A Visit to Minskyville

During the 1930s few people could afford the luxury of a Broadway show, but a trip to “Minskyville” was in reach of nearly anyone looking to escape the gloom of the Depression, at least for a few hours.

May 28, 1930 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

The Minsky family — brothers Billy, Herbert, Morton and Abe — built the beginnings of a New York burlesque empire, writes actress, author and documentarian Leslie Zemeckis: “Abe, the eldest, started showing racy films in a nickelodeon theater on the Lower East Side. His father — believing that if his son was gonna be a perv, he might as well make real money at it — bought the National Winter Garden theater on Houston Street near Second Avenue (where a Whole Foods stands today), and gave Abe the sixth floor to run his burlesque shows.” Alva Johnson paid a visit to Houston Street and environs for the “A Reporter at Large” column:

LITTLE EGYPT, aka Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, top left, both titillated and scandalized crowds at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (really?); clockwise, from center top, three of Minsky Brothers – Billy, Morton and Herbert; the Minsky Brothers owned several burlesque theaters in New York, including Minsky’s Oriental on 51st Street and Broadway, where ‘stripper  Julie Bryan was a top draw in 1936; Billy Minsky brought the Minsky brand to Broadway when he leased the Republic Theater on 42nd Street in 1931; the last two images are by Margaret Bourke-White, backstage at the Republic Theater in 1936. (Wikipedia/Daily News/Estate of Margaret Bourke-White)
NEED A CAREER?…Well, in the 1930s an aspiring dancer or comedian could earn some chops on the burlesque stage. Gypsy Rose Lee (aka Rose Louise Hovick), left,who became the world’s most famous stripper (as well as an actress, author and playwright), was one of the biggest stars of Minsky’s Burlesque; breaks between burlesque performances were commonly filled by comedians, including Abbott and Costello (pictured above in their 1930s burlesque days), who first worked together in 1935 at the Eltinge Burlesque Theater on 42nd Street, at right.

According to Zemeckis, “burlesque caught on among the recent immigrants of the Lower East Side. The shows were cheap, the humor broad, and the allure of beautiful, barely-clothed women transcended language barriers.” But if striptease wasn’t your thing, Minskyville offered plenty of other diversions:

ONE LUMP OR TWO?…Minskyville’s entrepreneurs (top images) added a modern twist to the study of head bumps and cranium size — called Phrenology — with the electronic “Psycograph” (sic); at bottom, Prof. William Heckler’s Trained Flea Circus at Hubert’s Museum on West 42nd Street attracted some gents itching to see Heckler’s fleas in action; according to Alva Johnston, Minskyville’s penny arcade peepshows (such as the one at bottom right) would take your penny or nickel in exchange for photos of a woman old enough to give your grandpa the glad eye. (Museum of Questionable Medical Devices/sideshowworld.com)
LET’S SEE THAT AGAIN…Folks who didn’t want to look at forty-year-old photos of bathing beauties could check out the most popular attraction at Minskyville’s penny arcades — a clip from the famed Long Count Fight, a 1927 rematch between world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney and former champ Jack Dempsey, which Tunney won in a unanimous decision despite being knocked down in the seventh round. It was, and is, the subject of endless debate. (www.wbaboxing.com )

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Not a Gearhead

“The Talk of the Town” noted that young Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. preferred arts and literature over things that went zoom:

SOMEDAY THIS WILL ALL BE YOURS, RIGHT?…Walter P. Chrysler Sr. and Walter P. Chrysler Jr. share a father-son moment in 1930. Junior Chrysler devoted much of his life to building a multimillion-dollar collection of paintings (some of which were later found to be forgeries) and made substantial forays into collecting stamps, rare books and glassworks. He also produced a movie, The Joe Louis Story, released in 1953. (chrysler.org)

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Rat-a-tat

Today most movie lovers associate Scarface with the 1983 Brian DePalma film (starring Al Pacino), but the original Scarface in 1932 was far more influential in that it helped define the American gangster film genre. Directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Hawks and Howard Hughes, the screenplay was penned by early New Yorker contributor Ben Hecht. Mild by today’s standards, the film’s violent scenes caused it to be banned by many theaters around the country. Along with 1931’s Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, Scarface is regarded as among the most significant gangster films. Here is what critic John Mosher thought of it:

JUST IN CASE YOU GET THE WRONG IDEA…Also known as Scarface: The Shame of the Nation, this 1932 gangster film opened with some cautionary words (top left). Clockwise, from top right, gangster “Tony” Camonte (Paul Muni) is flanked by his cronies during a hit on a rival; Tony (Muni) shows his softer side with his dear sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak). United Artists promotional poster (note how Boris Karloff was billed with a reference to his 1931 Frankenstein role). (IMDB)

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From Our Advertisers

Just when I thought it was safe to go back into the water, out comes another line of wool swimsuits. I honestly can’t imagine how they must have felt, especially when wet and clinging to your skin after you left the water…

…the ad below from DuPont was just the sort of thing that drove New Yorker fashion critic Lois Long nuts…a couple of downscale royals shilling their fashion lines to an unsuspecting public…the paychecks from DuPont must have been substantial enough for these bluebloods to publicly embrace synthetics…

TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE…Here is the real Countess Borea de Buzzaccarini Regoli, left, and the Princess de Rohan, who played to America’s insatiable thirst for nobility while shilling for a chemical company. (Wikimedia)

…if you had the money and the steady nerves, you could have hopped aboard an almost 32-hour flight to the West Coast assured that a “coordinated mechanism” of men and machine would get you there in one piece…

…perhaps you could have steadied your nerves by dragging on a Tally-Ho — for some weird reason the Lorillard Tobacco Company (who also made Old Gold) thought some folks might prefer an oval-shaped cigarette (I include the remainder of the back-page ads for context)…

…despite the Depression, the New Yorker was holding its own in sales and subscriptions, but it never hurt to place a house ad every now and then to convince a few who might be holding out…

…on to our cartoons, Garrett Price showed us the result of a bad hand…

James Thurber offered up this spot illustration in the opening pages…

…and this terrific cartoon…

Gardner Rea demonstrated the perils of summoning the dead…

…the departed soul mentioned in Rea’s cartoon was prolific British crime writer, journalist and playwright Edgar Wallace (1875-1932), who wrote 175 novels, 24 plays, and countless articles in newspapers and journals in his relatively short life. He is most famous today as the co-creator of the film King Kong…

…and we end with this gem from Kemp Starrett, and some high-jinks…

Next Time: Jimmy’s Jam…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under the Boardwalk

Kay Boyle was thirty and still cutting her teeth as a writer and political activist when the New Yorker published her short story “Black Boy,” told through an unnamed narrator who recalls a childhood visit to the seaside.

May 14, 1930 cover by Bela Dankovsky.

The narrator remembers the days when she rode her horse along the beach while her grandfather watched from a rolling chair, pushed along the boardwalk by various young Black boys. In the following excerpts, the grandfather asks one of the boys for his name, but is it clear he doesn’t really want to get to know him, and through his teasing suggests he isn’t even worthy of an identity. Later in the story the girl befriends the boy, who dwells beneath the boardwalk and dreams of a better life. When the grandfather learns of this budding friendship, he warns about the possibility of harm coming from the boy (two excerpts):

THE LONG, CHAOTIC LIFE of writer and activist Kay Boyle (1902–1992) ranged from fights against racism and fascism in the 1930s to protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and against nuclear weapons into the 1990s. (1941 photograph by George Platt Lynes, courtesy The Kay Boyle Papers, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University)

The final paragraphs describe how the girl falls from her horse, and the shocking consequences of the boy coming to her aid.

SEPARATE AND NOT EQUAL…Kay Boyle employed a boardwalk setting in her 1932 short story “Black Boy” to underscore the stark divisions between races in American society. Clockwise, from top left, a 1914 postcard from Atlantic City; on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, circa 1905; sheet music for a popular 1905 song; a dour-looking group being pushed along the Atlantic City Boardwalk, circa 1905. (seesaw.typepad.com/bygonely.com/reddit.com)

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Potemkin Park

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White questioned the need, and appropriateness, of a wood and plaster Federal Hall replica in Bryant Park, which at the time was a neglected patch of land behind the New York Public Library and a favorite spot for the city’s homeless, their numbers rapidly growing during one of the worst years of the Depression (unemployment hovered near 25 percent).

To add insult to injury, the area around the replica was fenced off and required an admission fee of 25 cents. White commented:

ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION…This flimsy Federal Hall replica erected in Bryant Park in 1932 symbolized some of the problems that beset New York City in one of the worst years of the Depression. Under Mayor Jimmy Walker, the committee in charge of the replica was filled with corrupt Tammany cronies who quickly depleted the committee’s funds. It is no surprise that the replica was unpopular, especially with its admission fee of 25 cents, roughly equivalent to $5 today (consider that sales clerks in 1932, if they were lucky to have a job, earned perhaps $15 a week). (Museum of the City of New York)

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Intermural Murals

Art critic Murdock Pemberton approached the Museum of Modern Art’s newest exhibition of American muralists with a bit of suspicion, although he was correct in surmising that the Rockefeller Center was shopping for muralists, but as we now know it was not an American, but a Mexican artist (Diego Rivera) who would enter that scene and stir things up.

Among other works, MoMA visitors viewed Ben Shahn’s study for a three-part composition titled “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti”…

(MoMA)

…and a work by the New Yorker’s own Reginald Marsh titled “Post-War America”…

(MoMA)

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Boop’s Boo-Boo

We return to E.B. White and his musings regarding actress and singer Helen Kane (1904–1966), who filed a $250,000 (equivalent to nearly $5 million in 2021) infringement lawsuit against cartoonist Max Fleischer and Paramount Studios, claiming that the popular Betty Boop character was based on Kane’s personality and image.

BOOP SCOOP…Comparison between Helen Kane and the cartoon star Betty Boop was published in Photoplay’s April 1932 issue, one month before Kane’s lawsuit was filed. The suit was settled two years later, the court finding insufficient evidence to support Kane’s claim. (Wikipedia)

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From Rags to Rackets

Lois Long lived at the center of the 1920s speakeasy scene, but while she partied she also kept a critical eye on her surroundings, and when she later moved on to fashion criticism (“On And Off The Avenue”) she maintained the same combination of enthusiasm and shrewdness as she took aim at the “lusty fellows of the fashion rackets”…

JUST BROWSING, THANKS…Lois Long kept a skeptical eye on the New York fashion “racket” in the 1930s. Above, an unidentified model sporting a red velvet ensemble during a fashion show in 1933. (New York Daily News)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with yet another insecticide-themed cartoon from Dr. Seuss, this time using the experimental medium of television to get his point across…

…R.J. Reynolds continued to push their Camels on the growing market of women smokers, here mixing their product with a basket of fruit to suggest freshness and vitality…

…the folks at B. Altman touted their new outdoor furniture line, placing it in a setting available to a very select few New Yorkers…

…we kick off the cartoons with Peter Arno at his best…

Alice Harvey gave voice to one woman’s thoughts on children…

Leonard Dove found spirits dwelling among dusty bones…

James Thurber gave us his take on the housewife eating bonbons trope…I’m not suggesting that Thurber was the first to illustrate this stereotype, but I’m not finding any references to housewives and bonbons predating the 1950s…something for a dissertation out there, if it hasn’t already been done…

William Steig continued his exploration into the world of the Small Fry, offering up a rare image of baseball in the early New Yorker

…and we close the May 14 issue with I. Klein, and one sidewalk salesman looking for a bonafide endorsement…

…on to May 21, 1932…

May 21, 1932 cover by Helen Hokinson.

…where we find E.B. White sharing his thoughts on the Lindbergh kidnapping and its tragic result…

BAD NEWS ON THE DOORSTEP…News of the death of Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s kidnapped baby transfixed the country in the spring of 1932. (New York Times)

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No Immaculate Conception, This

It must have been hard to be Lewis Mumford, so knowledgable in the arts, architecture and city planning, and yet rather helpless in encouraging thoughtful growth in a place that spouted buildings like mushrooms and paved roads (thanks to Robert Moses) almost as fast as cars could drive across them. These excerpts offer some of Mumford’s thoughts on the matter:

For Mumford’s second point, he soundly denounced a plan to place an obelisk in Battery Park. The 1929 proposal called for an 800-foot obelisk at the junction of Broadway and Greenwich Street:

OVER COMPENSATING, PERHAPS…Designed by architect Eric Gugler, the proposed granite obelisk for Battery Park would have been windowless, 80 feet square at its base and rising to a height of 800 feet. Thankfully it was never, ahem, “erected.” (NYC Urbanism @nycurbanism) 

Mumford also addressed the matter of the Central Park Zoo, and its proposed relocation:

Happily for Mumford, and for former Gov. Al Smith (see caption), the zoo would be revitalized and remain in Central Park.

MIRACLES OF MOSES…Although Lewis Mumford would often be at odds with the powerful park commissioner Robert Moses, it was Moses who ensured that the Central Park Zoo would remain in the park. The remodeled zoo opened with great fanfare on December 2, 1934, and Moses’ old friend and political mentor Al Smith was designated honorary zookeeper. Smith, who lived just across from the zoo at 820 Fifth Avenue, visited almost daily. Structured as a quadrangle with a sea lion pool at its center, the Central Park Zoo is pictured above in August 1942. (nycgovparks.org)

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From Our Advertisers

Many advertisers played to the Anglophilic tendencies of New Yorker readers, particular ones selling garments to the sporting gentry who aped their British cousins in such pursuits as polo and dressage…here we have “play clothes” from the menswear company Rogers Peet…

…and this swell get-up (below) from Henri Bendel…both Peet and Bendel were well-known in the 1930s. Cole Porter even referred to both companies in his songs…here is the refrain from “I Introduced” (from the 1919 show Hitchy-Koo):

…”I presented Mister Peet to Mister Rogers”…

and even more famously Porter wrote these lines in his 1934 song “You’re the Top”:

…”You’re a Bendel Bonnet / a Shakespeare Sonnet”…

…Rogers Peet closed its doors in the 1980s, and Bendel folded in 2019…

…even during the Depression, almost anyone could spring for a ten-cent bar of Lux soap, and over the years it was famous for its splashy ads (two-page spreads in the New Yorker were common) and dozens of celebrity endorsements…Lux isn’t as dominant in the U.S. today, but it remains a major international brand, now sold and marketed by the British multinational Unilever, especially in Asia…back to 1932, the Lux ad below featured Lupe Velez — known as “The Mexican Spitfire,” she was a big star in the 30s but is perhaps best known today for her sad, tragic death in 1944…the Lux ad also displayed the Aber Twins — a Ziegfeld act that featured Arlene and Charlene Aber who weren’t really twins but sisters born 18 months apart…

…if you lived in New York in the 1920s and early 30s you probably would have known about the sometime artist/designer Don Dickerman and his themed Greenwich Village restaurants — especially The Pirate’s Den — which inspired this line of highball glasses (yeah, Prohibition was still around, but who cared?)…sadly these glasses didn’t help save The Pirate’s Den, which thanks to the Depression went bankrupt in 1932…

…speaking of Prohibition, Anheuser-Busch took advantage of laws that allowed for the production of near-beer containing one-half percent alcohol…

…if you couldn’t drink you could still eat to your heart’s content, that is if you were this fat cat and not some starving fellow in a bread line…

…on to our cartoons, Helen Hokinson took us pet shopping…

Garrett Price offered up a stereotype in a courtroom setting…

…and reminiscent of humor in the vein of Ralph Barton, Rea Irvin launched a series of the world’s “beauty spots”…

Next Time: A Visit to Minskyville…

 

High Anxiety

The New Yorker profiled authors, composers, civic and world leaders and other notables in its early years, but every so often it would turn the spotlight on a member of the working class.

May 7, 1932 cover by William Steig, the first of 117 covers he would contribute to the magazine over his long life and career.

“The Man With The Squeegee,” a profile written by journalist (and later, playwright) Russel Crouse, detailed the life and work of Stanley Norris, a son of Polish immigrants who daily defied death as a window cleaner on Manhattan’s skyscrapers.

Profile illustration by Hugo Gellert

Below is an excerpt that includes a couple of Norris’ harrowing experiences high above the city streets:

LOOK MA, NO HANDS!…Just two leather straps separate this brave window washer from oblivion in March 1936; a lone worker confronts his task in 1935; window washers in 1930; window washers on the 34th street side of the building, January 1932. There are 6,400 windows on the Empire State Building, and each worker averaged 76 panes per day. (retronaut.com/cnn/considerable.com/reddit)

During the 1930s one out of every 200 window cleaners in New York City fell to their deaths annually. In the previous decade, more than 80 fell to their deaths. In another excerpt, Norris recalled one of those unfortunate deaths.

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Vintage Whines

E.B. White enjoyed both wine and spirits, but like many of his fellow Americans he was growing sick and tired of Prohibition, and in his “Notes and Comment” looked abroad for a better way to live.

White concluded the entry with this observation…

…which referenced the sad grape “bricks” folks could order by mail…

Grape growers sold these bricks with a warning that they were not to be used for fermentation — a warning that kept them within the law. Naturally both seller and consumer understood that the end product would likely be something stronger than grape juice.

(vinepair.com)

Where White did procure his cocktails is revealed later in “Notes” — he tells us of an encounter with a night-club host while out walking with his wife, Katharine White, and toddler Joel.

SOMETIMES E.B. JOINED THEM…Katharine White taking baby Joel for a stroll with the White’s beloved Scotty Daisy in New York City, 1931. (brainpickings.org)

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News Stooges

In “The Wayward Press” column, Robert Benchley (writing under the pseudonym Guy Fawkes) took the newspapers to task for their tasteless reporting on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and their general sullying of a once proud profession (Benchley himself was an experienced journalist):

TRAGEDY SELLS…The kidnapping of Charles and Ann Lindbergh’s infant son, Charles Jr., dominated headlines across the country in the spring of 1932. This March 3 edition of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Evening Independent ran this headline just two days after the boy’s disappearance. The body of Charles Jr. was found on May 12, 1932. (Pinterest)

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Rising Stars

The pre-Code drama So Big!, based on Edna Ferber’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, featured two iconic Hollywood actors, but in 1932 only one of them, Barbara Stanwyck, was a bankable star. The film also featured the soon-to-be-famous Bette Davis, who had a much smaller role but was nevertheless grateful to be cast in a prestigious Barbara Stanwyck film. For critic John Mosher, the film proved to be a breakout role for Stanwyck.

SO BIG!…Barbara Stanwyck (left) was a marquee attraction in 1932, but Bette Davis would soon emerge as another major star in the Warner Brothers universe. (IMDB)

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From Our Advertisers

Clothes spun from cotton have been around for thousands of years, but this B. Altman advertisement suggests they were relatively novel for summer wear, at least among the upper orders. Both men and women wore wool bathing suits up until the 1930s, so perhaps there was something new about this cool, casual material…

…no doubt the landed gentry helped keep the Davey Tree Surgeons in business during the Depression, but in those lean times it didn’t hurt to reach out to those with modest means…

…they did something right, because this 141-year-old company still thrives today, the ninth-largest employee-owned company in the U.S…

…launched in 1906, the RMS Mauretania was beloved for her Edwardian elegance and style, but as sleeker ships came into service in 1930, the Mauretania was removed from Atlantic crossings and relegated to running shorter cruises from New York to Nova Scotia and Bermuda…

OLD RELIABLE…The RMS Mauretania was the world’s largest and fastest ship after it left the Port of Liverpool in 1906. The liner was scrapped in 1935-37, much to the dismay of many of its former passengers, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Wikipedia)

…with Mother’s Day around the corner, one company suggested a silver cigarette box as a suitable gift…

…on to our cartoons, Otto Soglow marked the upcoming holiday with this choreographed group…

Denys Wortman gave us another side of motherhood…

…other women were busy organizing political gatherings, per Garrett Price

…and Helen Hokinson

James Thurber gave us a dog in distress…

Robert Day illustrated the dilemma of two bootleggers…

…and Barbara Shermund takes us out…

Next Time: Under the Boardwalk…

 

The Mouse That Roared

In the spring of 1928, Walt Disney collaborated with cartoonist Ub Iwerks in creating a new cartoon character, Mickey Mouse, and later that year Mickey would be featured in the first-ever post-produced sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie. The film was an immediate hit, bringing almost instant fame to Disney.

Dec. 19, 1931…A classic cover by Peter Arno.

Just three years after the birth of Mickey, Disney had already carved a place for himself in American culture, drawing the attention of millions of Mickey fans —  and one critic for the New Yorker — Gilbert Seldes, who penned a “Profile” of the “Mickey-Mouse Maker” (illustration by Hugo Gellert). Note in the second of these two excerpts how Disney was already connecting his product to patriotism and clean living through his Mickey Mouse Clubs:

CASH COW…ER…MOUSE…Left, Walt Disney poses with his famous creation in 1935; top right, the Disney family in 1915: Parents Elias and Flora Disney in back row, right; Walt is seated with sister Ruth in front; photo of Disney proves the merchandising value of his little mouse from the very start.
A THING OF NIGHTMARES…Before the television show there was a theater-based Mickey Mouse Club. Pictured above is an early meeting of the Club at a theater in Ocean Park, California. Although the Club had 1 million members in the U.S. by 1932, Disney pulled the plug on the clubs in 1935. They were revived through several television series in 1955-59, 1977-79, and 1989-1994 (that last class featured a number of future stars including Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake. (www.vintag.es)

In his conclusion, Seldes marveled at Disney’s productivity — a new picture made every two weeks — and his seemingly endless creativity. Little could Seldes imagine that one day the man and his mouse would become a multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate.

I’M YOUR VEHICLE, BABY…Mickey gives Minnie a ride in his cab in 1931’s Traffic Troubles.

You can watch 1931’s Traffic Troubles here:

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Big Man on Canvas

It seems the earth almost shook when Mexican artist Diego Rivera arrived in New York for only the second one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art. His work habits, his comings and goings, and his enormous size (modest by today’s standards) were reported in the New Yorker, including this entry in “The Talk of the Town”…

COME TO MOMA…Cover of the Museum of Modern Art’s catalog for the Diego Rivera exhibition.
MAN AT WORK…Left, Diego Rivera at work on The Uprising, at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1931. Rivera painted five frescoes on portable supports of steel-braced cement in conjunction with his MoMA exhibition. Among the works featured was The Rivals (right), which sold for $9.76 million in 2018, overtaking an auction record for Latin American art previously set by his wife, Frida Kahlo. Her Two Nudes in the Forest sold for $8 million in 2016. (MoMA/Pinterest)

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Winds of War

It’s the end of 1931, but one can already detect the rumblings of the future to come, namely world war. The former Allied and Axis powers of the First World War were all busy developing new weapons, particularly of the airborne variety that all believed would provide a decisive edge if (or rather when) the next war commenced. Japan was already making moves on China, and in just four years the Germans would reoccupy the Saarland and Italy would invade Ethiopia. E.B. White, in his “Notes and Comment,” found the current state of affairs more than a bit troubling…

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE…Wars and rumors of wars drove rapid advances in aviation in the 28 years following the Wright Brothers’ first flight. The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company developed the A-8 (above) in 1930-31 to serve as a ground-attack aircraft. (ww2aircraft.net)

…and hints of the world to come could also be found in Howard Brubaker’s “Of All Things” column, where he made this observation:

Brubaker was likely referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cautious approach to announcing his candidacy for president. The outcome, of course, proved quite different for the German people.

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From Our Advertisers

Preparations for war drove the development of the aircraft industry, which quickly adapted its designs during peacetime for civilian purposes. This ad from United Airlines touted the advantages of plane over train travel for corporate executives. Within 30 years the airlines would indeed supplant railroads as the preferred means for business travel…

…Prohibition would remain in force until the end of 1933, so brewers like Anheuser-Busch continued finding ways to link their non-alcoholic products to the ghosts of drinking past…

…on to our cartoons, James Thurber rendered this apt portrait of our civilization…

Barbara Shermund gave us an actress with a reputation to protect…

…and Garrett Price presented an unlikely harmonica player…

…on to our next issue, where we find more Diego Rivera

Dec. 26, 1931 cover by Madeline S. Pereny. Artist’s note: Pereny (1893–1970) was born in Kecskemet, Hungary. A baroness, she studied at Vienna Art Academy before emigrating to the U.S. in the early 1930’s. In addition to creating cover art and illustrations for The New Yorker, she was also a cartoonist for the Disney Studios.

…and we begin with this entry from “The Talk of the Town,” attributed to James Thurber

WHERE’S DIEGO?…in December 1931 he could be found working on his frescoes on the sixth floor of the Heckscher Building — the Museum of Modern Art’s first home. In the foreground is the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion, demolished in 1926. (Library of Congress)
GET THE POINT?…Thurber referred to Diego Rivera’s Indian Warrior, one of five frescoes Rivera created during his Museum of Modern Art exhibition.

Thurber refers to “a lady” who accompanied Rivera, most likely Frida Kahlo, who was emerging as an artist in her own right around this time.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY…Wedding photograph of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1929. (Throckmorton Fine Art)

More on Diego could be found in the art review section, where critic Murdock Pemberton offered a cautionary message to the rabble who might not abide some of the artist’s controversial themes:

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Head Cracker

In the 1920s and 30s Johnny Broderick was known as New York’s toughest cop, known for personally assaulting gangsters (and suspects) and for once facing down armed gunmen during a prison break at the Tombs. His valor won him many fans (and some detractors), making him a local celebrity and a subject of gossip columns. Reporter Joel Sayre offered his assessment of Broderick in a “Profile” for the Dec. 26 issue (illustration by Abe Birnbaum). Excerpts:

WISE GUY, EH?…Johnny Broderick (see arrow) escorts an unfortunate perp in 1927. (Public Domain)

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Something to Cheer About

On the lighter side, Hollywood took a shot at Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners, Private Lives. The original play featured Gertrude Lawrence and Laurence Olivier, while the Hollywood version Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery.  For once, critic John Mosher actually liked this screen adaptation:

GIVE ME THAT LOVIN’ FEELING…Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery in the film adaptation of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. (TCM)

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From Our Advertisers

Just one ad from the Dec. 26 issue to close out the year, and what better way to say “Merry Christmas” than with a fresh cigarette…

…on to our cartoonists, William Crawford Galbraith offered a look backstage in this two-page illustration across the bottom of “The Talk of the Town”…

Richard Decker showed us the importance of making oneself clear, especially when aloft in a dirigible…

Robert Day found humor in a barren landscape…

Garrett Price offered us a cheesy predicament…

Helen Hokinson found a man about to make an important point…

…and we end 1931 with this classic from James Thurber

Next Time: Thurber’s Dogs…

The Wayward Press

Robert Benchley is remembered today as an American humorist, and his funny side was on display in his New Yorker theater reviews and other contributions. It was his background as a journalist, however, that shown through in his column “The Wayward Press.”

Oct. 10, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Benchley’s more serious side as a reporter (though still sprinkled with wit) demonstrated his ability to expose the conspiratorial nature of the 1930s press — which seemed to be in bed with moneyed interests — and decry its insatiable appetite for sensationalism. His October 10 column took aim at the coverage of the death of banking heir Benjamin Collings, who was murdered on Long Island Sound while aboard his yacht, Penguin. The investigation went on for weeks with scant developments, but that didn’t stop the newspapers from trying to squeeze every ounce of blood from this turnip.

The New York Daily News milked the incident for all its worth, the heading of this first article featuring photos of the slain Benjamin Collings (far left), his widow (and briefly a suspect) Lillian Collings, as well as an image of their five-year-old daughter, Barbara. According to Lillian, all three were sleeping aboard the family yacht Penguin when two men paddled a canoe up to their boat. When Ben went on deck to confront the pair, these “pirates” (as she called them) seized control of the boat, and threw Ben overboard. According to Lillian, the men forced her into the canoe, then cut the Penguin’s anchor and set it adrift with little Barbara still on board. While the girl was quickly rescued by another yachtsman, the “pirates” deposited Lillian in a moored motorboat on Oyster Bay before disappearing into the night. The Suffolk County DA found Lillian’s account unbelievable, and newspapers subsequently described her story as bizarre and illogical. The Daily News headline below indicates Lillian’s family wanted her interrogation to end…

…lacking any other details, the Daily News nevertheless kept the story alive with features such as this one below that described Five Stages in Life of Mrs. Benjamin Collings, Widowed by Yacht Murder

…and in case readers still wanted more, the paper rehashed the whole thing in photos in its Sept. 12 edition…

A few days after the yacht incident the body of Ben Collings washed up on the North Shore, his hands bound and his skull bashed in. The Suffolk County DA then began hauling in pairs of suspects who somewhat matched Lillian’s description — a 50-year-old man with gray hair and a skinny teenager — but none were quite right. The crime has never been solved.

Benchley concluded his column with some quotations which he “did not believe”…

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And Now For Something Ironic…

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White teased New York Stock Exchange President Richard Whitney for blaming the market crash on “human vanity and selfishness,” when it was indeed those qualities that drove the markets in the first place. Before the decade was out Whitney would succumb to the very vices he named, and would serve three years and four months at Sing Sing for embezzlement.

HE DID TIME, THEN HE DID SOME MORE TIME…Richard Whitney made the cover of the Feb. 26, 1934 issue of Time magazine for his work as president of the New York Stock Exchange. At left, Whitney in 1937. He was sentenced to five to ten years for embezzlement, but was released early from Sing Sing for good behavior. He went on to a simpler life, managing a dairy farm and then a textile company before his death in 1974 at age 86. (Wikipedia/Time)

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The What Goes Up Department

E.B. White also commented on the latest edition of the Goodyear Blimp, christened Columbia, which he spotted hanging around the Empire State Building. Note E.B. White’s last line

Columbia was flying around the Empire State Building because Goodyear was running a sightseeing service in which passengers paid $3 for a 15-minute flight around Manhattan. The blimp also performed publicity stunts such as delivering newspapers to a man standing on the Empire State’s mooring mast — that particular stunt was supposedly a test to see if airships could anchor on the mast for passenger loading and unloading (and as we know, they couldn’t and wouldn’t).

Just four months after White watched Columbia hover over Manhattan, the airship would indeed bust into a thousand pieces, meeting its demise near the Queens airport (today’s LaGuardia). Caught in unexpected high winds, Columbia dipped into the ground, tearing off its landing gear and bending its propellers. The ground crew tried to secure the blimp but an updraft ripped the airship from their hands and sent it sailing over Flushing Bay.

As Columbia once again drifted back over land, the 23-year pilot Prescott Dixon ordered his chief mechanic, John Blair, to pull a rip cord that would release most of the air from the blimp. As Blair reached from the cabin for the cord the blimp shifted, and Blair fell to his death. Columbia then knocked two men off a warehouse roof (injuring them), then struck a factory and some power lines before crashing along the tracks of the Long Island Railroad. Dixon survived after being extricated from the crumpled gondola.

CHRISTENED WITH A BOTTLE OF LIQUID AIR, the Goodyear Blimp Columbia was readied for its inaugural flight over Akron, Ohio, in July 1931.
A SHORT LIFE…Just seven months after its inaugural flight, Columbia crashed near Flushing Bay on Feb. 12, 1932. (kathrynsreport.com)

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When Bridges Were Crowd-Pleasers

“The Talk of the Town” announced the imminent opening of the Jeffreys Hook Bridge, to be known thence as the George Washington Bridge:

GET OUT YOUR TOP HAT…New Yorkers turned out in droves to mark the official opening of the George Washington Bridge on Oct. 24, 1931. Gov. Morgan F. Larson of New Jersey, left, and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York, right, did the ribbon honors at the dedication. (New Haven Register/AP)

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They Couldn’t Say ‘Hooters’ Either

In these coarser times it is hard to believe that 89 years ago the word “bosom” was a “no-no” on the nation’s airwaves, per this “Talk” item…

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An Actor’s Actor

Theater critic Robert Benchley wasn’t the only one who noticed the talents of newcomer Charles Laughton in his New York stage debut — Hollywood would immediately come calling for the 32-year-old English actor:

WE’LL KEEP HIM…Cicely Oates as Annie Marble and Charles Laughton as William Marble in the 1931 play Payment Deferred. (Museum of the City of New York)

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Kinda Long For Being Short

Humorist Frank Sullivan claimed to be following the trend for shorter short stories by turning in this piece with an editor’s note longer than the story itself:

 *  *  *

Lurid Lit

Our dear Dorothy Parker is back with another of her entertaining book columns, and in this installment we have her taking on the world of literary and not-so-literary sex romps. Excerpts:

DIRTY LITTLE BOOKS?…The three books featured in Dorothy Parker’s column included, from left, Young and Healthy by Donald Henderson Clarke (issued here under a different title in a pulp 1948 Novel Library edition); Theodore Wilde’s Moonblind, which featured a hermaphrodite character and homosexual encounters; and although attributed to Anonymous, Lady Chatterley’s Husbands was actually written by Anthony Gudaitis, aka Anton Gud, who often wrote anonymously for erotica publisher Samuel Roth. Although it was publicized as a sequel to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Gud’s book actually had less sex than the Lawrence original. After all, in the sequel Lady Chatterley gets tired of horny old Mellors. (Goodreads/Amazon)

…and before we leave Dorothy, please note her last line in the review, where she quotes Carl Rose’s famed 1928 cartoon (with caption by E.B. White)…

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From Our Advertisers

Just a couple quick ones (I will have more in the next installment)…Lord & Taylor showed young New Yorkers how to look smart for the fall (Lord & Taylor, the oldest department store in the United States (founded 1826), recently closed all 38 of its stores due to the pandemic, and it was announced in August that Lord & Taylor would be liquidated. Apparently its name will continue as an online-only business…

…and Helen Hokinson offered this illustration of one of her “girls” shilling for Frigidaire refrigerators…

…and two more from Helen in the Oct. 10 cartoons…

…exploring men’s attitudes toward the opposite sex…

Garrett Price visited a seemingly unappetizing banquet…

Kemp Starrett gave us a man looking at life on the bright side…

William Steig explored home decor…

Barbara Shermund found some bedtime gossip…

…and recalling our earlier “Talk” item regarding bosoms, here’s Peter Arno

Next Time: Monkey Business…

 

 

Markey’s Road Trip

With the explosion of car ownership in the 1920s and 30s came improved highways across America, but if one were to undertake a long-distance journey, like the New Yorker’s Morris Markey, you were bound to find a wide range of conditions, from concrete highways to muddy dirt roads.

July 25, 1931 cover by Gardner Rea.

Markey wrote about his experience of driving from New York City to Atlanta for his “Reporter at Large” column, noting that stops at filling stations also offered opportunities to fill up on bootleg gin. Drunk driving, it seems, wasn’t a big concern in the early 1930s.

BLUE HIGHWAYS…Although the U.S. launched into major roadbuilding projects in the 1920s and 30s, rutted and muddy roads were still common in many areas of the country. Clockwise, from top left, Route 1 winds through Maryland in the 1920s; marker indicating the Mason and Dixon Line dividing Pennsylvania from Maryland, circa 1930; a 1930s dirt road in the Eastern U.S.; a policeman directs traffic in Richmond, Va., in the 1930s. (Library of Congress/fhwa.dot.gov/theshockoeexaminer.blogspot.com)
TIME TO GIN UP…James H. Brown (left), at the first of his four service stations in Richmond, Va., circa 1930. Some service stations offered Morris Markey bootleg gin during his journey to Atlanta. My use of this photo, however, does not imply that Mr. Brown offered the same service. (vintagerva.blogspot.com)

Unfortunately, Markey shared the sensibilities of many of his fellow Americans 89 years ago, and made this observation about drivers below the Mason and Dixon Line:

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Pale Riders

Since the mid-19th century Chelsea’s Tenth Avenue was known as “Death Avenue” due to the killing and maiming of hundreds who got in the way of freight trains that plowed through 10th and 11th Avenues in the service of warehouses and factories in the district. In the 1850s the freight line hired horsemen known as “West Side Cowboys” to warn wagons and pedestrians of oncoming trains, but even with this precaution nearly 450 people were killed by trains between 1852 and 1908, with almost 200 deaths occurring in the decade preceding 1908. Calls for an elevated railroad were finally answered with the opening of the High Line in 1934. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on the last of these urban cowboys:

WESTSIDE COWBOYS…Clockwise, from top left, a steam locomotive rumbles down 11th Avenue in the 1920s; a West Side Cowboy William Connolly rides ahead of a train to warn pedestrians in 1932; George Hayde led the final ride of the West Side cowboys up 10th Avenue on March 24, 1941; aerial view of the High Line from 18th Street heading north. Opened in 1934, the High Line lifted most train traffic 30 feet above the street. Today it serves only pedestrians, and is one of New York’s biggest tourist draws. (Forgotten NY/AP/NY Times/thehighline.org)

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Guys and Dolls

“The Talk of the Town” had some fun with a little-known aspect of a notorious gangster’s life; namely, the doll-filled house belonging to Jack “Legs” Diamond:

DOLL HOUSE…This house on Route 23 near Cairo, New York, once sheltered gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, his wife, Alice, and her extensive collection of dolls and other knick-knacks. (nydailynews.com/Zillow)

“Talk” also made joking reference to the number of times Diamond had been shot and survived to tell about it.

Diamond’s luck would run out at the end of 1931 — Dec. 18, to be exact — when gunmen would break into his hotel room in Troy, NY, and put three bullets into his head.

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Ziggy’s Stardust

Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932) had a knack for show business, launching the careers of many entertainers through his Ziegfeld Follies, which got its start in 1907 during vaudeville’s heyday. The advent of sound movies signaled the end of the vaudeville era and of Ziegfeld himself, who would stage one final Follies before his death in 1932. Gilbert Seldes penned a two-part profile of Ziegfeld under the title “Glorifier” (caricature by the great Abe Birnbaum). An excerpt:

GO WITH THE FLO…Broadway impresario Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld Jr with his Follies cast, 1931. It would prove to be his last Follies show. Revivals following his death in 1932 would prove to be much less successful. (Wall Street Journal)

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If Looks Could Kill

The New Yorker’s film critic John Mosher had a difficult time making sense of Murder by the Clock and its lead actress, Lilyan Tashman, who gave a tongue-in-cheek performance as the film’s femme fatale.

ARE YOU NUTS?…Irving Pichel and Lilyan Tashman in Murder by the Clock (1931). Tashman was known for her tongue-in-cheek portrayals of villainesses in films she made before her untimely death in 1934. (IMDB)

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Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Open-air performances of classical music and opera were popular summertime diversions in the days before air-conditioning. In 1931 crowds gathered in Lewisohn Stadium to hear the New York Philharmonic perform under the direction of Willem van Hoogstraten, who conducted the Lewisohn summer concert series from 1922 to 1939. Here is a listing in the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” section:

MUSIC IN THE AIR…Cover of the 1931 program for concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, College of the City of New York. Bottom right, signed photo of Willem van Hoogstraten from 1930. (digitalcollections.nypl.org/ebay.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Flo Ziegfeld’s 1931 Follies were lavish productions, but his advertising in the New Yorker was anything but as evidenced in this tiny ad that appeared at the bottom of page 52…

…no doubt anticipating the demise of Prohibition, the makers of Anheuser-Busch beverages ramped up the promotion of their non-alcoholic products to create associations with pre-Prohibition times…

…not to be outdone by the East Coast chocolates giant Schrafft’s, Whitman’s took out this full page ad to suggest how you might enjoy their product…

…which was in sharp contrast to the approach Schrafft’s took in this full-page ad featured in the April 25, 1931 New Yorker, which touted the health benefits of its candy…

…on to our cartoons, Richard Decker took us swimming with a middle-aged man who was anything but bored…

Barbara Shermund went en plein air with a couple of her ditzy debs…

Garrett Price also went to the country to find a bit of humor…

Helen Hokinson found a home away from home for a couple looking to take the sea air…

James Thurber continued to explore his brewing war between the sexes…

Harry Haenigsen gave us a novel approach to landing a trophy fish…

William Steig illustrated the wonders of the tailoring profession…

…and Alan Dunn aptly summed up the generation gap of the 1930s…

…on to the Aug. 1, 1931 issue…

August 1, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…”The Talk of the Town” mused about the advertising jingles made famous by the makers of Sapolio soap…

…Bret Harte actually did write jingles for the brand, once described by Time magazine as “probably the world’s best-advertised product” in its heyday. With a huge market share, Sapolio was so well known in the early 20th century that its owners decided they no longer needed to spend money on advertising. It was a poor decision, and by 1940 the product disappeared from the marketplace.

SEEING THE LIGHT OF DAY…A 19th century Sapolio sign on Broadway and Morris Street revealed after an adjoining building was demolished in 1930. (MCNY)
MONEY WELL SPENT…Sapolio ad from its heyday in the early 20th century. (Pinterest)

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Tough Love

As a charter member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, Heywood Broun was a friend to many of the founding writers and editors of the New Yorker. And so it must have been quite a task to review his play, Shoot the Works, which the New Yorker found wanting in a number of aspects. And because he was so close to Broun himself, Robert Benchley left the review writing to someone who signed the column “S. Finny.” I can’t find any record of an S. Finny at the New Yorker, and I don’t believe this is a Benchley pseudonym (he used “Guy Fawkes” in the New Yorker). At any rate, here is an excerpt:

SHOOT GETS SHOT…The New Yorker wasn’t crazy about Heywood Broun’s play, which ran for 87 performances at George M. Cohan’s Theatre. (Playbill)

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of the “Flexo” ice cube tray continued to tout the wonders of their product with these Ripley-themed ads. This might appear rather mundane to modern eyes, but electric refrigerators with built-in freezers were still rather novel in 1931…

…another way to stay cool in the summer of 1931 was to take an excursion to the Northern climes…

…this ad for the New York American featured an illustration by Herbert Roese, whose early work strongly resembled that of Peter Arno’s

…on to our cartoons, we have the latest antics of the Little King courtesy Otto Soglow

William Steig added levity to a heavy moment…

Barbara Shermund found humor at an antiques shop…

...John Held Jr continued his revels into our “naughty” Victorian past…

…and we end with Garrett Price, and a look at the ways of the modern family…

Next Time: An American Classic…

 

 

 

 

Firecracker Lane

When fireworks were still allowed on the streets of New York City, Firecracker Lane was the place to go for all your pyrotechnic needs.

Theodore Haupt illustrated holiday travelers for the Fourth of July issue in 1931.

By 1931, however, fireworks had been banned across the greater New York City area, so customers visiting Firecracker Lane — a short row of sellers on Park Place between Broadway and Church Street — had to find a friendly burg beyond the metropolis to shoot off their Independence Day arsenals.

Before the city clamped down on the fun, Firecracker Lane did a bustling trade, and fireworks were even manufactured at sites around the metro area. But after a number of explosions and fires, the city closed down the fireworks factories, and by 1931 Fireworks Lane itself was on its last leg. “The Talk of the Town” visited what remained, and reminisced about the glory days.

A STREET WITH SOME SIZZLE…The famed Pain’s Fireworks company occupied this building on Firecracker Lane, photo circa 1903. At right, a young woman promoting Pain’s latest novelty, the “Chinese Dragon,” in the 1920s. (MCNY)
HAVING A BLAST…In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pain’s staged massive themed fireworks displays, including the incredible The Last Days of Pompeii show on Manhattan Beach, seen here during its 1903 Season. (heartofconeyisland.com)
BEFORE THERE WERE MOVIES, entertainment companies were fond of putting on spectacular shows like The Last Days of Pompeii on Manhattan Beach. Illustration from an 1885 edition of Harper’s Weekly. (heartofconeyisland.com)
LOCATION, LOCATION…Explosions at fireworks factories in New York and New Jersey put an end to the manufacture of fireworks in the area by 1930. Above, a July 1901 explosion of a fireworks factory in a Paterson, N.J. tenement resulted in the deaths of 17 people who lived above factory. The New York Times reported “So great was the force of the blast, that a boy playing in the street a half a block away was lifted from his feet and hurled against an iron fence, and had one of his legs broken.” (Courtesy Paterson Fire History, via boweryboyshistory.com)

*  *  *

Not Mum on Mumford

In the previous post we were introduced to critic Lewis Mumford, who excoriated plans for the new Radio City, now known as Rockefeller Center. In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White added his own two cents:

PERHAPS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CAKE…Even the promoters of the Radio City project looked uncertain of their scheme in this March 1931 photo. (drivingfordeco.com)

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From Our Advertisers

New Yorkers who wanted to get away from the steamy streets of Manhattan (almost no one had air conditioning in 1931) could catch the cooling breezes of the Atlantic on any number of cruise lines that plied the Eastern Seaboard and Canadian Maritimes during the summer…here the French Line offered a six-day “Triangle Cruise”…

…while Cunard offered a similar excursion (employing the cartooning skills of H.O. Hofman) that allowed passengers to “do the ocean” in just four days…

…to earn the ever-shrinking travel dollar during the Depression, both the Red Star and White Star lines offered their giant ocean liners for half- and full-week cruises to the Maritimes, Red Star even throwing in some on-board entertainment, claiming to be the first to do so “on any ocean”…

A SCRAPPED LOT…From top, the Belgenland, Majestic and Olympic. These great ships that once ferried passengers in high style between Europe and the States had been reduced to taking folks on short cruises and even one-day excursions due to the Depression. By the mid-1930s the Belgenland and Olympic (once the world’s largest ship) were sold for scrap. The Majestic was scuttled a few years later. (Wikipeda)

…I’m not sure where this pair is headed, but the angle suggests they just drove off a cliff…

…if cliff diving wasn’t your thing, you could tool around in a bright red Dodge boat…

…or be easily amused like this guy on the right, who gets his jollies from the abundance of ice cubes in his fridge…

…over at Essex House we find a more reserved scene, the “well-born” father and son gloating over their Central Park view…

…the Essex House might have been “all that,” but Dad and Junior would have to reconsider their social rank against a newcomer — the Waldorf-Astoria, reborn on Park Avenue…

…on to our cartoons, this couple illustrated by Garrett Price might consider something with a larger balcony…

Otto Soglow’s Little King took his Little Prince out for some air…

Kemp Starrett showed us a chap who contemplated the passing of time along with the passing of his timepiece…

I. Klein updated the theme of a damsel in distress…

…the growing popularity of Ping-Pong gave James Thurber some material to explore the battle of the sexes…

…and Barbara Shermund left us poolside with a couple of eggheads…

…on to our July 11, 1931 issue…

July 11, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…we find E.B. White taking his sweetheart, Katharine Angell White (referred to here as his “best girl”) out for a date at Coney Island…

A PLACE FOR ROMANCE…It’s not them, but this couple visiting Coney Island in 1928 (photo by Walker Evans) will serve well as our stand-ins for E.B. and Katharine White on their date to Coney. At right, the famous “Tunnels of Love.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Pinterest)
AND OTHER DIVERSIONS…Another famous and rather lurid Coney attraction was the wax museum, which featured dioramas based on headlines of the day. The biggest attractions were those featuring famous crime scenes, gruesome effects included. (Museum of the City of New York)
IT WAS A LIVING…Among other big attractions at Coney were the sideshow “freaks” White mentioned in his article. The photo above, from 1929, is by Edward J. Kelty. (artblart.com)

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On the Waterfront

The 1954 film by the same name featured the murderous mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who ruled the waterfront’s stevedores with an iron fist. The reality was just as brutal, if not more so along the Brooklyn waterfront in the early 20th century, where the reign of a crime boss was as short as his life span. Alva Johnston reports:

TOUGH NEIGHBORHOOD…Midcentury view of the Brooklyn waterfront. (thenewyorkmafia.com)

Dinnie Meehan’s widow, Anna Lonergan, had the distinction of being shot at the side of two successive husbands; after Meehan was murdered, Anna married “White Hand” gangster Harry Reynolds. Johnston, who referred to Anna Lonergan as “the Brunhild of the longshore cycle,” concluded his piece with a look at the “last of the great leaders,” Red Donnelly, also known as “Cute Charlie”…

HARD KNOCKS…“Peg Leg” Lonergan was the final leader of the waterfront’s “White Hand Gang.” He was gunned down on Dec. 26, 1925, after a short reign as boss. He was just 25 years old when he died. (Pinterest)

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The Show Must Go On

With the glory days of vaudeville quickly receding into the past, Flo Ziegfeld was nevertheless determined to keep his “Follies” alive at his eponymous theatre. Robert Benchley stopped by for a look at the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931.

CARE FOR A SMOKE?…Program cover for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. At right, Ziegfeld star Ruth Etting, who portrayed a cigarette girl in the show’s “Club Piccadilly” skit. A note of trivia: Etting and I attended the same high school (but not at the same time!). (Playbill/Wikimedia Commons)
GLORY BE…Inside pages of the program featured some of the “Ziegfeld Beauties” appearing in the show. (Playbill)

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Gross

Back in the day some entrepreneurial types would kill a large whale, stuff it full of sawdust and formaldehyde, and then take it on the road to parade in front of gawkers with spare nickels in their pockets. E.B. White observed the fate of one such specimen:

YES, THIS WAS A THING…Before the days of Jacques Cousteau and Animal Planet, this is how some folks got their first and likely only look at a real whale, even if it was pumped full of sawdust and formaldehyde.

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From Our Advertisers

This small back page ad invited New Yorkers to the cooling breezes atop the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn Heights, once referred to as the “Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn”…

Its rooftop restaurant — the Marine Roof — was a famous hangout. When the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series in 1955, this is where they celebrated…

(brownstoner.com)

Dr. Seuss was still making a living illustrating advertisements for Flit insecticide…

…”my eyes are up here”…says the woman who uses Coty brand lipstick…

…on to our cartoonists, we have Garrett Price also examining the challenges of playing Ping-Pong…

Perry Barlow was at the seaside with a precocious beach-goer…

Carl Rose showed us a Boy Scout after his encounter with the Red Menace…

Kemp Starrett weighed the advantages of air travel…

Otto Soglow surprised us with this undercover operation…

…and we end with James Thurber, and the price of literary fame…

Next Time: The Black Eagle…

 

 

A Star is Born

Clark Gable made such an impression as a charming rogue in 1931’s A Free Soul that it transformed him almost overnight from a bit actor to into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1930s.

June 13, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

When the film was released it was Norma Shearer who was the biggest name, supported by Lionel Barrymore and Leslie Howard. As this was “Pre-Code” Hollywood, MGM played up the film’s risqué themes of gangsters, drunks and infidelity. After all, according to this ad, Norma was “born in an age of FREEDOM!”

Although critic John Mosher — already weary of the gangster film genre — found the film pretentious, the public voted it one of the best films of 1931, and Barrymore took home an Oscar for his performance as a successful but conflicted (and alcoholic) attorney…

TRUST ME, HE WON’T BITE…Defense lawyer Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore) introduces Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable), a bootlegger he successfully defends from a murder charge. Unfortunately, Ashe’s daughter Jan (Norma Shearer), who was betrothed to another (the squeaky-clean Dwight Winthrop, played by Leslie Howard), ends up falling for his shady client. (IMDB)
DECISIONS, DECISIONS…Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) must decide between bad boy and goody two-shoes in 1931’s A Free Soul. Clark Gable and Leslie Howard would again play rivals for a woman’s affections eight years later in 1939’s Gone With The Wind. (IMDB)

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Speaking of Gangsters

A real one was profiled in the New Yorker by novelist and screenwriter Joel Sayre — Jack “Legs” Diamond — a thug who seemed to have nine lives but would be dead before the year was out (spoiler: he would not die from natural causes). An excerpt:

IN TROUBLE AGAIN?…Jack Diamond, aka “Legs Diamond” being escorted to the courthouse in Troy, New York in July 1931. (Everett)

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Some Real Guts

“The Talk of the Town” (via E.B. White) looked in on the work of famed aerial photographer Albert Stevens, who back in the day employed the common practice of chucking “flashlight bombs” out of airplanes to illuminate subjects below, including buildings along Riverside Drive that had their windows blown out during one of his aerial photo sessions…

Captains Albert Stevens (left, with the devil-may-care smile) and St. Clair Streett prepare for a high-altitude airplane flight in 1935. At right, Stevens readies his camera for an aerial photo session. (National Air and Space Museum).

Below is something similar to what Stevens dropped from the plane to get the effect he needed during nighttime shots…

Nighttime aerial photography owes its origins to pioneers like George Goddard, who stunned residents of Rochester, NY, in 1925 when he ignited an 80-pound flash bomb to illuminate the city (image at left). It is considered the first aerial night photograph. At right, Manhattan at night, 1931.

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Poetic Pugilist

Throughout his career and into his retirement, heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney took great pains to distinguish himself from the other brutes who practiced his violent trade, and was known for his love of the higher and gentler arts. In his “Notes and Comment” E. B. White further explored this phenomenon upon the boxer’s return to the States:

I’M NO PALOOKA…Gene Tunney chewing the fat with playwright George Bernard Shaw during a holiday in Brioni, 1929. (NYT)

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Not So Brief

I include this entire page to feature both Garrett Price’s cartoon (Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey, a leader in abolishing child labor, supported the idea of unmarried couples living together, hence the caption), and Wolcott Gibbs’ thoughts on applying for an advertising position…

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And speaking of advertising, we have this summer-themed ad from Macy’s (yes, they had inflatables back then, too)…

…for reference, here’s a 1930s photo of actress Una Merkel astride an inflatable  horse like the one featured in the ad…

…R.J. Reynolds continued to market their Camel cigarettes to women, but the ads moved away from illustrations of Continental leisure and instead emphasized the freshness of the product, thanks to the cellophane-wrapped “Humidor pack”…

…while cigarette smoking continued to increase in America, the sale of alcohol remained illegal — it didn’t stop people from drinking, and if you got a bad batch of bootleg, or just had too much, there were remedies available…

…perhaps a fortunate few were able to just sleep it off on a lovely bed fitted with Wamsutta sheets…

…on to our cartoons, Rea Irvin continued to explore his alter ego, “Du Maurier Irvin”…

Alan Dunn showed us why some “can’t make it there” in New York, New York…

Otto Soglow revealed that his Little King preferred beer to bubbly…

William Steig found an unlikely customer for a photo button…

Barbara Shermund explored politics between the sheets…

…and Peter Arno gave us his Major with a major itch to scratch…

Next Time: Frozen at 30 Rock…

 

Rooftop Romance

In the days before air conditioning, New Yorkers took to the higher rooftops in the city to escape the summer heat and reconnect with familiar entertainers.

June 6, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt. The title image is a detail from a Sept. 5, 1970 cover by Arthur Getz.

Among those reconnecting was Lois Long, who had abandoned her nightlife column “Tables for Two” the previous year but revived it in the June 6, 1931 issue, perhaps in reaction to the “boundless trouble” that had marched into her “quiet life,” namely her bitter divorce that month from cartoonist Peter Arno. Soon to be single again, Long dusted off her “Table” for another night out.

PRE-AC…As far back as the Gilded Age of the 19th century New Yorkers escaped the summer heat by seeking entertainment on one of the city’s rooftop gardens. Pictured is the Paradise roof garden atop Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, 1901. (MCNY)

THE BUCK STARTS HERE…It wasn’t a rooftop, but the Central Park Casino was a cool retreat from city streets, especially for Mayor Jimmy Walker, who conducted much of city business there (much of it shady). After reform-minded Mayor Fiorello La Guardia replaced Walker in 1934, he had the place torn down. (New York City Parks Photo Archive)
I COULD HAVE DANCED ALL NIGHT…Mayor Jimmy Walker and his mistress, showgirl Betty Compton, were often the last to leave the Casino in the wee hours of the morning, dancing in the black-glass ballroom (above) to the Leo Reisman Orchestra. (drivingfordeco.com)

Higher up in the city, Long also paid a visit to the elegant rooftop of the St. Regis, designed by the famed architect and theatrical designer Joseph Urban

DAZZLING…The St. Regis rooftop, designed by Joseph Urban.
ANOTHER VIEW of the St. Regis rooftop as illustrated in the July 7, 1928 issue of the New Yorker by Alice Harvey. 

Long also visited the roof of the 42-story Hotel Pierre. The New York Sun described the top two floors as “decorated to resemble the interior of a zeppelin cabin.”

THE COOLEST…Top of the Hotel Pierre. A popular summer ballroom in the years before air-conditioning, the Pierre advertised itself as having “the highest and coolest hotel roof in Manhattan.” (NYT)

If you were in the mood for a little crooning, Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees were taking in the breeze atop the Hotel Pennsylvania, per this ad in the back pages of the June 6 New Yorker

Advertisers must have been paying attention to Long’s column, because the back pages of the following issue (June 13) had plenty of ads touting various rooftops…

Long also sampled the offerings of less savory venues, such as the Club Argonaut, which was apparently frequented by mobsters…

NOT AMUSED…Lois Long didn’t care for the antics of Gene Malin (center, and inset) who performed in front of a tough-looking crowd at the Club Argonaut. A popular drag artist who helped ignite the “Pansy Craze” in the 1920s and 30s, Malin was one of the first openly gay performers in Prohibition-era speakeasy culture. His career ended abruptly at age 25 in a car accident. (Pinterest)

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Sexy Soviet Tractors

One place you could find an early form of air conditioning was at the movies (critic John Mosher referred to these theatres as “iced), and no doubt many lowered their cinematic standards just to get a few hours respite from the heat. For some unknown reason the Central Theatre thought it could entice audiences not with air-conditioning, but with a Soviet propaganda film titled The Five-Year Plan.

STAY CALM AND CARRY ON…Soviet poster for The Five Year Plan (1930), and a 1930 image of the Volograd (Stalingrad) tractor factory. You wonder how many of those blokes got wiped out by Stalin’s purges, or by the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43. (Wikipedia)

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Laughing at Death

A couple of posts ago I wrote about a very public gun battle that brought diminutive killer Frances Crowley to justice (“The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley”). In the June 6 installment of “A Reporter at Large,” Morris Markey recounted the courtroom scene where the 18-year-old Crowley winked at girls and nonchalantly chewed his gum as judge and jury determined his fate.

OH WELL…Frances Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh, left, was positively bored during the trial that would send her beau to Sing Sing’s electric chair. Crowley himself (shown above at the trial) seemed to be amused by the proceedings, and enjoyed the attention. (NY Daily News)

Markey also noted the unseemly behavior of Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh, who seemed bored by the whole thing. “She was not a creature of your world or of mine,” wrote Markey, who noted at one point that she put her hands to her face “to conceal a faint smile that sprang from some incalculable amusement within her.” Markey offered this sample of Walsh’s questioning.

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Summer Frost

Novelist and poet Raymond Holden penned a profile of famed poet Robert Frost, who among things apparently enjoyed apples and a bit of gossip. A brief excerpt:

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Dead Ball

E. B. White lamented in his “Notes and Comment” the changes to the official golf ball, which was to be made slower in a time when Depression-weary businessmen could use a little lift:

GET ‘EM WHILE THEY LAST…This 1930 golf ball, signed by golf legend Bobby Jones, can be yours for $15,000 on eBay.

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From Our Advertisers

Gender-bending trends in clothing continued from the 1920s with flowing trousers for women (unthinkable a decade earlier)…

…and beach pajamas for men and women alike…

…Buick dialed up a patrician vibe with this ad that suggested a posh boy might be transported in one by the family’s driver…

…and this might be one of the first ads that linked cigarette smoking to the myth of the Western cowboy…

…on to our cartoons, we begin out in the country with Perry Barlow

…and Kemp Starrett, with this charming bucolic scene…

…back in the drawing room, we have this canine encounter from Leonard Dove

Helen Hokinson explored the violent side of bridge…

Barbara Shermund went into the garden to sample the trials of the rich…

Carl Rose pondered the art of grammar in crowded places…

Chon Day gave us yet another take on the familiar boss vs secretary trope…

…and Gardner Rea gets the last laugh with this hapless prodigal son…

Next Time: A Star is Born…

 

The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley

Harold Ross founded the New Yorker as a sophisticated humor magazine, so when events in the city or the world took a serious turn, the writers and editors did their best to maintain its waggish tone.

May 16, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

After two cold-blooded killers engaged police in a heated gun battle from a West 91st Street rooming house, the May 16, 1931 “Talk of the Town” had this to say about the incident:

At right, a 1933 portrait of Portrait Of Edward Mulrooney, Police Commissioner of New York City, by Edward Steichen. (Conde Nast)

The New Yorker wasn’t alone in finding entertainment value in the gun battle. Safety standards were quite different in the 1930s, so as police exchanged heavy gunfire with 18-year-old Francis “Two Gun” Crowley, a crowd of 15,000 bystanders surrounded the scene, some just yards away from the action as the photo below attests:

THEY NEEDED SOCIAL DISTANCING HERE…On May 7, 1931, Francis “Two Gun” Crowley exchanged gunfire with police for nearly two hours from the fifth floor of a rooming house on West 91st Street. A force of 300 police fired an estimated 700 rounds at Crowley’s apartment while a crowd of 15,000 spectators surrounded the scene. Not sure why the police stood in a huddled mass beneath the window of the shooter. Strength in numbers, perhaps. (ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

Another mention of the incident was in John Mosher’s film review column. He noted that the newsreel footage of the shoot-out was the best thing on the screen that week, and especially the moment when Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend Helen Walsh emerged from the building in the clutches of the police:

DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE…18-year-old Francis “Two Gun” Crowley (left) surrendered to police after suffering four gunshot wounds in the West 91st Street shootout, but would recover in time to be executed two months after his 19th birthday. At right, images from the newsreel show Crowley accomplice Fats Durringer being led away from the scene, along with Crowley’s girlfriend (bottom right), 16-year-old Helen Walsh. (Everett/YouTube)

By the end of the month Crowley was tried and convicted of the murder of a police officer, and his partner Fats Durringer was found guilty of brutally killing a dance hall hostess. Justice moved swiftly in those days, especially when the murder of a police officer was involved: On June 1, 1931 — just three weeks after the shoot-out with police — Crowley and Durringer were sentenced to death. Only six months would pass before Durringer took a seat in Sing Sing’s electric chair. Crowley would follow his accomplice a few weeks later. As for Helen Walsh, she was released after testifying against Crowley and Durringer.

SHORT LIFE FOR SHORT KILLER…The diminutive Francis “Two Gun”Crowley, top, left, developed a habit of carrying more than one gun at all times, hence the nickname. At right, Crowley with officials at Sing Sing, where both he and partner Fats Durringer would meet their end in the electric chair. Below left, Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend Helen Walsh. Crowley was barely 19 years old when he was executed on Jan. 21, 1932. Among his last words, he asked the warden for a rag to wipe off the electric chair before he took his seat. “I want to wipe off the chair after that rat sat in it,” Crowley said, referring to Durringer, who had been executed weeks earlier, on Dec. 10, 1931. His request was denied. (www.swordandscale.com)

One final mention of the incident came from Ralph Barton, who named Police Commissioner Ed Mulrooney his “Hero of the Week”…

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Sub Sandwich

In his “Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey paid a visit to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where Sir Hubert Wilkins and his crew were busy preparing a narrow, cramped submarine dubbed Nautilus for a trip beneath the ice of the North Pole. Markey marveled at all of the complicated devices crammed into the vessel, but at the same time wondered why anyone would stake their life on “such flimsy things”…

TIGHT QUARTERS…The Nautilus was a refurbished O-class submarine built in 1916 for the U.S. Navy. Somehow a crew of 20 crammed into the thing. (amphilsoc.org)
The Nautilus was fitted with ice drills that would allow access to the surface of North Pole ice, as well as provide air to the crew and the vessel’s diesel engines. All this equipment was untested and unproven, since at the time submarines were not able to snorkel and had never broken through ice to reach fresh air. Click to enlarge. (Modern Mechanix)

Markey wasn’t alone in thinking such an expedition was preposterous, and from the very beginning it was beset by problems. On the very first day of preparations, March 23, 1931, a crew member fell overboard and drowned. The next day, Lady Suzanne Bennett Wilkins (Sir Hubert’s wife) christened the submarine with a bottle of ice water rather than Champagne, which was unavailable due to Prohibition.

More on this in another post, but suffice to say Sir Hubert did not succeed in this endeavor, and perhaps should have listened to the advice of the Icelandic American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson:

DRY DOCK…Christened with a bottle of ice water rather than Champagne thanks to Prohibition, the Nautilus expedition, led by Sir Hubert Wilkins (inset), had to overcome many obstacles to reach the North Pole, including untested equipment such as a conning tower (right) designed to drill through ice to allow crew members to reach the surface of polar ice. (amphilsoc.org)

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Bright Star on Broadway

In spring 1931 Dorothy Parker subbed as theatre critic for her friend, Robert Benchley, and was greeted with a remarkably mediocre (or worse) line-up of shows. When Benchley returned to his post, things didn’t get much better until Rhapsody in Black came along with its inspiring star, Ethel Waters.

WELCOME RELIEF…Robert Benchley wrote that singer Ethel Waters had a “chastening effect” on even “the meanest of songs.” (Playbill/Carter Magazine)

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Six – Love

Eighty years ago sportswriter John Tunis declared that the Davis Cup international tennis competition would likely come to an end due to expense and the erosion of amateur play. Well, we know the Davis Cup is still around, and one wonders if Tunis was getting a whiff of sour grapes, since the French had won the cup five years straight, and would win again in 1932.

JEU, SET ET MATCH!…Dubbed Les Quatre Mousquetaires (“The Four Musketeers”), the French team of Jacques Brugnon and Henri Cochet (top), Jean Borotra (bottom left), and René Lacoste (bottom right) led France to six straight Davis Cup wins, 1927–1932. (Wikipedia)

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Old Gloria

To be fair, Gloria Swanson was only 32 years old in 1931, but she was so deeply associated with the silent era that by the 1930s she seemed positively ancient (a status that she would brilliantly use to her advantage in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard).   Mosher offered this “meh” review of her latest work — only her second completely-sound film — Indiscreet.

WHERE’S THE DOOR?…Ben Lyon seems perplexed by Gloria Swanson’s attentions in this theatre lobby card promoting Indiscreet. At right, Swanson delivers her trademark laser stare. (IMDB)

And we move on to our advertisers, with this ad from Publix Theatres (owned by Paramount) promoting Indiscreet

…Southern Pacific used a theme (illustrated by Don Harold) to promote travel on their trains that wouldn’t fly today…

…I include this ad for the design, which seemed to have a little of everything…

…the makers of Camel cigarettes, however, reverted to a somewhat more homespun image, abandoning the stylish, euro-set illustrations of Carl “Eric” Erickson

…on to our cartoonists, we have this caricature of Max Steuer by Al Frueh, rendered for a two-part profile…Steuer is perhaps best known for his successful defense of the factory owners after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, hmmmm…

Ralph Barton again, with his “Graphic Section”…

Garrett Price weighed the durability of modern decor…

Barbara Shermund looked at gardening challenges in the ‘burbs…

Perry Barlow gave us a glimpse of something perhaps inspired by a trip to Europe…

Richard Decker conjured a boat salesman with a loaded question…

…and we end with the great James Thurber, and a cartoon that might not pass muster today…

Next Time: Flying the Friendly Skies…