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 Quiet Man

One of the challenges of writing these posts is giving proper due to the many writers and artists who helped shape the New Yorker universe, and especially to those we’ve almost forgotten.

April 30, 1932 cover by Theodore Haupt.

One writer who deserves our special attention is John Mosher, film critic for the New Yorker from 1928 to 1942 and a pioneer of the New Yorker short story. In her 2000 book Defining New Yorker Humor, Judith Yaross Lee notes how the “burlesque” prose of the early magazine was displaced by Mosher’s quieter humor, which lent support to Dorothy Parker’s ironic mode and E.B. White’s “travails of the Sufferer.” Mosher’s prose, writes Lee, “helped New Yorker humor combine broad comic conception and ironic realistic narration.”

In addition to regular film reviews and occasional profiles, Mosher penned nearly fifty short stories, or “casuals” as they were called. It was also Mosher who “discovered” writer John O’Hara when in 1929 he found one of O’Hara’s pieces in a “slush pile” of unsolicited submissions.

Without further ado, here is one of Mosher’s shorts, “Wake Up, You’re Forty” (Mosher turned forty in 1932) from the April 30 issue. It demonstrates Mosher’s ironic narrative style, skillfully deployed to describe a comically minor event:

THE STORYTELLER…John Mosher’s New Yorker short stories (1925 to 1940) were collected in Celibate at Twilight, illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Mary Petty. It included tales about life on Fire Island, where Mosher and his partner, broker Philip Claflin, became the first gay property owners in the vacation village of Cherry Grove. Visitors included Mosher’s close friend Edith Lewis as well as Willa Cather, Janet Flanner, Wolcott Gibbs, and James Thurber. (neglectedbooks.com/findagrave.com)
Aerial view of Cherry Grove, circa 1960. (pineshistory.org)

On Sept. 3, 1942, Mosher died of heart failure in New York City at the young age of 50. He was remembered by his New Yorker colleagues in this eulogy found on page 72 of the Sept. 12, 1942 issue:

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Going Up!

The “Talk of the Town” took a look at the innovative double-decker elevators being installed in the new Cities Service Building (now 70 Pine Street) in Lower Manhattan. Although the Cities Service building didn’t have the fame of the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building, when completed the 952-foot Cities Service Building stood as the third tallest in the world.

STILL STANDING TALL…The Cities Service Building (now 70 Pine Street) in Lower Manhattan after its completion in 1932; center, a miniature model of the building, incorporated between the eastern entrance portals on Pine and Cedar Streets; at right, a clipping from the January 1932 Popular Science magazine detailing the unique double-decker elevator design. (MCNY/Wikipedia/Popular Science)

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Electric Patriotism

E.B. White kicked off his “Notes and Comment” with some observations about the newly-renovated Union Square and its electrified American flag:

PATRIOT GAMES…Then as now, Americans have always disagreed on what constitutes a tasteful patriotic display. At top, Union Square (circa 1930) arranged around Henry Kirke Brown’s 1856 statue, George Washington; in 2011 a U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Office (below) at Broadway and Seventh Avenue, was fitted with a giant electric flag of red, white and blue LED lights. (Dick Ebert)

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From Our Advertisers

Lord & Taylor rolled out some new ads illustrated by Melisse, aka Mildred Oppenheim

…apparently giddy about their new campaign, Lord & Taylor ran a second one-column ad in the back pages…

…apparently Melisse was a big draw in the 1930s, based on this Dec. 12, 1931 advertisement in the New York Sun (photo added by me, via strippersguide.blogspot.com)…

…travel companies continued their appeals to the well-heeled and included exotic destinations such as Zoppot…

…which today is known as Sopot, Poland…its Sofitel Grand Hotel (aka the Kasino Hotel) continues to serve as a spa resort…

TAKING THE WATERS…Sopot’s Grand Hotel (aka the Kasino Hotel) continues to serve as a spa resort — it is seen in the background of this 1950 photo (top); below, hotel interior in 1927. The hotel has hosted the famous — Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Josephine Baker — and the infamous, including Adolph Hitler. More recent guests to the hotel included Prince, Shakira, Vladimir Putin and The Weeknd.  (Wikipedia/sofitelgrandsopot.com)

…we move back to the States, where car companies continued to vie for scarce consumer dollars…Buick hired an artist to create this generic image of a successful-looking businessman, hoping to convince readers to invest in their automobile…

…the makers of LaSalle, a downscale version of Cadillac, wanted readers to imagine that owning their car would put them in the same company as the fashionably blasé patrician class…

…Hudson also made an appeal to class with this full-color ad designed to pique the Anglophilic tendencies of many readers…

…the makers of the luxurious Packard usually marketed to older monied folks who sought mechanical quality, refinement and reliability, so this ad was a bit of a surprise…

…and speaking of youth, with have an ad from Ciné-Kodak that begins on a lively note…

…but then includes this guilt-inducing bummer…

Otto Soglow kept things lighter with his latest ad for Sanka…

…which brings us to the cartoons, and Soglow’s Little King

Robert Day gave us a cordial shoppe owner spying opportunity…

James Thurber explored the spirit realm…

Peter Arno found misunderstanding at the manor house…

…and Kemp Starrett found a real fixer-upper…

William Steig let one of his “Small Fry” speak his mind…

…and we close with Alan Dunn, and the pressures of modern love…

Next Time: High Anxiety…

The Shipping News

I’m always a bit wistful when writing about travel in the 1930s, and no mode of transportation from that decade seems more bygone than that of the great ocean liners.

April 16, 1932 cover by Sue Williams.

During the Depression many of the shipping lines looked for new ways to make up for lost passenger revenue, and this included catering to those of more modest means by introducing revised cabin classes and other amenities. E.B. White explained:

NOT A WATER SLIDE IN SIGHT…The French Line’s S.S. Normandie (left) and Italy’s M.S. Vulcania proudly plied the seas in the 1930s.
Let’s take a look inside at what White might have glimpsed on his tour aboard a 1930s liner…all of these images are of the less-pricey “tourist class” cabins…Stateroom #282 on the S.S. Normandie offered modern decor and a shower…
…the Italian Line’s M.S. Vulcania tourist class berth #409 offered two beds with a bath…
…also from the Italian Line, “Four Berth Cabin #443, Tourist Class” on the S.S. Augustus…
All cabin images courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
…as for “tourist class” dining, if you were on the S.S. Normandie, here is what awaited you…
…what you would not have seen in this room: flip flops, tee shirts, or all-you-can eat buffets…
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Casting Stones
Architectural critic Lewis Mumford did not suffer fools, or foolish architecture, gladly, and when it came time for the American Institute of Architects’ annual Medal of Honor, he found that even good taste could not compensate for poor design:

DEFICIENT was how Lewis Mumford described the conception of 120 East End Avenue. Nearly eighty years later, in a 2009 “Streetscapes” column, New York Times writer Christopher Gray called the building “impeccably reserved,” and noted that it served as the home of famed philanthropist Brooke Astor during her six years of marriage to Vincent Astor. (Ruby Washington, NYT)
RARE PRAISE was offered by Mumford, however, to Clarence Stein’s Phipps garden apartments, a reminder that in addition to being an architecture critic, Mumford was also a city planner, concerned not only for aesthetics and function but also for how a building or buildings worked within the context of neighborhood and city. (cornell.edu)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with this understated advertisement from Tiffany & Company. You don’t see the word “silversmiths” in their marketing anymore (they are now “artisans”) but they still have a lot of silver things to offer…

…including some items you couldn’t buy in 1932, like this silver coffee can for $1,550…

(tiffany.com)

…speaking of silver, Gorham Sterling boasted that its sterling silverware was owned by miss etiquette herself, Emily Post, although here she is still quaintly referred to as “Mrs. Price Post”…

…if you were looking for sterling qualities in an automobile, Packard offered a range of “Aristocrats of the Metropolis”…

…to treat that Packard right, you’d want to give it the best in fuels, in this case leaded Ethyl Gasoline…

…the makers of Ethyl ran a series of these illustrated ads (above) that compared lesser fuels to downscale choices in life. However, I don’t quite get the final two illustrations in this ad…the first panel depicts a man who is apparently lost, therefore lacking confidence and therefore choosing to put mere “Gas” into his outdated sedan. Also the wife is missing. I mean, who wants to be seen with this guy? On the other hand, the confident man who chose Ethyl is seen casually chatting with an attendant as the precious fuel flows into his sporty roadster. His lovely wife and child seem delighted to watch the amber fuel spin in a little side gauge. Yes, life was good when you switched to Ethyl…

…if you were a person of substantial means you could also contemplate air conditioning for your home, something that almost no one possessed in 1932. Indeed, air-conditioning for the home was only introduced in 1932, when H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman sold an individual room air conditioner that sat on a window ledge. According to Popular Mechanics (Jan. 1, 2015), the units “were only enjoyed by the people least likely to work up a sweat—the wealthy. (The large cooling systems cost between $10,000 and $50,000. That’s equivalent to $120,000 to $600,000 today.)”…

…in addition to being rich, the pilot of this plane also happened to be cultured and fascinating, and a smoker of Rameses II cigarettes…

…and here’s another activity reserved for the very few — overseas telephone calls. At $30 for three minutes to London, it would be equivalent to about $600 today (consider that your average stenographer was pulling in maybe $15 a week in 1932, a sales clerk less than $10)…

…that sales clerk, however, likely could afford a jar of Pond’s and aspire to have a “celebrated English complexion” like Lady Mary Katherine Clive Pakenham…

…Born into the Anglo-Irish Longford family, Pakenham (1907-2010) was a British writer and historian best known for memoirs of her family and time as a debutante in 1926…

THOSE DOWDY DEBS… Lady Mary Katherine Clive Pakenham’s memoir of life as a debutante, Brought Up and Brought Out (1938), recounted 1926 as a “bumper dowdy year” for debutantes, the men she encountered “practically deformed…Some were without chins. Some had no foreheads. Hardly any of them had backs to their heads.” (Cecil Beaton Studio Archive)

…we continue with the fashionable by way of Lord & Taylor and an illustration that looks very New Yorker-esque but I can’t quite identify the artist, not yet anyway…maybe Barbara Shermund?

…I do, however, know this is by our dear Barbara

Richard Decker presented an odd moment in a manor house…

Otto Soglow’s Little King was up to his old tricks…

Robert Day discovered an unlikely hitch-hiker…

James Thurber illustrated some easy speaking in a speakeasy…

…and with the “cylinder wars” in full force among the automakers, one young lad made sure Ford was telling the truth about their new “eight”…with Peter Arno

Next Time: The Grand Garbo…

MoMA Sees The Future

If you love modern architecture, then Feb. 10, 1932 should be an important date on your calendar, for on that date the Museum of Modern Art opened Modern Architecture: International Exhibition.

Feb. 27, 1932 cover by Leonard Dove.

Curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the exhibition introduced 33,000 visitors (during the exhibition’s six-week run) to the “International Style,” an emerging architectural style that would utterly transform New York and thousands of cities around the world after the Second World War. In a catalogue prepared for the exhibition, Johnson and Hitchcock defined what this style was all about:

Architecture critic Lewis Mumford welcomed the exhibition, wryly noting that the “best buildings in New York” at the time were the models and photographs “arranged with such clarity and intelligence” by Philip Johnson on MoMA’s walls. An excerpt:

FORM FOLLOWED FUNCTION…MoMA’s Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, opened on Feb. 10, 1932 in the museum’s first home, New York’s Heckscher building on Fifth Avenue. There was nothing fancy about these gallery spaces, but the exhibits wowed the New Yorkers’s Lewis Mumford, including a model of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye at top right. (MoMA)
HANDSOME OBJECTS…was how Lewis Mumford described works in the exhibition he singled out for praise, including, from top, Mies van der Rohe’s 1930 Villa Tugendhat, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1929 Jones residence in Tulsa, and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. At left, the cover of the exhibition catalogue. (MoMA/Wikipedia/dezeen.com)

Mumford concluded his review with this bold observation:

ALL ORGANIC…View of Hook of Holland housing complex in Rotterdam, designed by J.J.P. Oud, 1926-1927. (umass.edu)

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Out of the Trenches

Floyd Gibbons (1887 – 1939) was a colorful, fast-talking war correspondent known for his derring-do as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune during World War I (losing an eye in an attempt to rescue an American marine) and later as a radio commentator and narrator of newsreels. His celebrity would even earn him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For all his death-defying exploits, Gibbons would die at home, of a heart attack, at the tender age of 52.

In his “Notes and Comment” column, E.B. White suggested that Gibbon’s fame had a little help from some friends…

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IN HIS ELEMENT…Floyd Gibbons photographed in 1925 while in Morocco covering the Riff War. Seated to the left is journalist and author Rosemary Drachman, who covered the war with Gibbons. (University of Arizona Libraries)

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Love and War

The fourth of seven films Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made together, Shanghai Express was a critical success (nominated for three Oscars, winning one for cinematography) for Sternberg as well as for Dietrich and Anna May Wong. This pre-code drama was about a notorious woman (Dietrich, who else) who rides a train through the perils of a Chinese civil war with a British captain (Clive Brook) whom she loves. Critic John Mosher takes it from there:

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LOOMING EVER LARGER…Marlene Dietrich’s image dominated this poster for Shanghai Express, which starred Dietrich and Anna May Wong (top right) as well as Clive Brook and Warner Oland. Oland, pictured at bottom right with Dietrich, was a (non-Asian) Swedish-American actor most remembered for playing Chinese and Chinese-American characters, including his role as Charlie Chan in 16 films between 1931 and 1937. (IMDB)

Dietrich and Wong were well acquainted when they came together to make Shanghai Express. It was rumored the two had a romantic relationship when Wong visited Europe in 1928, a rumor that tarnished Wong’s public image (but seemed to have little effect on Dietrich’s).

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OLD FRIENDS…Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and German filmmaker/actress Leni Riefenstahl at a Berlin ball, 1928. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt. At the time Dietrich, Wong and Riefenstahl were close friends.  (granary gallery.com)

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Looking at some advertisements from the Feb. 27 issue…here’s a clip from the back pages of some inexpensive sig ads promoting everything from Broadway to burlesque — Billy Minsky’s was by far the best known burlesque show in Manhattan.    Note how the Minsky’s ad included the racy little drawing (hmmm, not for the kiddies) and the postscript at the bottom following “NEW SHOW EVERY MONDAY” — P.S. For New Yorkers and their Rural cousins… 

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…MoMA wasn’t the only place you could find modern design, as this carpet ad suggested…

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…the folks at Alcoa Aluminum were sticking with a more traditional look, even though they were marketing a very modern aluminum chair…you don’t see these much anymore…I mostly remember them reposing in basement rumpus rooms…

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…the makers of Nash automobiles were keeping with the times with new “Slip-Streamed” models “with lines and curves suggested by aeronautical design”

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…my father’s first car was a used Nash — something similar to this 1951 Nash Statesman…

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…Nash would acquire rival Hudson in 1954 to create American Motors Corporation, run by a man named George Romney (Mitt’s dad), who would make AMC a successful company before turning to politics (AMC would go on to make some truly weird, if not lovable vehicles, most notably the Gremlin)…and we segue into our cartoons with this ad for Sanka decaf coffee, illustrated by the New Yorker’s William Steig

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Kemp Starrett gave us a little paddy wagon humor…

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Helen Hokinson illustrated a tender moment between father and son…

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…and we close with James Thurber, and some wintertime fun…

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Next Time: The Milne Menace…

 

Mosher’s Monster

James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein remains one of the most iconic horror films of all time, not only setting a standard for monster movies to come, but creating one of popular culture’s most enduring characters.

Dec. 12, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

The New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall called the film “far and away the most effective thing of its kind,” and the public agreed, making it a box office success. The New Yorker’s John Mosher, on the other hand, was among the crowd with a more literary bent, preferring Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel by the same name to the film adaptation. He dismissed Whale’s Frankenstein with this brief review:

THIS WON’T HURT A BIT…Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) prepares to destroy Henry Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff), but he is stopped short of his goal when the monster awakens and strangles him to death. (IMDB)

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED…Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) meets up with his creation in 1931’s Frankenstein. (IMDB)

I WISH HENRY WOULD FIND A NEW HOBBY…Henry Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth Lavenza (Mae Clarke) is confronted by the monster (Boris Karloff) in 1931’s Frankenstein. (IMDB)

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK…Boris Karloff takes a break between scenes. (mashable.com)

One thing Mosher did like about the film was the makeup applied to Karloff, and it would be a look that endures today throughout popular culture. Less than two years after the 1931 film’s release, Walt Disney featured the monster in 1933’s Mickey’s Gala Premier, and since then in countless cartoons, dozens of films, and a television series. From what I can gather, comic portrayals of the monster are far more common than ones involving horror themes…

THE BAT PACK…Clockwise, from top left, 1933’s Mickey’s Gala Premier featured Frankenstein’s monster with pals Dracula and the Werewolf; Daffy Duck conducts an interview in 1988’s The Night of the Living Duck; the monster makes an expected appearance in the first season of Scooby-Doo (A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts 1969); and the monster has appeared as a regular in four Hotel Transylvania films. (Wikipedia/Pinterest)

A FAMILIAR FACE…Frankenstein’s monster has also appeared in dozens of films, a TV sitcom, and even on a box of cereal. Clockwise, from top left, Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster in NBC TV’s The Munsters (1964-66); Boris Karloff’s original monster makes an appearance on a FrankenBerry cereal box (1987); Peter Boyle as the monster with a different look (but retaining those electrodes) in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974); and Abbott & Costello team up with the monster (Glenn Strange) in 1948’s Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. (Wikipedia/Pinterest/filmforum.org)

It seems I’ve gone down a rabbit hole with this subject, but here’s one more for the holidays: the late Phil Hartman portrayed Frankenstein’s monster in several SNL sketches during the 1988-89 season…

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No Fantasy Island, This

New York’s Blackwell’s Island is probably best known for the asylum where reporter Nellie Bly went undercover in 1887 to expose its horrid conditions. The asylum closed in 1894, but a penitentiary established there in 1832 remained in operation for more than a century. When journalist Robert Littell (1896-1963) visited the island in 1931 for “A Reporter at Large” column, he found it was still occupied by workhouses and a penitentiary — a place where the city still sent it “undesirables.” Littell, a former associate editor of the New Republic and a drama critic for various New York newspapers, described the island’s gray, grim appearance and the “ugly old buildings, model 1858” that contained its sorry residents. An excerpt:

BY ANY OTHER NAME…Called “Minnehanonck” by the Lenape Tribe and “Varkens Eylandt” (Hog Island) by New Netherlanders, this East River island was dubbed Blackwell’s Island during colonial times, and that was the dreaded name referred to by reformers who decried the horrifying conditions of its “Lunatic Asylum,” workhouses and penitentiary in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Renamed Welfare Island in 1922, its prison can be seen in a 1931 photo (top) and in an interior shot from the 1920s. In 1973 the island was renamed Roosevelt Island in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt and redeveloped with housing for more than 20,000 residents. (AP)

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Outshining the Sordid

Architecture critic Lewis Mumford also mentioned Welfare Island in the Dec. 12 issue, but only as a reference point to view the new Cornell Medical Centre, which he found “indisputedly exhilarating.” Note the final lines of this excerpt, and how Mumford took a not-so-subtle swipe at New York architecture firms.

Mumford wasn’t alone in his praise. According to a 1933 Architectural Forum article, hospital director Dr. G. Canby Robinson made this observation about the lobby: “the average person should walk through it without noticing it, but the cultured person should be arrested by its beauty.”

HIGH MASS…The hospital in 1954. (Sam Falk/The New York Times)

ABOVE AVERAGE…The main entrance in 1933. (Avery Architectural Library)

NO SHOW…Fr. Charles O’Donnell (left) refused to share the stage at a Knute Rockne Memorial with retired boxer Gene Tunney. (findagrave.com/Wikipedia)

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Silver Bells

A precursor to the New Yorker’s annual holiday poem, “Greetings Friends!” was this entry in the Dec. 12, 1931 issue, written by short-story writer and novelist James Reid Parker

New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin has noted an interesting relationship Parker had with cartoonist Helen Hokinson. You can read about it at his lively Ink Spill site.

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From Our Advertisers

We kick off our ads with another entry from Condossis cigarettes…these will continue to the end of the year and beyond, but I won’t run them all…

…I liked this Rex Cole ad because it placed its very architectural refrigerator in the midst of the city…

…as the company did in the physical realm…this Rex Cole showroom was in Queens…

…with the holidays in full swing, we see ads for the kiddies…

…and for the grown-ups, again exchanging Champagne bottles filled with scarves and socks rather than bubbly, thanks to Prohibition (which still had two years to go)…

…maybe a game could distract you from your forced sobriety, such as table-top bowling…note the drawing of J.P. Morgan, which looked very similar to Peter Arno’s Major…

…here’s an advertising ploy no longer used today (at least not overtly)…

…and on to our cartoons, beginning with Gardner Rea

…this odd little political cartoon was contributed by Otto Soglow, who vaguely anticipated trouble ahead in the international sphere…

…I remember seeing this familiar trope in old movies and 60s sitcoms…John Reehill gave us his rendition here…

…and we close with William Steig, and an after-hours close encounter…

Next Time: The Mouse That Roared…

 

Yankee Doodles

In 1931 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (image above) opened a new art museum in Greenwich Village that would be unlike any other in Manhattan, one that would focus exclusively on American art and artists.

Nov. 28, 1931 cover by Harry Brown.

Ninety years ago American painters and sculptors were mostly considered second-rate by critics who had cut their teeth on the Old World’s “Great Masters.” An exception was the New Yorker’s first art critic, Murdock Pemberton, who accused such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of discouraging American art. It is a bit surprising, however, that Pemberton initially gave a cool reception to the opening of the Whitney Museum of American Art, perceiving that its founders were putting the cart before the horse:

AMERICAN ORIGINAL…The original Whitney Museum of American Art was located at 8 – 12 West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. Above, images from a 1937 museum catalog, and (bottom right) a view of the building’s West Eighth Street facade, circa 1940-50. (Whitney Museum/Life magazine)

SHE WORE THE PANTS…Robert Henri’s 1916 portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, sculptor and founder of the Whitney Museum. Gertrude’s husband, Harry Payne Whitney, would not allow his wife to hang the portrait in their Fifth Avenue town house because he didn’t want visitors to see his wife “in pants.” Instead, the portrait hung in Gertrude’s West 8th Street studio, which became the first Whitney Museum in 1931. (whitney.org)

Despite Pemberton’s initial concerns, the Whitney became a beloved New York institution, moving in 1954 from the West Eighth location to a larger space on West 54th, and then to its iconic Marcel Breuer-designed building at Madison and 75th, which opened in 1966. The museum would move again in 2015 to its current location at 99 Gansevoort Street in a building designed by Renzo Piano.

IMPERMANENT COLLECTION…The Whitney would move three times after its 1931 opening, first to West 54th in 1954, then to its iconic Marcel Breuer-designed home at Madison and 75th (opened in 1966), and finally to its current location at 99 Gansevoort Street. (museuminforme.blogspot.com)

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Party Pooper

William Faulkner attracted much attention among literary circles during his extended visit to New York in 1931, however (as reported in “The Talk of the Town”) the author was able to dodge most of it by staying put in his Tudor City apartment.

HOME ALONE…William Faulkner spent most of his time in New York holed up in his Tudor City apartment, where he worked on the manuscript for Light in August. (LA Times/Wikipedia)

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This or That

While we are on the subject of literary giants, here is a poem submitted by E.B. White to the Nov. 28 issue that explored some universal half-truths:

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From Our Advertisers

As the market for cigarettes continued to increase, so did the number of new brands launched to take advantage of all those eager young puffers. The makers of Condossis Cigarettes hoped to create some buzz for their new product through a series of ads written by Mark O’Dea and illustrated by the New Yorker’s Gardner Rea. Apparently the makers of Condossis believed that a posh backstory would lend a certain élan to their smokes. This seems all for naught — I haven’t found a record of the brand beyond 1938…

…a few of those posh smokers might have considered heading to Monte Carlo for the holidays, where they could also legally drink and gamble and forget about the jobless masses back home…

…but you needn’t go to Monte Carlo to signal your taste for the finer things, at least that is what B. Altman claimed with their lower-priced French knock-offs (although $95 was still a lot of dough in 1931)…

…Bonwit Teller also boasted of its low-priced evening wraps, so affordable that one could consider having a different wrap to complement every gown in one’s wardrobe ($135 in 1931 is roughly equivalent to $2,300 today)…

…the makers of Lenthéric perfumes offered the potential for shame and embarrassment if one didn’t choose their product for that special holiday gift…

…but perhaps the happiest shopper of all could shell out a mere $2.50 for the latest editions of the New Yorker Album (the 4th) or the New Yorker Scrapbook (drawings of a delighted couple courtesy Peter Arno)

…on to our cartoons, we begin with Mary Petty and a tête-à-tête over tea…

…and Petty again with one woman’s attempt at noblesse oblige…

Barbara Shermund looked in on the very idle rich…

William Steig spotted a bald-watcher…

E. McNerney revealed a secret among siblings…

…and William Crawford Galbraith gave us a backstage glimpse of a Broadway revue…

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On to the Dec. 5 issue…

Dec. 5, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin.

…which featured a profile of renowned violinist and composer Efrem Zimbalist (1889-1985). The son of a Russian conductor, Zimbalist was married to the famous American soprano Alma Gluck

…and the entertainment gene continued on through the family line, as Zimbalist and Gluck’s son, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., would become a star in Hollywood, as would their granddaughter, Stephanie Zimbalist.

ALL IN THE FAMILY…Famed violinist Efrem Zimbalist and American soprano Alma Gluck (top, left) would pass on their entertainment genes to son Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (known for his starring roles in 77 Sunset Strip and The F.B.I.) and granddaughter Stephanie Zimbalist, who portrayed sleuth Laura Holt in the NBC series Remington Steele. Top right, a “Profile” caricature of Zimbalist by Al Frueh. (Wikipedia/Pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

Much to the delight of the New Yorker advertising department, the makers of Condossis Cigarettes were back with their second installment of the adventures of the “Condossis Family”…

…on the other hand, the well-established Chesterfield brand didn’t have to try quite as hard — offering an attractive woman and some supporting copy that subtly suggested that a woman could credit her fine demeanor to a mere cigarette…

…on to our comics, we have this two-page entry by Rea Irvin

…a bit of offensive driving, Helen Hokinson-style…

Carl Rose gave us an unlikely candidate for a chaste role…

Alan Dunn’s entry played to the stereotypes of his day…

Frank McIntosh plied the Sugar Daddy waters to come up with this gem…

Garrett Price gave us a gift designed to light a man’s fire…

Barbara Shermund lit a flame of a different sort between a dowager and her latest escort…

…and we end with James Thurber, and one of my all-time favorites…

Next Time: Mosher’s Monster

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

We first encountered critic Lewis Mumford in the June 30, 1931 issue of the New Yorker when he roundly excoriated plans for Rockefeller Center. The Nov. 14 issue once again found him in a surly mood, this time regarding the decorative arts and how they had been poorly displayed at the otherwise esteemed Metropolitan Museum.

Nov. 14, 1931 cover by B.H. Jackson.

To say that Mumford was displeased with the Met’s decorative arts exhibition would be an understatement:

BED, BATH AND BEYOND…Let’s just say Lewis Mumford probably needed a stiff drink after strolling through the Met’s latest displays of the decorative arts. (Library of Congress)

PAST IMPERFECT…Norman Bel Geddes was known for his theatrical, futuristic visions of streamlined everything, but the radio he exhibited at the Met was more Queen Victoria’s speed in Mumford’s view. (Pinterest)

Mumford pondered this sudden decline: was it the Depression, or just a streak of bad taste? And what could be done with the purveyors of bad taste, short of shooting them? Let’s read on…

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET…Mumford suggested that Macy’s International Exposition of Art in Industry in the late 1920’s had more vision than the Met’s 1931 offering. Above, living room furniture designed by Houbert et Petit exhibited in a showroom during the 1928 “International Exposition of Art in Industry” at Macy’s department store. (Library of Congress)

LESS THAN A PRETTY FACE?…The streamlined form of Norman Bel Geddes’ “House of Tomorrow” probably wowed a few readers of Ladies home Journal in April 1931, but critic Lewis Mumford was likely not among them, as he often criticized Bel Geddes for his theatricality at the expense of good taste and functionality (see first excerpt above). Mumford was especially critical of Bel Geddes’ glorification of the automobile and the highway at the expense of livable cities. (Pinterest)

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Peter, We Have Your Back

When your colleague has a play made from his book, and it closes after just seven performances, what can you say, especially if you are theater critic for the New Yorker? Well, here is what Robert Benchley did:

THAT’S SHOW BIZ…Here Goes The Bride, based on a Peter Arno book, closed after just seven performances. However, as a cartoonist, Arno was at the top of his game. (Britannica/Ebay)

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From Our Advertisers

Depression? Who needs it? If you had the means, and didn’t lose your shirt in the 1929 crash, you could get away from it all and book passage to the Bahamas, where you could drink legally, soak up some sun, and forget about those lengthening bread lines you occasionally glanced from the window of your town car…

…well, that bootleg gin was a mind eraser…

Helen Hokinson continued to offer her cartooning skills to the folks at Frigidaire…

…on to our cartoons, the George Washington Bridge drew the envy of some out-of-towners, as illustrated by Garrett Price

…nearly 90 years ago folks were almost as nuts about college football as they are now, except for Perry Barlow’s lone dowager, who would rather be sitting in her parlor with a cup of tea…

Gardner Rea explored the wonders of heredity…

Otto Soglow’s Little King employed a guard ready for any emergency…

Barbara Shermund gave us an artist with a god complex…

James Thurber continued to probe the nuances of the sexes…

Peter Arno sketched this two-page spread with the caption: J.G’s a card all right when he gets to New York

…and from the mouth of babes, we have these observations of the underworld from Chon Day

…and Denys Wortman

On to the Nov. 21 issue, which featured the last in a series of eleven covers Helen Hokinson contributed to the New Yorker in 1931. The covers featured one of Hokinson’s “Best Girls” — a plump, wealthy, society woman — on an around-the-world cruise, which began with the March 2 issue and ended on Nov. 21 with a stop at the customs office, and a nosy customs officer…

Nov. 21, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Bread & Circuses

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White reported on a recent editorial in the Columbia Spectator, that university’s student newspaper, which took issue with the professionalization and “furtive hypocrisy” of college football (if only they could see us now). White observed:

In 1931, Columbia was a football power, and the Ivy League was a big-time conference. To the editors of the Spectator, this was not a point of pride, which they made clear in this 89-year-old editorial that could have been written yesterday:

Clippings from Columbia Spectator Archive

JUST GETTING MY KICKS…1931 press photo of Columbia University football star Ralph Hewitt, who still holds the school record for the longest field goal — a 53-yarder he dropped kicked in a 1930 upset victory over Cornell. Hewitt went on to coach high school sports.

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Sorry, Charlie

William “Billy” Haines was a popular actor during the 1920s and early 30s a top-five box-office star from 1928 to 1932, portraying arrogant but likable characters in a string of pictures that ended abruptly when Haines refused to deny his homosexuality and was cut loose by MGM. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on Haines at his Santa Barbara home, where he entertained a mysterious visitor:

THE INTERIOR LIFE…The stylish actor William Haines in a 1926 publicity shot taken at his Hollywood home. Haines would abandon acting in the 1930s and take up a successful career as an interior designer. (Photofest)

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Coveted Coiffeur

Speaking of stylish, writer Bessie Breuer wrote an admiring profile of Polish hairdresser Antoine (aka Antoni Cierplikowski), considered the world’s first celebrity hairdresser. The opening paragraph:

A CUT ABOVE…In 1914 famed hairdresser Antoine (aka Antoni Cierplikowski) invented the “shingle cut” (at left, sported by actress Louise Brooks in the 1920s), which was all the rage during the Roaring Twenties. (Pinterest)

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The Look of Relief

In “The Talk of the Town” E.B. White noted that a familiar face was gracing advertisements for President Herbert Hoover’s Unemployment Relief Agency:

I NEVER FORGET A FACE…E.B. White referred to this ad featuring an unnamed woman who had a familiar look about her. (period paper.com)

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More His Style

We return again to Lewis Mumford, this time cheered by the sight of the new Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea, designed by Cory & Cory. An excerpt from “The Sky Line” column:

THAT’S MORE LIKE IT…Lewis Mumford praised the striking effect of the Starrett-Lehigh Building’s alternating bands of brick, concrete and steel. (Atlas of Places)

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The Chump

John Mosher was neither moved nor charmed by the appearance of little Jackie Cooper in The Champ, a tearjerker story of an alcoholic ex-boxer (Wallace Beery) struggling to provide for his son. He did, however, appreciate the boy’s ability to carry “on his little shoulders a heavy and tedious and lengthy story.”

BUMMER…John Mosher had little to like about King Vidor’s The Champ, featuring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. Mosher was no doubt a bit dismayed when Beery received an Academy Award for his performance. (IMDB)

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A Wishful Christmas List

It was that time of the year when the New Yorker began running its lengthy features on possible gifts for Christmas. This excerpt caught my eye for what might have been possible in 1931 — buying a photographic print directly from Berenice Abbott or Nickolas Muray:

NO LUMP OF COAL, THIS…In 1931 it might have been quite possible to buy this print directly from photographer Berenice Abbott. Barclay Street, Hoboken Ferry 1931, is in MoMA’s photography collection.

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From Our Advertisers

It has been well-established in previous posts that Anglophilia ran rampant among New York’s smart set, and this advertisement from Saks provides everything we need to underscore the point…

…and the top hat mades another appearance in this spot for Lucky Strike, featuring an endorsement from actor Edmund Lowe...

…our cartoons featured a song-less songbird courtesy of Perry Barlow

…and from James Thurber, another creature with little appetite for song, let alone wine and women…

William Steig brought us back to the bleachers with another nonconformist…

Gluyas Williams gave us this sad sack all alone in the crowd…

Richard Decker sought to bring order to this court…

…and we end with Carl Rose, and this two-page cartoon illustrating a dicey parking challenge…

Next Time: Yankee Doodles…

 

Big Fish, Little Fish

Battery Park’s Castle Clinton was a fort, a popular entertainment complex, and an immigration depot before the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White transformed it into the New York Aquarium in 1896.

Sept. 26, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin.

The Aquarium’s beginnings were modest, but under the direction of zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend it became one of lower Manhattan’s biggest attractions. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on its latest acquisitions, including the first display of live piranha (here spelled paranha) in America:

When the Aquarium opened it was marvel of late 19th century technology; its enormous glass tanks and pools — holding more than 300,000 gallons of water — were controlled by an elaborate behind-the-scenes operation that ensured each species had the right kind of water conditions and food to survive, at least for awhile; the Aquarium in its early days, like the Central Park Zoo we visited recently, displayed its creatures as curiosities in decidedly unnatural surroundings…

DE-NATURED…In the New York Aquarium’s early days, fish and other aquatic animals were displayed in glass tanks that lined the out walls as well as in concrete ponds below the expansive trussed ceiling. If this rendering is accurate, then these creatures, especially the whales, had miserable, short lives. (thebattery.org)

…and this is a promotion for the Aquarium you would not see today…

…and here are a few images from the early years…more than 100 years old but still not easy to look at…

DRY-DOCKED…these are images used on postcards to promote the Aquarium — the black and white ones are from 1909, the color image circa 1925-30. Clockwise, from top left, Aquarium worker poking at a manatee with a stick (yeah fella, they’re not happy, and probably dying); a crocodile gets some dinner; image common from yesteryear of a child (or groups of children) sitting on a hapless turtle or tortoise; seals in a pool that contained water but nothing else remotely similar to their natural environment. (nyheritage.org)

…it’s easy for us to pass judgment on the unfortunate actions of our forebears, but to his credit Charles Haskins Townsend, director of the Aquarium from 1902 to 1937, advocated for bans on whaling and constantly worked to improve conditions at the Aquarium…

POPULAR DESTINATION…Whether folks were visiting the Aquarium or jumping on a riverboat or ferry, Battery Park was a place to go in the early 20th century. Top and bottom right, exterior and interior views of the Aquarium. Bottom left, the care and feeding took place behind the outer walls. (wcsarchivesblog.org)

…and Aquarium staff tried their best to keep fish alive during relocation, even using train cars specially designed for the purpose…

(Popular Mechanics 1931)

…once at the Aquarium, teams were ready to put the animals into their proper places…

LONELY NO MORE…Paddlewings, the lonely penguin apparently famous enough to be mentioned in the “Talk” piece, is pictured at right in this 1931 article. (Modern Mechanics, August 1931) click to enlarge.

The end came for the Battery Park aquarium when NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses proposed construction of the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel under Castle Clinton. Moses also thought the aquarium was an eyesore, and had it demolished in 1941…

(thebattery.org)

…preservationists managed to stop the demolition before the walls of Castle Clinton were razed. It is now a national monument…

Castle Clinton, circa 1970s. (Flickr)

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Flying High

Attitudes toward drunken driving — or drunken flying — were very different 89 years ago. Case in point was this “Epitaph” written by Morris Markey marking the passing of Carter Leigh, who carried the air mail while flying under the influence (Reginald Marsh contributed the portrait) …

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Exit, Stage Left

The glitzy showgirl revues continued on Broadway with George White’s Scandals, which featured such headliners as singers Ethel Merman and Rudy Vallée, and hoofer Ray Bolger. Reviewer Robert Benchley wrote that the show gave him “the feeling of having a good time,” but the same could not be said for Mae West’s The Constant Sinner; Benchley thought the glare of West’s stardom upstaged the play itself:

SIMULACRUM OF A GOOD TIME…Robert Benchley questioned his own enjoyment of George White’s Scandals of 1931; from top, left, program from the show; singers Rudy Vallée and Ethel Merman were popular stars, as were hoofer Ray Bolger (who in 1939 would portray the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz) and actress Luella Gear (photo from the 1934 play Life Begins at 8:40); chorus girls in costume during a Scandals performance. (Playbill/Heritage Auctions/gershwin.com/Pinterest)
A STAR IS WORN…Benchley thought Mae West upstaged herself in The Constant Sinner. At right, West in a publicity photo with co-star Walter Petrie. (Playbill/Heritage Auctions)

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Play Ball

Sports columnist and occasional New Yorker contributor Ring Lardner enjoyed poking fun at revered institutions including Morris Markey’s “A Reporter at Large” column. Lardner rambled through several subjects but mostly reminisced about great baseball players of the past. Two brief excerpts: 

BEDTIME STORIES…the great American sports writer and satirist Ring Lardner, circa 1930. (Chicago Tribune)

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From Our Advertisers

We have yet another somewhat misleading ad from the makers of Lux Toilet Soap featuring an older actress who looked deceptively young for her age…

…the Russian-American actress Alla Nazimova (1879 – 1945) was actually 52 years old when this ad appeared, but the photo featured at left was taken in early 1923, when she was 43, so in a sense the ad was somewhat truthful…

Photo of Alla Nazimova taken by Nickolas Muray on Feb. 1, 1923 for Vanity Fair magazine. (Conde Nast)

…Park Avenue would never be the same with the opening of the grand Art Deco Waldorf Astoria, at 47 stories and 625 feet, it was the world’s tallest hotel from 1931 until 1963…

…nor would the skyline at Central Park West be the same with the addition of Irwin Chanin’s modern “Majestic” and “Century” apartments that featured GE refrigerators sold by Rex Cole, who himself was keen on architecture and design…

…and who hired Raymond Hood to create distinctive refrigerator showrooms in Manhattan, Brookyn and Queens…

Rex Cole Showroom in Flushing, Queens, crowned with a replica of the GE refrigerator’s disintictive “Monitor Top.” With their spare, open plan, the modern showrooms were ahead of their time. (Museum of the City of New York, Photo by Samuel H. Gottscho, 1931)

…on to our cartoonists, we have Chon Day at ringside…

Kemp Starrett eavesdropped on some science-minded shoppers…

Garrett Price gave us a maid’s refreshing perspective on a game of chess…

Helen Hokinson found some serious talk among the younger posh set…

…and we end with another from Garrett Price, and the challenges of renting a room near Times Square…

Next Time: The Coming War…

 

The Big Bird

I wonder what the French or the British thought when, in 1929 — just a little over a decade after the Great War — their former enemies were able to fly a 56-ton aircraft, carrying 169 passengers, into the skies above Switzerland.

Sept. 12, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

And I wonder what some Americans thought in 1931 when this same aircraft toured Europe and Africa before breezing across the Atlantic — just four years after Lindbergh’s famous flight — and made publicity stops from Brazil to New York.

Why, you might ask, did the WWI Allies allow Germany to build something that could easily be converted into a long-range bomber? The Treaty of Versailles forbade the development of such an aircraft, but the German Transport Ministry circumvented the treaty by building the Dornier Do-X on the Swiss side of Lake Constance. It was above this lake the Do-X made its 1929 record flight with 169 passengers and crew, including nine stowaways.

A New York visit by the Do-X was the event of fall 1931, and Morris Markey was there to file a story for his “Reporter at Large” column. Markey joined 71 other passengers on a flight around the city:

A CLOSER LOOK…Morris Markey could not comprehend the sheer scale of the Do-X until his launch approached this “monstrous craft” with a 157-foot wingspan. Gazing up at the underside of the wing, Markey wrote that it looked like “the roof of some factory building, lifted off to serve a new, fantastic purpose.” (Mashable)

Conceived by German airplane designer Claude Dornier in 1924, the flying ship was launched for its first test flight on July 12, 1929, and later that year Popular Science reported on “The Mightiest Airplane”…

At a time when American and British planes carried no more than 20 or so passengers, the Do-X seemed like something out of a sci-fi-magazine…

DREAM BECOMES REALITY. Although an image of pure fantasy, this July 1922 Popular Science magazine seemed to anticipate the Do-X. (Google Books)

LITTLE COUSINS…These American and British planes were seen as giants until the Do-X came to town. At top, an American-built Fokker F.32; below, although smaller than the Do-X, the Handley Page H.P. 42 held the distinction of being the largest airliner in regular use when it was introduced in 1931. The plane was a workhorse for Britain’s Imperial Airways, keeping the island nation connected to its vast empire. (Wikipedia)

Markey described the Do-X’s sumptuous interior, decked out like an ocean liner with plush chairs and mahogany tables. He was also allowed into the plane’s cockpit and chartroom, where tables “were covered with charts of the New York waters.” Behind the chartroom Markey also took in the stunning sight of men moving within the hollow wings, maintaining the plane’s twelve engines while it was in flight:

FLY THE FRIENDLY SKIES, REALLY…Interior views of the Do-X show armchairs arranged in “careless circles,” a far cry from the spine crushers we experience today. (Mashable)

NO SEATBELTS?…British journalist Lady Grace Drummond Hay and Hearst correspondent Karl von Wiegand enjoy a flight aboard the Dornier DO-X in November 1930. (Pinterest)

Markey concluded his column with this lyrical tribute to the Do-X:

A STEAMPUNK’S DREAM…at top, the Dornier Do-X cockpit; below, a machinist in the engine room of the flying boat. (Mashable)

In the previous issue of the New Yorker (Sept. 5), E.B. White filed this report about the Do-X and its visiting delegation. I was surprised that Markey, and not White, took the flight around the city, given White’s unbridled enthusiasm for flying machines.

To get some idea of what it was like to fly on the Do-X, here is a short film from YouTube. The first three minutes (with some weird lounge-y background music) feature a 1929 flight during which the DO-X carried 169 passengers — a world record not broken for 20 years. The New York visit is at the 3:00 mark.

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Back to Earth

Our feet firmly back on terra firma, we turn to the New Yorker’s review of the new River House on the East River, where residents once parked the yachts they would use to sail to their Long Island estates. This luxury was short-lived thanks to Robert Moses, who reigned over public works and plowed the East River Drive (now FDR Drive) between River House and the river, effectively ending any practical use of the docks.

FUN WHILE IT LASTED…Top left, advertisement in the Sept. 12, 1931 New Yorker announcing the new River House. At top, River House around the time of its completion, and below, a view of the short-lived docks. (Museum of the City of New York)

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Something’s Fishy

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White reveled in his powers of observation, having spotted the same model, Peggy Fish, in ads for competing cigarette brands:

DOUBLE TAKE…A 1931 Chesterfield ad (left) referred to by E.B. White featuring Peggy Fish, who apparently was a go-to model for fashion magazines in the 1920s and 30s; at right, Fish modeling a dress in the January 1928 issue of Vogue, photo by Edward Steichen. Bottom image, another version of the ad, which appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of the New Yorker. (April 1931 Cosmopolitan via Stanford University/Conde Nast)

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From Our Advertisers

We kick off our advertising section with this two-page spread for Lux Toilet Soap. What is curious about this ad is not that Billie Burke (1884 – 1970) looked great at 39, but that she looked great at 47, her actual age when she made this endorsement for Lux. You would think the greater age would be an even better selling point for the soap makers, but either they decided 39 sounded better or maybe she just fooled Lux, and everyone else, about her true age…

BROADWAY BILLIE…at left, Billie Burke with her husband, Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, in a 1927 portrait by Edward Steichen that was featured in Vanity Fair. Burke never remarried after Ziegfeld’s death in 1932; at right, Burke as Glinda the Good Witch with Judy Garland and Toto in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. (Pinterest)

…fall fashions abounded, as did ads for hats — these two were from different advertisers on separate pages…apparently hats looked good on women displayed in angled formations…

…Alcoa was expanding its market for aluminum products with a line of chairs it touted as being “in perfect taste” (note the snotty-looking butler at right)…my parents had a set of these, relegated to the basement as knock-about furniture…

…I love these ads by Rex Cole that elevate the lowly icebox to heroic heights (perhaps this is how Ayn Rand viewed her kitchen)…

…and we move on to our cartoons, where famed gold digger Peggy Joyce is the focus of a Peter Arno cartoon (Joyce was married six times, and claimed she was engaged about fifty times). After publishing a ghostwritten “tell-all,” Men, Marriage and Me in 1930, Joyce purportedly wrote a column for a spicy New York rag about various scandals in New York and London. It is possible or even likely these columns were also ghostwritten: after meeting Joyce in the late 1920s, Harpo Marx concluded she was illiterate…

ILLITERARY?…Peggy Joyce, circa 1922. (famousfix.com)

E. McNerney showed us a girl with little appreciation for her silver spoon…

Richard Decker found humor in the desert sands…

Barbara Shermund was back with some juicy gossip…

…and we close with two by William Steig…the awkward suitor…

…and some questionable bedside mannerisms…

Next Time: From Stage to Screen…