The New Yorker stepped out of its Manhattan offices at 25 West 45th Street and headed north to see what lay beyond 96th Street and Park Avenue, to “a land on to which realtors may not push.”
In the early to mid 20th century, 96th street represented a real dividing line across Park Avenue, separating Manhattan from the “frontier” to the north. Although developers have since breached this line (particularly beginning in the 1980s), back in 1928 it truly marked an end of sorts to Park Avenue—even the paving ran out by 102nd Street. The July 28, 1928 “Talk of the Town” observed:
Beyond 96th a vast pushcart market was discovered to be operating under the elevated railroad tracks, while further on toward the Harlem River there were factories, coal yards, and a shuttered theatre:
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Sport of Lords and Ladies
The New Yorker’s sportswriter John Tunis paid a visit to the 1928 Wimbledon tennis tournament, where he took in a scene that included several celebrities:
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From Our Advertisers
The July 28 issue included yet another Dr. Seuss-illustrated ad for Flit insecticide. No doubt Seuss would later regret such an illustration, as later in life he strongly opposed racism and supported environmental causes. He would publish his first children’s book—And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street—in 1937.
Also from the July 28 issue, a detail from a two-page illustration of baseball fans at the Polo Grounds by Constantin Alajalov, which appeared in “The Talk of the Town” section:
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From Our Advertisers, Part II:
Jumping back an issue, to July 21, 1928, we find tennis great (and sometime film actor) Big Bill Tilden hawking the toasted pleasures of Lucky Strike cigarettes on the magazine’s back cover:
As I’ve noted before, many New Yorker ads appealed to the Anglophilic pretensions of its striving readershship. This one below from Saks is a particularly egregious example…
…other social strivers could look to the example of these society matrons who picked up some spare cash shilling for Old Gold cigarettes…
I close with a couple of cartoons from the July 21 issue by Barbara Shermund and Peter Arno:
Lights of New York would be a forgettable film if not for the fact it was the world’s first 100 percent talking motion picture. Yes, it was a bad film, but…
…even the July 14, 1928 New Yorker had the foresight to note that the film was destined to be a “museum piece.” Despite the corny plot and bad acting, the magazine’s critic “O.C.” had to concede that the film offered proof that sound would improve the motion picture experience.
The Jazz Singer (1927) launched a “talkie revolution” that would culminate nine months later in Lights of New York, and by the end of 1929 Hollywood was almost exclusively making sound films. But studios still released silent films into the 1930s, since not every theatre in the country was wired for sound.
The New Yorker had been slow to embrace sound in motion pictures (see my previous posts). What helped to win them over was the further refinement of the Movietone process, in which the sound track was printed directly onto the film strip (The Jazz Singer used Vitaphone, which essentially synched a record player with a film and provided a sporadic rather than continuous sound track).
In the same issue, the New Yorker also predicted (in “The Talk of the Town”) that sound in movies would challenge actors whose voices weren’t as attractive as their screen images:
The New Yorker also noted that sound pictures would prove to a great “bonanza” to voice teachers:
Transition to sound in the late 1920s would later provide the theme for the 1952 musicalSingin’ In The Rain, in which Jean Hagen portrayed silent film star Lina Lamont, whose voice was ill-suited for talking pictures.
The New Yorker also noted that the advent of sound in motion pictures would put an end to many theatres operating on the vaudeville circuit:
In his regular column, “Of All Things,” Howard Brubaker gave his two cents about the new world of talking movies:
Paving Over Paradise
In the July 14 “Talk of the Town,” the New Yorker offered more bittersweet commentary on the city’s rapidly changing landscape. This time it was a famous stretch of lawns on West 23rd Street—London Terrace— that were being uprooted to make way for a massive new apartment block:
According to Tom Miller (writing for his blog Daytonian in Manhattan), Clement Moore, the writer to whom “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“The Night Before Christmas”) “had developed the block when he divided up his family estate, ‘Chelsea.’ On the 23rd Street block, in 1845, he commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis to design 36 elegant Greek Revival brownstone townhouses. The row was designed to appear as a single, uniform structure or ‘terrace’ (a design not lost on the New Yorker writer). Unusual for Manhattan, each had deep front yards planted with shrubbery and trees. He called his development ‘London Terrace.'”
By October 1929, writes Miller, “a few weeks before the collapse of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression, (developer Henry Mandel) had acquired and demolished all the structures on the enormous block of land. All except for Tillie Hart’s house. Tillie leased 429 West 23rd Street and, although her lease had legally expired, she refused to leave. Tillie fired a barrage of bricks and rocks at anyone who approached the sole-surviving house. A court battle ensued while she barricaded herself inside. Finally, just four days before Black Tuesday, sheriffs gained entry and moved all of Tillie Hart’s things onto the street. She held out one more night, sleeping on newspapers in her once-grand bedroom, then gave up. The following day her house was destroyed.”
Miller writes, “to describe the new London Terrace was to use superlatives. Consuming the entire city block, it was the largest apartment building in the world with 1,665 apartments. It boasted the largest swimming pool in the city – 75 feet by 35 feet, with mosaic walls and viewing balconies. Twenty-one stories above the street a “marine deck” was designed to mimic that of a luxury ocean liner. It had a fully-equipped gymnasium, a recreation club, a rooftop children’s play yard with professional supervisors, and a large dining room. The doormen were dressed as London bobbies.”
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In other diversions, I. Klein looked askew at the latest headlines, namely the big fight between Gene Tunney and Tom Heeney, one of the 20th century’s many “battles of the century”…
…while Helen Hokinson, on the other hand, offered some sketches of seafaring life…
…and looked in on the challenges of buying a hat…
…and then there was this two-page cartoon by Al Frueh, and its disturbing depiction of African “savages” (rendered in blackface?!)…click to enlarge
And to close, a cartoon by Leonard Dove…
…that referenced ads such as this one from the June 2, 1928 issue of the New Yorker… (click image to enlarge).
Ring Lardner is one of those 20th century American writers everyone has heard of but few have actually read. This is perhaps because he is often pigeonholed as a sportswriter rather than being remembered as a gifted satirist whose crisp writing style—often peppered with slang—influenced a generation of writers including Ernest Hemingway, who covered sports for his high school newspaper under the pseudonym “Ring Lardner.”
Lardner would contribute nearly two dozen pieces to the New Yorker beginning with this ditty in the April 18, 1925 issue—
—and ending with “Odd’s Bodkins,” published posthumously in the Oct. 7, 1933 issue (Lardner died at age 48 of a heart ailment on Sept. 25, 1933). In his satirical “Profiles” piece for the July 7, 1928 issue, Lardner had some fun with editor and playwright Beatrice Kaufman, who like Lardner existed within the orbit of the famed Algonquin Round Table but was not a regular member (however Beatrice’s husband, playwright and director George S. Kaufman, was a charter member).
The entire piece, including an illustration by Peter Arno, is below (click image to enlarge the text):
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One New Yorker writer who does stand the test of time is E.B. White, known to earlier generations for his many humorous contributions to the New Yorker and to later generations for his co-authorship of the English language reference The Elements of Style, and for his beloved children’s books including Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web (Charlotte’s Web was often voted as the top children’s novel in a survey of School Library Journal readers, and most recently in 2012—the 60th anniversary of its publication). In the July 7, 1928 issue the nature-loving White offered these tongue-in-cheek plant care instructions, arranged atop a cartoon by Alan Dunn:
Another cartoon in the July 7 issue by Garrett Price offered another perspective on an advertising come-on:
No doubt Price was referencing ads such as this one below by the American Tobacco Company in which actress and dancer Gilda Gray—who in the 1920s popularized a dance called the “shimmy”—announced her preference for pipe smokers:
And we close with this cartoon by Al Frueh, who demonstrated how fashion had freed the woman of the Roaring Twenties:
Interested in the history of New Yorker cartoons and cartoonists? Then I recommend you check out cartoonist Michael Maslin’s Inkspillwebsite for news on cartoonists and events. Another great site is Stephen Nadler’s Attempted Bloggery, which explores original art, auctions, obscurities and other angles of New Yorker cartoons and cartoonists.
A couple of my favorite Maslin cartoons (among many):
Compared to Hollywood, cinema as an art form in the 1920s was more advanced in Europe, where filmmakers took a more mature, nuanced approach to movies; they focused less on money and more on exploring difficult social and historical issues. Trench warfare, genocide and famine have a way of doing that to you.
The contrast between the European avant-garde and Hollywood’s Tinseltown was not lost on the New Yorker’s film critics, who consistently lambasted American cinema while applauding nearly everything coming out of Europe, and especially the films produced by German and Russian directors. The critic “O.C.” used the Russians latest American release, The End of St. Petersburg, to drive home the point. He also chided those who dismissed the film as propaganda, a stance much in line with leftist intellectuals of the day who found inspiration in the Russian Revolution (and sometimes they looked the other way when things didn’t go so well in the Soviet experiment—1928 marked the beginning of the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year Plan. By 1934 it was estimated that almost 15 million people died from forced collectivization and famine).
The End of St. Petersburg was blatant propaganda, to be sure, but to this day it has been widely praised for its cinematic innovations. The story itself was fairly straightforward: A peasant goes to St. Petersburg looking for work, gets arrested for his involvement in a labor union and is subsequently sent to fight in the trenches of World War I. His experiences in the war solidify his commitment to revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist overlords. The New Yorker review:
The New Yorker reviewer suggested that a story used primarily to influence an audience—propaganda—was not necessarily a bad thing:
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Back in the New World, most of the talk in cinematic circles revolved around the excitement of “talking pictures.”
It seems that Fox Movietone newsreels really got things going with sound and whetted the audience appetites for more:
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Then There Was The Other Playwright…
Mae West, to be exact. My guess is her approach to the craft was a bit different than G.B. Shaw’s, and we can gather as much from these excerpts from the June 9 “Talk of the Town.” The piece discusses West’s rise to fame as the creator and star of the scandalous play Sex, and her unorthodox approach to rehearsals.
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Although many today would identify D.H. Lawrence as one of great English novelists of the 20th century, eighty years ago the New Yorker book critic Dorothy Parker described him as “very near to being first rate.”
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The makers of Old Gold cigarettes claimed to have scientific proof on their side with a series of ads in the New Yorker featuring endorsements by the rich and famous. This ad ran in the June 9 issue:
In the same issue was this cartoon by Al Frueh that took a poke at Old Gold’s marketing strategy…
…and Peter Arno offered this unique take on human vanity…
Talking pictures continued to be a theme in the June 16, 1928, issue of the NewYorker.
In his “Of All Things Column,” Howard Brubaker suggested that sound movies would spell the end of careers for some silent stars:
Although some actors struggled with the transition to sound, the reasons why some major stars faded with the advent of “talkies” are far more nuanced. In many cases, some stars packed it in because their careers had already peaked during the silent era, and both studios and audiences were looking for some fresh faces.
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Niven Busch, Jr. continued to explore the illicit bar scene in his recurring feature “Speakeasy Nights.” I include this excerpt because it described a rather clever facade devised by the owner of the “J.P. Speakeasy.”
Busch observed an interesting protocol for admittance into the speakeasy, including a typewritten message devised to throw off any would-be Prohibition officers:
From Our Advertisers…
This ad leaves a bad taste in your mouth no matter how you look at. Nothing like coating your mouth with Milk of Magnesia before lighting up that first fag of the day…
…and here we have another ad for Flit insecticide, courtesy of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.
And finally, a look at a Roaring Twenties wedding reception, courtesy cartoonist Garrett Price:
New Yorker writers in the 1920s by and large displayed a resistance to enthusiasm when they looked around at the changing the world, but when it came to advancements in aviation, they tended to drop the casual pose and get all dreamy-eyed.
Such was the case with even a clear-headed writer like Morris Markey, who in his “A Reporter at Large” column looked at our progress in aviation. Public interest in air travel grew dramatically after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 Atlantic crossing, as did the expansion of air mail and passenger service and the growth of private plane ownership. As Markey noted in this opening paragraph, for all the advances in American aviation, the Europeans were well ahead in establishing regular passenger service, as it has become “commonplace”:
To get some sense of European (and specifically German) aviation superiority, look no further than the Dornier Do-X, a massive seaplane developed by the Germans in the mid-1920s that began regular passenger service in July 1929. While America’s biggest planes could carry 12 to 18 passengers, the spacious and luxurious Dornier Do-X could comfortably seat 70 to 100 passengers and included a dining salon, smoking lounge and wet bar. A few months after its first flight the Do-X broke a world record by carrying 169 passengers—astonishing when one considers only 25 years had passed since the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.
Markey noted in his article the growing interest in commuter flights among business executives. What seemed like a high demand to Markey was an average of three commuter flights a day.
Markey also lamented New York’s lag in building up passenger service, especially when air travel was growing leaps and bounds in the Midwest and West, and especially in rival Chicago:
Markey also noted the modest number of planes in private hands, but expected private ownership to increase dramatically in the coming months:
Although Markey lamented the slow growth of New York aviation, he was nevertheless dazzled by the “ships” taking to the skies at Curtiss Field.
Jumping ahead a couple of years, New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno offered this view of passenger flight, the passengers in this case a bunch of silly toffs (April 12, 1930).
And back to the June 2, 1928 issue, we find this ad for Rolls Royce that offered a vision of a future airliner—in the year 1948. Since the artist had no clue what the future would hold, he conjured up this contraption that looked like a streamlined ark attached to a huge zeppelin.
And just for kicks (and contrast), this ad for Lincoln was all about tradition, except for the nice typographical flourish on the letter “L” —a definite nod to Bauhaus style.
And if you thought novelty in our gadgets is a fairly recent thing, check out these portable Kodak cameras that were available in five colors. From automobiles to typewriters, manufacturers in the 1920s were discovering that color distinguished their products and even drove demand (click image to enlarge).
Advertisers could also create demand by appealing to readers’ cravings for status. The following ad for a Lord and Burnham greenhouse is an especially egregious example of the use of status shaming to sell a product. Note how the foursome in the illustration, presumably all greenhouse owners, look at the man without a greenhouse as though he’s a child molester or worse.
Before Green Eggs and Ham
In 1928 ads for Flit insecticide began to appear in the New Yorker, illustrated by none other than Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. This is the first Flit ad to appear in the magazine, in the June 2, 1928 issue:
In the 1920s people didn’t seem too concerned about the toxicity of the products they used (for example, we’ve seen Lysol used as a feminine douche). Although the Flit ads aimed to be humorous, it still seems odd to imply that one might gargle with the insecticide. As we shall see, subsequent Flit ads will show the product being sprayed indiscriminately over food, children, pets etc.
Taking a Shot at the Babe
The cartoonist I. Klein had some fun with the hyperbole often attached to the athletic feats of the Sultan of Swat:
And finally, Peter Arno looked at murder among the upper classes:
When Jimmy Walker was elected mayor of New York City in 1926, the city finally had a leader that matched the mood of the times. A dapper lover of music and nightlife, he openly took a Ziegfield dancer as his mistress, often fled the city for European vacations, and was known to begin meetings with the pop of a Champagne cork.
No doubt many New Yorker readers liked the Jazz Age spirit of their mayor, and who really cared about his “accomplishments” as long as the city continued to boom and its smart set continued to prosper? The magazine’s “Talk of the Town” concluded as much:
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Remembrance of Things Past
Although the New Yorker embraced the spirit imbued in the city’s rapidly changing skyline, there was always a tinge of regret when landmarks fell to wrecking balls and the city erased its past faster than one could comprehend. And so the magazine was a strong and early supporter of the establishment of the Museum of the City of New York, founded in 1923 and housed in Gracie Mansion (now the mayor’s official residence) until a permanent, neo-Georgian-style museum was finally erected in 1929-30 on Fifth Avenue between 103rd and 104th streets.
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No Beer Left to Cry In
As the Museum of the City of New York scrambled to preserve a past that was quickly being erased across Manhattan, another venerable institution prepared to close its doors for good—Allaire’s Scheffel Hall—which in its heyday was a favorite watering hole of artists, musicians, and writers including Stephen Crane. Allaire’s, located in a Gramercy Park neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland, or“Little Germany,” was the latest victim of Prohibition; it was, after all, hard to run a beer hall without the beer.
Amazingly, the building still stands, now home to a pilates and yoga studio.
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The “Talk of the Town” had its usual bits and pieces of happenings in the city, including this mild jab at the rather staid New York Times:
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Silent film star Buster Keaton’s latest picture, Steamboat Bill, Jr., won the approval of New Yorker film critic O.C., and Keaton’s co-star Marion Byron received extra props for her “gusto”…
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Truth in Advertising
Outside of politics this is one of the most cynical uses of the word “truth” I’ve ever seen. Since the woman isn’t smoking herself, I’m guessing she is reading a letter from someone (son, daughter, boyfriend) who has learned the truth about Camels and has decided to share it in a letter. How sweet.
In 1928 color images such as the Camel ad above brightened an increasing number of New Yorker ads. Color was artfully used in a number of spots, including the left panel of this two-page ad for a new cosmetic compact…
The issue also featured this comic sketch by Rea Irvin of New Yorker critic and commentator (and hypochondriac) Alexander Woollcott…
…and keeping on the literary side, this comic by Isidore Klein…
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The May 26, 1928 issue the “Talk of the Town” turned its attention to sound in motion pictures, or rather, turned its ears away from the “movie tone” sound effects becoming common in the waning days of the Silent Era.
Everyday sounds, in particular, proved jarring to the ears of those who were accustomed to the relative quiet of silent movies:
“Talk” also looked in on the writer Thornton Wilder, who was planning to summer in Europe with his friend, the literary-minded boxer Gene Tunney.
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More Truth in Advertising
The manufacturers of Old Gold cigarettes were also in pursuit of the truth in this ad featured in the May 26 issue, backing up the claim with a “blindfold test” on none other than the daughter of J. P. Morgan…
Deception in advertising wasn’t limited to cigarettes, however. The makers of Lysol had their own nefarious scheme that shamed women into using their product as a form of birth control (referred to in the ad below with the euphemism “feminine hygiene”). Not only was it ineffective as a contraceptive, it was also corrosive to one’s privates.
The ad is also appalling for casting the responsibility for birth control entirely on the woman. But then again, where are we today?
On to other questionable health pursuits, this ad in the May 26 issue touted the “radio-active waters” ofGlen Springs, a hotel and sanatorium located above Seneca Lake in New York. Searching for oil on the site in late 19th century, the owners struck not black gold but rather a black, briny water that they claimed had greater curative powers than those found in Germany’s famed Nauheim Springs.
Why they called the waters “radio-active” escapes me. There were a lot of quack medical cures floating around in the 1920s—some of them quite dangerous—so I’m guessing that the proprietors of Glen Springs were adding radium to the water in some of their treatments, or maybe just claiming that radium was present in the water. Although Marie Curie (a pioneering researcher on radioactivity) and others protested against radiation therapies, a number of corporations and physicians marketed radioactive substances as miracle cure-alls, including radium enema treatments and radium-containing water tonics.
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And finally, our cartoons for the May 26 issue, in which Barbara Shermund and Peter Arno explore the ups and downs of courtship…
The “Profile” for the May 12, 1928 issue was unusual in that its subject was not a titan of industry, or a prominent politician, or noted artist, musician or literary figure, but rather a dog—an extraordinary animal named Egon who would be lost to history were it not for Alexander Woollcott writing about this particular German Shepherd and his exploits on the French Riviera.
I should be clear that the dog featured at the top of this entry is not Egon, but a famous contemporary named Rin Tin Tin. It is said Egon could have enjoyed similar fame on the silver screen (Hollywood was looking for an animal to replace the aging canine superstar), but Egon’s owner, Benjamin Finney, had no interest in the limelight. So I couldn’t find any images of Egon save for this drawing that accompanied Woollcott’s essay:
Writing for the Huffington Post, Anne Margaret Daniel calls Egon Finney the “Jazz Age celebrity no one has noticed since his lifetime, but who is surely as interesting as many of his human contemporaries — and far more interesting than many of them.”
Woollcott would agree with that statement, given the opening paragraphs of his piece on Egon:
When Egon and Finney lived in Antibes in 1927 and 1928, Egon would give diving exhibitions off the rocks below the Hotel du Cap. According to Daniel, the dog also “availed himself of his owner’s surfboard, and water skis — possibly the first pair ever on the Riviera.” Egon was aided in his efforts by none other than the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived on the Riviera from 1925 to 1930.
According to Daniel, Finney recalled that Egon’s physical design “made it difficult for him to get started (on the surfboard), but his friend Scott Fitzgerald was expert at giving him a hand… Firmly balanced, tail streaming in the wind, he was a noble sight — and he knew it.”
Because the dog outshone his owner, Woollcott headlined his profile, “The Owner of Ben Finney.” Egon died in 1934, and those very words are carved on his headstone, located in America’s first pet cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Someone He Could Finally Relate To…
Charles Lindbergh was famously shy and crowd averse, so when the famed aviator met with the serious-minded boxing champ Gene Tunney, he found something of a kindred spirit. The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” was there for all of the action:
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From Our Advertisers…
Beginning in 1924 the Southern Pacific’s Golden State Limited trains added modern and luxurious 3-compartment, 2-drawing room observation cars to their Pullman fleet. This advertisement in the May 12, 1928 New Yorker enticed affluent readers to take the 2,762 mile, 70-hour journey from Chicago to Los Angeles:
As the fashion advertisements turned to summer, the May 12 issue featured no less than three separate ads for straw boaters…
Today’s ubiquitous polo shirt was an entirely new look for the summer of 1928. The shirt was designed by France’s seven-time Grand Slam tennis champion René Lacoste, who understandably found traditional “tennis whites” (starched, long-sleeved white button-up shirts with neckties) both cumbersome and uncomfortable. Lacoste first wore the polo at the 1926 U.S. Open, and in 1927 he placed the famous crocodile emblem on the left breast of his shirts. It didn’t take long for many imitators to hit the market. This ad from Wallach Brothers offered one version for $6, although I can’t imagine wool was the best material for this shirt (Lacoste used cotton in his).
No doubt B. Altman had June brides in mind for this advertisement featuring a deco bride of impossible proportions:
And our cartoon is once again from Peter Arno, who explored the not so subtle racism of the upper classes: