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.
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:
Vane described the couple’s tireless comings and goings, in which even a vacation abroad entailed preparations for future performances:
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:
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.
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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.
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And finally, our cartoon from April 28, 1928, courtesy Peter Arno:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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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:
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”…
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…
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.
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
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Over the years dozens of famous actresses would appear in colorful ads singing the praises of Lux soap…
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…
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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…
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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:
And finally, cartoonist Leonard Dove listens in on some tea time chatter…
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.”
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:
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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.
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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:
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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…
…to the stunningly avant garde….
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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:
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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.
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And finally, a great illustration that graced the bottom of the “Talk” section. If anyone knows the artist, please comment!
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.
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:
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:
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:
Interest in the instrument as a novelty continued into the 40’s and 50’s in the DIY market…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
New Yorker writer E.B. White shared in the enthusiasm with this bit for “The Talk of the Town…”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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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.
Owen also wrote about those who would soon be taking the same daring leap into “the illimitable terror of space”…
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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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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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…”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City recently held an exhibition on the painting and its recovered fragments.
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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:
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…
…or exotic perfumes for only the most exclusive set…
…or the chic look of Revillon Freres spring coats and wraps…
…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…
…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…
…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…