Frozen at 30 Rock

To call Lewis Mumford an architecture critic would do him a disservice. He was indeed an outspoken voice on New York’s changing skyline, informed by a keen understanding of history and aesthetics, but his criticisms were also those of a philosopher, a political commentator, a city planner, and an authority on matters concerning art, literature, society and culture.

June 20, 1931 cover by S. Liam Dunne.

The June 20, 1931 issue marks the entrance of Mumford (1895-1990) to our New Yorker story, and just in time to offer his perspectives on the Rockefeller Center project, which was about to commence.

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD…This Midtown neighborhood was torn down shortly after the photo was taken to make room for the massive Rockefeller Center project. The view is from the corner of 6th Avenue and 51st Street looking to the southeast. One of the spires of St. Patrick’s is visible at far left, and the Chrysler Building can be glimpsed in the distant center. Lewis Mumford was no fan of giant skyscrapers or other “mega” building projects, and would have preferred something more on this smaller scale for Rockefeller Center. (Museum of the City of New York – MCNY)

The proposed project — then referred to as “Radio City” — received negative reviews from a number of critics, although the most pointed came from Mumford, who disliked “mega” building projects such as Rockefeller’s, labeling it as “weakly conceived, reckless, romantic chaos.”

RECKLESS, ROMANTIC CHAOS is how Lewis Mumford, left, described plans for Rockefeller Center. At right, the May 1931 issue of Popular Science featured the project’s plans. (Pinterest/Google Books)

Mumford’s Emersonian temperament favored simplicity, self-sufficiency and community; he believed skyscrapers and other “megamachines” were dehumanizing and even dishonest. In this next excerpt he poses a question about the so-called pragmatic “money men” behind the project: “Are the practical men practical?” We read on…

WELCOME TO CLOUDCUCKOOLAND…That was Mumford’s own term to describe plans for Rockefeller’s “Radio City.” An early rendering from 1928 (left) referred to the project as “Metropolitan Square,” and for a time it was slated to include a new Metropolitan Opera house.  Joseph Urban proposed this Fifth Avenue-facing design (right) in 1927, but plans were waylaid by the Great Depression. (ephemeralnewyork)
BLANK SLATE…With the site mostly cleared, construction commenced in the fall of 1931. This image is from December 16, 1931. (MCNY)

Mumford concluded that the opportunity to create a restful respite from the clamor of the city had been lost on the project, which just promised more “razzle-dazzle” and “incongruous jangle,” an interesting observation given that other New Yorker writers were generally dazzled by the skyscrapers and other gigantic projects that were rapidly erasing the old city.

True to his beliefs, Mumford lived a simple life in an old country house in Amenia, New York, a small town in the northern reaches of the Hudson Valley region.

FAR FROM THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE…Mumford house in Amenia, NY. (Wikipedia)

Historian Daniel Okrent, author of Great Fortune, The Epic of Rockefeller Center, notes that Mumford was eventually won over by Rockefeller Center in the end, calling it “a serene eyeful” and “the most exciting mass of buildings in the city.” I have to agree.

SERENE EYEFUL…Images of Rockefeller Center from 1939 (left) and 1935. (flickr.com/MCNY)

 *  *  *

Summertime Reads

A quick glance at the new books listed at the end of the New Yorker’s book review column shows us a nice variety of summertime diversions, including a book about Josef Stalin written before his Great Purge that murdered a million of his own citizens…then there was the memoir Blood on the Moon written by Jim Tully, “America’s most famous hobo author”…the book Life Among the Lowbrows by Eleanor Rowland Wembridge also caught my eye…I believe I’m almost set for the summer…

A STUDY IN CONTRASTS…Misfits and lowlifes peppered the books of both “hobo writer” Jim Tully (left) and psychologist Eleanor Rowland Wembridge, although from very different perspectives. While Wembridge took a more clinical approach to the underclasses, Tully used them for material in his hardscrabble stories. Guess which one ended up in Hollywood. (scpr.org/apadivisions.org)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

The makers of Jantzen swimwear took a slightly risqué approach in advertising their latest women’s line…

…the owners of the Majestic, on the other hand, used snob appeal and a sense of heightened grandeur to promote their Central Park West apartments…

…advertisers of non-alcoholic drinks tried their best to capture the allure of cocktails, and I imagine much of their product was mixed with something a bit more interesting…

William Steig was hitting his stride as one of the newer cartoon contributors to the New Yorker

…with two of his entries featured in the June 20 issue…Steig would live 95 years and be productive throughout his life…nearly 60 years after these cartoons appeared in the New Yorker he would publish the children’s book Shrek!, the basis for the popular movie series…

…earlier in his career, Steig would also find fame for his series of Small Fry cartoons featuring children in adult situations, anticipating Charles Schulz’s Peanuts…this next cartoon, however, is not by Steig but by Alan Dunn, perhaps anticipating Steig…

Gardner Rea continued to explore the foibles of the well-heeled…

John Held Jr amused us with another of his rustic “woodcuts”…

Garrett Price shot the rapids with a hapless suitor…

…here is one the six cartoons Crawford Young contributed to the New Yorker in 1931-32, capturing a moment in which the chicken-egg question is largely moot…

…and another look into the leisure classes courtesy Barbara Shermund

…and we close the June 20 issue with James Thurber, who showed us a fellow who probably regretted his evening out…

…Thurber also brings into the next issue, June 27…

June 27, 1931 cover by Gardner Rea

…in which he recounted his adventures in bird-watching and the mating habits of crows…

 *  *  *

A Falling (Lone) Star

In her “Letter From Paris,” Janet Flanner reported that the allure of the “Queen of the Nightclubs,” Texas Guinan, did not extend to French shores, where among other things she ran afoul of labor laws that dissuaded non-citizens from working in France.

BEGINNING OF THE END…Associated with risqué entertainments in various speakeasies during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression prompted Texas Guinan to take to the road with her show. After attempting (and failing) to make a tour of Europe, she returned to the States for one final road trip. Above left, Guinan in the 1933 film Broadway Through a Keyhole, which would open just three days before her death. At right, headline from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle trumpeting Guinan’s French debacle. (pre-code.com/

Upon her return to the States, Guinan took advantage of her well-publicized dismissal from France and launched the satirical revue Too Hot for Paris. This traveling show would also mark the beginning of the end for Guinan, who would contract amoebic dysentery during a run of the show at the Chicago World’s Fair. It would claim her life on Nov. 5, 1933, at age 49.

 *  *  *

They Put the Ping Into Pong

“They” being the Parker Brothers, who took umbrage at anyone who questioned their sole right to market genuine “Ping-Pong” balls. “The Talk of the Town” explained:

The “Talk” item ended with a little surprise about Mr. George Parker himself:

VINTAGE…A 1902 ping-pong set from Parker Brothers. (Worthpoint)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Some lovely color ads, including this message that paired playful porpoises with leaded gasoline…

…this ad was about color itself, and how Powers Reproduction Corporation could make your images pop…

…and another sad Prohibition-era ad from the makers of Budweiser, in this case, a non-alcoholic version that looks like the real thing…of course what is even sadder about this ad is the suggestion that plantation life was something one should fondly hearken back to…

…on to our cartoons, and another terrific illustration from Barbara Shermund

…and we have Otto Soglow’s Little King, who temporarily lost his crown…

…and another from Soglow, at the men’s store…

Carl Rose gave us a chap contemplating the burdens of a Guggenheim “genius” grant…

Peter Arno revealed that his Major had two left feet…

…and in anticipation of the Fourth of July, we end as we began, with Gardner Rea

Next Time: Firecracker Lane…

 

 

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)

 *  *  *

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)

 *  *  *

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.

 *  *  *

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:

 *  *  *

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.

 *  *  *

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…