Back to Broadway

From the 1920s to the 1950s the husband-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the most celebrated couple on the Broadway stage, and even today many rank them as the greatest acting team in the history of American theatre.

April 28, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Lunt (1892-1977) and Fontanne (1887-1983) were so inseparable as a team that it was virtually impossible to write about just one of them, as Timothy Vane discovered when he contributed this profile of Lunt to the April 28, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:

INSEPARABLE…The Lunts in the 1920s, as photographed by Nickolas Muray. In 1999 the U.S. Postal Service paid tribute to them with a first- class stamp. (Conde Nast/USPS)

Vane described the couple’s tireless comings and goings, in which even a vacation abroad entailed preparations for future performances:

OLD FRIENDS…Noel Coward (left) Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Coward’s 1932 play Design For Living. A close friend of Lunt and Fontanne, Coward enjoys a relaxing moment (right) at the couple’s “Ten Chimneys” estate in Lunt’s home state of Wisconsin. (Getty/tenchimneys.org)
IT REALLY HAS TEN CHIMNEYS…At left, the main house at Lunt and Fontanne’s “Ten Chimneys.” At right, the estate’s ‘Falu-Red’ Cottage. The estate was named a National Historic Landmark in 2003. (tenchimneys.org)

Although it was long rumored that Lunt and Fontanne had a lavender marriage, the couple were truly inseparable during their 55-year union.

According to the Ten Chimneys Foundation, by the mid 1920s Lunt and Fontanne were the two most popular, critically acclaimed, and highest-paid stage actors in the country. Lunt and Fontanne also believed that creating great theatre with broad impact was far more important than money, so at the height of their careers they took enormous pay cuts to sign on with The Theatre Guild—a new company dedicated to performing avant-garde work by writers such as Ibsen and Shaw. Because they took such large cuts in salary, they were able to stipulate in their contracts that they only act together, rather than in separate plays. From 1928 until they retired in 1960, the Lunts never appeared on stage separately.

And Then There Were Hearst & Davies

Another famed duo of the 1920s, Marion Davies (1897-1961) and William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), were perhaps a less successful partnership, and particularly so for Davies, who traded a promising career as a comedic actress for a romantic (and scandalous) relationship with the famed newspaper tycoon.

Davies was emerging as a talented film comedian when Hearst took over her career—financing her films, promoting her through his media empire, and, most critically, pressuring studios to cast her in historical dramas which were not her forté. This is why she is remembered today as Hearst’s mistress and the hostess of lavish events for the Hollywood elite at San Simeon, and not for her acting chops, which were considerable when she was given the chance. When Hearst did allow her to show her comedic side in The Patsy,  even the New Yorker’s irascible critic “O.C.” took notice and offered rare praise:

SHOWING HER FUN SIDE…Left, publicity photo of Marion Davies, late 1920s. At right, Patricia Harrington (Marion Davies) vies for the attentions of her mother, Ma Harrington (Marie Dressler) and sister Grace Harrington (Jane Winton) in King Vidor’s 1928 hit comedy The Patsy. The film was co-produced by William Randolph Hearst along with Davies and Vidor.(cinemaartscentre.org)

A 2012 review of The Patsy by the Cinema Arts Center (Long Island, NY), noted that “Davies radiates comic charm, highlighted by her dead-on impersonations of the three cinema divas, in this audience pleaser…Gloriously fun and frothy, The Patsy was the biggest hit of Davies’ career.”

One of the actresses parodied in The Patsy by Davies, Pola Negri, did not fare so well in O.C.’s crosshairs in her “stilted” Three Sinners.

PSSST…LIGHTEN UP, WILL YA?…Warner Baxter and Pola Negri in Three Sinners (1928). (Paramount)

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Another Bad Girl

Not well known today, but after 1928 Viña Delmar (1903-1990) was practically a household name thanks to her breakthrough novel, Bad Girl, which she published at the tender age of 23. A cautionary tale about premarital sex and married life among the proles, the book was banned in Boston but was also the April 1928 selection by the Literary Guild. It was one the year’s best sellers.

On the heels of Bad Girl, in 1929 Delmar published two more books with risqué titles, Kept Woman and Loose Ladies. She would write a total of 23 novels between 1928 and 1976, and with her husband, Eugene, would write or adapt 18 plays that were produced as films. Among those was the screenplay to the acclaimed screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, for which she was nominated for a 1937 Academy Award.

BAD GIRL, GOOD SALES…Clockwise, from upper left: a screenshot of Delmar from the trailer for 1934’s Sadie McKee, a film starring Joan Crawford based on Delmar’s 1933 short story “Pretty Sadie McKee”; an ad for Bad Girl in the April 28, 1928 New Yorker; original jacket cover for Bad Girl; a 1930 advertisement for the film Dance Hall, based on a 1929 Delmar short story. (Wikipedia/New Yorker/Amazon/immortalephemera.com)

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And finally, our cartoon from April 28, 1928, courtesy Peter Arno:

Next Time: After Hours…

The Last Dance?

Before there was Fred and Ginger, there was Fred and Adele, and during the 1920s and early 30s Fred and Adele Astaire were brother-sister dancing royalty and the toast of Broadway.

April 21, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.


Fred and Adele Astaire were born a year apart in Omaha (she the eldest, born in 1898). Their mother wanted the siblings to learn professional dance at an early age, so in 1903 she moved with the children to New York City, leaving their Austrian-born father in Nebraska to work at the Storz brewery. By 1905 the brother-sister act were already popular on the vaudeville circuit, making their way to the Broadway stage by 1917.

EARLY BLOOMERS…Left, Fred and Adele Astaire in a photo taken around 1906, three years after they left Omaha and began their vaudeville career. At right, Fred and Adele in 1911. (Pinterest/NY Times)

Fred became friends with composer George Gershwin the previous year, and in December 1924 the Astaires headlined George and Ira Gershwin’s first full-length New York musical, Lady, Be Good!, in which Fred and Adele played a brother-and-sister dance team down on their luck. In real life, however, their star soared above Jazz Age New York. So when rumor had it that the duo was on the verge of a break-up, “The Talk of the Town” weighed in:

NO, THE OTHER ASTAIRE…At left, Adele and Fred Astaire in the 1920s. At the time the gamine Adele was considered the undisputed star of the duo. At right, the pair in a 1931 ad for Chesterfield cigarettes that also promoted The Band Wagon, their last Broadway revue together. (NY Times/atticpaper.com)

Today you would be hard pressed to find anyone young or old who hasn’t heard of Fred Astaire, his legend so firmly attached to our cultural memory. But at the time it was Adele’s fun-loving ways and mischievous charm that captured the hearts of reviewers and fans alike. Brother Fred, on the other hand, was more interested in devising the duo’s clever routines.

The April 21, 1928 New Yorker was correct in noting that Adele had plans to marry and leave the country, but happily the magazine was wrong on the timing; Adele and Fred would perform together nearly four more years, capping their 27-year partnership with the successful run of The Band Wagon on Broadway.

In 1932 Adele would marry Lord Charles Cavendish and move to Ireland, not England. Home would be Lismore Castle in County Waterford. The end of the partnership with Adele was traumatic for Fred, who was indeed interested in producing and race horses, but that was not his immediate future as the New Yorker suggested. Instead, his movie career would take off like a rocket in 1933 in a string of hits with Ginger Rodgers including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936).

Fred Astaire briefly turned his focus to horse-racing when he announced his early retirement in 1946, but he would soon return to the screen with Easter Parade in 1948 and enjoy another string of hits in the 1950s. Though separated by an ocean, the brother and sister remained close through the years.

MY SIS IS A LADY…A reunion of Astaires in Ireland, 1939. Fred Astaire and his wife, Phyllis Livingston Potter, with Lord and Lady Charles Cavendish photographed on the day brother Fred and wife arrived at Lismore Castle from America to stay with sister Adele and her husband at their home in County Waterford. (Pinterest)
SOARING CAREER…Ginger Rodgers swings with Fred Astaire in 1938’s Carefree. (Flickr)
TOGETHER AFTER ALL THESE YEARS…Left, Fred and Adele honored by the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1972 (celebrity promotor Earl Blackwell is in the center). Right, Fred and Adele at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England, circa 1980. Chatsworth had been in the Cavendish family since the 17th century, so Adele, as Lady Cavendish, was a frequent visitor. In a recent article in The Cheshire Magazine (April 11, 2017) Duchess Mary recalled the family’s first meeting with Adele in 1932: “All gathered, like stone pillars, in the library… the heavy doors opened and there stood this tiny girl, beautifully dressed. We waited for her to approach us, but instead of walking, she suddenly began turning cartwheels. Everyone loved it.”(ATHF/thecheshiremagazine.co.uk)

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Not So Happy Feet

Frequent New Yorker contributor Morris Markey wrote several articles under the heading, “New York Interiors” (my last post featured his look at radio broadcasting). In the April 21 issue Markey took a look at the sad world of the “taxi dancers” in the ironically named “Happiness Hall.” This was the second time the New Yorker delved into the taxi-dancing world—Maxwell Bodenheim visited a Broadway dance hall in the June 12, 1926 edition of the magazine.

In both cases, the writers described a pathetic ritual for dancers and patrons alike, and both underscored a cruel illusion we still have today that the Roaring Twenties was an age of prosperity and good times for all. Excerpts:

NO FREDS OR GINGERS HERE…Taxi-dancers awaiting customers at a Broadway dance hall in the early 1930s. The image was scanned from an article in Weekly Illustrated (Oct. 6, 1934) that described new regulations banning the vocation.

Later in the article, Markey described a dance with a red-haired girl who showed him the ropes…

…and described the less than elegant environment of “Happiness Hall”…

NO FUN IN THE MOVIES EITHER…Footsore taxi-dancers including Barbara Stanwyck, third from left, in 1931’s Ten Cents a Dance. (imdb)

Markey concluded his visit by attempting to talk, rather than dance, with a graceful, yet hardboiled dancer:

In the 1920s Americans in general were poorer than they are today (money-wise) and lacked the safety nets that we have come to depend on in modern life. In 1929 economists considered $2,500 the income necessary to support a family. In that year, more than 60 percent of the nation’s families earned less than $2,000 a year—an income necessary for basic necessities—and more than 40 percent earned less than $1,500 annually.

For single women, such as the taxi dancers, the situation was just as bad or worse. Retail workers in U.S. faced long hours, poor working conditions and low pay, especially before the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. A clerk selling those beautiful clothes at Bloomingdale’s couldn’t afford those clothes herself, let alone make a living wage from the job. As Markey’s article made clear, taxi dancing was nothing but additional toil, 10 cents a pop.

From Our Advertisers…

We’ve seen cigarette advertisements featuring celebrity endorsements, but how about this one for Marlboro that suggested Christopher Columbus would have preferred their smokes…

…and then there were the ads for Fleischmann Yeast featured in nearly every issue of the early New Yorker magazine. According to Thomas Kunkel’s book, Genius in Disguise, Raoul Fleischmann was the wealthy scion of a New York yeast and baking family and a frequent guest of the Algonquin Round Table. He hated the baking business, so when founding editor Harold Ross pitched the idea of investing in his new magazine, Fleischmann obliged with $25,000. Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, together put up the other $25,000 (which included some IOU’s), but after the magazine was launched and struggled during its first months, Fleischmann was further obliged to pour in many hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the magazine afloat (and in spite teasing from his friends that he might as well dump the money in the river).

The magazine was actually killed as early as May 8, when Fleischmann called Ross and other magazine directors together after Ross lost a large amount of money in a poker game (money he’d plan to invest in the magazine). Fortunately, the following day was fellow Round Tabler Franklin P. Adams’ wedding, and in the convivial atmosphere Ross and Fleischmann agreed to give the magazine another go. If Fleischmann was going to pour money into the magazine, he might as well get a little “free” advertising for his product. Hence the ads in the New Yorker promoting the generous consumption of fresh yeast cakes as a laxative and health tonic…

…and with that background information, this cartoon in the April 21 issue by Peter Arno makes a lot more sense

And finally, Leonard Dove takes a look at life in a growing metropolis…

Next Time: Back to Broadway…

 

 

 

Broadway Soap Stars

Lux Toilet Soap was launched in the United States in 1925 by its British parent company, Lever Brothers, which had been making soap since 1899. To capture the hearts and pocketbooks of American women, the company launched an advertising blitz that featured advertisements in a number of magazines including the New Yorker.

We look at two issues this week: March 17, 1928 cover by Peter Arno / March 24, 1928 cover unsigned, probably by Ilonka Karasz.

The earliest ads appealed to upscale women who saw the French as arbiters of taste and style. In the following Lux ad (from the Feb. 5, 1927 New Yorker), note that every paragraph and headline includes the words France or French:

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The big blitz came in 1928, when Lux pioneered the use of female celebrity endorsements on a mass scale. The campaign focused more on the roles played by Broadway and movie stars than on the product itself. The March 24, 1928 issue of the New Yorker featured these ads splashed across two center spreads.

The captions I have provided below the ads give brief information on each actress. Note that many of these actresses did stints with Broadway’s popular Ziegfeld Follies. Most also had long lives, including Mary Ellis, who lived in three centuries, sang with Caruso, and died at age 105.

Click Images to Enlarge

LEFT TO RIGHT, TOP TO BOTTOM: Marilyn Miller (1898-1936) was one of Flo Ziegfeld’s top talents and one of the most popular Broadway musical stars of the 1920s and 30s; Ada May (1896-1978), a theater actress most of her career, in 1927 played a lead role in Ziegfeld’s Rio Rita; Mary Eaton (1901-1948) was a leading stage actress, singer and dancer in the 1910s and 20s. She was featured in three editions of the Ziegfeld Follies; Helen Morgan (1900-1941) was considered the quintessential torch singer. A draped-over-the-piano look became her signature while performing at Billy Rose’s Backstage Club in 1925. She performed with Ziegfeld Follies in 1931; Helen Hayes (1900-1993) was called “the First Lady of American Theater.” Her awards included the EGOT– an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony; Adele Astaire (1896-1981) was part of popular act with her brother, Fred. After the 1931 Broadway revue The Band Wagon she retired to marry Lord Charles Cavendish and moved to Ireland’s Lismore Castle; Violet Heming (1895-1981) was a dependable Broadway star with many theatrical credits; Hungarian-born Mitzi Hajos (1889-1970) specialized in musical comedy but faded from acting in midlife; Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990) got her start as a model and “Ziegfeld Girl” before going on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She made 85 films in 38 years before turning to TV; Madge Kennedy (1891-1987) appeared in dozens of films from Baby Mine (1917) to Marathon Man (1976). She had a recurring role on TV’s Leave it to Beaver as Aunt Martha; Nydia d’Arnell was a musical comedy actress. Almost no record of her after 1928. She died in 1970.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT, TOP TO BOTTOM: June Walker (1900-1966) was the first actress to portray Lorelei Lee in 1926’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Mostly stuck to the stage; Mary Lawlor, (1907-1977) was active on Broadway 1922-32; Judith Anderson (1897-1992), later awarded British title of Dame, was considered one of the world’s greatest classical stage actors; Mary Ellis (1897-2003) was star of the stage (including opera with Caruso) as well as radio, TV and film. Best known for musical theater, she performed into the 1990s and died at age 105; Wilda Bennett (1894-1967) was a Broadway musical comedy star in the 1920s whose career quickly faded. Appeared in 9 films between 1914 and 1941, mostly uncredited; Polly Walker (1904-1983) also faded quickly from the stage in the early 1930s, appearing in just 2 films; Mary Nash, (1884-1976) was a noted stage actress best known for two Shirley Temple films. Played Katharine Hepburn’s mother in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story; Norma Terris (1904-1989) had a long career as a performer and musical theater supporter. Last surviving adult actor from original 1927 production of Show Boat; Vivienne Segal’s (1897-1992) career was mostly in musical theater, including the 1924-25 Ziegfeld Follies. She appeared in a few films in the 1930s, as well as on TV in the 50s and 60s. Claudette Colbert (1903-1996) was a Hollywood leading lady for more than two decades. Won an Oscar for 1934’s It Happened One Night; Vivian Martin (1893-1987) appeared in 44 silent films in the teens and twenties before returning to the stage; Dorothy Peterson (1897-1979) made her screen debut in Mothers Cry (1930), a drama that required the 29-year-old to age three decades. She was typecast in careworn maternal roles for the rest of her career; Sylvia Field (1901-1998) enjoyed a long career on stage, screen, and TV. Best known for playing Martha Wilson on TV’s Dennis the Menace; Jeanette MacDonald (1903-1965), an influential soprano best remembered for 1930s musical films with Maurice Chevalier and Nelson Eddy.
ADELE AGAIN…In the March 31 issue of the New Yorker Lux followed up with this ad featuring Adele Astaire all by herself.

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Over the years dozens of famous actresses would appear in colorful ads singing the praises of Lux soap…

STAR POWER…Lux ads from 1954, 1956 and 1959 featuring, respectively, Audrey Hepburn, Debbie Reynolds and Sophia Loren. (Pinterest)

A final note. Lever Brothers began selling Lux soap in India in 1909, years before it was introduced in the U.S., and through the decades Bollywood actresses were prominently featured in their advertising…

NEW AGE…Bollywood Star Katrina Kaif in a 2010 Lux advertisement. (afaqs.com)

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Meanwhile, back on earth…

The March 17, 1928 “Talk of the Town” marveled at the rising structure between Madison and Park avenues that would become the New York Life Building. Designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Woolworth Building, its gilded roof, consisting of 25,000 gold-leaf tiles, remains an iconic Manhattan landmark.

From 1837–1889, the site was occupied by the Union Depot, a concert garden, and P.T Barnum’s Hippodrome. Until 1925, the site housed the first two Madison Square Gardens, a memory that lingered amidst the city’s rapidly changing skyline…

ETHEREAL…The New York Life Building shortly after its completion in 1928. (Museum of the City of New York)
LANDMARK…The gilded rooftop remains a landmark feature of the Manhattan skyline. (Flickr)

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Following the lead of a Roosevelt Hotel advertisement in a previous issue, Macy’s Department Store also called out the New Yorker’s popular nightlife columnist “Lipstick” (Lois Long) in this ad featured in the March 17 issue…

Our cartoon from the March 17 issue explored the hurried life of the idle rich, as depicted by Lois Long’s husband, Peter Arno…

Landmark in Name Only

In the March 24, 1928 issue another building caught the attention of the magazine–a six-story structure designed by theatrical scenic artist and architect Joseph Urban for William Randolph Hearst. The International Magazine Building was completed in 1928 to house the 12 magazines Hearst owned at the time.

An important monument in the architectural heritage of New York, the building was designated as a Landmark Site by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1988. The six-story International Magazine Building was originally built to serve as the base for a proposed skyscraper, but the construction of the tower was postponed due to the Great Depression. The new tower addition by Norman Foster was finally completed nearly eighty years later, in 2006. It is probably not what either Hearst or Urban had in mind in 1928:

START OF A BIG IDEA…The International Magazine Building circa 1960. (Hearst)
ALIEN INVASION…The 2006 Norman Foster tower rises from the hollowed-out shell of the International Magazine Building. (Benjamin Waldman / Wikipedia)

And finally, cartoonist Leonard Dove listens in on some tea time chatter…

Next Time: Conventional Follies of ’28…

 

 

Literary Rotarians

Dorothy Parker had a particular aversion to intellectual snobs, and in the Feb. 11, 1928 issue she wrote that the city had been beset with “Literary Rotarians” in search of bookish gatherings attended by people who, according to Parker, “looked as if they had been scraped out of drains.”

February 11, 1928. The cover is unsigned, but looks like a Rea Irvin to me.

I would have to say Parker was on firm ground here. Her own writing was clear and unaffected, and her tastes were democratic (she enjoyed and even wrote about comic strips). So when the book dandies crossed her path, there was trouble:

BOOK LOVERS…Rice University’s Pallas Athene literary society in 1927. No doubt most of them were interesting, bright young women. However, can you spot the “Rotarians?” (caralangston.com)
AND FROM THE OTHER GENDER…representatives of the Clio literary society at Elon University, circa 1920s. Did one of these lads ever cross Dorothy’s path? (belkarchives.wordpress.com)

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Parker continued, recalling the trauma she once endured at a literary association dinner:

Thumb on the Scale of Justice

An unfortunate aspect of American life is how the law is selectively applied to favor those in power. Such was the case of Florence Knapp, who was elected as New York’s Secretary of State in 1924. After leaving office in 1926, she was accused of maladministration, and two years later was convicted of grand larceny while in office—Knapp put her stepdaughter’s name on the state payroll during the administration of the 1925 census, then cashed the checks herself, apparently using the funds to purchase clothes.

BRIEF CAREER…Florence Knapp (left) and Anna Drury DeWitt at State Republican Convention Sept. 28, 1926. Knapp was Secretary of State and DeWitt was delegate and member of Women’s Republican State Executive Committee. (findagrave.com)

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In a special article for the New Yorker, contributing writer Hugh O’Connor did not disagree with Knapp’s guilt, but found the hypocrisy of her accusers hard to stomach. Some excerpts:

Just in case anyone thought this was solely a Republican hit job, O’Connor concluded that the other side was just as complicit in keeping women from high office:

For the record, Knapp was the last Secretary of State elected to that office in New York. After Knapp the office became appointive by the governor, and remains so today. It would be 50 years until another woman would be elected to a statewide office in New York.

Opening Eyes to Red Russia

The New Yorker encouraged open-minded readers to check out a new exhibition on Soviet Russia that offered an alternative vision of a young country beset by famine and political violence:

The exhibition featured hand-carved toys probably similar to these:

SOMETHING FOR THE LITTLE COMMIES…Toy Red Army soldier and sailor from the Zagorsk area. Painted wood, circa 1930. (soviet-art.ru)

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Also featured were pieces of “boldly propagandistic china.” Below are some examples of period pieces, not necessarily featured in the exhibition but perhaps give some idea of what New Yorkers were viewing in 1928. They range from kitschy…

At left, Woman Embroidering a Banner, by Natalia Danko of the State Porcelain Factory, Petrograd,1919. At right, decorative vase depicting The Liberated People, with Vladimir Lenin’s portrait below banners and scenes of life in different nations, by Maria Lebedeva of the State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, 1929. (Photo © The Petr Aven Collection)

…to the stunningly avant garde….

At left, a vase with ornamental Suprematist elements by Nikolai Suetin, for the State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, 1930. At right, a plate with Suprematist composition by Kazimir Malevich,1923. (Photo © The Petr Aven Collection)

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Woof for Westminster

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” was abuzz with anticipation for the Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Garden. The article noted that the record price paid for a dog was $9,500 (roughly equivalent to $133,000 today). By comparison, in 2014 a Chinese property developer paid nearly $2 million for a Tibetan mastiff puppy.

Note how the writer of the “Talk”  piece already knows that the “wire-haired terrier” has the inside track to victory:

SPOILER ALERT…Talavera Margaret, a Wire Fox Terrier, was named winner (Best of Show) at the 1928 Westminster Kennel Club dog show. The Wire Fox Terrier breed has won Best of Show at Westminster more than any other breed, sweeping the award 13 times between 1915 and 1992. The Terrier Group overall is the most successful group, with 45 wins out of 103 occasions. (westminsterkennelclub.org)

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Advertisers in the New Yorker also had Westminster fever, including sporting goods purveyor Abercrombie & Fitch (note the breed of the tartan-clad dog):

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I found this advertisement in the back pages interesting because it called out the  New Yorker’s Lois Long, who wrote her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” under the pseudonym “Lipstick.” The drawing for the ad was provided by Rea Irvin, the artist who gave the magazine its signature look.

In her nightlife column Long played coy with her readers, careful not to reveal her true identity. She teased about being a “short squat maiden of forty,” but when she married cartoonist and fellow New Yorker contributor Peter Arno in August 1927, word was out about her true identity. Irvin’s drawing aptly captures Long in her early years at the New Yorker, on a writer’s salary but nevertheless fashionably dressed, partying all night and heading home with the rising sun.

THE REAL LIPSTICK…A staged and posed joke photo of a young lady in prim 1890s clothes (at left) pretending to be startled by a 1920s flapper (Lois Long, at right). Photo taken in the mid to late 1920s. (Wikipedia)

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And finally, a great illustration that graced the bottom of the “Talk” section. If anyone knows the artist, please comment!

Next Time: Speakeasy Nights…

Good Vibrations

A decidedly new sound reverberated in the ears of New Yorkers who attended a Feb. 1928 performance of the New York Philharmonic that featured guest artist Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor who played music by moving his hands through the air, or more accurately, a magnetic field.

February 4, 1928 cover by Gardner Rea.

Theremin’s eponymous instrument had neither keys nor strings, but rather two metal antennas attached to an electronic oscillator. Music was produced by moving one’s hands between the antennas, which sensed the relative position of the players hands—one antenna controlled for pitch while the other adjusted the instrument’s volume. The sound produced is best described as “otherworldly.” James Thurber, writing for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” (in a piece titled “Music Makers”), found Theremin’s performance intriguing, but of even greater interest was the great Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff—who was in attendance—and his reaction to the strange instrument:

HMMMM…At left, Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1921, as photographed by Kubey Rembrandt. At right, Leon Theremin plays his eponymous instrument at a demonstration concert in Paris on December 8, 1927. (Wikimedia)

The New Yorker’s voyeuristic account of Rachmaninoff continued, with the great man now becoming more engaged in the performance…

The Theremin would grow in popularity, however more as a novelty than a serious instrument:

ON THE AIR…Alexandra Stepanoff playing the Theremin on NBC Radio in 1930. A Russian immigrant to the U.S., the former concert singer was Theremin’s first student in the United States. (Wikimedia)
VIRTUOSO…The Russian-born Clara (Reisenberg) Rockmore holds a unique place in music history as the virtuoso performer of the Theremin. Leon Theremin built a custom version of his instrument for Clara, which added greater range and sensitivity. Clara would sometimes perform concerts with her sister, accomplished pianist Nadia Reisenberg. Photo circa 1930. (YouTube)

Theremin would be granted a U.S. patent for the instrument in 1928, which was marketed and distributed in the U.S. by RCA during the 1930’s in either DIY kit form or as a finished instrument:

(120years.net)

Interest in the instrument as a novelty continued into the 40’s and 50’s in the DIY market…

(120years.net)

Robert Moog, pioneer of modern electronic music and inventor of the Moog synthesizer, made and sold a transistorized version of the Theremin in the 1950s.

The Theremin would become best known to mass culture through its use in producing “eerie” sound effects in 1940s and 50s films, including Bernard Herrmann’s use of the instrument for the soundtrack to the 1951 sci-fi thriller, The Day The Earth Stood Still. And nearly everyone on the planet has heard the Theremin-inspired sound of the Beach Boy’s song Good Vibrations, created by an electro-Theremin that was developed in the late 1950s to mimic the sound of the original Theremin.

As for Leon Theremin himself, he would also gain notoriety as the inventor of The Thing, a listening device most famously used by the Soviets to bug the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The device was hidden behind a wood carving of the U.S. Great Seal, which in 1945 was presented by Soviet schoolchildren to the U.S. ambassador, who subsequently hung it in his office.

GOTCHA…American Ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge displays The Thing before the UN Security Council in 1960. At right, the device which was hidden behind the seal. The Americans discovered the bug in 1952, but didn’t reveal its existence until 1960 in the wake of the U-2 spy plane incident. The Soviet Union had convened the meeting of the United Nations Security Council to accuse the Americans of spying with the U2; in response Cabot displayed The Thing as proof spying between the two countries was a mutual endeavor. (crytomuseum.com/Wikimedia)

The reasons why Theremin developed The Thing for the KGB are a mystery. When he suddenly disappeared from New York in 1938 it was rumored that he had been kidnapped and possibly executed by the KGB. What we do know is that Soviet spooks put him to work in a secret laboratory in the Gulag camp system, where he developed The Thing.

In 1991, filmmaker Steven Martin brought Leon Theremin back to New York to film a documentary about his life. Theremin gave one last performance in 1993, and died that year at age 97.

Wild Kingdom

The New Yorker’s review of the hit film Simba showed a very different approach to the natural world 89 years ago, when the wilds of Africa were exploited purely for adventure and thrills rather than for any real understanding of natural systems and the animals and humans that inhabited them. Martin and Osa Johnson were celebrated for their filmed exploits in the wilds, including Simba; they touted their movie—shot in Kenya—as being made under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History, although much of the film was staged or edited in ways to maximize the thrills.

The New Yorker found the film to be “darn good fun”…

Despite its flaws, the film does offer us a glimpse of Africa when wildlife hadn’t been hunted to near extinction, although the Johnsons didn’t hesitate to gun down animals left and right in the course of their movie-making.

According to a 2011 review from Wild Film History, “in stark contrast to the conservation-themed wildlife films of today, the Johnsons approached their subjects armed with both camera and rifle, with the production including provoked behaviour, staged confrontations and animals shot to death on film. Relying heavily on cutting in kills from professional marksmen, numerous hunting scenes culminate in a heart-stopping sequence where, with the use of clever editing, the adventurous Mrs Johnson appears to bring down a charging rhinoceros with one well-aimed shot.

NO DAVID ATTENBOROUGH…The Johnsons pose with local tribesman who appeared in Simba. (Corbis)
FUN WITH NATURE…Osa Johnson saddles up a hapless zebra. (Daily Mail)
BALI HAI…Osa shares a smoke with a local during one of the Johnsons’ filming excursions in the South Pacific. (Getty Images)

From the Advertising Department

There were three automobile ads in the Feb. 4 issue, all from long-gone companies—Pierce-Arrow, Hudson-Essex, and Nash, which featured this endorsement by the brother-sister dancing duo Fred and Adele Astaire:

This ad for Dynamique showcased the art deco stylings of its furniture line…

And finally, a Peter Arno cartoon of an upper class faux pas

Next Time: Literary Rotarians…

Shock of the New

The Roaring Twenties saw astonishing changes to American life, including a dramatic break from the technologies and habits of the past. Icemen gave way to electric refrigerators, broadcast radio brought entertainment and news into living rooms, and Lindbergh made flying something everyone wanted to try.

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May 21, 1927 cover by Ilona Karasz.

Despite the mechanized horrors of World War I, most people were enchanted by the idea of man and machine coming together to make a better world. In the U.S. the machine-age exuberance was expressed largely in capitalist terms, while many European and Soviet intellectuals saw the machine as integral to the progress of socialism. The Machine-Age Exposition in New York City (May 16-28 at 119 West 57th Street) celebrated all facets through a unique event that brought together architecture, engineering, industrial arts and modern art from a number of nations.

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Cover of the Exposition Catalogue. (monoskop.org)
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Scanned illustration of an airplane from the Exposition catalogue.

The exhibition, initiated by Jane Heap of the literary magazine The Little Review, included exhibits from the U.S., Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. Artists in the exhibition represented a Who’s Who of modernists and futurists — Alexander Archipenko, Marcel Duchamp, Hugh Ferriss, Man Ray and others who celebrated the aural and visual cacophony of the age as well as the gleaming precision of machines and machine-like buildings.

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Model of a futuristic parking garage on display at the Exposition. (Scanned  image from the Exposition catalogue)

New Yorker writer E.B. White shared in the enthusiasm with this bit for “The Talk of the Town…”

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The Futurist Hugh Ferriss contributed this design of a glass skyscraper to the Machine Age Exposition. A thing of dreams in the 1920s, such buildings are now commonplace in cities around the world. (Scanned from the Exposition catalogue)

The sleek and glass-walled buildings featured at the Exhibition were fantastic images in 1927, when most large-scale buildings were still being rendered in brick and stone in various neoclassical, federal or gothic styles.

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Image from Exposition featured student studio apartments at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany. (Scan from the Exposition catalogue)

Little did visitors to the Exposition realize that the radical Bauhaus style on display would become ubiquitous in the U.S. in the second half of their century, thanks not to some new machine age of peace and harmony but rather because of the annihilation of the Second World War and the mass migration from Europe of architects, artists, scientists and other professionals fleeing Nazi oppression.

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This image of giant steam boilers from Russia was displayed at the Exposition. (Scan from the Exposition catalogue)

It was also a time when it was believed technology was on the verge of conquering nature, and that the invention of air-conditioning and “Vita-Glass” would create indoor environments with all of the health benefits but none of the discomforts of the outdoors:

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Children at rest in a “Vita-Glass” pavilion, built in 1927 at Stannington Sanatorium, Northumberland. Used primarily in the treatment of those with pulmonary TB, the glass was designed to allow ultraviolet rays to penetrate easily while protecting patients from the elements. (northumberlandarchives.com)

The invention of sulfa drugs and antibiotics were still a few years away, so health providers were excited about the possibilities of these artificial environments.

 *  *  *

In the “A Reporter at Large” column, Russell Owen wrote about the intrepid flyers who were vying to become the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. He began the piece with a tribute to French ace pilot Charles Nungesser and his one-eyed wartime buddy François Coli, who disappeared during their May 8 attempt to fly from Paris to New York.

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A 1927 postcard commemorating Nungesser, Coli and their airplane, The White Bird (L’Oiseau Blanc).

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Owen also wrote about those who would soon be taking the same daring leap into “the illimitable terror of space”…

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Although Lindbergh had yet to accomplish his feat, he had already been singled out as a loner and a bit of an odd duck:

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Lindbergh is helped into his flying togs at Roosevelt-Metro field on Long Island before the start of his record Atlantic flight. (Getty)

 *  *  *

Editors of “Talk of the Town” also checked in on famed dancer Isadora Duncan, her eldest daughter Anna, and Isadora’s “amazing dancing family…”

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Anna Duncan dances La Berceuse, choreographed by Isadora Duncan with music by Frédéric Chopin, in 1920. Photo by Arnold Genthe. (Tanzarchiv, Cologne, Germany)

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Isadora’s Dancers, by photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston. (Wikimedia Commons)

 *  *  *

And finally, an excerpt of a poem contributed by Marion Clinch Calkins–who often wrote humorous rhymes for the New Yorker under the pen name Majollica Wattles. Here she riffs on Horace’s “poetry of pleasure…”

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Next Time: The Flying Fool…

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Mode de Vie

We cross the pond for the May 14, 1927 issue, for a look at all things French. As I’ve previously noted, New Yorker readers of the 1920s had a decidedly Francophile bent when it came to food, fashion and general joie de vivre.

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May 14, 1927 cover by Rea Irvin.

In fact, readers were so enamored with France that the country merited its own New Yorker correspondent, Janet Flanner, who wrote under the nom de plume “Genêt.”

In the May 14 issue Flanner casually mused about the racing season at Longchamps, which attracted the likes of Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt (nee Anne Harriman), who was well-known in France for her philanthropic work during World War I, including her founding of an ambulance service and a hospital at Neuilly. Vanderbilt received the class of the Legion of Honor in 1919 in recognition of her war work, and in 1931 she was made an officer of the legion.

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BLUE BLOODS…Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt (left) with Mrs. Robert Bacon (nee Martha Waldron Cowdin), circa 1915-1920. Bacon served as chairman of the American Ambulance Committee. (Library of Congress)

In “Talk of the Town,” the editors suggested that readers go to Madison Square Garden and check out the world’s largest canvas painting, Panthéon de la Guerre,   more for the spectacle than for any artistic merit:

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Section of Panthéon de la Guerre showing allies of World War I, now in Memory Hall, Liberty Memorial, Kansas City, Missouri. (theworldwar.com) Click to enlarge

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Panthéon de la Guerre was painted during World War I as a circular panorama — 402 feet in circumference and 45 feet high — displayed in Paris in a specially built building next to the Hôtel des Invalides. It was visited by an estimated 8 million people between 1918 and 1927.

The painting was acquired by American businessmen in 1927 and exported to New York, where it was displayed at Madison Square Garden. Some changes were made to the painting for the benefit of an American audience, including the addition of an African-American soldier. The work later toured the U.S — from 1932 to 1940 it went to Washington DC, Chicago, Cleveland, and San Francisco. It was then acquired by restaurant entrepreneur William Haussner for $3,400.

In 1956 Haussner donated the work to Leroy MacMorris to be adapted for display at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. MacMorris drastically reduced the size of the work and modified it to emphasize America’s contribution to WWI: Only 7 percent of the original work was retained, and large French sections were left out. MacMorris likened it to “whittling down a novel to Reader’s Digest condensation.” And he didn’t stop there. He also modified some figures to represent post-WWI figures such as Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

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A BIT OF THIS, A DASH OF THAT…Figure of Victory from the Temple to Glory cut to fit above a doorway at Memory Hall, Liberty Memorial, Kansas City, Missouri, with the staircase of heroes to either side. Compare to original below:
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(trenchartcollection.com)

To reduce and reconfigure the painting, MacMorris first photographed it in detail, then cut out the figures in the photos and used them like puzzle pieces to work out his new condensed version, which was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1959.

As for the unused portions, what MacMorris did not use he threw away, sending several of the larger excised passages back to Haussner for display in his Baltimore restaurant. MacMorris also gave pieces to the art students who helped him reconfigure the painting and to a number of prominent Kansas Citians.

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Fragment from Panthéon de la Guerre depicting a British nursing sister. (theworldwar.org)

The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City recently held an exhibition on the painting and its recovered fragments.

 * * *

In her fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” Lois Long advised readers on where to shop in Paris. I’m not certain, but I believe she invented the pen name “Parisite” to write this particular column, which featured recommendations for many stores and bargains in the City of Light (Long had indeed visited Paris before writing the column). A brief excerpt from the beginning of the column:

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And now for the advertisements, all from the May 14 issue, featuring various French themes, such as this one for Krasny makeup that evokes the glamour of Paris and the intrigue of Russian women…

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…or exotic perfumes for only the most exclusive set…

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…or the chic look of Revillon Freres spring coats and wraps…

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…or fake vermouth…this odd little illustration in the back pages for non-alcoholic vermouth, served by a dutiful French maid to what appears to be a giant. You have to feel sorry for the writers of such ads during Prohibition, trying so hard to make this sad libation appealing to thirsty New Yorkers…

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…but there were those lucky few who could actually travel to France and drink the real stuff, you could get a really swell send-off with a “Bon Voyage Basket” from L. Bamberger & Co…

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…and while you were in France (at least for the men), Peter Arno could show you how to give the glad eye to the mesdemoiselles…

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Next Time: Shock of the New…

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