowd.
Entertainment at the event featured a cabaret with vaudevillian W.C. Fields, who apparently “gazed at his distinguished audience and allowed his thoughts to play with the wealth of juggleable material that confronted him.”
Finally, “Of All Things” noted that “The Turks are said to be mobilizing a hundred thousand men in an effort to affect the Mosul boundary decision but, despite this display of force, we have every confidence that right and justice and Christian civilization will prevail and the British will get their oil.”
The League of Nations awarded Mosul to Iraq, and to the British a 25-year mandate over Iraq (at this writing Mosul is firmly under the control of the Islamic State).
“Books” looked at Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil and suggested that it is not “A-One Maugham.” It also mentioned the New Yorker’s own Alexander Woollcott and his The Story of Irving Berlin, described as “uncommonly pleasant reading.”
“Charlie Chaplin is in trouble again.” So began the next item in “The Talk of the Town” for the March 21 issue.
Over his head hangs a sword that was forged in the Californian sunshine of the cold metal that entered the souls of the native sons when they lived in Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. It is the sword of righteousness, the flaming blade of moral indignation.
The New Yorker, in its modesty of the times, refers to the “trouble” as Chaplin’s home life, which “has been a trifle irregular.” The magazine was referring to his sudden and secretive marriage to a much younger woman, Lillita McMurray.
According to the website The Artifice, Lillita McMurray was Chaplin’s second and youngest wife (he had four in all). In 1920 McMurray landed a small role as a “flirting angel” in Chaplin’s The Kid. When she landed another small role in The Gold Rush four years later (changing her name to Lita Grey) a serious relationship between Grey and Chaplin developed. Grey, just barely 16, soon became pregnant, and Chaplin, seeking to prevent scandal (and possible criminal charges), secretly married Grey in Mexico (She gave birth soon after to Charles Chaplin Jr. on May 5, 1925).
Not surprisingly, Chaplin was uncooperative with the story-hungry media, which The New Yorker noted took revenge by casting Grey as a innocent victim of a “rapacious roué.”
The The New Yorker noted that the California Women’s Clubs called for a boycott of Chaplin films, and even the famed L.A. theatre proprietor Sid Graumann bowed to their pressure and cancelled his booking for The Gold Rush (which the “Talk” writer calls an “extraordinarily good comedy”).
The magazine observed that it was the goal of Chaplin’s detractors to drive him out of the movies—“That way lies Fatty Arbuckle” (alluding to sex scandal that destroyed the career of one of the most beloved silent film stars three years earlier).
A footnote: Chaplin’s marriage to Grey soon crumbled, and a divorce was granted August 22, 1927. According to The Artifice, it was a bitter, public ordeal with rumors of affairs and sexual misconduct clouding Chaplin’s fame and reputation. In the end, Grey was awarded a massive $600,000 settlement and $100,000 for each child. After the scandal Grey became reclusive and was featured in only a few small films before her death on Dec. 29, 1995.
Another item of note in the March 21 issue: a review Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (“good, but not as good as Babbitt”).
And how about a little cartoon to end our segment on the March 21, 1925 issue:
Prohibition posed one the biggest challenges to the life of an urban sophisticate in the 1920s, but also provided opportunities for sophisticated behavior through the flaunting of the Volstead Act.
“The Talk of the Town” for March 21, 1925 opens with an attack on the new U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Emory C. Buckner. He took office with the promise to “debunk” Prohibition enforcement by collecting evidence of liquor sales in nightclubs and speakeasies. Bypassing both the police and the Bureau of Prohibition, he would file injunctions in federal court and have the offending establishments padlocked for up to a year as a “public nuisance.”
(In “The Hour Glass” section of the same issue, the magazine observes that “Minister’s sons always go one way or the other, mostly the other.” It also notes that along with William Jennings Bryan, “Nebraska gave Emory Buckner to the Union.”)
According to the book Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael Lerner, Buckner hoped that his method would break the endless cycle of arrests, plea bargains and fines that had come to define prohibition. His approach took the focus off the city’s working class; rather than throwing bartenders into jail, he would threaten owners and landlords with financial losses and would “pinch the pocketbook of the man higher up.”
Lerner writes that Buckner targeted high-profile nightclubs and speakeasies in the upscale theater district rather than focusing on working class saloons that had been previously singled out by the dry lobby. The goal was to “hold the city’s more cosmopolitan social circles accountable for their drinking.”
In other words, this hit The New Yorker readership, and its writers and editors, right where they lived.
“The Talk of the Town” suggested that Buckner’s motivation was self-promotion, and predicted that his padlocking tactic would backfire, since previous attempts at padlocking actually lent “prestige” to the closed establishments.
That prediction would indeed become true. Instead of curtailing liquor consumption, Lerner writes that the padlocking actually increased the allure of nightclubs: “The leading lady of New York’s nightlife, Texas Guinan, went so far as to adopt the padlock as her personal trademark.”
Nevertheless, the “Talk of the Town” entry concluded with wistful remembrances of pre-Prohibition days, the Hoffman House taproom and the (Maxfield Parrish) Old King Cole mural above the Knickerbocker Bar, now “reposing disconsolately in the gloom of a warehouse.”
The writer would be happy to know that today the Maxfield Parrish mural (recently restored) graces The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel (if you are in NYC you should put on a nice jacket and grab an old school martini there).
A final tidbit from Gotham magazine regarding the mural: “John Jacob Astor IV originally opened the St. Regis Hotel in 1904. Two years later, he commissioned the Old King Cole mural for his Knickerbocker hotel. Apparently Parrish, a Quaker, was reluctant to accept the gig, until Astor upped the offer to $5,000. Astor was tragically lost aboard the Titanic in 1912. And the Parrish mural was installed at The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis in 1932.”
Gotham magazine also offers a secret about the mural revealed at an unveiling following the restoration: under his regal robe, King Cole is breaking wind, therefore the smirks of the jesters.
This is what I love about history—its endless digressions.
Issue #4, March 14, 1925 opened with “The Talk of the Town,” the lead item noting that New York was “agog about the possible visit of Queen Marie of Rumania,” and that the queen was supposedly offered a contract by a newspaper to write her impressions of the United States.
Born into the British royal family, Queen Marie was titled Princess Marie of Edinburgh at birth. After refusing a proposal from her cousin, the future King George V, she was chosen as the future wife of Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, the heir apparent of King Carol I, in 1892 (she was the last Queen consort of Romania, and her trip to the U.S. would prove to be the last months of her reign).
An account in the Frontier Times in 1968 describes the visit this way:
When Queen Marie first announced her intention of making a trip to America, she stated that her general purpose was a sort of educational good will tour; but that her specific purpose was to dedicate a museum at Maryhill, Washington…She sailed from Cherbourg (France) on October 12, 1926, on the Leviathan, accompanied by her son, Nicholas, and her daughter, Ileana; her special aide, Major Stanley Washburn; her close friend, Loie Fuller, the ballet dancer; six personal attendants; several European dignitaries; about one hundred pieces of baggage—and her dog.
For publicity, the timing was perfect. Front page news was scarce, and the Queen’s visit was “manna from heaven” for the newspapers, and a field day for the reporters—who played up the trip in great style.
Queen Marie had contracted with the North American Newspaper Alliance to write a series of articles ranging from “Why I Came to America” to “My Impressions of America.” About six of such articles were published; and as they ran 2,000 words each, one suspects she must have had a ghost writer—and there was one such in her party.
In her syndicated articles she gave a variety of reasons why she came to America—which might have been condensed into a desire to see the country first-hand, and find out how its people lived. She wanted to see almost every object of interest—Pikes Peak, the Everglades, farmers, Indians, washing machines and rodeos; and wanted to ride a horse. She spoke of steel mills, skyscrapers, big trees and tombs of famous men. Particularly she wanted to see American kitchens, and find out if the occupants were as good looking as they appeared to be in linoleum advertisements…
However, the reasons advanced by some who clearly were not in sympathy with the Queen’s visit, were not so altruistic. One newspaper was of the opinion that the real purpose of the trip was to find a rich American husband for Ileana…
“The Talk of the Town” also featured a brief item on “vaudeville headliner” Harry Houdini and his “denunciations of Marjorie.”
This is in reference to a rivalry between a Bostonian, Mina Crandon (known as “Margery the Medium”) and magician Harry Houdini, who called himself “the scourge of spirit mediums.”
The 1920’s marked the height of America’s obsession with the paranormal—the “spirit world”–and Margery was a rock star among the many competing spiritualists of the day. The most famous of her followers was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Doyle was so convinced of her powers that he recommended her to the editors of Scientific American. The magazine was offering a $2,500 prize to the first medium who could verifiably demonstrate (to an investigative committee) a “visual psychic manifestation.”
When the committee reported it found no trickery in Margery’s methods, the outraged Houdini cancelled his upcoming shows and headed to Boston with the aim of personally debunking the medium at a seance.
In an article by Robert Love posted on Mental Floss, he relates what happened next when Houdini arrived at her Lime Street apartment:
Margery greeted the panel and took her seat within a three-sided Chinese screen, the lights dimmed. Soon enough, an eerie whistling filled the room. On cue, the spirit of Walter (Margery’s dead brother) whispered his arrival, even touching Houdini on the inside of his right leg. After a break, he ordered an electric bell enclosed in a wooden box brought to Houdini’s feet. Then Walter levitated a megaphone and boomed: “Have Houdini tell me where to throw it.”
“Toward me,” Houdini said, and the megaphone flew through the air and crashed in front of him. That was just the beginning. Throughout the evening, Walter produced a sequence of metaphysical spectacles, ringing the bell box on command and tipping over the wooden screen.
Houdini had done his homework. He knew that Dr. Le Roi Crandon, Margery’s husband, always sat on her right. (A Harvard-educated surgeon, Crandon was her greatest promoter, often showing visitors nude photographs of his wife in séance delicté). Houdini also guessed correctly that he would be seated at her left in the circle, with hands joined, feet and legs touching. In preparation for the evening, Houdini wore a tight bandage under his right knee all day; it was so painful it made his skin tender to even the slightest touch. The heightened sensitivity paid off. He could feel Margery twist and flex in the dark as she moved her left ankle slightly to get to the bell box under the table. Later, he felt her shift again to tip the Chinese screen with her foot. The flying megaphone stumped Houdini for a few hours, but he eventually figured out that Margery had placed it on her head, dunce-cap-style, with a momentarily free hand. She then jerked her head in his direction to send it crashing to the floor.
“I’ve got her,” he said when the evening was over. “All fraud. Every bit of it. One more sitting and I will be ready to expose everything.”
A second séance at a Boston hotel featured a levitating table. Houdini reached out in the dark and found Margery’s head lifting the table from beneath. He again felt her legs move as she reached to ring the bell box. “The slickest ruse I ever detected,” Houdini said later, in something close to admiration.
Other celebrities of the time are found in the issue’s pages. The section “In Our Midst” tells of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda visiting Rome, and that the author was nearly finished with a novel called “The Great Braxton” (which would actually be titled “The Great Gatsby”). Another item noted that Eugene O’Neill was vacationing in Bermuda.
The “Profile” featured boxer Jack Dempsey, and “Books” announced the publication of A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young.
The “Hourglass” mentions the antics of Gutzon Borglum, who had been sculpting a tribute to the Confederacy on Georgia’s Stone Mountain.
The “antics,” specifically, concerned Borglum’s famed temper and his penchant for smashing completed sculptures in fits of rage. He would later go on to sculpt the monument at Mt. Rushmore.
Then there’s an article by “The Professor” on the Ziegfeld Follies that features this illustration:
The author concludes, “I forget whether it was a good show or not, but as a barometer of New York, it can’t be excelled.”
The “Motion Pictures” section featured a brief mention of “Mr. Hay’s” moral crusade against plays and movies. Hays would later lend his name to the The Production Code of 1930, known to most as the “Hays Code.”
Finally, if you really want to get a sense of how times have changed, check out the issue’s back page ad, and the suggested look for a “University man:”
You need not read far into Issue #1 before you realize how utterly distant this world is from our own. Launched in the midst of the Jazz Age, the magazine assumed its readers to be bourgeois (judging from the ads), cosmopolitan, Anglo- and/or Francophile, Ivy- or private school-educated and with enough disposable income to strike the disinterested pose of the cover mascot, Eustace Tilley.
Issue No. 1, Feb. 21, 1925, opened with a section titled “Of All Things,” and these first words:
Right next door to the Follies, some young adventurer has opened a penny peep-show where you can see five hundred and fifty glorified young women for what Mr. Ziegfeld charges for his much smaller collection.
The section concluded with a manifesto by the magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief, Harold Ross, who famously proclaimed, “It has announced that it is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.”
There is scant advertising in the slim first issues (No. 1 is just 32 pages plus cover). In an article written for the 90th anniversary issue (Feb. 23, 2015), Ian Frazier explains how it was first funded:
After returning to the States, in 1919, he (Ross) edited a short-lived version of Stars & Stripes for veterans and became a New York night-life figure known for carrying around a dummy of his still unnamed magazine and talking about it endlessly. When he finally published the first issue of The New Yorker, ninety years ago, he paid for it partly himself. Nearly half the magazine’s original funding was a twenty-one-thousand-dollar stake put up by Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, and their friend Hawley Truax. Raoul Fleischmann, a baking heir and almost millionaire whom Ross had met through mutual friends, supplied another twenty-five thousand.
Harold Ross’s involvement in World War I figured prominently in the origins of the New Yorker. It was during his time at Stars & Stripes that he met Alexander Woollcott, who was already an established New York theater critic.
At this time Ross also met Jane Grant, who was serving in the YMCA entertainment corps and was a frequent visitor to the Star & Stripes offices. Although Ross’s name looms large in most accounts of the early New Yorker, Grant played a major role in its conception and launch.
I highly recommend Thomas Kunkel’s Ross biography, Genius in Disguise, for a complete account of the magazine’s early days.
It took a few issues for the editors to sort out regular features and their order of appearance. The opening section of Issue No. 1 featured the famous Rea Irvin masthead—flanked by Eustace Tilley and the night owl—and Irvin’s distinctive typeface that would introduce “The Talk of Town” for many issues to come. However in Issue No. 1 “Of All Things” appeared under the masthead, followed by “Talk of the Town” which was (for the first and last time) under this banner:
The magazine’s second issue, Feb. 28, paired the Eustace Tilley masthead with “The Talk of the Town” for its opening section, but the March 7 issue paired it with “Behind the News” for the opening section.
With the March 14th issue, the editors decided to permanently install “The Talk of the Town” below the masthead in the lead section, relegating “Of All Things” and “Behind the News” to inside pages.
For the sake of comparison, here is the current 2015 version:
A number of short-lived regular features made their appearance in these early issues: “The Story of Manhattankind” offered drawings by Herb Roth and tongue-in-cheek accounts of early Manhattan life that featured cartoonish Indians and bumbling settlers. It is here where the magazine took its first of many shots at William Randolph Hearst, perceived rival and publisher of Cosmopolitan (more of a literary magazine in 1925, and not the sex tips and cleavage rag it is today).
The first two cartoons ever featured in the New Yorker were by Al Frueh:
“Profiles” were established at the start, the first issue featuring opera maestro Giulo Gatti-Casazza, the second issue taking aim at “Princess” Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and the third issue probing New York Times managing editor Carr Vatell Van Anda. “In Our Midst” featured local celebrity sightings and gossip, such as actress Tallulah Bankhead and writer Edna Ferber in Issue 3 (March 7).
Most of the cartoons from the very beginning were famously droll, such as this illustration by Alfred Leete…
…but a few recall an earlier style in which the action is captioned (like old Punch cartoons) in a more formal manner. The first issue featured an Ethel Plummer cartoon of an “uncle” and a “flapper” (niece or a mistress?) looking at a theater bill for The Wages of Sin:
Uncle: Poor girls, so few get their wages.
Flapper: So few get their sin, darn it!
A section titled “The Hour Glass” offered short, casual accounts of various local personalities. “Lyrics from a Pekinese” was another recurring feature by writer Arthur Gutterman, who was known for his silly poems.
Music reviews in early issues were almost entirely devoted to classical, live performances. Fritz Kreisler’s violin mastery was featured prominently in the first issue, while it wasn’t until the third issue that jazz was briefly mentioned (it was becoming “respectable” in some concert halls). It was reported that violinist Damuel Dushkin ended his performance with selections from George Gershwin’sRhapsody in Blue.
The “Art” section featured an exhibition of British paintings at the Central Art Galleries, and a show by the Society of Independent Artists (paintings sell from 24 to 99 dollars), at the Waldorf Hotel (soon to be razed and replaced by the Empire State Building). Joseph Stella was at the Dudensing Galleries, described as a “gifted young American.”
“Motion Pictures” looked at Greed (Frank Norris’sMcTeugue transferred to the screen), which was playing on the Loew Circuit; The Lost World at the Astor (“Through camera trickery, dinosaurs and other beasts of the prehistoric past live again. Interesting because it proves that the camera is a liar”); the “splendid” German-made The Last Laugh by Carl Mayer (of Dr. Caligari fame) and The Salvation Hunters by Josef Von Sternberg. The magazine called it “deadly monotonous”…”the characters just sit around and think.” German actor Emil Jannings was a favorite, and would be lauded in subsequent issues.
The first issue closed with an ad from Royal Cord Balloon Tires. Later issues would depend heavily on advertising revenue from auto manufacturers.
The early issues also featured two-page-drawings that illustrated some event described in the opening section. The Feb. 28 issue (#2), mentioned that Ciro’s opened with the Mary Hay and Clifton Webb dancing team (illustration by Reginald Marsh)…
As this was the age of Prohibition, there was a notable absence of alcohol in ads and even in print articles, although references are made to “speakeasies” and later issues would report black market prices for liquor.
The second issue’s “Talk of the Town” further elaborated on the magazine’s manifesto:
And we won’t aim to please. If we happen to please we will not apologize, but we are not in the vast army of bores struggling frantically to give people what they want.
We may not do much for the magazine world. We don’t know that we’re aiming to. But of one thing we feel quite sure: if we ever run out of things to say, just for the fun of saying them, we expect to close up this little playhouse and go to work.
The “Theatre” section of Issue No. 2 featured James Joyce’sExiles at the Neighborhood Theatre, while a section titled “And They Do Say” featured the first (of the many subsequent references) to Eddie Cantor’s various comings and goings. It was reported Cantor left for Boston in his “Kid Boot” and that altercations between Cantor and veteran stage actress Jobyna Howland “kept 42nd Street nervous for weeks.”
Issue #2 marked the first appearance of a recurring column filler labeled “The Optimist.” It went as follows:
Pop: A man who thinks he can make it in par.
Johnny: What is an optimist, Pop?
“Books” featured a review of Ford Madox Ford’s “Some Do Not…” The reviewer Harry Este Dounce (under the nom de plume “Touchstone”) called it “as gratuitously black-biled a work of art as we ever saw.”
Under “Washington Notes” were the first of many humorous references to President Calvin Coolidge, his hayseed habits and his extreme frugality. Below, a drawing by Miguel Covarrubias (a regular contributor beginning with the first issue) in March 14 issue:
Another Covarrubias illustration in Issue # 3 (March 7) depicted journalist Heywood Broun (old Ross friend and Algonquin Round Table stalwart) hard at work on his column for the New York World: